When Pierre Gasly was asked in Abu Dhabi last weekend if he imagined there would be a woman joining the Formula One grid, racing against him and his peers, before the end of his career, the Alpine driver said: “I wouldn’t be surprised. I think it’s definitely possible.”
The Frenchman believes a lot of effort is being made to support women to find a pathway to the pinnacle of motorsport.
“I’m sure if one woman really shows that she’s got the speed and talent to be part of the 20 best drivers in the world, I’m sure she’ll be given the opportunity,” Gasly added.
Since the F1 championship started in 1950, only two women have started a grand prix: Maria Teresa de Filippis and Lella Lombardi, who was the last female driver, back in 1976. The last woman to take part in a grand prix weekend was Susie Wolff, who drove for Williams in FP1 at Silverstone in 2015.
British racing driver Jamie Chadwick is hoping she can one day follow in these women’s footsteps.
A development driver for Williams Racing, Chadwick, 25, has been racing since she was 13 years old. At 15, competing in the GT4 class, Chadwick became the first female and youngest ever champion of the British GT Championship.
She won the inaugural W Series season in 2019 and successfully defended her title twice in 2021 and 2022 – holding the records for most wins, podiums, pole positions and points – before the championship was disbanded due to lack of funding.
Chadwick was then signed by Andretti Autosport to drive for them in Indy NXT, the American feeder series for IndyCar. The first female driver since 2010 to compete full-time in Indy NXT, Chadwick tallied up 262 points across 14 races in her rookie season and was re-signed by Andretti for the 2024 campaign.
Growing up in the Isle of Man, Chadwick got into motorsport by tagging along with her brother to the go-karting track. In a class of 20 students at her school, she was one of just three girls, which she says prepared her well for a career in a male-dominated sport.
“I wasn’t really fazed by being in such a male-dominated environment," Chadwick said. "We did everything together, we played football together, we did all the sports together, so it didn’t seem any different to me in my head.
“Being one of so few girls really didn’t feel unusual. So when I got into go-karting and progressed in the sport, I was blissfully unaware and oblivious to being one of so few."
Named one of Time magazine’s Next Generation Leaders for 2023, Chadwick is eager to see more women get involved with motorsport. She is no longer interested in “just checking boxes” and wants to see concrete steps taken to impact real change.
“It’s obviously a male-dominated sport and generally had a male audience but now it’s not the case, so what can we actually do to know we can encourage more women into the sport?
“For me, that does stem a little bit from role models, having more women at the highest level of the sport, not just as drivers but generally in the whole industry,” Chadwick told The National at the Jumeirah Al Saadiyat Resort in Abu Dhabi ahead of the grand prix weekend.
“And with that, culturally, it will change the dynamic quite a lot and hopefully encourage more young girls to start in the sport. If you can see it, you can be it, and so if there are women having success at the highest level then naturally young girls are going to go like, ‘cool, I can do that’.”
Chadwick has experienced both, competing in a women-only series as well as driving in a mixed championship, and she has reaped lots of benefits from each.
“You want to race at the highest level and naturally, with the amount of women there are in the sport, the highest level is still majority men. But I enjoyed both,” she said.
“What was great about W series was the platform it gave me and a lot of the other girls, but also I think the opportunity it gave me to be racing, which I wouldn’t have had without that.
“Now it’s given me the chance to be back in mixed competition, which was always the ultimate goal and something I really enjoy.”
If she were given the keys to the kingdom, and gifted the chance to create a developmental path for female drivers from scratch, Chadwick said the initial environment would include girls and boys competing together.
“But it would rely on that initial environment being slightly more catered for women,” she added. “We’ve not really seen any women come through the ranks fully as we need to see.
"None have really gone through the same trajectory as a lot of the boys do. So understanding what the correct pathway is for women and the physical development of young girls.
“It’s a hugely physical sport and you’re growing up as a woman, which is challenging, so understanding that specifically for women is going to be important.”
While a female driver is yet to test her abilities in today’s F1, Chadwick is convinced women have what it takes to make it to motorsport’s top category.
“Women are capable of it, if you look at other female athletes, [their physicality is] very high, but the challenging part is that women and men aren’t comparable, they’re not equal in physicality,” said Chadwick.
“So when you first start in go-karts and then you progress into Formula 4, Formula 3, and you’re a young female against say a 16-year-old male, there are differences. So it’s understanding that a bit better.
“As things stand, with the right training and preparation I believe we can make it but at the same time it needs to be understood better to maximise what women are capable of.”
Through her role as a Williams development driver, Chadwick gets to spend time in the F1 paddock – an environment she feels has become more and more welcoming to women.
“Williams is a team that’s always had a lot of history with women in the sport so I’m lucky I’m in a team that has that dynamic within it and has had it for a long time and that has helped me massively,” she said.
“I’m now noticing it a lot in other teams as well and just in and among the paddock it’s starting to be more common, not just in the driving element, but all the other roles; engineers, mechanics – ultimately I want to see team principals as women. It’s changing but we’re still a little way to go to get a really good split.”
Chadwick said her first year in Indy NXT was a huge step up for her with a steep learning curve. She is keen to up her game for her sophomore season with Andretti and fight for podiums and race victories.
With so few women drivers competing at a high level in the world of motorsport, Chadwick has many eyes on her and is considered a role model for many young girls.
It’s a position that comes with added responsibility and while Chadwick is proud to play a part in making the sport more diverse, she also learned with time she had to focus on herself in order to relieve herself from some of the pressure.
“You’ve got to blank it out. I think just being selfish. I know what I’m capable of, what I want to achieve and I want to do. I’ve got to blank out those external eyes and that external pressure," she said.
“There’s so many other great talented female racing drivers that I’m sure feel the same. It’s just being selfish. I know I want to win as well, so that’s the main thing."
Chadwick gave a shout-out to Emirati sisters Hamda and Amna Al Qubaisi, who each had an impressive year racing in the inaugural F1 Academy season, finishing P3 and P6, respectively, in the championship.
“It’s great and they’re both super talented. I know them both reasonably well and they raced over in Europe as well so they’ve definitely been through the hard yards,” said Chadwick of the UAE duo.
“And what they’re doing, continuing to inspire a country that hasn’t got many racing drivers in general to aspire to be. It’s incredible and I hope they’re really paving the path for what they want.”
Any word of advice for young women looking to thrive in a male-dominated environment?
“Honestly … be oblivious! Don’t think that you’re any different, just be yourself, don’t act any different. You are way more accepted than you think you are."