Women in Motor Sport

Bernie Ecclestone was widely criticised for his comments that there should be a female Formula One Championship. However, I will show that his idea isn’t as silly as many first thought.

I’m a woman and I love watching women compete in motor sport. Knowing how my brain works and assuming other women are most likely similar to me, I knew their results couldn’t always be attributed to women not getting the best machinery or lack of physical strength compared to men. I had a theory that it was something deeper, primordial even, linked to the very evolution of humans.

I started to do some research and it turns out my theory had some substance. Many studies have shown that women are more risk adverse and not as competitive as men. But few have asked why? And this is what I wanted to find out.

What does the research say?

Male risk taking has been attributed to masculine psychology that has evolved from the competitive demands in primate societies. Evolution has taught males to engage in risky behaviour and be more competitive essentially because this will provide higher reproductive success. It is also less critical for males to survive and help raise their young.

From the female’s perspective it is of greater importance for the mother to survive both for her own reproductive success and for the survival of her offspring in the long-term.

The mechanism humans use to evaluate the riskiness of a certain situation is fear. Females are more fearful than males, when they perceive a risk to their physical self. Males participate in physical, risky forms of sensation seeking more often than females, due to their lack of fear.

Sensation seeking has a high degree of genetic influence, that is, it is inherited (think Max Verstappen). It has been linked to the biochemistry of our brains and an enzyme called Monoamine oxidase (MAO), particularly MAO-B. Those who are high sensation seekers contain low levels of MAO-B in their brains. Women have higher MAO levels than men at all ages explaining why sensation seeking is higher in men than women.

MAO influences risk-taking behaviour indirectly through its enzymatic actions on the monoamine neurotransmitters. MAO-B is tied to the regulation of dopamine which is regarded as the accelerator for risky behaviour. Hence lower MAO-B equals higher dopamine levels and greater risk taking.

Resisting the temptation to take risks requires self-regulation. Men have been found to take more risks, even when it is clearly a bad idea to do so. The opposite is true for women, who take fewer risks, even in when it may have been a good idea to do so.

When researchers looked specifically at driving on the road the gap between risk taking of males and females widened with age. It was found that reckless drivers tended to be high on aggression (a predominantly male trait) and low on anxiety (a predominantly female trait as anxiety is linked with the fear response that was discussed earlier).

Hormonal contraceptives, such as the pill, can also impact on the competitiveness of women. In fact, women on the pill have been found to be less competitive than women not on the pill for the majority of the monthly cycle. It could be assumed that many female athletes would use some form of hormonal contraception, so they are further depressing their natural competitiveness as a consequence.

What do the race results say?

To corroborate these research findings I undertook a comparison of the race results of two female racers and their male teammates, Maria Herrera a Moto3 rider and Danica Patrick a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver.

I compared Maria’s results with her teammate Lorenzo Dalla Porter only for the races which they competed against each other in during 2015. I found that on average Maria was one place behind Lorenzo for both qualifying position and finishing position in the race.

I compared Danica’s results against her three male teammates Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch for the 2015 season. They showed Danica was behind them in qualifying position, finish position and the number of laps led in a race.

The one statistic where Danica was ahead of her male teammates was most laps completed. This may be attributed to the risk-adverse nature of females and hence Danica had fewer accidents early in a race and therefore completed more laps on average.


I believe the research in this area fascinating and as I said in the beginning there may actually be a justification for a female Formula One championship. It would give the Formula One teams the opportunity to raise even more sponsorship money and would no doubt lead to a larger viewing audience. It would provide a greater opportunity for female drivers to achieve their dreams of competing in the pinnacle of motor sport and where Formula One leads, others will follow.

To further test my theory regarding fear and physical exertion experienced by female drivers I think it would be interesting to compare the lap times of test drivers, Susie Wolff and Carmen Jordá, with their respective male teammates in the race simulator.

The race simulator is a safe environment and therefore fear should not be an issue, nor is it as physical as the real thing, so the advantage a male has here would also be forgone. If my theory is correct their lap times should be very similar to those of their male teammates.

I think this is an area of research that requires more investigation and I hope someone will take up the challenge of furthering what I have started here.

2 Responses to Women in Motor Sport

  1. anonymus racer says:

    Why you don’t just join the men in the same league as them? Arent you brave enough?

    • The Dreamer says:

      Me personally? No I’m not, I will freely admit that. But I think that you can’t mess with what evolution has taught us and for women that is we have to carefully consider the risks we take, more so than men.

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