Racing drivers,  Formula 1,  W Series,  Women racing

Ten of the best: women racing drivers

The last woman to start a Formula 1 World Championship Grand Prix was Lella Lombardi of Italy, who drove the Surtees-Ford in the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix. As far as I’m concerned, that is a preposterously long time ago. Too long. I hadn’t been born yet, and I’m old. Too old.

I was 12 the last time a woman driver even attempted to qualify for a Grand Prix: another Italian, Giovanna Amati, in the laughably uncompetitive Brabham in 1992. The time has come for a revolution on the Formula 1 grid.

Today, here are my picks for the ten best women racing drivers competing in world motorsport today. Could one of them be the person to break the glass ceiling?

10. MIKI KOYAMA

Miki Koyama and a bird
Miki Koyama and friend

Another one of the W Series’ opening season finds, Japan’s Miheme Koyama was virtually unknown outside of her homeland but made quite an impact in her first season of racing in Europe. Starting the opening round at Hockenheim in 17th place on an eighteen car grid, her qualifying time a dizzying 7.8 seconds shy of Jamie Chadwick’s pole position, in the race Koyama got her head down and stormed through the field, setting the race’s fastest lap on the way to 7th place. It was the start of a series of impressive results – the best being a 4th place finish ahead of home hero Vicky Piria at Misano in June.

The European racing community has come to expect a certain amount of speed and unpredictabilty from its Japanese imports and Koyama did not disappoint: often lacking a little in terms of her single lap pace, she would frequently monster her way through races. However, there were also signs that this could lead to a certain amount of excess, as crashes in both the championship and non-championship races at Assen demonstrated.

Koyama is a member of the Honda Formula Dream program which seeks to develop young Japanese talents into the racing stars of the future. Not 23 until September, Koyama is very much one to keep an eye on. Particularly if she is coming up behind you on race day.

9. VICKY PIRIA

For all its undeniable passion for and history in the sport of motor racing, Italian drivers of particular achievement are actually few and far between. Before Antonio Giovinazzi secured himself a full-time Formula 1 seat in 2019, there had been no regular Italian driver in the sport since Jarno Trulli’s retirement in 2011. The last Italian to win a Grand Prix was Giancarlo Fisichella in 2006, the last Italian World Champion was Alberto Ascari in the black and white days of 1953.

Outwardly, Vittoria “Vicky” Piria – the Anglo-Saxon diminutive of her name a nod to her English mother – is almost a caricatured version of what marketers would want a female Italian racing driver to be: glamorous, gregarious and expressive. However, behind the appearance burns the fierce love of motor racing, of cars and of competition that characterises all professional racing drivers.

Piria is only 26 years old but has been a presence in open-wheel motor racing for over a decade, graduating from karts in 2009 aged just 15. By 2012 she was in GP3, a move that brought with it considerable media attention and fizzing expectation back home. It was perhaps too much, too soon and although Piria’s performances were respectable the results themselves were disappointing, Piria failing to score a point. She then took the sideways step to European F3 Open and a brief spell in Formula Mazda in the United States but, by the end of 2014 and aged just 21, it looked as though this was the end of her racing ambitions.

Vicky Piria selling onions in Milan
Vicky Piria, exploiting the potential tourist market for onions, opens a market stall in the centre of Milan

Enter, once again, the hero of our story, W Series Racing. Piria was one of the eighteen drivers to qualify for the inaugural season and established herself as one of the most consistent performers, although she is yet to finish higher than 5th. For season two, now she has shaken off any ring-rustiness, Piria will be looking for a little extra pace both in qualifying and race, which should see her moving into to the leading pack, rather than heading the midfield.

8. MARTA GARCÍA

The surprise of the W Series’ inaugural season, Spain’s Marta García entered the championship as a virtual unknown and emerged as one of the outstanding drivers. Not 20 until August, Garcia’s future could be very bright indeed.

Like almost every other racing driver born within the last 50 years, García made her start in karts. She was considerably successful, too, winning the world’s leading kart event – the Trofeo delle Industrie, previous winners including Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel – in 2015. Success in karts is, however, no guarantee of similar achievement in formula racing. Garcia had a middling start to her career in cars, until the advent of W Series.

