INTERVIEW | Desiré Wilson on how to make it in a male-dominated sport

Denis Droppa catches up with SA’s very own Desirè Wilson – the only woman to win an F1 race

17 May 2019 - 11:00 By Denis Droppa
Desiré Wilson races a Tyrrell at the 1981 SA Formula One GP. Picture: SUPPLIED
Desiré Wilson races a Tyrrell at the 1981 SA Formula One GP. Picture: SUPPLIED

The W Series, a new all-female international racing championship, kicked off in Germany earlier in May with the ultimate aim of seeing a woman competing in Formula One. The only SA competitor on the grid is SA’s Tasmin Pepper, who finished eighth out of 18 drivers on her debut.

Attending the race was none other than SA’s Desiré Wilson, one of only five women to have competed in F1 and the only one to win an F1 race of any kind with her victory at Brands Hatch in the non-championship British Aurora F1 race in 1980.

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Wilson, now 65, also competed in the world endurance championship and IndyCar, and we caught up with the Brakpan-born racer and quizzed her about what it’s like to compete in a male-dominated sport.

Where do you live, and how long have you been there?

I live in Salt Lake City, US. I moved to the US in 1983 when my racing career in Europe ended. I have been in Salt Lake City, home of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, since 2006.

Do you still dabble in racing?

I finally officially retired in 2017, at the age of 63! I was racing in the US Pirelli Porsche GT3 Cup series and after four wins in 2016, and two second places and a third place finish in 2017, I decided it was time. These are the Porsche 991 GT3 cup cars similar to the British Porsche Carrera Cup.

Have you been following SA motorsport, particularly local drivers who are racing overseas?

I do watch the Wayne Taylor sons (Rickie and Jordan) in IMSA and keep an eye open for new South Africans racing in the UK and Europe. We do not get any news on racing in SA, so I have not followed it.

Had you heard of Tasmin Pepper before she was selected for W Series?

As I have not been in touch with racing in SA, I did not know of Tasmin before W Series selection.  As soon as the list of potential drivers was published, I became aware of Tasmin and was really pleased to see her in the final 18. I have been looking up some background on her, so that I know something of her current-past racing.

It is a great achievement for her to make the top 18 in this series.

How did you come to be at the opening Formula W round?

I met the organisers of the series, Catherine Bond Muir and Sean Wadsworth, in the UK earlier in 2019 at the Autosport Show in Birmingham where I learnt more about the series. I received an invitation from Sean to join them at the Hockenheim event. I will be involved in the trophy ceremony on the victory podium.

I will also assist in media interviews, and get to know the drivers.

Desiré on the podium in 2016 at the US Pirelli Porsche GT3 Cup, at the age of 63. Picture: SUPPLIED
Desiré on the podium in 2016 at the US Pirelli Porsche GT3 Cup, at the age of 63. Picture: SUPPLIED

How did you get into racing?

My father, Charlie Randall, was the 250cc SA motorcycle champion, so I was always involved in racing. At the age of five years I started racing micro midgets (similar to karting) till the age of 12, after finishing second to a 16-year-old boy in the SA championships. I then moved on to athletics. At the age of 18 I went back to racing Formula Vee, Formula Ford 1600 (winning the 1976 SA championship), after which I moved to Holland and UK to further my career.

How difficult was it for a woman to be in motorsport back then? Was there anything like a W Series at the time?

There were no all-women championships 30-40 years ago, so the events were mostly 99.9% male drivers. Motorsport was totally male dominated and having a woman in a race car was seen to be a novelty and gaining respect was difficult. 

The only way to gain respect was to win — which I did often. South Africa was one of the most chauvinistic countries I ever raced in, and the main reason I left to carry on racing abroad.

I had my moments in Europe and UK with deliberate bumping and running off the road during the racing, but as I won races and became more respected it was a little better.

What do you think of the idea of the W Series?

At first I was a little against the idea of an all-women series. However as I learnt more about the series, and the drivers, I changed my mind and realised what a fantastic opportunity it is. There is no doubt that the top 10 women will be quite exceptional, with the rest learning either single-seater racing or just learning the upgraded cars. The cars will be fast. Learning the setup, telemetry, how to work with a professional team — what a great experience.

The W Series will be able to show the talent of some of the drivers, and give the top three a chance to move onto other series. Hopefully it will help to move some of the drivers into FIA Formula 3 and Formula 2. Winning in these series will prove their talent.

Opportunity in the right team at the right time can help them win. However, sponsorship is paramount for success of any driver — male or female.

Thanks to drivers such as David Coulthard the women drivers have a chance to show their talent.

• The next round of the W Series is in Zolder, Belgium, from 17-18 May.