How Alpine wants to bring more women into F1

The Alpine Formula 1 team’s Race(H)er programme is the latest of several laudable efforts to bring more women into motor racing.

Abbi Pulling, Alpine Film day

While the W Series, the FIA Girls on Track initiative and the new More Than Equal campaign backed by David Coulthard are focused on promoting female racing drivers to the upper rungs of the sport, Alpine’s push also extends to engineering and other disciplines within the organisation.

As an F1 team with decent funding and the support of a road car manufacturer, Alpine has the resources to back its promise to change attitudes and promote female talent.

Even before the Race(H)er announcement last month, the team has made steps on the driver side. In March it was announced that W Series driver Abbi Pulling would join the Affiliate programme of the Alpine Academy. A couple of weeks later Pulling had to the chance to experience the E20 F1 car in a street demo run in Saudi Arabia, as did local Aseel Al Hamad, a member of the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission.

Then in May, Alpine announced that Alice Powell was coming on board as talent identification and development mentor for the Academy and the Affiliate programmes, with a special responsibility for mentoring Pulling as well as searching for new female talent.

Those initial steps have now fallen into place as part of a much bigger initiative in the form of Rac(H)er.

“The programme was born at the same time as we had the change to the Alpine brand,” says Alpine Cars vice-president of human resources Claire Mesnier.

“And the idea was, if we want to be world champions, we need to have the best driver in the best car possible.

“And obviously today we are not exploring the whole pool of talent. We are depriving ourselves of half of humanity, because we are not looking enough at women. So that was the starting point of this programme. And that's why it concerns also engineering talents, and also racing talents.

“And while we were developing this programme, we didn't stop any other initiatives, such as what we are doing in W Series with Abbi and Alice.”

Abbi Pulling, Aseel Al Hamad

Abbi Pulling, Aseel Al Hamad

Photo by: Alpine

As far as drivers are concerned the main challenge is always the small percentage of girls competing at karting level. Alpine team principal Otmar Szafnauer says that has to change, and the sport has to encourage more girls to want to take up racing.

"At a young age when you choose do I want to go karting, or do I want to go figure skating, or do I want to play volleyball? Not enough of them say I want to go karting," says Szafnauer. "And therefore the pool that we're choosing from is small. And if you can get that pool bigger, you're going to get better talent.

"We don't have a role model. So girls cannot identify with someone. And so they don't see that it's possible. One part of the programme is to have role models, to show it's possible.

"The good thing about the W Series is if girls can't look at a role model on track racing, and then you're less interested, W Series does that. There are girls on track racing."

An intriguing aspect of the Alpine project is that the company intends to take a scientific approach and find out if there are genuine differences between men and women that can have an impact, negative or positive, on their ultimate potential to become top racing drivers.

There are plenty of theories, for example that body strength plays a role in junior categories where there is no power steering.

"That's a big pillar of the programme," says Mesnier. "Even for male drivers, they are all different, they are not the same size, weight or capability. It's sure we have physical, cognitive and emotional issues to deal with. And there are differences between men and women.

"For example, we already know and with data and scientific facts, that for example, women are better for enduring pain. But in terms of reaction, it's slower. I guess that's on every side of physical and cognitive, emotional, there are differences.

"At the end, globally, because it's a very complex job to be an F1 driver, there are a lot of different things to master. Frankly speaking, at some point, I don't know if it will counterbalance.

"We are working with the Brain Institute in Paris on the cognitive side. On the emotional side, we have a PhD joining us, he will work on this emotional aspect. And on the physical side we're working with a doctor of physiotherapy.

"I'm sure Esteban [Ocon] and Fernando [Alonso] will help us and participate in different tests, also Abbi and Alice. We really need to be very fact-based on that to try to debunk all the preconceptions and stereotypes we have, because we have a lot of ideas.

"But I'm not sure even for the men today that we have a lot of data about the drivers. We have about the cars, but about the drivers, who is the best driver in the paddock, with science and physical elements?"

Fernando Alonso, Alpine A522, Esteban Ocon, Alpine A522

Fernando Alonso, Alpine A522, Esteban Ocon, Alpine A522

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Having identified young talents Alpine will try to bring them through the ranks from karting.

