Treading into dangerous territory this week; women’s chances to prove themselves as top-class racing drivers.
APR 27th 2016
Doug Nye – Can Women Succeed In Racing?
This is not so much because the likes of the extremely talented Cristabel Carlisle (see below) learned the racing ropes in her Mini saloon largely at Goodwood in the early 1960s, but moreso because, 36 years ago this week – back in 1980 – the only girl ever to win a Formula 1 race, also became the only girl ever to win not just one but two – yes two – FIA World Championship of Makes sports car endurance races. All this happened within an incredible five-week span – yet none of the extraordinary girl in question’s exploits seem to have been remembered by those now making such a so-called ‘sexist’ fuss where current Formula 1 – and Olympic cycle racing come to that – is concerned…
The lady racing driver in question was the South African, Desire Wilson. She had come to Europe with her immensely enthusiastic and supportive husband Alan after winning the 1976 South African Formula Ford Championship title together with, like Jody Scheckter six years earlier, the national Driver-to-Europe Award.
By the end of that year she had completed 26 European races on 10 tracks, won twice and had set four lap records. Brands Hatch promoter John Webb then invited her to drive in a Ford Escort ladies’ race. Of course she led throughout and won handsomely. In conversation, Webby mentioned that his Brands Hatch track manager had just left, and offered Alan Wilson the job, while Desire could “do some admin work in the racing school”.
She ended up driving in Sports 2000 – between admin tasks? – before Webby arranged for her to campaign an elderly Ensign-Cosworth in the essentially British Aurora AFX Formula 1 Championship series. Thrown in at the deep end, she soon proved she could swim. For 1979 she drove Melchester Racing’s ex-Patrick Depailler Tyrrell 008, and again did well – earning podium places on real merit.
In the 1980 Aurora F1 series she then drove a Wolf-Cosworth for Teddy Yip’s Theodore Racing team, later recalling how: “At Brands [on April 7, 1980] I was on the outside of the front row, with Emilio de Villota’s Williams on pole. I reckoned if I could lead into Paddock I could win it. The flag fell, I was first into Paddock – and they stopped it, because my team-mate Geoff Lees in the other Wolf had tangled with somebody. Had to do it all again. But it worked the second time too. I didn’t just want to win, I wanted fastest race lap, so on the last lap I just pushed harder, and got that too.”
That made Desi the only female racing driver ever to win a representative Formula 1 race. OK, Aurora racing was struggling at the time, but her rivals included several experienced and rugged racers, such as Guy Edwards…and Giacomo Agostini.
For me, even more impressive is what she then achieved later that memorable month. Our old friend Alain de Cadenet: “For 1977 we built a new de Cadanet sports-prototype with fresh suspension by Len Bailey but using Lola Formula 5000 uprights and hubs. That car went into the wind tunnel sponsored by 'The Motor' magazine and we got 12mph extra for one day in the tunnel. Sold that and for 1978 built a similar style tub but with mods, and a longer wheelbase to improve aerodynamics and high-speed stability. That’s the last de Cadenet car and it did Le Mans in 1978, ’79, ’80 and ’81.
“That old bird [the car not Desire] managed 365km/h on the Mulsanne Straight and totally Harry Flatters through the kink, which wasn’t bad going for a mews project… Within it lay design suggestions from Gordon Murray, Gordon Coppuck, Derek Gardner and Len Bailey. Nice in those days to be able to ’phone up the best men in Formula 1 and get a few bright ideas…
“In 1979 the car finished second in the Silverstone 6-Hours. We could have won it if my kids hadn’t nicked the brake pads to play with when we needed them.
“Then in 1980 I was asked by John Webb if I would consider using one of their instructors at Brands Hatch to co-drive with me in the BOAC 1000Kms race. I’d get extra starting money which was much needed (of course). I duly turned up at Brands Hatch and was introduced to the ‘instructor’, who turned out to be a woman - Desire. ‘Errr .... ’scuse me’ I thought, but then what the hell, if Webby says she’s the best lady driver he’s ever seen, that was good enough for me. When the race was stopped after a bad crash we were lying third…
“I then thought we might do the Monza 6-hours World Championship round with the remaining hours on the motor [a 3-litre Cosworth-Ford DFV V8]. Well, I did the first half or so and handed over to Desire with a reasonable lead which she started stretching. Within an hour of the end rain started pouring down like stair-rods. Everybody else pitted for deep-river wet tyres but we left Desi out as, impossibly, she was keeping up the pace on slicks. The factory cars all thundered off to catch her and were obviously quicker on wets. On the last lap they’re obviously going to pass her and we're going to get sixth, if we’re lucky.
“But how she drove that last lap, obviously in the company of the Gods on her way to Mount Olympus etc, was fantastic!
“Afterwards it was claimed as a masterful management decision to leave her out there in the ghastly conditions. We took the kudos for that. The truth was different, of course. We didn't have any wet-weather tyres to put on anyway!
“It was the first time a woman had won an FIA World Championship race and (I think) the first time a driver had won one in a car built by and named after himself.
“Then two weeks later at the Silverstone 6-Hours we did the same thing. I started, handed over etc, and off she went like a rocket, only to cock-up the chicane at Woodcote due to fading brakes, and have to take the escape road. The Stewards should have docked her just a few seconds but they made it a whole lap penalty instead. Regardless, she then drove absolutely like a woman possessed and we won that race too. She clawed back a whole lap by dint of sheer pace and determination to be the best that day – quite remarkable...”
Five weeks later, Mrs Wilson was at Le Mans with Alain and new third driver Francois Migault and the tiny de Cadenet crew. But as she would recall: “In qualifying, after endless rain, it started to dry out. Alain set a time, François set a time, and in the closing minutes I went out, did a decent time on my second lap – and then had a big accident on my third. At the exit of the Porsche curves, on slicks, I caught a wet spot and spun. As I hit the barrier the wooden support broke and it just fell over, and launched me. The car landed on its back and I was soaked in fuel. I was conscious and unhurt, but when you’re upside down you don’t always think clearly. I was trying to turn off the ignition, thinking, does the switch go up or down? There wasn’t a mark on me, and the car was mended for the race, but the organisers ‘lost’ the decent time I’d done on my second lap. They said I hadn’t qualified, and Alain and François did the race without me.”
And the boys in their rebuilt car – which had to have all four corners replaced – finished seventh without her – but Desire Wilson had certainly made her mark – as a quick scan of the record books alone confirms.
I have come in for some stick over the “will a girl ever become the standard-setter in Formula 1” debate, because I have absolutely no doubt that the men in F1 would never let that happen. Under the G-loadings of modern Grand Prix racing I think simple physiology mitigates against a female ever achieving such primacy – in just the same way that female sprinters don’t run against males, female shot putters don’t compete against males, and as for female tennis players – ugh – over-rewarded perishing ‘Woolly Ball’...etc, etc.
As far as I’m concerned this isn’t at all ‘sexist’ (as the modern-invention term might classify it), it’s simply ‘realist’.
But I have never denied my much-loved daughter her dreams, and I still love to see exceptional talent prevail…as in Desi Wilson’s case it plainly did, 36 long years ago. So don’t overlook her achievements. Girl drivers can plainly cut it – but for one to become THE standard-setting Grand Prix racing driver of her time against male opposition? ’Nuff said. I suspect I’m in enough trouble already…
Images courtesy of The GP Library
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