It is perhaps impossible to talk about the W Series without addressing the controversies surrounding it. When the W Series was first announced, the two sides of the argument were already very vocal about their respective opinions.
The positioning of the W Series is to promote female drivers in the sport, providing more opportunities for them to develop their skills to reach Formula 1 and increasing the number of women competing in single-seaters series.
There are just too few women competing in single-seaters series at the moment. W Series will increase that number very significantly in 2019, thereby powerfully unleashing the potential of many more female racing drivers. W Series is an inspiring innovation whose time is now.—— W Series CEO Catherine Bond Muir
Among those supporting the W Series are former F1 winner David Coulthard and F1 technical designer Adrian Newey, both of whom are working closely with the championship. Their argument mainly focuses on the opportunities currently lacking and the championship can provide, echoing Bond Muir’s statement. According to Coulthard, female drivers currently reach the ‘glass ceiling’ at around GP3/F3 level due to lack of funding, and W Series will ‘establish a competitive and constructive motorsport habitat’ in which female drivers can ‘equip themselves with the necessary skill-set’ for high-level mainstream racing series.
And of course, all the female drivers in the long list that W Series started with the drivers selection are supporters of the championship as well.
I’m a racing driver and, if I could, I would race 365 days of the year. I will still race against men in other championships but W Series is the perfect supplement to help me develop and progress further through the junior motorsport ranks. I’m excited about what’s to come.——W Series Champion Jamie Chadwick
Among those opposing the W Series include some of the rising young female drivers such as Tatiana Calderon (currently competing in F2) and Sophia Flörsch (Formula Regional European Championship), as well as IndyCar driver Pippa Mann. Their argument mainly focuses on the separation of gender in a sport where it’s always been gender neutral, calling the creation of W Series ‘a step backward’ and arguing the money should be invested in career development of young female drivers.
Simona de Silvestro (Supercars driver, former Formula E and IndyCar driver) wasn’t vocal in directly criticising W Series, but she also expressed her preference on establishing something that supports the overall career development of young girls rather than having a separate championships just for women.
If we look at what both sides are trying to promote, we see they are both valid and it simply shows there are still way too many steps to take before we can have a more reasonable number of female drivers on the grid. Do we need more women and more opportunities for women, especially track time? Yes, and W Series is providing exactly that without asking those women to come with sponsorship. Do we need more investment in encouraging and guiding little girls with a motorsport dream to craft their career? Yes, but W Series is not the answer. So either with its future development as it matures W Series expands its effort, or someone else steps up to bridge this gap.
In conclusion, we think the controversies and arguments are mostly created by taking the first step to solve an issue hanging over the sport for decades, with many more steps still ahead. If we look at W Series or any other races where you have a female driver, you realize you won’t be able to tell the female drivers from the male ones when they are in the cockpit, and all the overtakes are just as exciting as all male competition. But when 18 men start on the grid it’s just another Sunday in motorsport, when 18 women start on the grid all of a sudden it’s groundbreaking. That shows the problem plenty. In Formula 1, the highest level of single-seater motorsport, there hasn’t been a woman on the F1 start grid since 1976; not enough women are working as designers, engineers, technicians, or data analysts in the factories or in the paddock.
What the season means for the drivers and motorsport
Despite all the controversies, W Series was still successfully launched, and now we’ve already had our first ever W Series champion Jamie Chadwick. In six races we had five winners and six podium finishers. 17 out of the 20 drivers scored points. This showed how strong the roster is and how competitive the racing is.
But W Series is not simply about the six races on track. As Coulthard mentioned, they want to help the drivers develop their skills, and that is provided through the training programme centring on driving techniques, simulator exposure, technical engineering approaches, fitness, media skills in addition to the actual on track wheel-to-wheel racing.
Also to prove its value in actually advancing its drivers’ career, W Series indeed braught more exposure to its drivers and gave them a boost in finding opportunities to move up in professional racing.
For starters, drivers like Alice Powell who hasn’t been racing for four years or Marta Garcia whose career was in hiatus for over a year due to lack of funding are now back in the cockpit because of W Series. Even more impressively, after finishing third in the championship, Alice Powell joined Heinricher Racing as a substitute for Bia Figueiredo to race in IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship at Virginia International Raceway (this weekend). Marta Garcia can now use her prize money to race in New Zealand in the winter to make up for the 18 months she lost to gain more experience. Claire Williams was skeptical about W Series when it was first announced, but she went to Hockenheim, got convinced of what the championship was trying to do, and signed Jamie Chadwick as development driver for Williams. Fabienne Wohlwend, the 21 year-old from Liechtenstein, has now raised enough money through her W Series fame to come back to full-time racing next year.
