The Countess Elsa d’Albrizzi’s name is not familiar to most people. The Italian aristocrat was one of the first women in motorsport in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, driving a Benz light car.
The countess and her friend, Bertha Benz, helped finance the Bertha Benz Foundation, and female drivers in general, to enable them to participate in major motorsport events.
What happened? Women are still a rare sight in top-level motorsport.
Apart from some notable exceptions such as Lyn St James who competed at the Indy 500, Nascar and former IndyCar driver Danica Patrick and some excellent NHRA drag car drivers and rally drivers, including our own Emma Gilmour, women make up a tiny proportion of the grids.
Just five women have competed in F1 GPs since 1950 and none since 1992.
There are few sports where women compete directly with men at the highest levels: equestrian, including horse racing, and some sailing events.
With modern cars, physical strength is immaterial so the argument that women cannot handle the physical demands of driving a racing car is flawed. Even an F1 car has power steering and all the controls — throttle, gear change and clutch — are operated through potentiometers so the lightest touch is as effective as the strongest.
When cornering, it used to be that G-forces worked a driver’s neck so hard that huge muscles built up, but the modern F1 driver has a head and neck support and a cockpit surround, in the name of safety, that restricts the head and helmet from moving as much.
Williams GP team development driver Susie Wolff spends hours in the team simulator and regularly drives the F1 car but she has little problem dealing with the physical stresses.
Endurance is arguably more important than strength and women have proven more than a match for men in this area.
The physiology of the female body is often held up as a reason but there are no real grounds for that argument as Patrick clearly demonstrates.
There is a train of thought that men, due to the caveman-day demands of trying to live by hunting and fighting for survival to support and protect their family or tribe from others, are programmed to be more aggressive and evolution has shaped them to be warriors.
Women, goes that line of thought, are programmed to protect and nurture.
The same studies indicate men tend to be less concerned with their safety and take more and bigger risks. Hence they will drive more aggressively and with less concern for personal safety.
Perhaps the reason that women rarely make the top grade in motorsport, when competing against men, is that they are not interested enough to do so. More than 40 per cent of spectators are women so that argument is not strong.
No opportunities? With young women, girls and boys competing in karting and rallying there seem to be plenty of routes to follow.
It cannot be denied that women, in any sport or activity, are more likely to be judged as much on looks as ability, especially in the brilliant glare of TV and media in motorsport.
Sometimes one or two individuals bring this into sharper focus. Lotus development driver Carmen Jorda from Spain is glamourous but has a race record devoid of wins or success.
She is treated as a sponsor “model” rather than a serious race driver and that adds no credibility to her ambitions in the sport or the need of young female drivers, with talent, to be taken seriously for their skill and abilities alone.
Women can now be seen working on F1 cars as engineers and mechanics. Sauber has Monisha Kalteborn as its part-owner and team principal dealing, very successfully, with the so-called “Piranha Club” of the other team owners. Claire Williams, daughter of Sir Frank, is team principal of Williams.
So, the answer to the question?
I have no idea but I do know that a young woman with talent, drive, a strong desire, determination and some indefinable “X” factor of skill must surely make it into one of the top teams at some point.