"That's the second pillar of the programme," says Mesnier. "It’s the same for boys and girls, an eight-year programme, entering all of them in the same pipeline, let's say, with specific training.

"The programme is starting with scouting girls in a few weeks. And the idea is to have four to five girls entering the eight-year programme. And it's a rolling process. It's not just one shot, and let's wait until eight years and see who is going out of the pipeline.

"We will develop the programme with the same company that did the Lando Norris programme. So it's the same kind of philosophy. And of course, at every step of the way we will need to adjust, adapt, decide if we go on."

Alpine Cars boss Laurent Rossi believes that young talent will shine through.

"It's filling the pipeline from the ground up," he says of the driver programme. "Like from karting, already trying to find someone who's good enough to beat all of the boys in the competition, and then push them up as much as we can and as fast as we can through the ladders.

"By the end of this year, we should have already identified one or two talents that we want to support, and then make sure that we have a plan of action for the next four or five years, where they move their way up into the categories."

Finding a female F1 driver is clearly going to be a long-term process. Increasing the number of women on the staff at Enstone from the current figure of 10% is a shorter-term target.

"I think from an Alpine F1 perspective, you can achieve some things very quickly," says Szafnauer. "And that is when we go recruiting to universities, and we usually go to top universities, we have to make sure that we do a really good job to get the top female engineering graduates to be interested in Alpine, and to be interested in F1 as well.

"If we get to talk to more of them, then we get to pick the crop of the engineering graduates. Whereas before, we had just those that are interested in motor racing, and we want to expand that, to make sure that we have more females that understand that there is a great career to be had within motor racing, and then within Alpine.

Esteban Ocon, Alpine A522, makes a pitstop

Esteban Ocon, Alpine A522, makes a pitstop

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

"Getting more female interns in to experience F1, that doesn't mean that after they do a year of internship that they go back to their last year of engineering at university and automatically say I want to work in F1.

"But if they experience it and like it, then there's more likelihood that they'll say, ‘Hey, let me go pursue a career in motorsport’. And once we start expanding that, we're going to be better off, and what you'll see is that our ratio of men to women within the F1 team will be not as lopsided. We're 90/10 now."

One of the challenges is that in the UK only 23% of engineering graduates are female, which reduces the size of the pool of talent available.

One of the aims of Rac(H)er is to send ambassadors into schools to encourage more girls to follow STEM subjects.

"I think what we need to do is a couple of things," says Szafnauer. "From a high school age, get them interested so that 23% can be 30%. And then of those 30, say, get them interested in a career in motorsport, and then you'll be able to pick the best.

"You’ve got to remember that we want the F1 team to be better. So it will be a meritocracy. But for us then to say, okay, we're going to go look at graduates, and only two of them are girls, it's hard. So what we want to do, instead of having those two girls, is have 20."

Rossi insists that Alpine is fully committed to the goals of Rac(H)er, but he admits that it achieving them will be a challenge.

"We're just one little village," says the Frenchman. "So we do our best in our area, we hope that we can trigger something in the system. But the number of [female karting] licences is always going to be small.

"I'd rather look at the number of women to men in my own stable of talent. That's how we look at it. And simply put really, it's just a matter of having twice the amount of people that we can tap into. At the moment, it's just half of the of the world, only male drivers.

Laurent Rossi, CEO, Alpine F1, in the Press Conference

Laurent Rossi, CEO, Alpine F1, in the Press Conference

Photo by: FIA Pool

"Here we're talking only about F1, but my own perspective is about all jobs, not just driving, because it's a bit the tip of the iceberg, the visible piece. I'm more concerned about the rest, like women in engineering and women in all the other roles within the Alpine team.

"So the idea is, we're going to go out there, find people that are equally as smart, if not more, with cognitive capabilities that are superior to the ones that are already in their positions. Because there's no reason why a woman cannot do better.

"We won't change society, let's be honest. But we can change our little bubble, our surroundings, make it like an environment that is more conducive to expressing talents.

"Really, it's a matter of getting twice the amount of people available. And in the process, righting a wrong. But this is not the goal, because we're not here with like a flag or anything."

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