Can Lia Block be the first U.S. woman driver in F1?

JAMIE CHADWICK IS celebrating on stage at the Miami Grand Prix, air-strumming a pink electric guitar trophy. It’s May 2022, and she has just won the second of two races to open the third season of the W Series, the all-woman single-seater championship.

Chadwick has been dominant. She led every lap of this race from pole and took the checkered flag almost three seconds ahead of second place. The British driver now has a massive 24-point lead over the field, but she isn’t just competing for her third straight W Series title. Her goal is to race in the most prestigious circuit in open-wheel racing, and her performances in the W Series, as well as her title in the British GT Championship, have led her to be anointed the driver most likely to end the nearly-50-year drought of women racing in Formula One. After all, she’s the only driver not named Max Verstappen to win on a F1 weekend in South Florida.

“It’s amazing to be in the position where my name is associated with something like Formula One,” Chadwick says. “I use it as motivation.”

But two years later, as Chadwick returns to the Miami Grand Prix this weekend, the future in F1 that seemed so likely when she was on that stage has yet to materialize. Chadwick, who turns 26 in a few weeks, is still pursuing her goals, but she knows the clock is ticking. So this weekend, she’s focused on guiding one of the next young drivers trying to break through in an all-woman F1 development series.

“If it’s not me, I hope there’s someone else knocking on the door,” Chadwick says.

In Miami, Chadwick will be an official adviser to 17-year-old American Lia Block, guiding her through her first season racing for Williams in the F1 Academy. Chadwick wants Block to have everything she didn’t have at the same stage in her career, including a mentor who understands what she’s going through. No matter where Chadwick finishes behind the wheel this season in IndyCar’s top feeder series, Indy NXT — or where her career takes her next — she can be responsible for helping another young driver achieve her dreams.

IT’S BEEN SO many years since a woman lined up for a Formula One race, none of those women are alive to talk about it. Maria Teresa de Filippis, who qualified for the grid three times in the 1950s, died in 2016. Lella Lombardi, the last woman to qualify for an F1 race and the only woman to score points in the series, died in 1992 at the age of 50.

Since Lombardi’s last race in 1976, various F1 teams have signed women as development and test drivers, but no woman has qualified for a Formula One race. In that time, nine women have raced in the Indianapolis 500, some as many as nine times. In 2008, Danica Patrick, who also competed over seven seasons in NASCAR, won an IndyCar race in Japan.

IndyCars are arguably more physically demanding to drive than F1 cars because they lack power steering and are designed for men’s bodies. So, what’s the deal? Why has nearly a half-century passed since a woman competed in F1?

For starters, it’s a numbers game. IndyCar fields are fluid, so any number of teams can attempt to qualify. At the Indy 500, for example, 33 cars qualify into the race but there is no limit on how many can try. Formula One races feature the same 10 teams and 20 drivers, making it the hardest series to break into in the world.

Despite efforts to diversify the field, cultural issues continue to plague F1. Over the past few months, the sport’s governing body has received considerable criticism for its handling of allegations of inappropriate behavior made by a woman employee against longtime Red Bull Racing CEO and team principal Christian Horner. In March, F1 Academy managing director Susie Wolff, a former driver and team principal and the most visible woman in the sport, filed a criminal complaint against the FIA in France regarding statements Formula One’s governing body made in December alleging she shared confidential information with her husband, Mercedes team CEO Toto Wolff.

“I feel more than ever it is important to stand up, call out improper behavior and make sure people are held to account,” Wolff wrote in an Instagram post after filing the complaint. “Whilst some may think silence absolves them from responsibility — it does not.”

There’s also a deficit of women at the grassroots level. On any given weekend at a local karting track, where most open-wheel drivers get their start, around 13% of participants are girls, according to More Than Equal, a not-for-profit aimed at finding the first woman F1 champion. That number shrinks as drivers move up the ranks.

“The talent pool of women is too small,” says Chadwick, who launched an all-girls karting championship in the U.K. this year and plans to mentor its competitors. “It’s also about changing perceptions of women in the sport. We aren’t necessarily seen as capable racing drivers because there haven’t been many women at the highest level.”

For all prospective F1 drivers, there is a clearly defined route after karting: Impress in the new F1 Academy and other regional F4 series before advancing to Formula 3 and Formula 2. But while the path is linear, success does not guarantee a move up to the next series.

