Desiré Wilson: First to Win at Formula 1

In August of 2018, Jamie Chadwick made history at Brands Hatch when she became the first female to win a British Formula 3 race. As the news broke on various social media platforms, those of us who have studied female racers history were enthusiastic. There is a great history of Brands Hatch. Back in 1980 a South African female racer by the name of Desiré Wilson, made history by becoming the first woman to win a Formula One race. Desiré took home the Evening News Trophy after winning the second round of the 1980 British Formula One Championship at Brands Hatch. This isn’t the only reason you should know Desiré’s name, she is also the only woman to be licensed in both CART and INDYCAR, as well as hold an FIA Super license.

Everything starts approximately thirteen years prior to Desiré’s winning race. In 1967, at the age of twelve, she came in second place at the South African Nationals while racing midgets. Desiré spent the next five years working up the system in South Africa before moving into Formula Vee (as in Volkswagen!) in 1972. She advanced into the South African Formula Ford series and won the championship in 1975. After these wins, Desiré moved on to the European circuit and the series ladder towards Formula One.

She started in the Formula Ford series in Europe. One year after starting in the European circuit she drove a Formula One car and signed to drive in the British Formula One championship. While chasing the elusive win, in 1979 Desiré made history. She became the first woman to lead a Formula One race during the Belgium Grand Prix ad Zolder (don’t ever ask me to spell and of the straightaways or corner names), and held the fastest lap in that race. A racing incident caused her to come away third in that race. That same year she claimed three more third-place finishes at Oulton Park, Brands Hatch, and Thruxton.

1979 was the preparation year for 1980 where Desiré came out swinging. That year she won the 1980 British Formula One race at Brands Hatch. It was a coast-to-coast win where she took pole and took first. While she could have just rested on the history of being the first woman to win a Formula One race, she continued on to dominate endurance races. She and her racing partner won at the Silverstone 6 Hours and the Monza 1000km and took home third at the Brands Hatch 1000km. The back half of 1980 led to some unfortunate luck for Desiré: in preparation for the British Grand Prix the car had changed and she did not have the experience in the new car to field a good entry. In 1981 the political situation both within Formula One and South Africa led to a lot of starts and stops for potential sponsorship.

Moving over to the world of CART and INDYCAR. Desiré started her career in this series in 1982. She attempted to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 that year. Though she set the fastest qualifying lap for a female racer (191.042 mph) that year, she failed to qualify due to problems with the car and problems outside of her control (May of 1982 was not kind to the Speedway). She continued in INDYCAR and CART for a few years, racing in eight races in total. The 1982 Grand Prix of Cleveland providing her best finish – tenth place. She attempted the Indianapolis 500 two more times but never qualified for the big show.

Desiré has tried her hand multiple times at famous endurance races after her stint at INDYCAR/CART including the Daytona 24 and 12 Hours of Sebring. She attempted Le Mans three different times, and in 1983 finished the race in 7th. She also attempted to win the race in 1991 with an all-female team with Lyn St. James and Cathy Muller but the team only went 74 laps before retiring due to a crash.

It has been interesting to review Desiré career. There are a lot of firsts for her that I believe sometimes are overlooked. She suffered some great highs and some great lows. Looking at Formula 1, she is just one of five women to ever compete in the series: something that I hope is changing. She’s also only one of a handful of women to race in CART and INDYCAR. Even more astounding: she’s the only woman to have a CART and INDYCAR license and hold an FIA Super license. She has retired from racing, but this quote sums up her career:

I truly believe a woman, mentally, is much stronger than a man because we’re multi-taskers we have to put up with so much – I don’t want to say adversity because guys also put up with adversity – but you’ve got so much to deal with in your life. And also you’re always this underdog, so you’re always fighting. Mentally, we can be incredibly strong.

Photo by Finding Dan | Dan Grinwis on Unsplash