Women with Drive: Desiré Wilson

Various parts of the Brands Hatch in Kent are named after the greats of motor sport: Brabham, Hill, McLaren, Clark, Surtees and Sheene. There is also the Desire Wilson stand, which affords a panoramic view of this most scenic of circuits. Wilson deserves her place among the legends because she was the first – and, so far, only – woman to win a Formula 1 race (but not a World Championship Formula 1 race).

Wilson’s day of days came at Brands in 1980 when she was 26 years old, but there was so much more to her career than that one race, that one win.

Wilson, whose first name is pronounced “Desray”, was born in South Africa in November 1953. Her maiden name was Randall. She grew up in Brakpan near Johannesburg and the racing bug bit early. Her father raced motorcycles and from the age of five Desire was competing in 60mph micro-midgets. Her opposition were almost all boys and older than her but amazing car control on the dirt ovals and a healthy dose of aggression helped her to plenty of wins. Aged 12, four years younger than her rivals, she tied for the South African micro-midget title.

At the same time she took up equestrian sports, dabbling with polo, but that proved to be out of her family’s financial reach. The next challenge was athletics, but racing was all she really wanted to do and would provide a route out of Brakpan. Aged 18 she tested a Formula Vee single-seater at Kyalami and in 1974 she won the championship.

Two years later, and now married to fellow racer Alan Wilson, she won the South African Formula Ford title and with it the Driver-to-Europe award.

Her first race, and first in the rain, was at Zolder in the Benelux Formula Ford 2000 championship. She battled from 12th to third, but when ‘D Wilson’ removed her helmet to step onto the podium the circuit commentator was heard to shout, “Wilson is a woman.”

Despite plenty of good results, including a couple of wins, the money began to run out and the Wilsons returned to South Africa. Opportunities were scarce there too but then John Webb, so often the champion of female racers, came to the rescue by inviting her to take part Ford Escort Ladies race at Brands Hatch.

The trip to England was very worthwhile. Desire led from start to finish and Alan landed a job as circuit manager. This was her big break and she could keep racing.

For 1978 Webb arranged for her to enter the British Formula 1 championship, a massive step up from what she had been used to, but Wilson wasn’t going to argue. First time out at Oulton Park she qualified third but cooked the clutch at the start and had to retire. She finished the four remaining races in the points, including third at Thruxton, and a full season beckoned for 1979. 

Wilson joined Melchester Racing and campaigned an ex-Patrick Depailler Tyrrell in the British Formula 1 Championship. In the opening round at Zolder (in Belgium, not Britain), in the rain, conditions in which she always excelled, she became the first woman to lead a Formula 1 race and looked set for victory until a spin dropped her to third. She was third in the next two rounds as well, the latter of which was held at Brands Hatch and doubled as the Race of Champions. She had qualified just half a second behind grand prix winner John Watson in his works McLaren and acquitted herself well despite racing with a broken foot and concussion caused by a sports car accident the day before. In an interview with Motor Sport magazine she recalled that this was the moment that she first felt “Maybe I could do this.”

Her results tailed off as rivals got their hands on more modern and faster ‘ground-effect’ cars but she still finished seventh in the championship.

After a winter racing in New Zealand, Wilson embarked on an expanded programme for 1980, driving in both the British Formula 1 championship and in World Sports Cars alongside Alain de Cadenet. In the spring she enjoyed a five-week period that would stand out on any racing driver’s CV.

Driving a three-year-old Wolf for Teddy Yip, she had retired from the first round of the British series but next time out at Brands Hatch on Easter Monday she made history.

Having qualified second, she took the lead at the start but then she had to repeat the trick after a first-lap accident behind her halted the race. Wilson’s second getaway was even better than her first and she gradually built a lead of more than 20 seconds before easing off. At the chequered flag she was still 15 seconds in front, to the delight of the large crowd. 

Despite all the publicity, Wilson wasn’t about to rest on her laurels. Over the next month she and de Cadenet won back-to-back rounds of the World Sports Car Championship, first in the Monza 1000km and then at the Silverstone 6 Hours where she fought back from being given a one-lap penalty for missing the chicane. Wilson had really made a name for herself, but then her luck began to change.

In the Le Mans 24 Hours the organisers refused to let her race after an accident in qualifying meant her time was never registered, and then came the biggest disappointment of all, the British Grand Prix.

She joined RAM Racing to drive their privateer Williams, and in testing had been 12th-fastest, but when she got to Brands Hatch for the Grand Prix meeting she found she had been given a different car, one that was not nearly as quick. Having looked certain to be the first woman to race in the Formula 1 world championship since Lella Lombardi, she missed qualifying by less than a second. “That really destroyed me,” she recalled years later. The final straw came when she lost her British Championship drive to a better-funded driver.

Her last Formula 1 chance came at her home grand prix in South Africa in 1981. She had been chosen to drive by the Tyrrell team, and qualified easily, but in the race, having fought back well from a poor start, she damaged the gearbox and was forced to retire. Sadly the race had been stripped of world championship status due to political infighting in the sport so Wilson never got to start an official grand prix.

Her career meandered through the 1980s and she mainly raced in America, where she and Alan moved full-time in 1983. There were three attempts to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, a handful of starts in IndyCars, and various sports car drives including Le Mans, where she finished seventh in 1983. 

Desiré Wilson will always be remembered for her win at Brands Hatch on Easter Monday in 1980, but she never saw herself as a woman who won a Formula 1 race, just a racing driver.

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