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Giles Richards reports on the F1 Academy series, which aims to promote and support women in motorsport.
F1 Sport

Giles Richards reports on the F1 Academy series, which aims to promote and support women in motorsport.

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Despite the uproar surrounding the sport and the debate surrounding its handling, Formula One will continue to focus on promoting diversity and inclusivity this weekend with the groundbreaking second season of the all-female F1 Academy series, which takes place away from the main stage.

The initial F1 race will occur on Friday, which also happens to be International Women’s Day, at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. This series is aiming to ultimately support a female driver returning to F1 after 40 years, and is striving to steer the sport in a positive direction despite the recent negative attention surrounding the Christian Horner controversy and accusations against the FIA President, Mohammed Ben Sulayem.

The choice of venue for the first race in a diversity-promoting series has not gone unnoticed, with Saudi Arabia frequently accused of sportswashing through their involvement in F1 and the Academy.

Organizations focused on protecting human rights have raised serious apprehensions regarding the state of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. They have brought attention to the case of Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds University student who is currently imprisoned for 27 years due to a tweet advocating for women’s rights.

Amnesty International reports that women in Saudi Arabia are still treated as second-class citizens despite the government’s claims of implementing reforms. Anyone who speaks out about women’s rights in the country risks being arrested and potentially facing a prolonged period of imprisonment.

The series is actively working to increase female presence in motorsport and eventually in F1, as it has been over four decades since a woman last participated in a grand prix in 1976. Lella Lombardi, who competed in Austria, and Maria Teresa de Filippis are the only two women to have raced in F1 since its inception in 1950.

In 2023, the Academy championship had a quiet start. However, this year is a significant improvement for the championship in terms of exposure. 10 out of the 15 drivers participating will be representing an F1 team and will drive in their team’s colors during the 14 races over 7 weekends. These races are all scheduled to take place on F1 race weekends, which is crucial for the championship.

Each team has selected a driver who they will provide with support. France’s Doriane Pin will compete for Mercedes, Maya Weug from the Netherlands will race for Ferrari, and Britain’s Abbi Pulling will represent Alpine.

They will drive the same car, the standard Tatuus F4 being run by five experienced F3 and F2 teams with three drivers each, but the collaboration is expected to be of enormous benefit for the drivers in question and for establishing a strong connection between F1 and the Academy, with the aim of increasing interest in the sport among girls and young women.

Lewis Hamilton has been a vocal supporter from the off and visited the drivers in the Academy paddock at the US Grand Prix last year, when he praised the forward strides it was taking. “Really happy to hear of the progress [F1 Academy’s] made,” he said at the time. “I think it’s really great the steps we are taking. Really happy to hear that all of Formula One is on board.”

Other F1 drivers have shown a stronger support for the series this year, as there is now a direct connection to their respective teams. George Russell, the Mercedes driver, expressed his approval saying, “It’s fantastic that F1 is providing an opportunity for these women to demonstrate their skills and with the backing of F1 teams and increased visibility on race weekends, it sets the stage for great achievements in the future.”

Maya Weug (second from left) and Doriane Pin (second from right) walk the track in Jeddah

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His positivity was matched by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc. “It super important,” he said. “To see this new series with all the F1 teams involved is amazing, to give the chance to all these women that are hoping to join F1, to give them a platform to show what they are really capable of.”

Marta García from Spain was declared the winner of the first season. As for the runner-up, Léna Bühler, they both secured a spot and support to participate in the Formula Regional European Championship in 2024, racing alongside men. This championship is a crucial path to reaching the F1 feeder series, F3 and F2. This opportunity will provide the necessary exposure and practice for their development as drivers. The winners of this year’s series will have the same potential for advancement. Additionally, points towards an FIA superlicence will also be awarded, which is necessary for drivers aspiring to compete in F1.

The F1 owners established the Academy to tackle a major obstacle in the sport – the financial challenge for 16- to 25-year-olds transitioning from karting to single seaters. This steep increase in costs leads to many young women being forced out of the sport.

The championship is seeking to combat the ongoing issue of low representation of women in motorsport, which has consistently remained below 5%.

Source: theguardian.com