In addition to the drivers competing in the 2019 season, W Series also has a wider impact on the community in encouraging women to participate in motorsport, or even simply just introducing more women to motorsport. During the season finale in Brands Hatch, W Series invited girls from London Youth program to the race. For many of them, this is the first time to a race weekend (or even their first exposure to motorsport). They got to meet the drivers and technicians/engineers and enjoy the exciting race.
Where are we going next?
If the odds of going from karting to Formula 1 (or from minibike to MotoGP) is 100,000 to 1, W Series is trying to solve the problem of that last step from 100 to 1. As mentioned above, we also need measures in place to solve the problem that maybe we don’t have that 100,000 girls in karting to begin with, and in every step on the way we are losing more girls. Those measures could potentially be provided by W Series as it expands. Every year W Series runs a driver selection process, for those failing in the last round (like this season, eight women weren’t able to secure that drive in the final round), maybe some sort of funding can be provided to them to support their endeavor in other racing series to make sure they don’t simply fall out of the motorsport world. Those measures could also be provided separately, such as scholarships for teenage girls graduating from karting to single-seater or sports car racing, and then leveling up till they reach F3 level so that W Series can take them or any of the manufacturer junior programs admit them. For the very first step of getting a five-year-old girl into karting, it is down to awareness programs convincing parents that their little girls are worth a shot in the karting world, so that we have not just a handful of girls in karting, but a significant proportion.
Speaking of that first step into karting, let’s not forget the power of representation and role model. Many of the women in W Series cited a male driver as their racing hero. That’s fair, no one said women can’t use a man as their role model and work towards the same path that man took. But imagine the power of Jamie Chadwick’s win of W Series champion to a little girl watching. Imagine one day she make it into Formula 1 or Le Man 24 hrs as she aspires to, and a five-year-old girl in front of the TV or at the circuit say to her parents ‘I want to be her.’ All the investment mentioned above will build towards this healthy cycle, more women in this sport in turn inspires more women.
Currently there are some efforts being put in place. FIA and FIM both have commissions dedicated to women in this sport. Last weekend they just joint hands in a conference for women in motorsports. FIA has Girls on Track initiative (now also working together with Susie Wolff’s D2BD) supporting girls in karting through sporting and educational programme. Baby steps are being taken, pieces of the overall solution are being put in place, more money and time need to be invested and more patience and endurance is required to see through these efforts till one day we finally have another woman on the F1 starting grid.
So what is the W Series anyway?
Just in case we do have readers who are not familiar with W Series (or motorsport in general) but still managed to get to this part of the article, we should probably quickly summarize ‘What is W Series’.
Drivers: There are 18 drivers in the W Series line-up plus two reserve drivers. These 20 drivers are selected from two rounds of assessments that covers on-track testing, simulator appraisal, technical engineering tests, fitness trials etc. 54 drivers managed to get into the actual selection process from over 100 applicants. First round selection took place in January 2019 narrowing the list from 54 to 28, evaluating the drivers with ten modules including driving ability test using Ford Fiesta ST and Porsche Cayman S road cars. The final round took place in March 2019, using the actual race car for testing, giving us the final 18 drivers line-up and reserve drivers.
The car: W Series uses mechanically identical cars based on the Tatuus T-318 F3 car, with Alfa Romeo four-cylinder 1.8L turbocharged engines, using Sadev six-speed sequential gearboxes, fitted with HALO safety devices. The drivers switch cars (color coded) from race to race to further ensure no one has an advantage with their cars. For example, the champion Jamie Chadwick has used the white, the pink, and the purple cars in her six races.
The races: First season (2019 season) consists of six races all running in conjuntion with DTM races. The calendar and podium finishers are as following:
Race formats: Each race weekend consists of two free practice sessions on the day prior to the race day (Saturdays except for Assen, as it’s usually the case for races in Assen), followed by the qualifying session and the race on the second day (Sunday except for Assen). The race runs for 30 mins plus one lap. In Assen, as the race was run on Saturday, a reverse grid non-championship race was run on Sunday to test the format.
After all this discussion, what do you think should be done to increase the number of women in motorsport and get at least one in the the top level of racing?