F1 teams also seem fearful of giving the next opportunity to the wrong woman — or to the right woman at the wrong time — because her first year could determine the future of every woman driver. F1 is not a patient sport.

“The further on I’ve gone, and especially more recently, there’s more social pressure to do well,” Chadwick says. “I want to win championships. And if I do well, then I want to inspire as many young girls to get into the sport as possible. But if I don’t do well, that shouldn’t reflect on every woman who’s trying to get into the sport.”

That’s why the F1 Academy, launched in 2023 and featuring 15 drivers competing in seven races on Grand Prix weekends, could prove crucial. Although the W Series — which operated from 2019 to 2022 — succeeded in promoting women drivers and fostering an audience for a women’s open-wheel series, it folded in the middle of its third season because of its unsustainable financial model. It also operated outside of F1 and had no clear path for progression.

The F1 Academy, on the other hand, is funded by the FIA, has F1’s support and promises to promote successful drivers up the Formula series ladder. Chadwick won all three seasons of the W Series, yet never made enough money to secure a seat alongside the men in F3 or F2. Inaugural F1 Academy champion Marta Garcia Lopez secured a fully funded ride with Prema in the 2024 Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine within days of winning the 2023 title. Britain’s Abbi Pulling, who is in her second year in the F1 Academy and leads the 2024 standings, envisions doing the same.

“Down the line, we don’t want to need separate championships,” Chadwick says. “We want to have men and women racing at the highest level together. But what the W Series did, and the F1 Academy will do, is shine a spotlight on women in the sport, increase the fan base, and create an audience and role models who wouldn’t otherwise be there.”

“I HAVE BRACES!” Block says. “I look so tiny. This feels so long ago.”

Block is seated in front of a computer at Williams Racing headquarters just outside of Oxford, England. It’s late January, a few days after she arrived in the U.K. to begin training with the team and she’s watching a video of her dad, former DC Shoes co-founder, rally driver and Gymkhana creator Ken Block, teaching her to do doughnuts in his 1978 Ford Escort, three days after he taught her to drive stick.

Block is 13 in the video and is wearing a black “Hoonigan” T-shirt, jeans and yes, braces. Her hands never leave her back pockets and her eyes dart from the camera to the ground. She seems decades younger than the confident, well-spoken 17-year-old she is today.

“This is the first time I was in front of a camera,” Block says, and pauses the video. She grimaces and covers her face. “It was really bad. I didn’t know what to say.” In truth, she wasn’t so bad back then. It’s just that today, Block is a natural in front of a camera or a crowd, a skill she learned from the best.

Her dad, who was killed in a snowmobile accident last January at age 55, revolutionized the way drivers market themselves by demonstrating how they could utilize their personalities and backstories to create value in their brands off the track. Lia paid attention. Today she has 1.1 million followers on Instagram, nearly 360,000 on TikTok and a new YouTube channel, Block House Racing, with 30,000 subscribers.

“It’s becoming more important every year to have a reach [in order] to get sponsors and funding,” Block says. “That’s really important in this very expensive sport.”

Some of what Block learned from her dad was taught, like those doughnuts, or the importance of making eye contact, and some she absorbed over years of watching him create a motorsports empire. “I spent so much time on Gymkhana shoots and at rally races and drifting around the garage in my little Mustang,” Block says. “I always wanted to be my dad.”

She also grew up around the action sports athletes her dad once sponsored and then raced against, absorbing the never-say-never attitude of athletes like Travis Pastrana and the late Dave Mirra. “Watching Supercross and going to X Games, it’s made me believe nothing is impossible,” Block says. “You fall down, you get back up, you try again.”

As a driver, she’s adopted that mentality, able to push herself outside of her comfort zone to find her limits. Like her peers in the F1 Academy, Block’s first competitive turns came in karting at age 11, but the similarities mostly end there. While her competitors spent their careers in open-wheel racing, Block, the first American signed to race in the series, has spent hers competing on dirt, in rally cars that share more with a daily driver than an open-wheel racecar, and in a style of racing that favors contact.

