Formula 1 (F1) racing has been popular since its inception more than half a century ago, with millions of fans tuning in around the world to watch the races each year. But in recent years, we've seen a new iteration of F1 mega fandom. Between TikToks and Tumblr fan pages worshipping handsome drivers and podcasts analysing the mechanics of cars or the politics of the sport, women are driving a newfound appreciation of the motorsport.
In November last year, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali said that approximately 40% of global F1 fans are now female, up 8% from 2017. Closer to home, a 2023 study commissioned by beverage brand Heineken revealed that 65% of new Australian F1 fans are female.
The popularity of Netflix's Formula 1: Drive To Survive — a doco-series taking viewers behind the scenes of F1 and the Grand Prix circuit — and the surge of women's interest in the sport, is no coincidence.
Sydney-based Josephine Rozenberg-Clarke says she never understood people's fascination with Formula 1, until she began watching Drive To Survive in 2021 while recovering from COVID-19 at home. As she binged each season that documented everything from team principals poaching drivers to sponsorship dilemmas and drivers' backstories, she quickly learnt there was more to the sport than she had anticipated.
"I didn't realise that it isn't just cars driving around a racetrack," says Rozenberg-Clarke. "It's all about the politics of it and people swapping teams.
"I personally like Christian Horner — he's the greatest villain on TV," she laughs, referring to the Team Principal of the Red Bull F1 team, who's very opinionated on the Netflix show.
Rosanna Tennant is a Network 10 F1 reporter who became the first woman to call a F1 race start in 2021. She says that Drive To Survive has definitely contributed to more female fans, but underscores that women's appreciation for the sport shouldn't be minimised to mere fangirling over handsome men on a Netflix show.
"In the last few years, there was a reaction to women suddenly being interested in Formula 1, and there was a simplistic view of 'Oh, they're just there because they think the drivers are good looking or they fancy a certain driver," Tennant says.
"But actually they're incredibly discerning. Females are incredibly loyal and they want to do their research before they favour one driver over the other.
"There's lots to consume when it comes to Formula 1. It isn't just cars going around in a circle, which I think a lot of people think it is. There's lots of technical information and there's politics, which of course we've seen through Drive To Survive, and that's what perhaps interests females as much as males."
The politics and strategy behind the sport is the drawcard for Melissa Matheson, who grew up with no interest in Formula 1, despite being surrounded by people who were hooked on it. But after hearing one of her colleagues raving about Drive To Survive, she binged four seasons in the week leading up to the 2022 Australian Grand Prix, which then tempted her to watch the actual live race when it happened a few days later.
"I got addicted that quickly," Matheson admits. "The percentage of good-looking men in that sport is off the charts," she laughs, but emphasises that being a "big fan of sports psychology" is what made her truly connect with the sport.
"Yes, the drama played out [on screen], but I really liked the tactics," she explains.
"I really got into the mentality of the team principals and what it takes to pull a team together, what it takes to deal with big egos, and how do you treat the two drivers in your team fairly - i.e. who gets the right to overtake the other drivers on the track?"
Formula 1 is a multi-million dollar business, and its collab with Netflix has made the drivers become accessible celebrities and lucrative brand spokespeople, appealing to younger audiences — particularly women.
"I'm quite interested in the long-term thought of 'What happens once any athlete is no longer in the sport?' says Matheson. She shares that she's ended up going down rabbit holes of looking into the products the drivers are endorsing.
"I've bought [Australian driver] Daniel Ricciardo's wine and [Finnish driver] Valtteri Bottas' coffee. I've gone full fangirl."
It may come as a surprise that there's a boost in female viewership of a sport that doesn't currently include any women on the F1 grid. There have only been two female drivers in Formula 1 history: Maria Teresa de Filippis in 1958 and Lella Lombardi in 1975 and 1976.
Both Rozenberg-Clarke and Matheson share their desire for a woman to hit the circuit, and Tennant notes the industry's efforts to try and make this happen through the F1 Academy, a new all-female championship launching in 2023 by Formula 1, which replaces the previous W Series.
"F1 Academy will kick off at the end of April this year in Austria, and there are going to be seven events but with 21 races, so that's three races each weekend, and also a season finale alongside Formula 1 weekend," Tennant says.
"It shows that Formula 1 is serious about trying to have a female driver on the grid in the coming years. I don't think that's going to be next year," she adds. "Stefano Domenicali, the head of F1 has said that will be quite a few years before we see that, but at least we're putting the steps in place so that someone will make their way through the junior categories and Formula 1 and earn their place.
"Whereas I think a lot of people were thinking that perhaps W series was just going to put a woman in the grid and they didn't deserve to be there. At least now we have a proper pathway for these young females to compete and to find their way up to the top."
Speaking of unfair expectations and stigmas against women in the sport, Tennant says these challenges are also faced by female engineers, mechanics and even reporters.
When she became the first female commentator to call an F1 race start in 2021, she felt extra pressure because she's a woman.
"I was panicking because I just thought, 'Oh my gosh, if I do this badly, it's because I'm a woman," she recalls. "But if a man got it wrong when they were calling it, it would just be because they didn't know what they're talking about. It does sort of play on your mind a little bit that people will go, 'Oh it's because she's a woman'.
"I also still get a few comments being like, 'She's just there to make up the numbers and they've had to get her because she's a woman and it's about diversity and inclusion'. Sometimes you're like, 'Oh please, this is my 11th season. I do know about this sport. I've interviewed the drivers and I've done my research."
This year, the Australian Grand Prix and sponsor Mercedez-Benz have dropped the traditional Ladies Day after 13 years, recognising that most women aren't interested in just frocking up and arriving on the arms of their boyfriends, brothers or dads. They're interested in the intricacies of the sport, cars and drivers.
"A lot of the guests who followed Formula 1 were male and their partners also wanted to attend but were less interested in what was happening on track," Jerry Stamoulis, head of brand engagement for Mercedes-Benz, told The Age.
"Fast forward to 2022 and the number of women who wanted to attend Ladies Day dropped. It was a real surprise to us. It was quite clear that a lot of our female guests wanted to see Formula 1 on track and Thursday [Ladies Day] didn’t offer that."
Rozenberg-Clarke welcomes the change. "It's one of those sports that has a growing female fan base, and it's so reductive to think that we're just there to be cute," she says. "People are there in Ferrari T-shirts and hats and getting super invested."
On the ground at Albert Park this year will be a FIA Girls on Track career development and mentoring event, where 20 young women will receive behind the scenes tours of the Formula 1 paddock area and mentoring from Australian Girls on Track ambassadors such as engineers and auto-writers. The aim of the initiative is to introduce aspiring young women to career opportunities within the motorsport industry, such as engineers, mechanics or strategist roles.
Rozenberg-Clarke has her tickets at the ready for this weekend's grand prix and is jetting down to Melbourne from Sydney a few days early, to enjoy the festivities before the final race on Sunday.
"I'm just excited and I've heard it's so fun down there," she says. "I've got grandstand tickets, ground passes, and I've got access (because I'm a journalist) to a box. It's three different days and three different experiences, so I'm really looking forward to it."
It's a lot of investment of time and money for someone who knew next to nothing about the sport just two years ago, but also a testament to the Drive To Survive effect and the boom in female fans — who are only just getting their engines started.
Aussies can catch all of the action from the Australian Grand Prix from Friday March 31 and across the weekend on Network 10 and 10 Play.