Guest blog by Thiemo Albers-Daly
Love it or hate it, W Series provided a brand new platform for female racing drivers to showcase their talent. Launching in 2019, it ran on the same weekends as Formula 1 when it returned after the pandemic in 2021. Such support from the motorsport giant was seen as a great sign, even though the two series weren’t officially tied to one another. The partnership was deemed enough of a success for this arrangement to continue in 2022 but W Series’ third season was sadly cut short due to funding issues. With the amount of capital in and surrounding Formula 1, many asked the question of why didn’t Formula 1 step in to save W Series? Now, with the 2023 F1 Season underway and with no word yet on the future of W Series at the time of writing, I look at why F1 should have saved W Series – and why they still should.
For those of you reading this who may not know the general specifics of what W Series is – here are the key parts. It is a free to enter Championship where drivers are selected to compete based purely on their skill behind the wheel. This in turn promotes talent over pay drivers and showcases to people globally that women can and should be in the top echelons of motorsport, with the drivers also looking to inspire the next generation. In 2022, there were nineteen drivers on the grid including Jamie Chadwick, Marta Garcia, Abbi Pulling and Chloe Chambers to name just a few. Chadwick went on to become W Series Champion – her third W Series title – with Beitske Visser in second. They began their season in Miami and ended it in Singapore, competing in seven races across six rounds.
W Series was supposed to go racing in the U.S and Mexico to round off their season but as mentioned above, had to cut their season short thanks to a potential financial backer falling through on their intention to deliver for the series. So why didn’t F1 step in to save the day?
Firstly, Formula 1 and W Series are not under the same umbrella in the way that other series like Formula 2 and Formula 3 are. There was no legal responsibility tying F1 to W Series. Secondly, we don’t know how much it would have cost Formula 1 to save W Series but this is where my argument for why they should have dug their hand into their pocket for the cheque book comes into play.
Formula 1 is not short of money. The clear examples of this are evident in the amount of money they and parent company Liberty have sunk into the sport, such as by co-financing the Miami and Las Vegas Grand Prix. Neither of those are cheap endeavours but will also see handsome rewards. Compared to these, the money to have at least funded the remainder of the W Series 2022 season would have been minimal. Being able to go racing in the U.S – where there was record attendance for the F1 weekend – and Mexico could have been just what W Series needed to attract new financial backers for 2023. In the grand scheme of things, F1 would have been praised for supporting an all female series with a noble cause, allowing it to stay afloat in its time of need. If W Series still wouldn’t have returned, the money lost by F1 would have been made back soon enough. Instead, F1 whacked W Series on the head with a paddle by announcing that it was founding its own female only series – F1 Academy. But we’ll focus more on that later.
Put simply F1 came across instead as not wanting to save W series, choosing to start from scratch for themselves. While promoting equality through initiatives such as ‘we race as one’ to allow females to compete on the world stage, they missed an open goal here by not saving W Series. They didn’t have to save it, but an organisation that spends GDP’s similar to that of small countries per annum could have backed up their messaging with some financial clout. What makes it worse is that the supposed end of W series leaves some women without a drive in 2023.
When interviewing Extreme E Podcast host Freya Brolsma recently (check out her work, it’s all rather excellent), we came to the subject of W Series and why it’s not been given enough of a chance. No motorsport series is perfect in its first season. Formula E certainly wasn’t – they had to swap cars mid race because the batteries they used couldn’t last an entire race! But over 100 E-Prix later, it’s still growing and improving, making necessary tweaks to itself along the way. Extreme E and Nitro Rallycross are also great examples of not being the finished article straight away. But what they do all have in common is that they’ve been allowed the time to breathe and develop and thus draw in new fans and continue to build on the product they knew could and would be a success.
F1 Academy is unlikely to be perfect when it starts this year either but I’ll bet some money that Formula 1 gives it the time it needs to find itself and become a proper member of the F1 Feeder Series family. It has established motorsport teams signed up to take part in it such as PREMA and ART. It’s also under the same umbrella as Formula 1 – like F2 and F3 – something that W Series never has been. It will also focus on younger female racers with the aim of promoting them into F3 and beyond, thus creating a clearly defined path upwards towards Formula 1. Despite being dressed up in fancy F1 branding, F1 Academy has some questions going forward. Its schedule won’t help matters and there are fears that the once visible W series that supported Grand Prixs will get lost being held at different tracks from Formula One. This won’t help matters as people will inevitably want to watch the Grand Prix, casting F1 Academy into the wilderness. Take the F1 Silverstone weekend as a perfect example of this. While F1, F2 and F3 take centre stage there, F1 Academy will be in Monza. With only a one hour time difference and the 6 Hours of Monza for the World Endurance Championship also being held there that weekend, F1 Academy will struggle to find a time slot where they can gain the maximum amount of attention. This is something done needlessly when there are plenty of other F1 free weekends available.
There is also a huge opportunity to capitalise here with F1’s forced month break during April. It would be a perfect time to build momentum for F1 Academy that has simply been cast aside with bosses deciding to opt for a ‘summer heavy’ programme during F1’s ‘European season’. As a calendar, it doesn’t make a lot of sense and comes across as Formula 1 ticking a box rather than actually wanting people to watch it.
At this point, I’d like to make it clear that I’ve got nothing against F1 Academy. Drivers that have been announced so far include Lola Lovinfosse and Nerea Marti with Susie Wolff appointed as the managing director for the series – all of which are awesome. F1 Academy itself is a great idea that I hope succeeds but the timing of its announcement and its obvious limitations are frustrating.
F1 Academy was/is seen as a pseudo feeder series to W Series and yet drivers who’ve had success in W Series – such as fan favourites Abbi Pulling and Bianca Bustamante – have signed up to race in the new series. Instead, both should have been allowed to race in Formula 3 while more experienced W Series drivers such as Marta Garcia and Fabienne Wohlwend should have been signed up by one or more Formula 2 teams.
Together, W Series and F1 Academy could really compliment one another. For example, if there’s not space in Formula 3 for the F1 Academy Champion, they could move up to W Series which could then act as an intermediary for Formula 2 with drivers from there having the option of going to either F3 or F2 once they’ve got inside the top three in a W Series Championship.
Now I know what you’re going to say. W Series wasn’t on the same level as Formula 2. You’re right, it wasn’t. But if Formula 1 saved it, they could make some much needed tweaks to what is already a good racing series, make it even better and properly incorporate it into the F1 family. For example, the W Series cars were not fast or powerful enough and they could have benefited from having Pirelli tyres instead of Hankook. DRS or some kind of IndyCar style push to pass system would have been a great help for overtaking too and would have been incredibly beneficial during races such as the round in Barcelona last year. Having races with a set number of laps rather than being timed events would also be a change to include. My point is, these are all implemented easily enough for a titan like Formula 1.
Furthermore, in the long term, neither W Series or F1 Academy should have any need to exist as more and more female talent is recognized in the same way that it is for young men getting into motorsport. It will create a more competitive environment that could attract new teams and put an end (as much as there can be) to pay drivers and allowing drivers to get into race seats on pure talent and not having to buy their way in. Those of you reading this know which drivers I mean.
W Series isn’t perfect. But neither is Formula 1 and we’ve kept that going for over seventy years. Instead of writing it off and picking at its corpse while there’s still a chance of reviving it, F1 should bring it into the garage, stick a nice set of new tyres onto it, give it a new paint job, patch it up and send it back out on track again. It’s a complete no brainer.
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