By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - When Claire Williams was appointed vice-principal of the Williams Formula One team, she hoped her promotion and the presence of Susie Wolff as test driver might open the door to an untapped market.
With women making up some 40 percent of the audience, it seemed a good time to approach brands more interested in female consumers than the average petrolhead.
The response was hardly deafening: "I said (to the Williams sponsorship people) 'Let's go out there, let's really go hard at female brands'. And not one of them (brands) was interested," Williams, who was appointed deputy to father Frank in 2013, told Reuters.
It has now been 40 years since the sole occasion where a woman finished in the points at a Formula One race, Italian Lella Lombardi taking sixth place and half a point at a shortened 1975 Spanish Grand Prix.
Next year, it will be 40 years since any woman started a grand prix.
Formula One has become more inclusive -- some eight percent of Williams' engineers are women -- and has come a long way from the days when the sport was sponsored by oil, beer, cigarettes and even men's magazines and prophylactics.
Wolff, who last season became the first woman driver in 22 years to take part in a grand prix weekend, will be back on track in Barcelona this Friday for first free practice but her dream of racing remains distant.
While Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone is convinced that a woman racer would be a commercial boost for the series, getting one who really excites the fans -- and sponsors -- has been the problem.
"For some reason women are not coming through, and not because we don't want them," the 84-year-old said in March when he floated the idea of a women's championship.
"Of course we do, because they would attract a lot of attention and publicity and probably a lot of sponsors."
Efforts so far indicate the situation is more complicated and that simply appointing a woman driver to a role within a team is not enough.
While Wolff has shown she can do decent lap times, she is unlikely to progress beyond a testing role at the former champions who were struggling but are now back in the top three.
But Sauber, who were in desperate need of cash last year and also have a female principal, had been grooming Simona de Silvestro for a race seat until the 26-year-old Swiss failed to find the necessary sponsorship.
De Silvestro, who has stood on the podium in the U.S. IndyCar series and was Indy 500 rookie of the year in 2010, returned to America instead in what was surely a missed opportunity.
"As much as people say ‘We really want to see a woman in F1 and it would be such a great marketing exercise’, the truth is it hasn’t happened," Wolff told Reuters. "So it can’t be that great because nobody has actually made it happen."
The reason why, according to a motorsport marketing expert who has brought numerous top sponsors into F1, lies primarily in performance and the nature of a sport where men still make up 60-70 percent of the audience.
"If you’re strictly a female-directed product, you’re most likely going to be wasting too much of your money talking to people that aren’t your core consumer," JMI chief executive Zak Brown told Reuters.
"If I’ve got $1 to spend, 30 cents of it is working really good for me. But I’m wasting 70 cents. Unless the product I have appeals to both men and women and I like the female angle.
"My wife buys my deodorant for me. I wear it, she buys it," he said as an example.
Williams have several such brands, including Unilever's Rexona deodorant and title sponsor Martini, as well as others who use the sponsorship in education and diversity programs and for whom Wolff is a definite asset.
But gender only goes so far.
"I think it would be great to have a woman driver. But what’s important is that you have a competitive one," said Brown. "At the end of the day, any time in sport, gender aside, you’ve got to be successful to have a sustainable career."
He cited IndyCar and NASCAR driver Danica Patrick, now 33, as the sort of person with the track record to create sponsor interest had she switched to F1 earlier in her career.
"If there was a top line female driver, the sales guys would be putting that in the mix of things to approach the marketplace with," he said
With limited seats available, Brown felt it might take a company like Red Bull to bring through a woman on their production line of young talent.
"It needs someone with that same passion, desire and cheque book to make that type of commitment to go ‘I’m going to find the next female (Sebastian) Vettel’," he said. "I think she’s out there."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis)