The Race For Representation
I am, in no uncertain terms, an absolutely massive fan of Motorsport, and Formula 1 in particular. It’s been an incredible season for the sport, but as we reach the last few races of the year I'm left in somewhat of an ethical bind. Since last year F1 had raced under the slogan of We Race As One, an initiative launched in the wake of the murder of George Floyd to help prommote equality in the sport, helping support minorities in an incredibly elitist sport as well as using the platform to help the movement outside of the sport. But it always felt a little hollow to me for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, money does a huge amount of the talking, and that has resulted in events held in countries with pretty terrible human rights records. The last three races this year are being held in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. So not exactly stellar as far as equality goes there. And secondly, there’s not been a woman on the F1 grid since Lella Lombardi from 1974 to 1976, the only woman to have ever scored points in the championship. Unlike most other sports, motorsport doesn't really have a parallel women’s category, and while the Formula W, a women's only feeder series designed to help promote female drivers to the main Formula categories, has helped to showcase a number of talented female drivers like Jamie Chadwick who has won both of the Formula W titles, we've yet to see it make much impact on F3, F2 and F1 grids.
Now the reasoning you’ll get from people who object to women in the motorsport world is the usual rubbish you’d expect to find in any sport, they’re not strong enough, not talented enough, blah blah blah you know the drill. And I’d like to address this argument directly as being total rubbish by discussing two of the greatest female drivers to ever turn a wheel in anger: Michelle Mouton, and Sabine Schmitz.
The above picture is of Michelle Mouton and her Audi Quattro S1, one of the most insane pieces of machinery ever built. Michelle raced during the Group B era of the World Rally Championship, featuring some of the most powerful cars ever entered into the sport, and competed against some of the most dominant champions the sport had ever seen. Her signing by the Audi team had drawn the sort of criticism you might expect, and she almost immediately silenced it by winning seven stages of the 1981 Rally Portugal despite consistent electrical problems with the car, and this sheer speed and determination would continue throughout her career.
In 1982 she traced the lead of the championship throughout the season with Walter Rhorl, the first ever two time WRC champion, and while she eventually finished the season second owing to desperately unlucky mechanical issue in the final event, she led Audi to the constructors title that year, making them the first ever German manufacturer to win the title. Michelle continued to race for Audi through to 1985, and while she never matched her career best championship finish of 2nd, she won 162 stages for the team with 4 outright event wins, and is arguably one of the greatest WRC drivers to not win a title, driving some of the most powerful cars in the most dangerous era the sport had ever seen. One of my personal highlights was Mouton finishing third overall at the Safari rally, a 1000 mile event often seen as the most difficult in the calendar, despite crossing the line with only three wheels.
After her retirement, Mouton was inducted into the WRC hall of fame alongside the legendary Carlos Sainz Sr (his son Carlos Jr currently races in F1 for Ferrari, coincidentally), and currently sits on the FIA’s (the governing body of global motorsport) Women In Motorsport Commission, serving as both a role model and as a driving force behind the push to get more women into motorsport across the world. She beat some of the very best rally drivers of all time in the most competitive era of Rally, and is just one of the examples that show women have every right and all the ability needed to compete at the highest level.
Moving on though, allow me to introduce Sabine Schmitz, AKA the Queen of the Nurburgring. Now motorsport fans reading will need little introduction for the Nurburgring-Nordschleife, but for the rest of you, here's a little context. Often referred to as The Green Hell, the ring is without the question the most legendary and dangerous circuits in all of Motorsport. The Nordschleife circuit has a 20 KM lap length, featuring 154 turns from the flat out Miss Hit Miss, the ferocious Hatzenbach, and the infamous Carousel, with an all time lap record of 6:25:91. I think the best way to demonstrate the caliber of driver Schmitz was, is with the thing that really catapulted her into the public eye. When top gear went to the Nordschleife, Schmitz helped them to learn the circuit to do a hot lap. Clarkson would go on to set a lap time of 9:59 in a Jaguar S type, to which Schmitz would utter the legendary line of “I tell you something, I'll do that lap time in a van”. She wasn't joking, and in a later episode managed to lap the circuit in 10 minutes and 8 seconds, in a Ford Transit Van. If you’ve not seen the clips please do, the sheer joy on her face as she dragged every second out of the van is a pleasure to watch.
Her TV appearances aside, Sabine was a name in the racing world a long time before that episode of Top Gear ever aired. Schmitz lived and breathed the nordschleife, having been brought up nearby and even driving the family car around the track, she entered professional racing as soon as she could, competing and winning races in the CHC and VLN endurance championships that take place at the track, winning the VLN championship in 1998. She completed regularly in the Nurburgring 24H race held annually, often considered to be as difficult if not more than the legendary Le Mans 24H, and she would win the race back to back in 1996 and 1997. She scored another podium finish at the race in 2008 with a third place, and was considered by one to be the greatest drivers the circuit had seen. She also worked as one of the Ring Taxis, and estimated that she lapped the circuit over 20,000 times throughout her career.
Between her driving at the circuit, and her work as a presenter both on German car shows and Top Gear, Schmitz competed in both the South African (1995,1996) and World Touring Car championship ( 2015, 2016). Both this and her TV appearances made her a legend in the motorsport community both for her sheer talent as a driver and the incredible joy she took from driving, looking incredibly at home behind the wheel of anything and everything with an engine she could find.
Sadly Schmitz was diagnosed with cancer in 2017, continuing to appear on top gear despite both her condition and the treatment she was undergoing. While she was initially in remission she announced that she had relapsed in 2020, and ultimately passed away in March of this year, at the age of 51. The first corner of the Nordschleife was renamed to the Sabine-Schmitz-Kurve in her honour, and the memory of the Queen of the Nurburgring lives on in those who met and worked with her.
What I hope I’ve Highlighted here is that some of the most talented and influential drivers in motorsport history have been women, and that my favourite sport has a huge amount of catching up to do before it can really claim it “Races As One”. There's no doubt that given the chance, the next Mouton or Schmitz is ready to make their mark on the sport, and the day we next see a Woman on the F1 grid, or any other grid at the top of motorsport, will be a great one for the industry as a whole.
Love and Rage