This weekend saw the climax of the first season of W Series, the groundbreaking new women-only motorsport championship.
When it was announced last year, the concept was more than a little controversial. Women in motorsport have long felt a certain pride in the idea that motorsport was not segregated — that men and women could compete on a level footing. It is a laudable aim, and one that is perhaps more possible in motorsport than other sports.
However, looking at the record of women in motorsport and you have to conclude that the status quo of old was not working. Only five women have entered a Formula 1 world championship race in its 69 year history. Only two of them have actually started a race.
The last F1 race start by a woman was Lella Lombardi way back in 1976. Lombardi is also the only woman to score a point in F1 — although it’s not even a point, it’s half a point (from the tragic shortened 1975 Spanish Grand Prix).
Two women entered the 1976 British Grand Prix. F1 may be one of the few areas of humanity where the 1970s was the most progressive era in terms of women’s involvement. That is truly a marker of where F1 is today.
None of this is to diminish the achievements of women who have performed near the top at motorsport in more recent times: the likes of IndyCar drivers Sarah Fisher, Katherine Legge, Pippa Mann, Danica Patrick, Simona de Silvestro; F1 test drivers María de Villota, Susie Wolff; current Formula 2 racer Tatiana Calderón.
But with no women making it to a Formula 1 race entry in over 40 years, it was perhaps time to accept that something had to change.
However, I initially had a lot of sympathy for the argument that the creation of W Series represented a backward step. Some of the woman drivers listed above have criticised the series, with Pippa Mann being particularly outspoken. It’s also worth paying attention to the comments of Charlie Martin, from a transgender perspective.
The counter-argument, as noted by Ollie White, is that W Series doesn’t set out to be a women’s version of Formula 1. It is a junior series designed to create future motorsport stars.
For the likes of Jamie Chadwick and Marta García, W Series represents a useful leg-up towards the top. For drivers like Beitske Visser, Alice Powell and Emma Kimiläinen, it is a second chance to dream.
The first race won over Claire Williams, who was initially a sceptic.
And then just to see a whole line of cars on the grid, knowing that they’re all piloted by women, was a historic moment.
I think it was fantastic, and it gives a platform for women that they don’t have at the moment, and if anything accelerates the process of promoting women in motorsport.
Soon afterwards, Chadwick was announced as a development driver for the Williams F1 team.
Familiar faces at the front
At first, I was a bit concerned that the W Series front-runners were people I’d already heard of. Jamie Chadwick was already beginning to make waves in British Formula 3. Beitske Visser is a former Red Bull Junior Team driver who raced in GP3 and Formula Renault 3.5 five years ago — achievements that were becoming distant memories. Alice Powell, similarly, is a driver who made headlines a few years ago, only to fade from view.
That these people should be front-runners was, in one sense, unsurprising. In another sense, it was a little disappointing.
On further reflection, I began to realise that maybe this was the point. W Series is giving these drivers a proper platform to perform — not to slowly progress, only to fade from view through lack of support.
Innovation without the gimmicks
There are lots of innovative aspects to W Series. First is the fact that the drivers do not have to bring their own budgets or sponsorship. This puts the focus firmly on talent, not the deep pockets normally required for motorsport.
Then there is the fact that the drivers are all effectively racing for the same team — a centrally-organised Hitech GP-run operation. All have identical cars, which is not unusual for a racing series at this level. But what is unusual is the fact that drivers swap cars and race engineers to avoid anyone being disadvantaged by their machinery not being up to scratch.
W Series was also behind an experimental non-championship reverse grid race at Assen. The result was an astonishingly close finish, with Megan Gilkes triumphing by just 0.003 seconds.
The fact that it was Gilkes who won from pole, and she finished last in the championship (behind two reserve drivers), explains why reverse grid races are best left as an experiment. But for a championship that’s all about giving drivers a platform, the reverse grid race was the perfect way to do just that.
Top TV coverage
Perhaps most impressive of all is the excellent TV coverage W Series has received, at least in the UK. It’s helped by the fact that one of its backers is David Coulthard, the former racer-turned-broadcaster-turned-TV bigwig. Channel 4 has a minority stake in Whisper Films, the production company he co-founded. These connections have won W Series live terrestrial TV coverage in the UK.
It’s incredible to see motorsport get this sort of exposure on free to air TV these days. Despite its big-name drivers and manufacturer involvement, Formula E could only dream of getting this sort of coverage on free-to-air TV in the UK. W Series had secured it before its first race had even taken place.
The broadcasts themselves were very high quality, as you’d expect from Whisper. Having the likes of Lee McKenzie, David Coulthard, Allan McNish, Claire Cottingham and Ted Kravitz and behind the mic is dream team territory. (And you’ve got to love David Coulthard’s cheeky new catchphrase: “Where’s Ted?”)
The race coverage itself could be better. This is hamstrung by being controlled by DTM’s crew. Commentary has some room to improve too. But there’s no reason to suggest it won’t with time and experience, just like the racers. This is a strong platform on which to grow.
I haven’t even talked about the racing yet. At times, it has been superb. It’s a few years since I’ve watched Formula 3 races. I’d forgotten just how close those cars could get to each other.
For example, the fierce fight between Chadwick and Powell at Zolder was great viewing.
— W Series (@WSeriesRacing) May 18, 2019
Some of the racing at the final race at Brands Hatch was pretty tasty too.
Chadwick, seeking a safe points finish rather than a risky victory to secure the championship, showed some fight as drivers with nothing to lose forced their way alongside. But she ultimately seemed to let the pressure get the better of her. So her home race was the only of the season where she finished outside the podium. After the race she described it as the worst 30 minutes of her life.
On the one hand, it is the exposure of a weakness she must get on top of as she climbs the ladder. On the other hand, W Series has provided her with a fantastic opportunity to learn how to cope with pressure at an early stage of her career. The fact that she came out of the experience as champion will hopefully give her more confidence for the future.
Giving promising drivers a boost
Chadwick’s elevation this year to a role with Williams F1 may have happened without W Series. But it somehow seems unlikely. W Series is giving people like Chadwick a boost, while bringing others like Marta García and Emma Kimiläinen into prominence.
At just 18 years of age, García is showing great promise. She has made great progress during races, and her sketchy qualifying performances have shown improvement during the season.
Kimiläinen similarly has done a great job to finish 5th in the championship despite having to sit out two races through injury.
Surely great things are to come for several of these drivers.
But even greater things are to come for women’s motorsport more widely. Imagine how many more young women will have been inspired to give motorsport a go by seeing a grid full of women putting on a great show.
In just six short races, W Series has silenced its critics and made the motorsport world revise its approach towards increasing women’s participation.