Menu

Can Women Compete in Formula 1? A Science Perspective

Published 15th April 2013 - Written by Bridget Schuil aka @mma_brij
- - Hate adverts? Go ad-free by joining Badger GP - -
- - Hate adverts? Go ad-free by joining Badger GP - -

Following the BBC article quoting Sir Stirling Moss’ comments about female racing drivers, a Badger reader named Bridget who’s more qualified on the subject of female brains than us has put together her thoughts – thoughts based on science.

This morning, when I logged into twitter, I happened upon an article on the BBC’s website that induced the kind of spitting indignation I usually reserve for the Daily Mail. The comments from Sir Stirling Moss fit somewhere on the spectrum between “sexist” and “plain old anti-women”. So, in order to not fly off the handle, I thought I’d look at this objectively as a biologist.

Sexism in motorsport is not new. The belief that women aren’t able to handle racing in the top levels of motorsport is as old as the sport itself. The belief stems from when Formula 1 started, an era when the notion of women doing anything other than cooking, cleaning, and tending to the children was unthinkable. The problem we face now is that the world has moved on in its attitudes to women, and people in F1 circles, for example Sir Stirling, have not. I note that Bernie Ecclestone’s comments in the article were less sexist than those he’s made before, but they still leave a lot to be desired in fostering an environment where women are seen as equals.

The obvious objection to women in F1, although not one that Sir Stirling raised, is whether they can handle the physical challenge. An F1 driver’s heart rate during a race is in the region of 170-190 beats per minute, a level of exertion that most elite athletes – male and female alike – see as a challenge, not an insurmountable obstacle. Likewise, the lateral G-forces drivers are subjected to are high, but not so high as to exclude women on principle if those women engage in adequate resistance training.

The major challenge facing racing drivers is more in the spectrum of mental capacity. In order to race safely at the speeds achieved in Formula 1, a driver needs quick reflexes (for example, changing direction quickly in response to seeing another car emerge from one’s blind spot), the ability to anticipate challenges (for example, think a few corners in advance and position the car accordingly), and good spatial reasoning (that is, knowing the dimensions of one’s car and how much space it needs on-track). While there is a difference between male and female brains, the difference doesn’t lie in reaction times, or the ability to anticipate challenges.

Schumacher back on top
Did Michael suffer more brain-fade being older? – Credit: Mercedes AMG F1 media

Reaction or reflex times vary from individual to individual, and are more dependent on age than sex. This is why drivers struggle to respond to overtake manoeuvres as they age (see Michael Schumacher’s crash record in his last few seasons for example). Therefore, as long as a female driver was reasonably young, she would have no problem keeping pace with the men on track.

Neuroscientists are finding more and more that the ability to anticipate is an intrinsic part of the human brain. This basic hard-wiring does not appear to vary between sexes, according to the current literature. However, as the brain matures, the ability to make rational decisions based on this anticipation improves.

I do concede that, on average, female brains are less able to handle spatial data than male brains. This would be the only potential sex-specific down-fall facing a female racer. However, human brains are marvellously adaptable, and spatial problem-solving is a trait that can be learned. If a woman races from early childhood, it is not unreasonable to assume that her spatial reasoning will be trained to a level that was comparable to her male peers.

As to whether a woman has what it takes to compete mentally, I refer you to the work of Jaak Panksepp. All humans feel fear, rage, panic, lust, care, play, and an instinct to seek. They’re evolutionarily beneficial, and hard-wired. While we have the ability to suppress the less pleasant of those neurological systems (animals will turn off their fear, rage, and panic systems, even when it is stimulated by electrodes in the brain), we – and by that I mean every animal that has a testable nervous system – find seeking and playing pleasurable. Competition is an elaborate combination of seek and play – two of the most fun things humans can do with their clothes on.

More testosterone means acting out your revenge more - Photo via pastormaldonado.com
More testosterone means acting out your revenge more – Photo via pastormaldonado.com

I have one final point to make on the difference in ability between men and women. Psychologists have observed that women are less likely to enjoy revenge. If they do take revenge, it’s more likely to be with words than violence. This different perception of vengeance means we are less likely to see incidents like Maldonado’s side-swipe of Hamilton in Spa from female racers.

Having said all of the above, women are at a disadvantage in racing. Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.”. While he was discussing consciousness, the adage applies to the human reality as well. Many studies show that encouragement from spectators improves athletic performance. Concomitantly, discouragement impedes it. “Lady racers” face that same challenge; nobody speaks out in public in support of women’s ability to successfully compete in Formula 1, and the nay-sayers are given a lot of air time.

The problem facing them is not overt criticism, but insidious exclusion. It’s notoriously hard to find sponsorship these days, especially as a female racer. The media tell stories of female racers and team staff as curiosities, not contributors. Some go as far as to routinely introduce Susie Wolff as “Toto Wolff’s wife” rather than as “Williams’ development driver,” as though she’s in the paddock to be Toto’s arm-candy, not to contribute meaningfully to Williams. Susie Wolff herself has spoken of the lack of ladies’ bathrooms in paddocks, forcing her to run further than other drivers for her pre-race pit-stop.

While these are all subtleties, they nonetheless will affect a driver’s head-space. They’re all factors that are toxic to a success-friendly environment. If Formula 1 is serious about including women, the whole sport needs to foster an environment where women are unreservedly treated as equals.

About Bridget: She has a bachelor of science from Rhodes, with a double major in Botany, and Human Kinetics & Ergonomics. While saving for her MSc in the neuroscience of novelty-seeking genes, she keeps herself occupied working in fun investments, googling the night away, and watching as much motorsport as possible. Her previous, more comedic F1 work can be found here on sidepodcast too.  You can follow her and get in touch via Twitter.

Bridget Schuil aka @mma_brij