It’s been so long since a woman drove a car in the world of Formula 1 that many younger viewers don’t realize that it’s ever happened at all. If you suggest that a woman is every bit as qualified to get behind the wheel of a racing vehicle and compete against men, you’re likely to be accused of being ‘politically correct,’ and ‘ruining the sport’, just as has been the case when women have been featured in any area of life they never used to be.
Those accusations would be wrong. A few decades ago, women were a regular sight in and among Formula 1 teams. They may not have been first-choice drivers, and they may not have won races or trophies, but they were recognized as having the equal talent to their male peers. The most accomplished of them was Italian Lella Lombardi, who once drove for the same Williams team which would go on to be home to Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill, and the legendary Ayrton Senna. Now, they’re almost unheard of. Tatiana Calderon may be about to change all that.
There has been more focus on female sport in the past decade than there has in the three that preceded it. Women’s football is increasingly gaining a higher profile. Women’s boxing is being licensed and approved in more and more countries, with Britain’s Nicola Adams enjoying a higher celebrity profile than many male boxers from her home country. Women’s rugby, women’s athletics, and even women’s basketball are now treated as a serious sporting occasion as opposed to the amusing curiosity many saw them as being as recently as the 1990s.
There’s an important distinction to make with those sports, though, and it’s this; they’re all sports in which women compete against other women. Intergender competition in sport is a rarity for the simple reason that there are genetic differences between men and women. A male athlete is, with very few exceptions, larger and more powerful than a female athlete. A contest between them isn’t a contest between equals. That isn’t the case with all sports, though.
Snooker and darts are good examples of sports which should be a level playing field but seemingly aren’t. Reanne Evans – one of the most skilled female snooker players in the world – struggles to reach the qualification mark for male tournaments. Prominent female darts players are also invited to compete in men’s tournaments but never trouble the latter stages. It’s almost as if there’s an invisible barrier between the genders when it comes to sport, even when physical attributes shouldn’t matter.
That can’t be down to competitive spirit, though. Popular British television presenter Victoria Coren-Mitchell is a two-time European Poker Tour winner, having beaten scores of men on her way to over $2m in prize money. Poker might be a game of the intellect rather than the body, but her success puts paid to any absurd suggestion that women lack the ‘competitive edge’ which men often cite when it comes to sport.
It may be the case that women have simply spent more time on poker and card and gambling in general than they have on darts and snooker, which are, in real terms, elevated bar games. The fact that there’s a wide female audience for casino games is increasingly well known – the launch of the Rose Slots website happened for that precise reason. It gave women a place to play where they wouldn’t be confronted with some of the more tawdry and sexist iconographies that sometimes comes with online slot games and casino advertising aimed at men. There may be a whole generation of Coren-Mitchells currently on casino websites honing their skills, whereas there are far fewer down at their local bar sharpening their darts abilities.
That doesn’t apply to driving. Women can drive every bit as well as men can, and it makes no sense that we haven’t seen a prominent Formula 1 driver in the past generation.
Step Forward, Tatiana Calderon
The only female driver currently registered with a Formula 1 team is Colombian Tatiana Calderon, who is the test and reserve driver with Alfa Romeo. In the event of either Kimi Raikkonen or Antonio Giovinazzi being unable to drive for any reason, she’s in the frame to take their seat and race. Of course, nobody wishes any misfortune on any driver, and so it’s hoped that she won’t have to drive in those circumstances at all. The nonsense of it is that it shouldn’t have come down to that to get a woman into an F1 car; there are seats that she or another female driver could and should have taken.
Take the example of Robert Kubica at Williams. What he’s achieved in returning to Formula 1 after a near-fatal accident in 2011, but whether he truly merits a position within Formula 1 is hugely contentious. Kubica, against all the odds, managed to return to motor racing three years after his accident, driving in European and World Rally Championships, but aside from the second tier of the European Rally Championship, he won nothing. Outside of that tier, he won one race in six years. Regardless of that lack of success, he was selected to be Williams’ second driver for the 2019 season, driving a specially-adapted car which he’s so far finished last in every race this season, trailing even his own team-mate by huge distances. No logical argument could be made to say Calderon wouldn’t have been a better option for that vacancy when it arose.
While she waits for somebody to deem her worthy of a position, Calderon is competing in Formula 2 – a level which Kubica completely skipped on his way back up to the big league. At 26, and with time on her side, she’s surely likely to receive a seat at some point soon. The burden on her shoulders will be a heavy one though – if she’s seen to underperform, she’ll be used as an argument to keep women away from the sport for another generation.
Calderon doesn’t just have to make history. She has to excel while doing it.