Women in Motorsport: Desiré Wilson
The Desiré Wilson grandstand at the UK race track Brands Hatch stands amongst many great names in motorsport history, and acknowledges the achievements of a woman who made history by becoming the first, and so far only, woman to claim victory in a Formula 1 race.
Credit: W Series
South African racing driver Desiré Wilson has held onto the record since 1980, achieving the win at 26 years old. Teddy Yip, a real estate businessman, became a sponsor for Desiré and gave her the opportunity to race a three-year-old Wolf WR4 at the British circuit. During qualifying, Desiré pushed on to set the second fastest time, putting her on the front row for the race start, behind a Williams FW07.
On race day, Desiré knew how important it was to get ahead of the Williams car and, after the race would restart twice due to collisions, Desiré would cross the chequered flag ahead of the rest of the field, pulling a gap of over 15 seconds.
Credit: Motorsport Magazine. Desiré’s maiden F1 victory
But it wasn’t just this race that showed Desiré’s ability to push the limits in a race car.
In 1978 she was named one of the most successful women in motorsport history. She had gained experience in Formula Vee and became the first woman to win a Formula Ford race in 1975, and did so again in 1976 before winning the ‘Driver to Europe’ scholarship. Adding to her racing success, Desiré took victories at World Sportscar Championship races at the Monza 1,000KM and 6 Hours of Silverstone.
It would be in 1978 that she would graduate to the British F1 Championship, driving an N175-Ford and proving her abilities with a third position finish at Thruxton. She moved to Melchester Racing the next tear, driving the Tyrrell 008-Ford and finishing the first three rounds on the podium.
After a non-World Championship F1 victory in 1980, Desiré failed to qualify for her grand prix debut in Britain, driving RAM Racing’s Williams FW07-Ford. It’d been reported that the De Villota chassis she drove at the test was replaced by a different FW07, due to the original chassis being crashed heavily in Monza two weeks prior. This proved difficult for Desiré who struggled with the car's handling and aggressive set-up changes.
Two years later, she entered but retired from the 1981 South African Grand Prix for Tyrrell. Unfortunately, the race was then stripped of its Formula 1 World Championship status, meaning Desiré never became an F1 World Championship starter.
Desiré driving for Williams at Brands Hatch, 1980.
Not deterred by the set-backs, she still had the willingness to set more records and before retiring from competitive racing in the late 1980s, she became the first woman to test a Williams Grand Prix Engineering Formula 1 car.
Although Desiré has been open about the lack of support from sponsors she received at the time of her racing, she went on to build up over 26 years of experience, racing in GT, endurance and many single-seater championships. She took the Springbok Colours award in 1977 and the South African ‘Sports Woman of the Year’ award one year later, in 1978.
Desiré continued in the motorsport industry as a driving coach and motorsport commentator and remains a prominent and inspirational figure. She faced extreme barriers to get to where women belong to be; racing in the higher categories of motorsport.
Desirè’s continued support in attending W Series events, as well as her grandstand at Brands Hatch, serve as constant reminders that women deserve to compete and work on equal terms with men. Her remarkable success through times of limited funding and barriers trying to enter races show the inspiring determination of a woman who will remain a role model for generations.