F1 Academy: Discover Your Drive programme seeking to be a ‘turning point’ for women in motorsport

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F1 Academy managing director Susie Wolff believes Discover Your Drive is necessary to secure the pipeline of future female talent

F1 Academy managing director Susie Wolff believes Discover Your Drive is necessary to secure the pipeline of future female talent

All-female racing series F1 Academy has galvanised the world of motorsport behind its grassroots programme Discover Your Drive, with the aim of finding not only the next female F1 World Champion but pushing female participation and progress across every inch of the sport.

F1 Academy Discover Your Drive aims to combat the root causes of low female participation in motorsport, focusing on youth engagement, talent identification, progression and community.

In collaboration with Motorsport UK and TeamSport Go Karting, the initiative will offer entry-level programmes and professional schemes to girls across the country, educating and empowering young women to pursue careers in motorsport on and off the track.

F1 Academy Discover Your Drive aims to find the next generation of female motorsport stars

F1 Academy Discover Your Drive aims to find the next generation of female motorsport stars

The project is one of the first major moves made by F1 Academy managing director Susie Wolff, who was the last woman to take part in an F1 session, driving in multiple practice sessions for Williams in 2014 and 2015.

Wolff says: “I want to walk down the paddock in 10 years and there to be a number of women who say, ‘I’m here because of F1 Academy.’

“Either they supported me, they brought me to the opportunity, or they made the pathway clear for me.”

Learning from other sports

F1 Academy, which is in the final stages of its inaugural season, is part of the global acceleration of women’s sport. It’s both benefiting from, and contributing to, the wider perspective shift of women as top-level athletes.

“It would be foolish for me not to learn where other women’s sports have made a lot of progress, but also the challenges,” says Wolff.

Highlights of race one from the fifth round of the F1 Academy series in Monza in which Bianca Bustamante and Chloe Grant were both unhurt after a terrifying collision

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Highlights of race one from the fifth round of the F1 Academy series in Monza in which Bianca Bustamante and Chloe Grant were both unhurt after a terrifying collision

Highlights of race one from the fifth round of the F1 Academy series in Monza in which Bianca Bustamante and Chloe Grant were both unhurt after a terrifying collision

Motorsport UK are a key partner in F1 Academy Discover Your Drive, chief executive Hugh Chambers has been involved in numerous grassroots’ women’s sport initiatives, including the widely successful This Girl Can.

“You’ve got to start at the grassroots, you’ve got to start at this age. There’s an old phrase which is ‘see me, be me’,” says Chambers.

“You get to that tipping point, and we’ve seen that now in women’s football and women’s cricket and women’s rugby, that school age girls are realising ‘I can play rugby’, ‘I can play football’, and I think it’s been spectacular and then almost happens exponentially. That once you get to that tipping point, it’s suddenly accelerated.”

Abbi Pulling (right) finished third at race 3 in Valencia this May. The British driver is currently fifth in  the F1 Academy standings, with three races to go

Abbi Pulling (right) finished third at race 3 in Valencia this May. The British driver is currently fifth in the F1 Academy standings, with three races to go

‘Broadcasters queuing up to be involved’

As part of the F1 umbrella, F1 Academy benefits from the sport’s global platform. This year’s championship has faced criticism for an absence of live coverage, but from 2024 all F1 Academy races will be held alongside F1 on race weekends.

“I consider myself so lucky that F1 Academy is part of the biggest sport in the world. I don’t have to go out and try and convince broadcasters, we’ve got them, we’ve got people queuing up wanting to be involved. But I don’t take for granted we have to produce great racing,” says Wolff.

The F1 Academy teams are ART Grand Prix, Campos Racing, PREMA Racing, MP Motorsport and Rodin Carlin. Almost a third of the current F1 grid have drove for one of those teams in their career

The F1 Academy teams are ART Grand Prix, Campos Racing, PREMA Racing, MP Motorsport and Rodin Carlin. Almost a third of the current F1 grid have drove for one of those teams in their career

All five of the teams in F1 Academy, including PREMA Racing and Rodin Carlin, also compete in F3 and F2, the feeder series for F1. Alumni include the likes of Lando Norris, Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc.