García surprised everyone by finishing the opening race on the podium and then backed it up with 4th and 6th-placed finishes in the subsequent races. At the season’s fourth round at Norisring, she took the pole and then eased away into the lead in the race, comfortably emerging as the winner. García would finish the season in 4th place in the standings, ahead of some highly-rated names. She looks to carry this form over into the 2020 season and then beyond.

7. CHRISTINA NIELSEN

Denmark’s Christina Nielsen is the odd-one-out on this list, the only driver to have no particular history, pedigree or – seemingly – interest in driving open-wheel racing cars. However, her career as a sportscar specialist very much speaks for itself.

The daughter of sportscar racer Lars-Erik, Nielsen began her racing career in typical fashion, with karting and then Formula racing on the bottom rung of the European single-seater ladder in Formula Ford and Formula 4. However, after just two seasons she made the move to tin-top racing instead in the Porsche Carrera Cup. It would be a decision that was to bear significant fruit.

In 2014 Nielsen made her debut in the IMSA Championship in North America and by the following season was already an established driver in the GT Daytona class, scoring five podium finishes on the way to 2nd place in the overall standings. In both 2016 and 2017 she went one better, becoming the first woman to win a major American sportscar racing title. Alongside teammate Alessandro Balzan, Nielsen secured wins at the prestigious 12 Hours of Sebring and 6 Hours of Watkins Glen races along the way.

Nielsen, now paired with Katherine Legge at the Heinricher/Meyer-Shank Racing team, will once again contest the IMSA Series in 2020.

6. TATIANA CALDERÓN

For all the achievements of the drivers we have met so far, Colombia’s Tatiana Calderón is arguably the woman who is currently the closest to a place in Formula 1, having been competing on the World Championship’s undercard since 2016. Calderón proved herself to be a consistent competitor in GP3 before making the move up to Formula 2 in 2019.

Her debut season in F2 proved to be a difficult one. Calderón’s BWT Arden car was not on the ultimate pace and she spent the season mired in midfield anonymity, unable to score a point all year. Worst of all was to follow at Spa-Francorchamps, where her teammate Anthoine Hubert was killed in a ferocious, awful multi-car accident at Radillion.

Unlike many of her rivals, Calderón has been able to sustain a consistent path up the single-seater career ladder without bumping into the traditional obstacles – lack of finance or lack of opportunity – that see many other drivers fall by the wayside. It has seen her on the grid in some of the most prestigious junior formulae around the world, including British Formula 3, European Formula 3 and Formula Renault 3.5 V8 World Series, in addition to GP3 and Formula 2. In addition to her duties as the test driver for the Alfa Romeo Formula 1 team, 2020 will also see Calderón make her debut in Japan’s leading single-seater racing series, Super Formula, as well as competing in sportscar competition in Europe for Richard Mille Racing.

Calderón will be 27 in March and a Formula 1 race drive seems unlikely. However, should one arise there is an equally good chance she’ll be too busy to take it.

5. KATHERINE LEGGE

Katherine Legge and her favourite snooker cue
Katherine Legge and her favourite snooker cue

To say the desire to be a professional racing driver burns within Katherine Legge with the ferocity of a thousand suns is to downplay somewhat exactly how determined to be a professional racing driver she was. An extremely promising junior career on the British motorsport ladder ground to a halt due to lack of money in 2004, at which point Legge staged a one-woman sit-in at the UK offices of Cosworth motorsport boss Kevin Kalkhoven until he relented and funded an entry for the first three races of the 2005 Indy Lights series in America. Legge duly won the first race, at Long Beach, to become the first woman to win an open-wheel race in the United States. Two additional victories followed later in the season, Legge finishing in third place in the final standings and earning a graduation to the Champ Car Series.

There Legge found life tougher going, although she was able to add the mother, father, sister and brother of all shunts to the annals of motor racing history: her car lost its rear wing coming into the 160 mph kink at Road America in 2006, pitching it into a genuinely terrifying series of barrel rolls from which somehow Legge emerged completely unscathed.

