“There were specific times I really needed to stick my fingers out and do things that a woman probably wouldn’t normally do. I had to fight for respect.”
Michelle Gatting sits in a hot pre-race briefing room in Portugal ahead of a sports car race in which she will win her class.
The Dane reflects on her early days in motorsport, when she didn’t have the recognition she has today, and why.
And when she says “fight” she means literally.
“My father taught me that you have to pay them back,” she says, recalling an incident with a Swedish driver who constantly pushed her off the go-kart track.
“In the end, I had to find this guy. Since then, he realized. But I thought: ‘I can’t keep doing this. The speech in the paddock is: “She’s crazy, she’s fighting these people.”
“I was probably one of the most feared riders in the paddock because people were scared of me, but they didn’t push me off the track. That’s how I basically gained respect. “
Gatting, 29, talks about the sexism she experienced trying to make her way into motorsport in the late 2000s. She regularly beat drivers of the caliber of Kevin Magnussen – now in Formula 1 with Haas.
Gatting competes in a male-dominated sport that doesn’t yet seem fully in line with the growing presence of women in the paddock at circuits around the world.
“We had an episode not long ago during a race in Barcelona,” she says. “Struggle [on track] for half an hour. We are not in the same category… a driver who would lose nothing by letting me pass.
“They see our sister car behind them and let the guys pass. As soon as they see my pink car again, they start fighting back. It was pure ego.”
“At the end, I pass and end up walking away. It hurt his ego. You could hear him screaming in his helmet.
“But that happens very little. And to see how far we’ve come with the project – walking around the paddock, we’re highly respected as Iron Dames.”
The challenges faced by female drivers
Gatting is part of the all-female Iron Dames team, which has competed in the World Endurance Championship – including the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans race – since 2018, which has had a significant impact on the sport.
The day after our interview, Gatting won the 4 Hours of Portimao in his Ferrari 488 GT – alongside Belgian Sarah Bovy and 19-year-old French sensation Doriane Pin.
In a treacherous wet and dry race, Pin pulled the car out of the pits on slick tires and completed a faultless stint, keeping the pace even when the rain came and went. The experienced Gatting drove the car home much to the delight of the team.
Born out of Italy’s Iron Lynx project, the Ladies have won pole positions and class wins as all-female riders with the backing of co-boss Deborah Mayer’s investment.
That – along with Britain’s Jamie Chadwick who won a car in the United States this year after winning the women’s W Series for the third time – means things appear to be looking up for women’s participation in motorsport.
But there are still no successful female drivers at the pinnacle of the sport, and it has been almost 50 years since Lella Lombardi last contested a Formula 1 grand prix.
Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that there are no women in climate-conscious Formula E, or in older, more established championships such as the World Rally Championship and the elite class. endurance races – which race at Le Mans – hypercars.
After creating the Iron Dames, Mayer herself took the issue one step further last year, becoming chairwoman of the Commission for Women in Motorsport – run by the sport’s world governing body, the FIA.
“I think the first thing to do is to enlarge the base of the pyramid – we have to develop the vocation of the youngest,” says Mayer.
“I’m sure more women will enter the top categories of motorsport, whether it’s hypercars or single-seaters. But to do that, we need to create the structure that will allow them to shine and grow.
“I think the flow will come naturally – what’s important is to show women that there are possibilities in motorsport.
“It’s a long-term process. It will take time, but it will come.”
Is there a physical problem?
Mayer was speaking at an event in London intended to raise awareness of women’s participation in motorsport and motorcycling.
Like horse racing and sailing, motorsport has long been seen as one of the few sports in which men and women can compete on equal terms.
However, there are questions within motorsport as to whether there are physical barriers, as expressed by top management in Formula 1 lately.
Chadwick thinks this is something that should be looked into. The 24-year-old is preparing to race in the American Indy NXT Series – a feeder class for IndyCars. She will face men in cars that are faster than the W series, and which – along with Formula 2 – don’t have power steering, despite the fact that those in F1 do.
“It’s definitely a physical sport, and in F1 a lot of the car is completely geared towards the driver,” she said. “The consideration of power steering – it was all about a driver, male or female.
“In a series of standard specs, like F2 or F3, everything else has been designed around the average male driver and has no power steering.
“I believe it is possible for women to compete in any championship, but the level of physique required to do so is very high. So if you are a 16 or 17 year old girl who develops later than your male counterparts, I don’t understand how you can be expected to be on the same physical level as some of the younger guys.
“With that there may be considerations to see if we can make it less physical in F2 or F3 for example. If you’re looking at a pyramid and the top level is less physical than the steps below, we can see if we can improve this.
“Even the challenge I have in Indy NXT is going to be pretty big. As a woman 24 years later in my development, I’m confident I can get strong enough, but there’s no way I would have been strong enough three or four years ago.”
Mayer agrees that some things need to be looked at, and she’s only a year away from a tenure she considers a true “passion” project.
“There are many areas that of course could be adapted or addressed,” she says. “It’s a long process.
“When you try to introduce tweaks and changes, it can’t happen all at once – it’s a step-by-step process.”
The Mayer Factor
The FIA is aware of the diversity issue, thanks in part to seven-time F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton speaking about it frequently.
The governing body’s Girls on Track and Rising Stars campaigns are having an impact, with Ferrari integrating women into its driver development programme.
F1 teams have also introduced female ‘development driver’ roles – but this is something Gatting sees as more symbolic.
“F1 specifically needs to be open to the idea that they can have a woman there competing at a good level because they have tried to bring girls into F1 as marketing tools and as ‘drivers’. try, “but in the end he didn’t do much,” she says. “But it was good for the pictures to have a woman next to two F1 drivers.”
Chadwick defends the roles saying his at Williams taught him valuable lessons and gave him the visibility to make himself known.
F1 as a whole says to “improve the system” to promote equality, and has a ‘F1 Academy’ reserved for women from spring. It will involve 15 drivers from five teams competing over 21 rounds, with F1 providing an annual investment of £2m in the series.
And Mayer’s appointment to the FIA, aligned with her investment in a team that is breaking down barriers to women’s participation in sport, is a big one of her “steps”.
She has the power to effect substantial change – not only administratively, but also on the ground: her Iron Lynx project will have a Lamborghini running in the elite hypercar category of endurance racing in 2024, through a Endurance World Championship Season – which includes the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans race – just like several of the the biggest car manufacturers are returning to endurance racing.
For Gatting, things have become progressively easier in the sport she loves as the level of respect accorded to her increases.
Things could get historic, though.
It would be hard for Mayer not to lead female drivers who have had such an impact on motorsport in a new top-level car in 2024. Will this be Gatting’s big chance to make his mark?
“I hope so,” she said. “There were obstacles – including sponsors who just couldn’t understand me driving a car – and they’re still there, but they’re getting smaller. There are women out there who can go up to F1.
“If you asked me four years ago, I wouldn’t realize how far we’ve come in such a short time. We want to inspire and try to encourage more young women to get into the sport.
“In the Iron Dames, we’ve all had our ups and downs as athletes. It’s not easy to get here.”