Come May of 2019, up to 20 women will wedge themselves into the cockpits of their cars to compete in the first race of a women-only Formula 3 championship called W Series, meant to promote the best female racing drivers in the world today.
Whispers of the series started to circulate in November of 2017, with SkySports reporting at the time on a series that would eventually announce itself as W Series this Wednesday. Its organizers aspire to build a meritocratic Formula 3 series exclusively for women, stating in its announcement that its mission is to "promote female drivers" and "raise the profile of STEM subjects among female students, and inspire future generations of engineers, technicians, aerodynamicists etc."
"Women in motorsport are something of a rarity today, but with W Series as a catalyst, we hope to transform the diversity of the sport—and perhaps even encourage more girls into professions they had not previously considered," stated W Series CEO Catherine Bond Muir. "That will mean as much to us as helping develop a female Formula 1 world champion."
W Series's announcement was met with equal parts delight and disgust within the motorsport community. Its opponents view W Series as belittling to women that want to compete on equal footing with the finest drivers of the world's junior open-wheel racing series, while its proponents see it as an opportunity for skilled women to get the respect they deserve as drivers, and ready themselves for promotion to higher-level series such as Formula 2 or Indy Lights, the end goal being Formula 1 or Indycar.
The Drive spoke at length with W Series spokesperson Matt Bishop about how the series will proceed, and in the process unearthed new information that will help racing enthusiasts come to a better understanding of the organizers' intentions.
Bishop explained that for W Series will select drivers from a pool of applicants, all of whom must be at least 17 years of age and have competitive racing history. "A handful" spoke to W Series about entry in 2019 on Wednesday alone, and "dozens" of drivers from across the globe have expressed interest in racing W Series's inaugural season.
Of these applicants, Bishop stated that W Series would pick the absolute best from drivers that apply, regardless of age or the sponsorship they would bring. Appraisal of the driver pool is stated to involve simulator and on-track testing, as well as engineering exams and physical fitness trials. W Series expects to sign on 18 of the best performers for season one, and as many as 20 for the year following.
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 engineering ace Adrian Newey. Former McLaren management man Dave Ryan and one of its old communications officers Matt Bishop—now the spokesperson for W Series—will train drivers to master media interaction.
Unlike most Formula 3 series, drivers in W Series will race cars owned by the series itself, rather than those fielded by privateer teams. Maintenance, repair, and setup adjustment will be the responsibility of technicians hired by the organizers, and every car will run on the same tires, burn the same fuel, and be greased with the same oil. This way, the inequalities between teams that plague many of the world's spec racing series should not effect W Series, as all its mechanics and engineers should be of a similar caliber. Cheating will be difficult too, as the people in charge of each car are under the employment of the series, and not privately-owned teams willing to play dirty to win.
Teams themselves may still exist in W Series, but not as private entities. Bishop explained that depending on the series' sponsorship situation, companies could sponsor clusters of drivers that make up de facto teams, with two or three driving cars sponsored by Example Corporation, and another few by Placeholder Limited. Every car would be an identical Tatuus T-318 Formula 3 chassis, powered by an Autotecnica Motori 1.8-liter turbo-four race engine making 270 horsepower, sent through the rear wheels via a Sadev six-speed sequential transmission. Bishop says that if W Series is successful, it could in the future adopt faster cars, closer to Formula 2 or an equivalent.
Sanctioning W Series in 2019 could be handled by the British Racing & Sports Car Club, though Bishop confirmed W Series to be in contact with the FIA, the governing body of numerous international racing series across all types of racing cars, open-wheel included. For the 2019 season, the W Series calendar is expected to encompass six sprint races, each a half hour in length, at racetracks across Europe—destinations aside from the sole confirmed country of Britain will be identified soon. In 2020 and beyond, the calendar could expand to regions such as the United States, Australia, and Asia.
All the racing (as well as travel and accommodation) will be on the dollar of W Series (and its sponsors). At the end of the season, a prize money pot of $1.5 million will be divvied up between the entire grid. $500,000 in cold, hard cash goes to the winner, and decreasing payouts are issued the further back in the standings each driver finishes. Many comparable racing series offer no cash payouts, though the Formula 2 equivalent Indy Lights offers to its winner a $1.1 million scholarship, redeemable only for racing in Indycar.