Last year, at 16, Block became the youngest driver ever to win a major American rally title when she and co-driver Rhianon Gelsomino won the American Rally Association’s Open 2WD title, the first all-woman team to do so. In December, she became the first woman to race the top class of Nitrocross, even hitting the track’s massive gap jump.

But there is no jumping or bumping in open-wheel racing, at least not when drivers can avoid it. (And teams prefer their drivers avoid both at all costs.) Before this winter, most of what Block knew of Formula One she learned watching races on TV with her dad. She was focused on graduating from high school and achieving a few more goals in rally, like backing up her historic championship.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, an F1 team called.

CHADWICK INITIATED THAT call. Last fall, Williams Racing sporting director Sven Smeets told her Williams, where Chadwick has been a development driver since 2019, planned to enter the F1 Academy in 2024 and he was looking for drivers. Chadwick immediately suggested Block.

She knew a bit about Block’s background and had watched her compete last summer in Extreme E, an FIA-sanctioned international off-road series, and was impressed. Chadwick had piloted the series’ electric SUV for Veloce in 2021 and knew how tough it was to drive. Lia had stepped in as a midseason replacement driver, something that would prove tough for a veteran, not to mention a 16-year-old who was the youngest ever to race in the series. “I thought, if she’s got that kind of talent, she can put it into single seaters, too,” Chadwick says.

Smeets was familiar with Block, but he didn’t see how she would fit into his F1 Academy program. When Chadwick gave her reasons, “I said, ‘If you think it’s possible, then it’s an easy decision for me,'” Smeets says. “What Lia had already done at her age was amazing.”

Smeets reached out to Block and her mom, Lucy. When he learned Block had tested in a single seater once before and was intrigued by his offer, he brought her to Europe to tour the Williams facility, meet Chadwick and spend a day testing in Italy. “We saw enough potential to say, ‘If this is something you want to try, then we would like for you to do the F1 Academy,'” Smeets says. “It took her five seconds to say yes. If it even took five seconds.”

The truth is, Block considered Smeets’ question — even if she did most of her thinking after saying yes. She was comfortable and successful competing in rally. The F1 Academy was a gamble. She would have to learn an entirely new car, racing style and format. She would have to leave her family and friends and move to Europe for most of the year while finishing her final two years of high school. She would also race against only women after proving herself against men. “I went back and forth in my mind a lot,” Block says. “To go from winning a rally championship to the bottom of open-wheel racing wasn’t an easy decision.

“But this was the opportunity of a lifetime. A lottery ticket. I would kick myself if I didn’t take this opportunity and make the most of it. I want to see if I can do what I think I can and compete against these really good drivers.”

CHADWICK WAS ONCE in Block’s shoes. More than anyone at Williams, she understands what it’s like to be young, have limitless potential and feel like a fish out of water.

By 17, Chadwick was the first woman and youngest ever champion of the British GT Championship and racing in British Formula 3. She was one of the hottest young drivers in Europe.

Although she’d been racing since she was 11, when she chased her older brother, Ollie, into karting, she hadn’t dreamed of competing at the top of the sport. She didn’t think about being the only girl at the track most days. It wasn’t until superlatives like “the first” and “the youngest” were attached to her name that she began to question whether she belonged.

“At first, I was blissfully unaware, enjoying what I was doing,” Chadwick says. “And then I stopped and looked around and thought, these guys have been doing this their whole lives. Racing has been their dream since they were 6. I felt out of my depth. I didn’t feel I belonged in that environment. I wish I’d had more people around to help me with that.”

Like Block, Chadwick wasn’t sure what to make of an all-woman series when the W Series launched in 2019. Many of her peers felt the same way. They’d spent their lives racing against boys — and beating them — and didn’t see a need for a separate series.

After the W Series ended, Chadwick knew whatever her next move was, she would likely only have one year to prove herself — again. Although she’d dominated all three seasons of the series, she never had an opportunity in F3 or F2 that felt right.

Then Andretti offered to bring her to the U.S. to be the first woman in 13 years to race full time in Indy NXT. “A good thing about going over to America is they give you time,” Chadwick says. “They don’t expect you to straight-away go in and blow the doors off everyone.”

Unlike Chadwick, when Block is faced with similar tough decisions, she has someone to go to for advice who’s been there. Since Block signed with Williams, Chadwick has spent time with her at HQ, accompanied her at testing and sends frequent text messages. “Jamie is probably the best placed person in our entire organization for Lia to get advice from and to help Lia with the transition from dirt into single-seater racing,” Smeets says.

