Naomi Schiff: Knowing Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen are allies helped me through the abuse

Naomi Schiff - Naomi Schiff: Knowing Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen are allies helped me through the abuse - Getty Images/Bryn Lennon
Naomi Schiff - Naomi Schiff: Knowing Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen are allies helped me through the abuse - Getty Images/Bryn Lennon

Naomi Schiff laughs as soon as the words “social media” are uttered. “Oh gosh, the internet?” she asks, taking a moment to gather a full response.

This past year has been life-changing for Schiff. She made the steep transition from single-seater driver to Sky Sports Formula 1 broadcaster. With that, she has experienced greater attention than ever before and has more than 200,000 followers across Instagram and Twitter. For better and for worse.

The positives outweigh the negatives, Schiff insists. She points to last week when she was in Johannesburg - where she spent much of her childhood - and was recognised by fans at the Formula E race for her role with Sky. It made her happy to be seen as a source of inspiration for those from her home city.

But since she was appointed by Sky last March, she has also faced an onslaught of criticism and racist abuse, especially online. Schiff admits it was “tough” at the start, but allyship from some well-known faces helped.

Last June, she called out a Twitter troll who suggested she was ticking a diversity box at Sky. None other than seven-time champion Sir Lewis Hamilton leapt to her defence. “Naomi is an ex-professional racing driver and totally qualified to give her opinion as part of the Sky team,” Hamilton wrote. Sebastian Vettel said the abuse she faced was “disgusting”, while Max Verstappen called the trolls “haters”.

Schiff was only a few months into her new job, but she had the support of three world champions. “Change is always met with resistance, I feel like I definitely went through that early on,” she says. “But I’d like to say that that’s changed in a positive way. That had a lot to do with people standing up for me - Lewis namely, but also Seb and Max. They all came out and said something about it and that kind of scared away a few people.”

She adds: “It still happens - it’s the internet. Thankfully, they haven’t targeted me on anything that’s an insecurity of mine, because they’re mostly talking about the colour of my skin. But that moment, when I received so much support, I realised that I was very respected by the people that mattered.”

Schiff, 28, was born in Belgium to a Belgian father and Rwandan mother. She started karting at the age of 11 while living in South Africa, and went on to race in prototype, GT and single-seater cars. In 2019 she joined W Series, the all-female single-seater championship, as a driver before going on to become their diversity and inclusion ambassador.

Now, having put down her helmet, she is still pinching herself that she gets to work in F1 with some of her idols - in particular Hamilton. “Since I was very, very young, he’s been that identifiable role model for me. I mean, he’s not exactly like me, but he’s something like me. I very much held on to that. Fast forward all these years, to have someone like him as an ally in the industry is incredible.”

When she picks up the phone to speak with Telegraph Sport, she has just arrived at a hotel in Bahrain ahead of this season’s opening race weekend. She is fresh off a flight from Cape Town where she was covering Formula E for Sky, and admits she is a little wiped out. She masks it well though, and is as engaging and enthusiastic throughout our call as she comes across on screen.

Ahead of starting with Sky, she says she “hyped up” what it would be like to walk the paddock at an F1 Grand Prix weekend. “When I got there, I was quite surprised. This is just like any other paddock in any other racing series - just on another level.”

One glaring similarity was how male-dominated F1 is. “I’ve been racing since I was 11, you get used to these environments. Thankfully, it’s changing slowly, but it is what it is. You either come to terms with it or you let it consume you.”

While the Netflix documentary series Drive to Survive has been transformational for F1, and hailed as the reason more female fans are engaging with the sport, representation issues remain.

A recent report by Females in Motorsport found that women spoke for only 1.54 per cent of the programme’s Season Five. Across all five seasons, women speak for less than an hour out of the 32 hours of episodes. As a female analyst for Sky Sports, Schiff is aware she is subverting the dominant narrative.

“I know that the sport is changing, there are so many more young women watching,” Schiff says. “For me, I feel like it’s also important to be on screen. There aren’t that many female broadcasters in the sport from the analyst perspective. I’m very grateful to be one of them.”

“It's very disappointing,” she adds, referring to the Drive to Survive numbers. “I think sometimes they are very much a victim to the system and what the numbers in the paddock are. But [F1] has evolved so, so, so much. There’s not enough [women], we still don’t have parity, but if they would have wanted those women on screen, there would have been women on screen - there’s enough of us running around.

“It’s also quite surprising considering that, from what I understand, Drive to Survive's audience is mainly female. You would have thought it might be important to them to have more women on screen. It’s good that people are raising the question.”

Change is afoot within the sport. Particularly in the form of the F1 Academy, an all-female series launched this year that is aiming to help young women drivers progress through motorsport. It remains the case that the last woman to race in F1 was Lella Lombardi back in 1976, and other efforts to encourage support of women drivers has struggled. After four years, the all-female W Series’s future is hanging in the balance, after it was forced to end early last season due to funding concerns.

While it served as a huge platform for the likes of Schiff, F1 Academy driver Abbi Pulling and three-time champion Jamie Chadwick, a woman featuring on the F1 grid feels a way off.

“That’s a generational change and it’s a huge systematic change,” Schiff says. “Since 1976, how many women have successfully come to F1? None. So sponsors, brands see that, and they don’t invest in female talent.

“I read this quote the other day that said, ‘No one expects a flower to blossom without water, but female athletes are expected to succeed without sunlight, soil and water’. That says it all really. Hopefully over the next few years, we can accelerate that change.”