Former Formula 1 engineer Rob Smedley is turning his attention to helping motorsport become a more diverse environment, but says there’s still a long way to go.

Since leaving Formula 1, I’ve been able to devote more energy to my passion for broadening participation in motorsport. The penny is dropping: as a community, we’re recognising that we have to do things that are genuine and impactful. But are we doing enough? Absolutely not. We’re not doing anywhere near enough.

I always say that if you’re going to make fundamental change in anything, it has to become part of the fabric of what you’re doing. Like environmental sustainability – you can’t behave recklessly for most of the week and just do some green stuff on a Friday afternoon. It doesn’t work. It has to be part of the fabric, culture and targets of your business. And it’s the same with increasing participation in motorsport.

I launched Global Karting League as a way of democratising motorsport by minimising the financial barriers to entry. We’re trying to take away as much cost as we possibly can from the entry levels of motorsport. But to address under-representation of different communities – whether that’s socio-economic, gender or ethnicity – we need to do more than that, and there’s no one silver bullet that will talk to every single demographic.

Every community has to feel that this is a safe and welcoming space. Some of it is practical things, like where does a girl go to get changed when they go karting? It’s not uncommon for young guys to get stripped off in the car park, put their overalls on and they’re ready to race. I’ve also heard absolute horror stories, like being told: ‘You shouldn’t be here, this is a sport for boys.’ As a community, we need to be calling that out.

We’re doing a huge amount of work within Global Karting League on female participation and representation, and we’re also helping More Than Equal, which is a great initiative. It’s right in our wheelhouse because it’s very data-driven. If you’ve got the first-principle understanding, you can put in place solutions that address those issues. Our efforts are already showing results, with our GKL:UK 2024 competition boasting double the female drivers, compared to the national average seen in other grassroots karting competitions.

However, we need to fundamentally increase participation across the board. It is a mathematically sound hypothesis that, if there’s 10% female participation across the whole of motorsport, which is roughly where we are, then there’s a 10% chance of finding a female champion.

That’s before you get into the argument of ‘can females compete at the same level as the males?’ My personal opinion is absolutely, they can. And I will continue in that belief and continue to be part of the solution until proven otherwise.

F1 in Schools competitors with Rob Smedley 2014

When I was employing engineers in F1 teams, I used to try, on a meritocratic basis, to get a good gender balance. When you get young guys recently out of university, in what is quite a male-dominated sport, you can create some quite alpha-male robots, which is not good for any kind of business culture. When you put the females in there, everybody behaves in a much more collegiate way.

We are starting to see more female representation in top roles, but it’s still nowhere near enough. Why aren’t we seeing more females in top technical positions? Again, it’s about numbers: we don’t have the numbers committing to STEM subjects in their further and higher education, which is where the F1 teams are looking.

We have to get girls turned on to this at five, six years old – the age they come into the Bambino karting category. At GKL, we’ve got a lot of ex-F1 engineers and we’ve tried to relay STEM learning through the context of motorsport. We’ve built an online learning platform where each kid can complete a course. Teaching them about forces, electricity, materials, and the things that are important for engineers and scientists, through the context of motorsport, the kids get really into it. I was surprised.

You’ve got to have a culture where you will try something that might fail but you will learn from it. If we don’t actually get on with things and allow ourselves to fail, then you’ll never reach your final goal

It was always part of my vision to get them turned on to STEM as well, but how enthusiastic were they going to be about it? In fact, it’s been amazing. The kids love it, and we get great feedback from parents. If we can get that to percolate up to university level then great: it gives us more choices when we’re looking for engineers.

More generally, there’s no single solution. There’s going to be lots of different ways to help drive female participation within the sport. On the driving side, W Series, F1 Academy, initiatives like this, they’re all super-important and they’re all part of the solution. W Series hit financial trouble, but we have to try things; some of them will work, and some of them won’t.

Going back to what I know best, if you want to build a world championship-winning F1 car, you can’t have it on the drawing board for 20 years and tell people how good it is – you’ve got to get it out there and understand that actually it’s not that good after all. Learn from that and implement new design methodologies, new processes, new tools and so forth.

You’ve got to have a culture where you will try something that might fail but you will learn from it. If we don’t actually get on with things and allow ourselves to fail, then you’ll never reach your final goal.

Rob Smedley launches new electric karting initiative 2023