McLaren development driver Katie Milner believes women will break into Formula One in the next 10 years. F1 has generally been a male-dominated sport but Milner hopes to soon see more women on the grid and hopes over the next decade that the gender imbalance can slowly but surely be addressed.
Italian driver Lella Lombardi was the last woman to start a Formula One Grand Prix in 1976. No woman has qualified for a race since. But Milner thinks it will not be too long before there is a better balance of women in the highest category of motorsport. The 22-year-old has pointed to the women coming through the grassroots side of racing.
“I think it’s a difficult one. A lot of people look at F1 as the pinnacle of the sport and go, ‘Why are there no girls on the grid?’ Then people think there’s this massive issue that there’s no girls in motorsport. But there are and there are in grassroots motorsports,” Milner told Express Sport’s Women In Sport series.
“We’ve got a lot of girls in the lower single-seater series and GT racing as well which is what I do. There was two of us on the grid last year. There’s quite a few girls in the top level of GT racing at the moment.
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“Things are starting to change. The problem kind of starts with girls at a younger age. Boys are pushed into it, you might go for a friend’s birthday party to a karting day. Girls might go horse riding, you’re never kind of pushed that way.
“With motorsport, a lot of F1 drivers start at probably age six. If girls are pushed into it or want to do it at that age or even know about it at that age, it’s very likely we’re going to see a woman in F1.
“Things are changing and there’s different communities set up now where there’s opportunities for young girls still in school, whether that be driving, being an engineer or a mechanic or a team owner, anything. I think the shift will start to happen over the next 10 years and we should maybe, hopefully, see someone break into F1.”
Milner added: “There’s only 18 seats in F1. A lot of people will keep their seat for five, 10, maybe more years. The kind of topic at the moment is whether a female can actually be strong enough and fit enough to drive one of these cars because they’re so advanced and very taxing on your body. Whether a girl can be strong enough to drive them is one thing.
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“Until somebody takes the plunge and maybe does some testing and see how they go… Jamie Chadwick is a Williams test driver. It’d be interesting to see how she feels, if she gets out of the car and she’s tired.
“I know she trains all day every day like every other F1 driver, it’s what you’ve got to do. It might not be next year but in the next 10 years I think there’ll be one on the grid.”
Milner was thrown into the sport at a young age, spurred on by her dad Jonny – a two-time British Rally Championship driver. She grew up in a family passionate about racing.
Milner is glad she pursued it as a passion and points out that she could have taken on horseriding instead. She continued: “I started at 12. My dad used to be – he still is! – a rally driver. I grew up watching him rallying and competing.
“From a young age we had field buggies and all I wanted to do was drive, whether that was in a field or up and down a little lane at home, anything.
“I knew about it from a young age because of my dad. I think it would’ve been difficult for me to know about the sport if I hadn’t grown up around it. On the weekend my dad had F1 on the telly and you kind of pick up little bits and then think, ‘I fancy a go at that.’ I could’ve easily had horses and followed my mum’s passion but I wanted to be different and try something different.
“There’s a few things going on. I’m the front of the GT side of things. They’ve just signed another lady to race in Extreme E. It’s quite good to have two strong female role models for McLaren who are constantly out there doing events and stuff.
“It’s important for someone to be able to look up to me and Emma [Gilmour]. That’s the same with me. When I started out in circuit racing I looked up to Susie Wolff and wanted to achieve what she achieved.”