“I don’t know whether a woman would physically be able to drive an F1 car quickly, and they wouldn’t be taken seriously.”
“I don’t know if they’ve got the mental aptitude to race hard, wheel-to-wheel.”
Regrettably, these inflammatory comments were not made by loose-lipped pub-goers, but by former F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone and International Motorsports Hall of Famer Sir Stirling Moss, respectively.
Given their stature, the picture of an ‘all-boys club’ is easy to visualize. However, it appears that change is on the horizon. In May 2019, a new Formula 3 championship called the “W Series” will be launched, with a very distinct USP: all its racers will be women.
In an interview conducted by The Drive with W Series Communications Director, Matt Bishop, the following information has been gleaned:
- W Series has appointed the British Racing & Sports Car Club (BRSCC) as the organizing club.
- All the backing for season one—about £20 million (US $26.4 million) will be provided by one major shareholder, Sean Wadsworth.
- W Series expects to sign 18 drivers for season one, all of whom must be at least 17 years of age, have competitive racing history, and must have completed an appraisal process stated to involve simulator and on-track testing, as well as engineering exams and physical fitness trials.
- Those selected will be funneled into rigorous training programs, each run by instructors with Formula 1 experience. Tutelage by Grand Prix winner David Coulthard and simulator time will augment driving, while technical understanding will be aided by engineer Adrian Newey. Former McLaren management man Dave Ryan and former McLaren communications officer Matt Bishop will train drivers to master media interaction.
- For the 2019 season, the W Series calendar is expected to encompass six half-hour sprint races at racetracks across Europe. In 2020 and beyond, the calendar could expand to regions such as the United States, Australia, and Asia.
- At the end of the season, a prize money pot of $1.5 million will be divvied up between the entire grid. The winner will take home $500,000, and there will be decreasing payouts awarded all the way down to 18th place in the final standings.
W Series also seeks to differentiate itself from most Formula 3 series by owning and maintaining all the race cars themselves. All cars will be serviced by technicians hired by the organisers, and every car will run on the same tires, burn the same fuel, and be greased with the same oil.
Assuming, of course, that all the technicians are equally capable, these measures will level the playing field and ensure that racers can be accurately judged on their skills and not on the quality of their equipment and support staff.
Although the W Series concept has split opinions, it has brought awareness to some of the systemic issues that women face in lower-level motorsport.
Two of the series’ organisers believe that the lack of female representation in elite racing boils down to a lack of opportunity rather than a lack of capability.
Red Bull design chief Adrian Newey, whose cars have won numerous Formula 1 drivers’ and constructors’ titles with Williams, McLaren and Red Bull, made clear:
“I have a reasonable understanding of the constituents of a top-class driver’s necessary skill set. Brute strength isn’t on that list.”
Meanwhile, 13-time Grand Prix winner David Coulthard stated:
“If you want a fundamental change in the outcome, you need a fundamental change in the process. W is a fundamental change in creating an opportunity to bring through female talent to the highest possible level.”
“At the moment, women racing drivers tend to reach a ‘glass ceiling’ at around the GP3/Formula 3 level on their learning curve, often as a result of a lack of funding rather than a lack of talent.”
In addition, Jamie Chadwick and Alice Powell, both winners of junior racing series, have stressed the importance of funding and prize money as incentives to combat the running tally of expenses associated with trying to forge a career in motorsport.
However, there has also been criticism of a female-only competition, with IndyCar driver Pippa Mann lamenting the W Series as “the biggest step backwards I have seen for women in motor sport in my lifetime.”
Acknowledging that funding is often the unsurmountable obstacle for ambitious racers, especially for women, Mann criticised the message sent by the use of funding for W Series, stating:
“Instead of using this funding to help further the careers of women in racing – by sponsoring them, supporting them, and creating effectively an academy or scholarship programs that support the brightest female talent – they are using these funds to segregate us… None of us grew up dreaming about winning the Girl’s Cup. We grew up dreaming about winning it all.”
Others, such as 2014 Mazda MX-5 Supercup champion Abbie Eaton and Indy Lights technical inspector Natalie Fenaroli, have also spoken out against gender segregation in motorsport.
That being said, there is nothing to suggest that the W Series represents a fork in the road for aspiring female racers. Many girls will still attempt to work up the ranks towards Formula 1. However, if they would prefer to spend a few formative seasons in a fully-funded, supportive environment, then the W Series provides a very viable option.
Given that there has not been a woman on the Formula 1 grid since 1976, it is clear that the status quo is not working. Both advocates and critics raise valid points on the debate, which ultimately, is likely to rage on over the coming months. It will only be once the W Series begins that data-driven analysis can be made on the effectiveness of this enterprise.
In a sport where funding, or lack thereof, has too often been an arbitrary deciding factor, sponsors find themselves in a strong position to drive change (pun intended).