- November 26, 1953
- South Africa
- Not Active
Some women had an opportunity to compete in the Formula 1 but only one of them managed to win the F1 event and it was Desiré Wilson.
She was born on November 26, 1953 in a gold and uranium mining town of Brakpan in South Africa. As a daughter of the national motorbike champion, Desire was involved in the world of racing ever since she was a child. During her long career, Wilson competed in the various racing categories with a considerable success.
She began racing at the age of five, driving a micro-midgets and competing against much older boys. When she was 12, Desiré almost became the South African Micro-Midget Champion, losing out by inches in a tie-decider match race. The girl obviously had talent but she left motorsport and switched to track and field. At the age of 18, she went to Kyalami Circuit with her dad and tried Formula Vee. That was her return to the racing and beginning of the motorsports career.
In 1974, Desiré was a national Formula Vee runner-up while in 1975, she entered Formula Ford. Her partner was the experienced racer Alan Wilson who soon became her husband. He gave up his career to become some kind of Desire’s manager and her biggest support. He secured a sponsorship from a local women’s magazine for his wife who became 1976 South African Formula Ford champion. She won Driver-to-Europe Award and followed the trail of Jody Scheckter who had the same path six years earlier but the circumstances have changed and she had to find lucrative sponsorship and good contacts to break into the European racing stage.
Short European adventure and return home
When the Wilsons arrived in Europe, they had a hard time. They had to work a lot. Desire competed in the Benelux Formula Ford Championship where she surprised many after scoring a couple of podium finishes. Unfortunately, their finances were extremely tight and the end of European adventure was near. At the end of the season, after she scored two wins and four lap records, the South African returned home.
Wilson remained in the racing in South Africa and was pretty successful before she was brutally kicked out from the Formula Atlantic. Promoters and sponsors were looking for the macho-drivers backed by cigarette companies and they didn’t want to see their proteges losing to a woman who was driving an old car. That was the awful end of one story but also an opportunity to start a new and a better episode.
In 1978, Desiré was called by John Webb, manager of Brands Hatch Circuit to race in the Ford Escort ladies race. She won the race leading from the start to finish and Webb was so delighted that he secured a work permit and also found a job at the circuit for both Wilsons. Soon after, Webb tried to arrange her a drive in the British Grand Prix but the deal fell through. However, after a while Desiré began to compete in the Aurora F1 Championship, driving an F1 Ensign.
The following year, she was 7th in the Aurora F1 Championship, scoring three podiums out of 15 races in Tyrrell 008, the ex-car of F1 pilot Patrick Depailler. The progress continued in 1980 when the South African moved up to the 6th place overall.
The extraordinary year of 1980
Wilson was also a very successful sports car driver. She finished in 3rd place in 1000 km of Brands Hatch when she was driving alongside Alain de Cadenet. The two later won 1000 km of Monza as well as the 6 Hours of Silverstone.
In 1980, she also became the only woman who won the F1 event of any kind. It was in Aurora F1 Championship race at Brands Hatch. As a result of that win, one of the stands at the circuit was named after her.
Those results turned the attention of F1 RAM Racing that offered her a test drive in a year-old Williams FW07. The results were satisfying and she was given a chance to compete in the Formula 1 British Grand Prix. The car has been replaced with an inferior model which lacked aerodynamic modifications. She didn't have enough time to explore the new car and she wasn't experienced enough, which is why Desiré failed to qualify for the race.
Many professional pilots were against the women on the track. Jacques Laffite was one of the loudest. He stated before the British GP that "no fucking woman belongs to Formula 1" and that he’s going to do whatever he has to, to keep her out.
Another bad luck during 1980 was at 24 Hours when Wilson and de Cadenet weren’t allowed to enter the race because of their crash during the practice session during which they set the 8th fastest lap.
Video - Alain de Cadenet talking about Desiré Wilson
Another chance to race in Formula 1
In 1981, Desiré Wilson was given a chance to race with Tyrrell in the South African Grand Prix which was a non-championship race. She impressed once again after managing to climb up to the 6th place starting from the 16th but soon she was forced to retire due to gearbox issues. However, Ken Tyrrell was ready to offer her further drive but that fell through due to the lack of sponsorships.
Despite the constant lack of funds, Wilson wasn’t ready to give up and she continued her racing career, switching focus to the sports cars racing and next year she continued her career in the US, competing in the various championships.
The years in the US
Debut race in the US was in Daytona 24 Hours race but she retired on lap 229. Wilson later failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 as a member of Theodore Racing team, while in 12 Hours of Sebring, where she was driving a Ferrari, she retired on lap 163.
Over the years the South African driver, who raced in 135 different cars in her career, sporadically drove in the CART and Indy Lights Series, as well as in the World Endurance Championship before finally retiring from the active racing in 1997. Among the other notable results, she has the 7th place in 1983 Le Mans 24h. She still takes part in some historic racing events, like Goodwood Festival of Speed.
Always an underdog
Wilson had the talent to achieve more in her career but she needed a better financial backing. A large amount of male chauvinism in those days probably prevented her to move up through the ranks and it looks like that almost 40 years after, the things have not changed for the better.
“I truly believe a woman, mentally, is much stronger than a man because we’re multi-taskers and we have to put up and deal with so many things in our life. And also you’re always this underdog, so you’re always fighting. Mentally, we can be incredibly strong,” said Wilson when she was talking about her career.