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Young Female Racing Drivers

Volume 829: debated on Tuesday 18 April 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to support young female racing drivers to ensure that they enjoy the same opportunities as their male counterparts.

My Lords, the Government are committed to supporting women’s sport at every opportunity, pushing for greater participation, employment, commercial opportunities and visibility in the media. We warmly welcome the creation of the F1 Academy in providing opportunities for young female drivers to progress to higher levels of competition in motorsport and we support its focus on uncovering the next generation of young female drivers.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for his reply. While the UK remains the £9 billion-a-year epicentre of world motorsport and Formula 1 itself and seven out of 10 of the Grand Prix teams are based in the UK, and while three out of five of the fastest male drivers in the world are British and the fastest female driver in the world is British, last year the women’s W Series championship was curtailed through a lack of funding. Should the same fate befall the F1 Academy series, which my noble friend the Minister mentioned, would he use his legendary powers of persuasion to convince the motorsport hierarchy that investing in women’s motorsport is a good idea, not just in itself but to maintain the UK’s position as the premier leader in world motorsport?

I certainly agree with my noble friend that it is definitely a worthwhile investment. As recent achievements in football, rugby and tennis have shown, women’s successes in sport not only bring delight to the viewing public but inspire women and girls to take part and to get more active. As a Formula 1 fan myself, I warmly welcome the creation of the F1 Academy and look forward to its first race in Austria later this month. I am also pleased by the news that its races will align next season with Formula 1 race weekends. It is run by Susie Wolff, who is an inspiring role model. At the British Grand Prix in 2014, she became the first woman to take part in a Formula 1 race weekend in 22 years. With a British team taking part, and with British drivers including Chloe Grant, Abbi Pulling and Jessica Edgar hoping to follow hot on the heels of the three-time W Series winner Jamie Chadwick, it is clear that there are many reasons for British fans to be especially excited.

My Lords, is not the problem that initiatives around women’s participation in motorsport begin far too late, when all the best racing drivers start in karting at six or seven years old? Likewise, Ministers need to start promoting more women engineers, beginning with schoolgirls. Could the Government be much more positive towards motorsport, in which, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathcarron, said, the UK is a world leader? As such, the sport is a great ambassador for British high-performance engineering and talent, including championing sustainable fuels which are carbon neutral.

The noble Lord is right to point to the many ways that women can get involved in motorsports, not just as drivers but as team principals, nutritionists, psychologists, talent scouts and in many other roles. Lots of people have obviously been inspired by the recent Netflix series, “Drive to Survive”, which perhaps did not give enough screen time to all the women who take part. There is definitely a role for the sport itself, as well as for government and parliamentarians in exchanges such as this, to draw attention to that and to inspire people to get involved at every level.

My Lords, can the Minister assure us that there will be a slightly more open and coherent attitude towards the full participation of women across non-traditional groups? At the moment, the Government seem to be following behind the sports themselves as opposed to leading. Will they tell us where that guidance will come from and who will be leading it?

My department is in the process of finalising a new government sports strategy. Central to that is tackling the inequalities that exist in activity rates and making all sports more inclusive. We want to see people getting involved. I have pointed to recent successes of the Lionesses and the achievements of the Red Roses and the Great Britain team in tennis. Those British heroes are inspiring women and girls to get involved and we are keen to amplify their successes to inspire others.

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware of Extreme E, the off-road electric series that requires teams to put up one male and one female driver? They use the same equipment, they race the same track, and they both make an equal contribution to the team’s performance. Will the Minister join me in welcoming that as creating new opportunities for female motorsport drivers?

I certainly do, and I know that Extreme E was important to Jamie Chadwick’s career progression before the W Series. I had the pleasure of taking part in the Lords versus Commons full-bore rifle match alongside my noble friend Lady Sugg, which is another sport in which men and women compete alongside each other on equal terms. In some settings, that is of course possible and to be encouraged.

My Lords, as the Minister referred to, while the “Drive to Survive” series has been hugely successful, females in motorsport found that women spoke only for some six minutes and seven seconds of the six and a half hours of the series. They did that as fans or as workers providing food or applying make-up to drivers, which reflected that women are, to make an understatement, very much in the background of the industry. What discussions has the department had with key motorsport stakeholders about addressing the presence of women across the industry? Could the Department for Education perhaps be prevailed upon to do more to ensure that relevant apprenticeships and vocational courses are signposted to everyone, irrespective of their gender?

I certainly agree with the noble Baroness: we want to hear more from the women who are involved at the highest levels in motorsport, inspiring women such as Susie Wolff, and to remind people of the trailblazing women who have paved the way, such as Lella Lombardi and Desiré Wilson—who has a grandstand name after her at Brands Hatch. Officials at the department have spoken to Formula 1 about the creation of the F1 Academy. As I say, we warmly welcome that as a way of inspiring more people, and are working on the cross-government sports strategy, which, of course, involves liaising with the Department for Education to make sure that in schools we are enabling people to get involved, try new sports and go as far as their talent and ambitions take them.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a driver of a fast car, but I suggest that the game is up as far as your Lordships are concerned. The truth of the matter is that statistic after statistic says clearly that women are better drivers than men. Indeed, four times as many reckless driving cases are brought to our courts in relation to men than in relation to women. Does my noble friend agree that the time is now ripe for us to return to the issue of insurance premiums and to stop women being discriminated against with regard to them, reflecting their better driving?

My noble friend’s point is a matter for colleagues in the Department for Transport, but I shall certainly pass it on. I agree with him. Motor sports are ones in which women and men can compete on equal terms; they have done in the past and we would like to see more of that in future. We welcome initiatives to ensure that all women get involved and able to do so.

My Lords, is the Minister confident that the category of women drivers will be confined to those who are born women?

Transgender participation in sport has been looked at by the UK sports councils, which have produced well-researched and well-considered guidance. As the sports councils concluded in that guidance, balancing inclusion, safety and fairness at all times is not possible in every sport setting. When it comes to competitive sport, the Government believe that fairness has to be the primary consideration.

Can my noble friend assure me that the Government will do all that they can, in the light of the fact that women are increasingly successful in the world of racing, to encourage young girls to start practising their driving skills early on go-carts—or girl carts, as I am told they are now known?

The age of Formula 1 drivers shows that this is a young sport, and the track record of those who have been successful in it shows that they start at a very young age. That is why we want to make sure that we break down all possible barriers to participation, one of which is visibility. It is why it is so important to have prominent competitions in which women and girls can participate and inspire others.

Can I encourage my noble friend not to get too involved in trying to run Formula 1 but instead to concentrate on drivers in London—ordinary Londoners who want to drive their kids to school in the morning, who want to drive their teenage sons and daughters to sports fields in the evening and who perhaps want to drive their elderly parents to the doctor or a hospital—by knocking on the head the bonkers plan of the Mayor of London to penalise everybody who wants to drive on any street in London?

My noble friend’s point will, I am sure, have been heard on the Benches opposite, and I am sure that they will pass on to the Mayor of London the strong views in this House and from drivers across the capital about his policies.