"Never say never," said Bishop of the chances that W Series's prize pool could be greater in the future if the series succeeds.
But where does the money to kickstart a costly new racing series come from? Bishop assured The Drive that all the backing for season one—about £20 million ($26.4 million)—is taken care of by a major shareholder, Sean Wadsworth, who sold off a recruiting company for over $200 million a few years back. W Series intends not to lean on the cash offered by initial investors, though, and would prefer to sustain itself on advertisement, sponsorship, and financial partners. Companies interested in sponsorship represent a potpourri of industries, from parts and consumable suppliers (fuel, tires, et cetera) to financial services, tech, pharmaceuticals, and fashion.
Bishop says W Series doesn't expect to be profitable for its first few years, but emphasized that industry expertise at the helm will guide its finances to sustainability. W Series CEO Catherine Bond Muir isn't a racer herself, but is a 25-year corporate lawyer and finance banker, in both cases with an emphasis in the field of sports. She will handle the cash while the aforementioned Formula 1 veterans invest in the drivers.
But wherefrom will the drivers come? One of the main criticisms of the concept that is a women's racing series is that as a proverbial walled garden, one which excludes many of the most competitive drivers on the planet, the level of competition will be lower. As such, the champion of W Series might not be valued as highly as that of FIA Formula 3 Euro or comparable regional series. W Series has attempts to address that baked into its structure, given the emphasis on developing its participants, but those unfamiliar with the program may not realize this.
Nevertheless, W Series has its vocal supporters. Six drivers allied with the series and spoke officially in its favor, their statements appearing on a page of 14 endorsements on the championship's website. It's worth mentioning that they make up a minority of those enthused enough to give W Series an endorsement, and that none of their statements appear until halfway down the page.
Their ranks include winners of regional junior series such as Jamie Chadwick, Alice Powell, Stéphane Kox, and Courtney Crone, as well as less-successful drivers like Vicky Piria and Tatiana Calderón. Of the six, Kox, Chadwick, and Calderón explicitly state a desire to continue racing in co-ed series against the best talents they can find, and all laud the opportunity for development and open doors in their careers.
"It's no secret that motorsport is an incredibly tough industry often dictated by financial factors," said Chadwick. "As a funded championship, W Series not only offers a fantastic opportunity for top female talent to race but will also encourage many more young females to enter the sport."
"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!"
Emphasized by both Chadwick and Powell was the program's funding and availability of prize money, both of which are crucial to driver development and career advancement in the infamously costly world of motorsport. W Series spokesperson Matt Bishop pointed to the unfair washout rate in mainstream Formula 3 series, where many a talented driver has curtailed their career early due to running out of funds—success in racing is often an unfortunate function of the means available to young drivers. Rags-to-riches stories like those of quadruple Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton are the exception, not the rule.
Bishop describes W Series as a solution to the arbitrary nature of competition in junior racing series, where being at the wrong team or running out of cash can prematurely end a skilled driver's career. He identifies the latter problem in particular as a "glass ceiling" faced by many young women in their late teens, when financiers must decide whether or not to continue investing in young drivers, and claims that women's racing careers for one reason or another are more likely to end here than men's.
The arbitrary limits of a young driver's cash supply is a legitimate grievance with the existing driver talent pipelines, as is the previously mentioned disparity between teams and cars, even within spec series. But isn't the answer proposed by W Series—restricting competition in a series exclusively to one gender—another layer of arbitration? Eliminating one filter for a wanton imposition of another isn't fairness and many of those to whom W Series attempts to cater feel the same way.
In fact, a paradigm establishes itself when comparing those who view W Series as favorable and those who don't: Experience versus a lack thereof. Of the endorsers, Calderón and Piria have little in the way of future career prospects if not gifted a drive, due to largely insignificant junior careers. Chadwick and Powell have respectable racing histories, but both have money issues that are handicapping their careers, the latter expressing desperation to get her career back on track, via social media.
Crone and Kox seem to have funding secure, as well as the talent to stay afloat in the sink-or-swim world of racing, but both seem to be goldfish that have outgrown their respective bowls and are looking for an opportunity to race on a higher-profile stage. One driver similar to Crone and Kox—Pirelli World Challenge driver Aurora Straus—isn't quite sure what to think of W Series yet.
"I've gotten a lot of mixed responses about the W series, ranging from elation to total horror," Straus told The Drive. "To be honest, I'm not sure how to feel."