Once Champ Car dried up, Legge moved back to Europe for three seasons in the German Touring Car Championship with Audi before again traversing the Atlantic Ocean to race in the newly reunified IndyCar Series. It was in America that Legge really found her niche: sportscar racing. Driving in the GT Daytona class of the IMSA Championship, Legge is one of the series’ most dogged and consistent competitors, with four class wins to her name and a second-place finish in the 2018 final standings.

In 2019 Legge dabbled with a return to single-seaters, trying out for the 2020 W Series season. However, she declined the opportunity to race there, favouring her sportscar commitments, both in the European Le Mans Series – with Tatiana Calderon and ambitious German rookie Sophia Flörsch, survivor of a truly terrifying accident of her own at the 2018 Macau Grand Prix – and in the IMSA Series with Christina Nielsen. A one-time test drive for the Minardi team notwithstanding, with her 40th birthday in July it is safe to say that Katherine Legge will not be making it to Formula 1, barring some dazzlingly exceptional circumstances. But any young women with aspirations to make it as a racing driver who are in need of a role model need look no further.

4. BEITSKE VISSER

Beitske Visser smoking a cigar
Beitske Visser loves it when a plan comes together

At the time of writing, there have been 81 drivers signed up to the Red Bull Junior program since it began in 2001. The Netherlands’ Beitske Visser stands alone among this number as the only one not to have been born with a Y chromosome. Visser was dropped after the 2013 season alongside Formula E race winner Antonio Felix da Costa and sportscar driver Tom Blomqvist, yet more flotsam and jetsam in a long history of potentially hasty managerial decisions.

Visser has gone on to compete in both single-seaters and sportscars around some of the most prestigious championships in Europe, but she still managed to raise a number of eyebrows with the performance in last season’s W Series, in which she emerged as the key championship rival to the overwhelming favourite (and close friend) Jamie Chadwick. Lacking the Briton’s ultimate one lap pace in qualifying, Visser excelled in the races; only once did she fail to finish higher than her qualifying position and in that case she equalled it. Along with Chadwick, she was one of only two drivers to finish in the top 10 of every qualifying session and every race of the six-round series. Eventually, she just fell short at the season finale at Brands Hatch, although she did pass an uncharacteristically nervy Chadwick during the race to secure the final podium position.

Visser will contest the W Series again in 2020. Her main rival could be the newfound level of expectation her outstanding performance last year will bring.

3. ALICE POWELL

For the want of an opportunity – any opportunity at all – Alice Powell’s competitive career looked to have ground to a halt before the advent of the W Series in 2019. At the season’s opening round at Hockenheim, she qualified only sixth but came through strongly to finish second in the race before leaping into the arms of series founder Catherine Bond Muir behind the podium to thank her for bringing the old familiar feeling back to her life.

Alice Powell does parkour
Alice Powell handing Abraham Lincoln and the Bishop of Bath & Wells their arses at parkour

Powell is a ferocious competitor and but for an accident at the first corner in the third round of the championship at Misano – which also left her with a damaged car for the fourth race at Norisring – she would almost certainly have been in the mix for top honours. Her racing pedigree has never been better demonstrated than in the pulsating non-championship reverse grid W Series race at Assen last year, coming from 17th on the grid to challenge for the win in one of the most entertaining single-seater motor races I have had the privilege to watch.

She first came to national attention in 2010, becoming the first woman to win a Formula Renault series in her native Britain. Powell would go on to find more success further afield, too, securing the Asian Formula Renault title in 2014. In between, at Monza in 2012, Powell secured an eighth place finish to become the first woman to score a point in the GP3 Series, recently rebranded as the FIA Formula 3 championship. However, after a few outings in the 2014/15 MRF Formula 3 winter series championship, it looked as though her racing days were done.

It is safe to say that the 2020 vintage Alice Powell looks to be completely reinvigorated, which is bad news for all her rivals in this season’s W Series. Now 26, Powell has probably missed the boat in terms of making it to Formula 1. However, if she has proven anything at all in her career it is that all someone of her talent needs is to be given a chance, so who knows?

2. EMMA KIMILÄINEN

Emma Kimilainen and a duck
Emma Kimiläinen meets Finland’s first duck Olympic medalist

As our old friend, The Patriarchy, works through its fusty old gears, you are simply bound to hear the old gem about the fact that women hold themselves back by taking time out to do a baby all the time. Cue knowing nods and clouds of cigar smoke, from a room full of braying, know-nothing, pricks.

