All-Female 'W' Racing Series: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Until the pool of candidates grows or the female equivalent of Lance Stroll turns up, things won’t change much for women in motorsports.
Ryan Lewis is a professional racing driver who began his career piloting open-wheel race cars in Europe. In America, he has raced in the Champ Car Atlantic Series and more recently GT and Le Mans Prototype cars in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. When Ryan isn't working as a driver coach or a pro wheelman for car manufacturers, he's sharing his thoughts on the most recent and often controversial issues in the complicated world of motor racing.
The recent announcement of an all-female spec racing championship called the “W Series” is causing an uproar in the world of motorsports—and for good reason. Any time there’s segregation of any kind there’s bound to be controversy, but before one chooses to judge for it or against it, it’s important to understand the primary reason why there aren’t more women racing their bottoms off to make it to Formula 1, why the “W Series” sounds like a weird exercise in monetizing an honest cause, and why I think the entire concept may not produce the results desired.
The Issue at Hand
First, the biggest issue: the lack of women in Formula 1 and the world’s other top racing series is a simple numbers problem. Of course, that’s not the only issue, but it’s the best one to start with. Statistically, there far fewer women trying to make a professional career of being a racing driver, which, in turn, means that there are even fewer women with the financial backing to make it to Formula 1. I’m a firm believer that if the pipeline of women coming into the sport were to suddenly triple in size, the female demographic in open-wheel racing would drastically change, and that’s roughly what the W Series is banking on.
Until the pool of candidates grows considerably or the female equivalent of Lance Stroll turns up, things won’t change much for women in motorsports.
A Promoter of Change
What makes the W Series so anomalous inside motorsport is its concept of it being “free.” Drivers apparently will not pay a dime to compete in the series, and I have to admit, even if the series doesn’t ever fulfill its primary mission, just to see this concept come to fruition would be a victory in itself.
While it almost seems too good to be true, let’s not forget that backers Adrian Newey, David Coulthard, Dave Ryan, and W Series CEO Catherine Bond Muir have deep experience inside motorsport and sports marketing, and more importantly, they have all the connections to the biggest automakers and cash-rich companies. It’s not unreasonable to imagine the series being funded by a pool of car manufacturers and commercial brands, but then again, it’s almost the year 2019 so the whole thing could be entirely crowd-funded. Perhaps it’s a small group of Angel investor types, living in various underground secret Volcano lairs.
However the check comes matters less than how much the check needs to be made out to, and the pledge for all equipment to be free leads me to believe that the check will be enormous.
It’s All About the Details
There are too many variables and too little information to understand exactly how they plan on pulling it off, so I can only speculate on how the W Series is hoping to position itself on the road to Formula 1—or any other series.
Even with names like Coulthard and Newey involved in the deal, trying to do too much too soon could be deadly. The most sensible assumption, in my opinion, is for the W Series to run parallel to the U.K. Formula 3 Championship for logistics purposes for the first year, although for some reason they've decided to go with DTM in 2019. Probably for viewership reasons. Yes, aspirations of an international calendar were highlighted in the series’ initial press release, but I don’t see that being feasible right away.
Jonathon Palmer’s short-lived Formula 2 Series back in 2012 tried to expand on the successful Formula Palmer Audi series, in which I previously raced in, with an international calendar, only to go belly up after just three seasons due to dwindling interest from drivers and monumental expenses.
On top of the actual calendar there’s all the logistics involved with running the series, and I suspect that the series will opt for running all the cars itself rather than independent teams operating their own. At least that’s the only genuine way to ensure parity. But just think of everything required to do so: all the cars, engines, spares, a building to store them, trucks (and drivers) to transport them to and from races, people to handle the freight, build the cars, and coordinate event promotions to make sure people actually come out to see the racing. This is not even counting the small army of engineers, mechanics, strategists, and other vital positions the series must fill at an enormous cost. Yes, much of this is a capital investment, but year one is going to be painful.
All Cars Made Equal
Let’s not forget that this isn’t a new concept. Almost everybody currently racing in IndyCar and sports car racing in North America came through the Skip Barber and Barber Dodge Pro Series early in their career. In these series, each car the same specifications and was maintained by “Skippy’s” in-house team of long-suffering mechanics. Heck, you even got instruction thrown in from the bitter-but-merry alcoholics of Skip’s under-employed racing driver roster.
In any case, the promise of equal equipment is very powerful in racing. Hopefully the W Series can pull it off.
The W Series has focused so much on the driver aspect of the whole thing that they've forgotten that this is an excellent opportunity to develop the upcoming generation of female racing engineers, mechanics, aerodynamicists, racing officials, etc. Just imagine little girls being able to point at racers and engineers alike and think "I can do that" or " I want to do that." All of the sudden, the series goes from featuring 20 female racers to 20 female racers plus 20 female mechanics, 10 engineers, etc.
The $500,000 championship prize seems minuscule compared to the potential tsunami of women entering the sport.
The Ugly Truth
For as many good things as the W Series could bring, the truth is that the W Series is segregation. Not allowing women to compete against men, in my gut, feels odd, regressive.
The ugly truth is that the millions that the W Series plans on spending in awarding 20 cars to 20 racers could be spent in supporting women who are already making waves in racing. The $500,000 award won't get a W Series champion into GP3, F2, and much less F1. The pipeline expands, but the pressure to catapult someone into the pinnacle of racing stays the same.
As it stands, this looks more like a commercial venture attached to a noble cause, but it stands alone as an actual attempt to effect change. It should be given a chance.