Abbi Pulling is the highest placed Britain in the F1 Academy standings, with the 20-year-old in fourth with five of the seven rounds complete.

Following her second-place finish in the F1 Academy Barcelona Race 1, Abbi Pulling shared her disappointment at not having the 'perfect race'

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Following her second-place finish in the F1 Academy Barcelona Race 1, Abbi Pulling shared her disappointment at not having the ‘perfect race’

Following her second-place finish in the F1 Academy Barcelona Race 1, Abbi Pulling shared her disappointment at not having the ‘perfect race’

“That is what the championship is there for, to help us develop so that we can go forward and race against the best. Whether that be against men or women, we all want to race the best,” Pulling says.

“I’m with Rodin Carlin this year and they have the progression to go to F3 and F2 and various championships, [F1 Academy] gets us talking to these teams and working with these teams at a high level.”

‘Turning point in the history of motorsport’

The collaboration with Motorsport UK and TeamSport Go Karting mean’s F1 Academy Discover Your Drive will be able to reach tens of thousands of girls every year.

TeamSport have 35 indoor tracks across Great Britain. With many in or around large cities, this also reduces the barrier of access to those from urban areas.

“The beauty of this programme is that TeamSport venues are so accessible. People can come in with no previous experience and get in a go kart and race. We’ve seen 1.8m customers a year,” says TeamSport CEO Dominic Gaynor.

Susie Wolff was the last women to drive an F1 car during a race weekend, heading out for Williams in 2015 during practice at the British Grand Prix

Susie Wolff was the last women to drive an F1 car during a race weekend, heading out for Williams in 2015 during practice at the British Grand Prix

The power of Wolff, the F1 brand and women’s sport has brought together these key players to target girls at the very start of their motorsport journey. The hope is that if enough female talent is nurtured at the bottom, some of it will make it to the top.

“The dream for all of us is to have a girl as the Formula 1 world champion. I’m sure one day that is going to happen, but at the same time, we’re very much focused on participation,” says Chambers.

“We have a community of 60,000 competition drivers and yet only five per cent of our licence holders are female. That’s really a tragedy because we’re one of the very few gender-neutral sports in the world, it’s a missed opportunity.”

“What I think we’re all witnessing today is an absolute turning point in the history of motorsport, because this is an initiative that is going to change the world.”

More Than Equal report: Prejudice among factors limiting female participation

The launch of Discover Your Drive came on the same week that report was released highlighting motorsport as one of the lowest-performing sports for gender equality.

More Than Equal, an organisation co-founded by ex-F1 driver David Coulthard, carried out a detailed investigation which drew feedback from nearly 13,000 respondents, along with conducting over 70 in-depth interviews with industry leaders.

The study put the issues down to a variety of factors, including problems raising funding due to prejudice, a lack of female-specific training, and mechanical challenges.

“The cost of competing is a universal challenge to both men and women,” the study says. “But too few investors and sponsors are willing to take a chance on female drivers early in their careers, preventing their progress at crucial periods.”

Female participation across all motorsport categories was found to be at just 10 per cent, with only American Football having a lower rate.

That number is all the more striking when taking into account that F1’s female fanbase has grown massively in recent times, with 40 per cent having become fans in the last five years.

Furthermore, the fact that female supporters of the sport are on average around 10 years younger than male fans, should provide a greater opportunity to increase participation.

The report found that better tailored physical training, which comes at a significant cost, could make a major impact in helping women go further in the sport.

Meanwhile, the lack of power steering in the categories leading up to F1 is another major challenge, particularly given the sport’s top tier does employ the aid.

These are factors in females dropping out of the sport early, with careers lasting on average between one and five years, compared to over 10 years for men.

A lack of female role models was cited as another major issue, with women saying they would be far more likely to actively follow the sport if there were female participants.

The report has been welcomed by F1, who say they are “committed to increasing opportunity and access to the sport for everyone”.

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