"On the one hand, I didn't become a race car driver to be the 'best woman out there.' I train to become a better driver, period. The female racers I know are at least equally as strong and determined as the men around them. A women-only series is plagued with potential downfalls—women's sports are statistically watched MUCH less than male sports, but I'm honestly much more concerned that a female-only series will be watched for the wrong reasons—I can already kind of hear the catcalls."
"On the other hand, most women (or racers in general) can attest to hard it is to raise funding, particularly in the early years," Straus continued. "I think everyone can agree that anything we can do to bring female role models into the spotlight, fund them, and inspire future girls to get involved in STEM and motorsports is worthwhile. I'm a little bit anxious that the W Series will not have the intended effect, but I would never presume to speak for all women in the motorsports industry... So, I guess I'll just wait and see."
"Either way, I'm happy for every woman and girl that gets involved in racing, regardless of how or why. And no matter what happens, I have every intention of continuing to race with men," concluded Straus.
Numerous successful women in the racing community see W Series—despite overtly positive intentions—as a backward step, and have counted themselves out of its rankings. As a rule of thumb, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the level of success in a driver's career and their opinion of W Series. Outspoken opponents include Abbie Eaton, test driver for the Amazon Studios show "The Grand Tour" and 2014 Mazda MX-5 Supercup champion, as well as Indycar driver Pippa Mann, both of whom took to social media to express their distaste with W Series.
"I've won and been on the podium in every championship I've raced in. So what's stopping me reaching the very very top? Not my ability. It's lack of money," Eaton told her Instagram followers. "Why waste money on a segregation? Invest in the already successful female racers that need the money."
"I race with the best drivers. Guess what? The best drivers at the moment are male. And that's ok," Eaton continued. "That doesn't mean to say that there aren't numerous female drivers out there that are as good or better. They just need investing in, re Racing Steps Foundation, Red Bull support etc. etc. [sic]"
Former karting driver, current Indy Lights technical inspector, and The Drive associate producer Natalie Fenaroli also took a negative stance on the prospects of W Series.
"I think a lot of women will be upset and will have a reason to be upset by this," said Fenaroli. "While the intention may be positive, separating women and men is not the answer in motorsports."
"Taking all that funding and using it to elevate women in the sport instead of separating them would be much smarter. There are so many successful women drivers who have the skills to be at the top of the podium, but lack the funding for the next step," she continued, echoing Eaton's criticism of W Series. "Segregation of women in men isn't the answer, and it certainly isn't progress."
To succeed, W Series will ultimately need to draw three things: Drivers, an audience, and sponsorship.
To prodigious drivers, attractiveness of W Series won't just hinge on what the driver development program or prize purse looks like. As with all sports, the drivers involved would have to sign contracts to compete. Anyone with even a peripheral familiarity with sports of any kind knows that contracts unfavorable to an athlete's long-term career prospects tend to be declined. Even drivers who are excited about W Series today could be crestfallen when the contract paperwork starts to arrive, complete with potential turn-offs such as non-compete clauses, or exceedingly lengthy contract terms, both of which could limit opportunities for driver development rather than open them up.
To audiences, the idea of a women-only junior racing series will be a hard sell. All junior racing categories typically struggle to draw viewers, who would often prefer to spectate the supreme of the racing world to its up-and-coming, no matter how good the racing gets among the latter group. Women's sports leagues tend to draw smaller crowds than men's, as audiences again tend to prefer spectating superlative male athletes. W Series's gender exclusivity is abnormal in the racing world, making it more the odd duck, and despite the term "affirmative action" appearing nowhere in W Series's press release or on its website, some racing fans will dismiss the championship given even the slightest inkling that such is the philosophy behind W Series.
And as W Series isn't a charity, but a business that aims to secure its existence via profitability, it will need positive cash flow from sponsors to exist. With the difficulties of attracting quality drivers—with whom would come crowds—already apparent, sponsors may be hesitant to commit their cash to the series.
Even if W Series achieves a technically competitive racing environment, it'd still have to convince everyone to turn up, and its premise alone has been enough to sour many viewers' views of W Series for good. No matter how good, no elevator pitch can swing negative knee-jerk reactions back into favorable territory for W Series. Its organizers have a mountain to climb if they wish to make W Series survive more than one season.