Emma Kimiläinen – proud owner of a uterus – did just that in 2009, when funds and opportunities to continue competing in the Formula Palmer Audi series dried up. To suggest that taking a break to become a mother has held her motor racing back, however, would be patently absurd. When she received the call from PWR Racing to drive for Saab in the 2014 Scandinavian Touring Car Championship, it was quickly evident that far from losing any of her edge, Kimiläinen had become a more complete and formidable competitor than ever.

Kimiläinen spent three seasons in the STCC before moving to drive in various other stock car series around Scandinavia. The cancellation of the 2018 Electric GT Championship, though, allowed her to enter the qualification process for the W Series, a return to single-seater motor racing after a decade away. The Finn entered the first race considered to be one of the title favourites regardless of her hiatus, some mark of the esteem in which Kimiläinen is held in European racing circles.

However, in the race she was punted out by rookie Canadian racer Megan Gilkes at the hairpin on the opening lap, aggravating a neck injury she sustained in a touring car race in 2016 and keeping her sidelined for the first half of the season.

On her return at Norisring, Kimiläinen raced to a fifth place finish from 8th on the grid and then subsequently completely dominated the next round at Assen, winning the race from pole position and taking fastest lap. The following day, she would make up 11 positions to finish 4th in the outstanding non-championship reverse grid race. A relentless competitor, in her 4 starts in W Series Kimiläinen recorded 3 fastest race laps.

Aggressive and decisive, quick and wise, Kimiläinen is as well-rounded a competitor as any in the W Series and enters the expanded 2020 season yet again as one of the favourites for the crown. Now 30, Formula 1 has probably passed her by, but there have been stranger twists of fate – and far less talented drivers that Kimiläinen to make the F1 grade – so you never know. Kimiläinen also runs a yearly scholarship program to support promising female kart racers in her native Finland.

1. JAMIE CHADWICK

When Giovanna Amati became the last woman to attempt to qualify for a Grand Prix in 1992, Jamie Chadwick, undoubtably the hottest prospect for women in motor racing in a generation, hadn’t been born. She wouldn’t be for another six years.

The main headline for Chadwick is that she won the inaugural W Series title in 2019, but just as impressive was her performance in the MRF Challenge series over the preceding winter. Beating promising drivers such as Jack Doohan and Linus Lundqvist along the way, Chadwick became the first woman to win the MRF series title (whose previous winners include IndyCar drivers Pietro Fittipaldi and Conor Daly and Formula 2’s Felipe Drugovich), just as she had become the first woman to win the British GT title – aged just 17 – in 2015. Chadwick was also the first woman to win a British Formula 3 race, at Brands Hatch in 2018, and in 2019 won her class with teammates Alex Brundle and Peter Cate at the Nürburgring 24 Hours.

Jamie Chadwick walks pets in the park
Jamie Chadwick keeps fit in the off-season by walking pets in the park. In this case, the pets are a rosette guinea pig and a guppy.

The momentum continues to build behind Chadwick, who became a development driver for the Williams F1 team last year and retains a gimlet-eyed focus on becoming the first British woman to ever start a World Championship Grand Prix race. To that end she currently may be found traversing the globe competing in whatever, whenever, to accrue enough points to qualify for a Super Licence.

Over the winter, this has led Chadwick to the warmer climes of the Asian Formula 3 championship and with some distinction, recently dominating the second race at Abu Dhabi to win from pole only to later be penalised for a jump start, having succumbed to clutch creep on the grid. She bounced back from the disappointment at the next race weekend in Malaysia, securing two podium finishes. Better still was to follow at Chang International, Thailand, a win and two more podiums elevating Chadwick to 4th overall in the final championship standings.

The 2020 W Series is another championship which is eligible for Super Licence points and Chadwick will look to defend her title this season, although future champions will subsequently be barred from doing so. The next step will be onto the Formula 1 support card, in Formula 3 or Formula 2, with the tantalising prospect of a Formula 1 drive perhaps just two or three good seasons away. Will Chadwick make it? This is the big question for women’s motorsport. The answer, at the moment at least: I hope so. She looks like she’s good enough. What other qualification should there be?

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