She can also help Block with advice off the track as she navigates a new team, new sponsors, being an American in a European-dominated sport, and a young series with all the potential — and potential pitfalls — the W Series once had. Chadwick says if she could go back in time and mentor her 17-year-old self, she’d tell her to keep her head down and not to compare herself to other drivers.

“I’d say, be in your own world,” Chadwick says. “You’re in a much better place if you don’t get wrapped up in all the outside noise. I put so much pressure on myself, but I tell young drivers now to enjoy it and take the ride for what it is.”

BLOCK LOOKS AT her phone and sees a message from Chadwick. It’s the team’s final day at the F1 Academy’s opening weekend in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and although the two races didn’t go as she would have liked — she DNF’d in the first and finished P11 in the second — the team is happy with Block’s progression. She ran P3 in the first practice, nearly qualified P5 and clocked the third-fastest lap in the first race. That level of performance is on pace with the team’s Year 2 goals and far beyond anything they expected from Block this weekend. “You should be happy with these three days,” Chadwick texts. “The pace is definitely there. It’s well-earned rest.”

When Block arrived at the paddock in Jeddah, she says she was awestruck by the size of it all. “I kept saying, ‘I can’t believe we’re actually here,'” says Block, who had never been to an F1 race. “Scanning my pass and walking through the turnstiles into the F1 paddock for the first time, it was like, ‘I’m really here. How am I here?’ It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

Smeets says when Block arrived on-site that first day, she walked directly to the F2 paddock. “The first thing she says is, ‘I want to be in that car as quickly as possible,'” he says and laughs at her impatience to move up from the F1 Academy car, which is essentially an F4 model with a modified rear wing.

“This is after three months in single-seater racing,” Smeets says. “It’s refreshing. For the moment, that is Lia’s biggest strength, that she really wants this, and she wants to learn. If Jamie had 24 hours a day, seven days a week to mentor her, Lia would want to be with her constantly.”

As a driver, Block has uncanny adaptability behind the wheel, an invaluable asset as she makes the extraordinary move from off-road to open-wheel racing. “Anybody can get in a car and go fast,” Block says. “But you have to learn control. There’s a fine line between being aggressive and destructive and once I learn where my limit is, I can pull back. It’s about finding that line and staying on it.”

Chadwick had a rough race herself the same weekend at the opening Indy NXT race in St. Petersburg, Florida. After a fast couple of days of practice and qualifying, she was hit on the first lap Sunday and knocked out of the race. In the second race in Birmingham, Alabama, in April, she was top-five in practice and qualifying and was running P5 in the race, but spun out on the penultimate lap of the race, which finished under caution. But it’s a long season with a lot of racing left. “It’s a very big year for Jamie,” Smeets says. “Her next step will be determined after this year.”

That could be a promotion to IndyCar, a return to Europe or a third season proving herself in Indy NXT. “Jamie has a brilliant career ahead of her,” says racing great Mario Andretti, father of team owner Michael Andretti and a former F1 champion. “Her racecraft is excellent, and she makes very few mistakes. I think the next level is IndyCar, but it’s up to her. Does she have that passion, that drive, that love to move in the direction of F1? If that’s what she would like to do, I think she will have the opportunity.”

Chadwick knows the window is narrowing. The average age of a current F1 driver is 29 and most teams are looking for younger drivers they can groom in the mold of three-time defending champion Verstappen, who made his F1 debut at 17. More than anything, she just wants a chance. “I feel like the opportunity [in F1] is still there,” Chadwick says. “I’ve got to take that and run with it.”

In Miami, Chadwick and Block will be together at a race for the first time. Over the next few days, Chadwick will be a valued voice in Block’s ear when frustration and insecurity creep into her mind, when it doesn’t seem like she’s improving fast enough. Of all the advice coming her way, Block knows that when Chadwick speaks, it’s from the perspective of a driver who’s been there — and who’s won here.

“I try to listen to everything Jamie tells me,” Block says. “It’s really cool to have that mentor, older-sister thing with her. There aren’t many of us women in motorsports, so it’s about supporting each other no matter what.”

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