/ 21 February 2020

Desiré Wilson: Fast but forgotten

Desiré Wilson
Pride and prejudice: South African racing driver Desiré Wilson is the only woman ever to have won a Formula 1 race. She, just like other women after her, battled to secure the vast sponsorships needed in the ‘rich man’s sport’. (Graham Morris/ Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

For 40 years Desiré Wilson has carried an unbroken record with her: she remains the only woman to ever win a Formula 1 race.

Of course, when she lined up on the Brands Hatch raceway in Kent, England, she gave no thought to the effect that day in 1980 would have on history. Her entire focus was on that first corner.

After months of battling for a sponsor she had been given a shot by real estate magnate Teddy Yip to race a three-year-old Wolf WR4 in the British Formula One Championship. Despite blowing its engine just before the finish line in qualifying, she still managed to set the second fastest time, meaning she’d be starting from the front row. Yet, with the more modern Williams FW07 in pole position, it was imperative she got out of the first bend ahead.

She would do it twice — a restart was forced after her teammate caused a collision.

“I never looked back in the race,” Wilson recalls. “It’s one of those things, it’s hard to explain … It happens once in a lifetime. You say to yourself: ‘If I get into this corner first and lead the race I’m going to win.’”

By the time she saw the checkered flag Wilson had built a 15-second lead and crossed the line comfortably in first.

Brands Hatch would name a stand after her in recognition of her seminal achievement — an honour she shares alongside greats such as Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren.

“In my era, there were so few women that were racing at my level,” she says of the uniqueness of her victory. “You never really thought about yourself as: ‘I’m a woman in this race.’ You don’t think of yourself as something else. I was always the underdog because I never had funding and I was always given these cars to drive without any practice — I was always thrown in the deep end. For me it was always a concentration of what I was doing in this race car.”

Only 26 at the time, Wilson would have placed few limits on where her success might take her. Yet, despite winning a further two prestigious world championship races in 1980, she would fail to grab a permanent place on the Formula 1 circuit — a task she views as impossible without the appropriate support.

Wilson speaks with great regret about the lack of backing she received at the time. Motorsport is, and always has been, a rich man’s game. Without the teams, sponsors and funders willing to take a chance on you, there’s no chance of getting behind the wheel of a serious racing car.

Undoubtedly, scepticism about her abilities as a woman would have cost her patronage at the highest level. But there was another classification, which perhaps held her back even further: she was a South African. For as much as Wilson is a precedent in history, she also felt the brunt of its circumstance.

In 1977, a few years before her F1 win, the Commonwealth would sign the Gleneagles Agreement — a document that formalised an anti-apartheid sentiment and discouraged any sporting participation with South Africa. The country’s sportsmen and women were no longer welcome on the global stage. The state’s darling Springboks scavenged a match where they could but, for all intents and purposes, international doors remained closed to anyone looking to compete.

“It was extremely difficult,” the Brakpan native says. “When I went to race in New Zealand I had protests against me by a group called Halt All Racist Tours (H.A.R.T). In the newspapers — and I still have all the clippings — they’d say how can you allow a South African to race when all the teams are banned? Fortunately the prime minister turned around and said: ‘She’s racing on a British licence, she can drive.’ And that was it.”

The sad irony from Wilson’s perspective was that no one from South Africa — including the government — was interested in backing her either.

And, even when she was offered opportunities she often found them blocked. Argentina and Brazil both flat-out refused her a visa to race. Japan would do the same and Wilson would, like in New Zealand, have to find a loophole. She obtained refugee status from the United States and a promise that it would welcome her back no matter what (she and her husband would also permanently emigrate to the US in 1983).

The complexity of Wilson’s place in the past extends to the present: how exactly do we characterise her legacy? Here is a South African woman who did something extraordinary, but it was achieved when the Oranje, Blanje, Blou flew highest.

Such is the horror of apartheid that almost nothing or no one from that time, regardless of political disposition, can be discussed without acknowledging its spectre.

South African racing driver Desire Wilson with her new car, a Melchester Tyrell 008, and a lion cub, UK, 19th February 1979. (Photo by Graham Morris/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I ask Wilson whether, in retrospect, she can appreciate the necessity of the boycott movement, even if it did stifle her own career: “Yes. You know the world has changed so much. When I lived in South Africa there was very little television, I think we had just started getting black and white TV. Everything was censored. So you never really saw what was going on. We were raised a certain way and it wasn’t until I went to Europe and said: ‘Wait, hold on, the world’s different here!’”

Regardless of political context, it would have been hoped at the time that Wilson’s standout win in the F1 would have paved the road for more women to enter the series. That hasn’t happened. A total of five women have entered a grand prix, only two of whom have qualified and started.

“The biggest problem is there’s never really enough funding for a woman to complete all the steps,” Wilson says. “It’s opportunity, what team you’re in, the funding you have and so forth. I was expecting someone to come up when I saw one or two drivers come up that had a fair amount of talent, but they never quite got to where they needed to go.”

Any racer who aspires to race in a premier F1 competition must first obtain a super licence. This is a long process that begins at Formula 4 and continues through the ranks. The catch is that every step of the way requires a significant investment. Only elite drivers are offered a spot without having to buy their way in — the reality is that modern racers often pay upwards of $15-million to secure their spot as a secondary driver on an F1 team.

The women-only W-Series was introduced last year in an attempt to freshen up that stale status quo. Competitors aren’t expected to pay anything and are chosen each year based on merit.

There’s been no shortage of debate about this six-race championship. Critics have slammed it for segregating a sport that has historically never been separated into gender classes. They say it naturally invalidates the success of anyone taking part because by default this is a small pool of challengers.

Wilson has a different view:“For the first time in history, women are actually given financial assistance,” she says. “The top three in that series are very, very good. If they were in Formula 3 against the men, they’d probably be running in the top five or six at least. Fortunately no one has to pay for this series — it’s paid for by a sponsor. Eighteen women get this opportunity every year and they choose women from all over the world. So I think this series will help a lot of women. The problem always goes back to finance. The cost of motor racing these days is astronomical.”

The absurd amounts needed to race introduce a frustrating paradox into motor racing. A car is the great equaliser of genetic difference. It’s why there’s no logical argument to be made for separating men and women — it’s an immaculately level playing field. Getting to that equal ground in the first place, however, is where the true bias lies.

Alongside her F1 win, Wilson holds two endurance race wins as her greatest accomplishments: the Monza 1000km and the 6 Hours of Silverstone.

Tagging into those races after three hours, the brake pads would soon erode to the point where the pedal would have to touch the floor to produce any effect.

There were no shift paddles back then so every exhausting gear change had to be perfectly timed; a feat that would have to be repeated hundreds of times with one hand on the steering wheel while approaching a corner at 320km/h.

At Monza it began to rain, giving Wilson the choice of changing her slicks or risking her life to finish first.

She chose to win.

No matter how deep money, politics or gender dig into the sport, there is no true substitute for grit.