Motorhead

Two women: one blonde and pretty, one is a podium finisher in top level racing. But who’ll get the shot at F1?

Motorhead

View photo

.

Simona de Silvestro (left) and Susie Wolff

Sauber's Simona de Silvestro doesn't want to be on the cover of magazines - at least not because of the way she looks, or what she's wearing.

She wants to be a racing driver - pure and simple, and the Sauber testing driver is fighting hard to become the first woman in almost 40 years to take part in a Formula One race.

The 25-year-old Swiss driver proved her credentials in the American IndyCar series last season - the US version of F1 - as she claimed a second place finish spot and a solid 13th place in the championship. That was just one spot behind Sebastian Bourdais, and four ahead of Takuma Sato, both of whom have competed in F1.

Yet if ever you pick up a newspaper or magazine to read an article about the next woman to earn a place in F1, it's odds-on that the name you'll read is Suzie Wolff, who - like De Silvestro - will take part in a couple of Friday practice sessions this season.

Wolff, a 31-year-old Scot, is currently a development driver for Williams, and hit the headlines a few weeks ago when the team announced that she would drive in practice ahead of two Grands Prix this season - including the British GP at Silverstone.

She has also been the subject of a film entitled "The fastest woman in the world", as well as numerous newspaper and magazine articles in the likes of Vogue talking in gushing terms.

Given such publicity, you might think that Wolff's credentials are at least as strong as De Silvestro's, right?

Wrong. Wolff spent seven seasons racing in the German Touring Car championship from 2006-2012, never finishing better than 7th in any race.

But she is blonde, petite, and happy to pose for glamorous photoshoots, and - unlike her Swiss fellow wannabe - happy to post provocative snaps on Twitter:

De Silvestro's quest to become the first woman to start an F1 race since 1976 (and only the third in history) is pushing ahead by without any of that. And that is a clear irritant for the Swiss driver.

"Magazine shoots or fashion is not my style,” De Silvestro told the Daily Telegraph.

"F1 is so selective and so picky. To me, what we’re trying to do is to be competitive and to show that even if you’re a woman in F1 – which is a man’s world – that you can be really competitive.

"I think that’s how I’ve got the respect so far. At the end of the day you have to wear the helmet and that’s what counts.

"I don’t think I’m getting this shot just because I’m a girl. That’s never been how I’ve wanted to be portrayed. I’m just a driver first."

Wolff, by contrast, is open about the fact that she has no such qualms: "I'm going to use every advantage I’ve got to get me to the top. So if it helps being female then I’m not going to hide away from that fact."

That's not as unfair a stance as it might initially seem: away from the strict meritocracy in force at the very best teams, a driver's ability to attract sponsorship has long been more important in securing an F1 drive than mere talent.

"Pay drivers", as they're called, have regularly secured seats ahead of more talented stars. Back in the 1980s the almost legendary Piercarlo Ghinzani, for example, entered 111 races but met the qualifying time in less than three-quarters of those. And from his 76 starts he mustered just two championship points, both coming in a from his fifth-place finish at the 1984 Dallas Grand Prix.

That race, incidentally, took place on a blisteringly hot day on a controversial, crumbling circuit. Just eight of 26 drivers finished, and Ghinzani was a full two laps behind winner Keke Rosberg.

Money talks in motorsport, and good PR brings money with it. In that context, it's easy to see how Wolff might earn a place on the grid one day while De Silvestro could be left watching from the pits. Apart from anything else, Wolff has superb contacts in the sport: she is married to Mercedes team executive director Toto Wolff, who just so happens to own 16 per cent of the Williams team that is giving Wolff her testing chance.

A Daily Mail opinion piece about Wolff by F1 columnist Jonathan McEvoy was brutal in its scathing analysis: "It would be idle to deny that the hype has overtaken the reality in the projection of her as a future Formula One race driver. The evidence simply does not support the notion… I wish her luck. I merely register my belief that the Susie Wolff story is primarily a publicity stunt."

De Silvestro, however, was rather diplomatic when asked about Wolff, saying only, "I've never met her," and adding of the Scot's career moves, "that’s what she’s doing, and we’re doing what we’re doing".

There is another important fact to point out, too: the Swiss driver might not be trading on her looks (despite the fact that she clearly could), but she earned her testing chance with Sauber thanks to the financial backing of her sponsors, who are underwriting it.

It's not how you get the chance, however - it's what you do once you get it. And Sauber have been hugely impressed, with the talk in the paddock that she is in line to earn a full drive in 2015.

"If we told her to do this at turn seven or this at turn three, she would do it, straight away," one of the Sauber pit crew told the Telegraph.

"She did not put a foot wrong. It was hugely impressive."

So impressive was it that the team welcomed De Silvestro back to the pits with a round of applause - to her absolute delight.

" It was great – it has never happened to me before,” she says.

"The test went really well because we worked as a team, and it was a real test. It was overwhelming. To get a round of applause after my first test in an F1 car is really special."

Despite her good start in testing, De Silvestro is clearly nervous about leaving a successful IndyCar career to try and break into the pinnacle of motorsport.

“It’s a risk coming here," she added.

"If you’re not competitive, it can destroy girls who want to go into F1, because it’s going to take another 25 years, or who knows.

"If you want to make it happen it is about the lap time, if you’re a guy or a girl. That’s what everybody is going to judge you on. That’s what I’ve always aimed for. I’ve always wanted to be really competitive, and that’s why people are supporting me…

"As an athlete nowadays it’s all or nothing. Especially in racing, you get one chance at it. It’s what I love doing."

Not that she's not used to it: it's been the same throughout her career as she's worked her way up the ladder, from the days when her car dealer father got her into go karting at the age of six.

"When I was growing up in karting I never really felt anything different. If you are a woman and you are competitive, then [men] consider you just like another driver. If you’re always last, there’s always going to be the stereotypical thing that people say."

View comments (65)