The steps needed to get a W Series graduate into F1
Formula 1 CEO Stefano Domenicali grabbed the headlines recently when he suggested that it would likely be at least another five years before a woman could get in to grand prix racing.
Speaking to media at the end of F1’s summer break about a variety of topics, he talked openly about his vision for the path needed to get a woman into motor racing’s top category.
And it was one paragraph of his comments that served to stir up a bit of controversy.
“Realistically speaking, I don't see - unless there will be something that will be like some sort of meteorite coming into the earth - a girl coming into Formula 1 in the next five years,” he said. “That is very unlikely, I need to be realistic.”
That soundbite may have been the focal point of reaction afterwards, but it did not take into account a wider explanation he had given about the ongoing complexities that still remain for female F1 hopefuls.
Based on the realities of the F1 superlicence points structure - one we now know will not be bent following the Colton Herta situation - and the fact that there are still no female frontrunners in Formula 3 and Formula 2, Domenicali’s timeframe is not outlandish.
Why Domenicali’s comments caused such a stir, though, is that they seemed to fly in the face of the incredible positive momentum there has been behind women in motorsport over the past few years, especially as W Series has established itself.
Rewind a few years, to before the all-female category was created at the end of 2018, and there was a distinct lack of woman racers and representation in the sport. Those in senior roles were the exception rather than the rule.
Now paddocks around the world, including F1, have a much broader female representation.
W Series itself has also become a success story in terms of establishing itself as a category that fans at home as well as people within the industry pay attention to.
But, rather than feel Domenicali’s comments were an insult to the ambitions of women, W Series founder and CEO Catherine Bond Muir is understanding.
She is fully aware that despite the high targets she has for her category, and her own hopes for W Series star Jamie Chadwick, she was never ignorant of the fact that getting a competitive woman into F1 was always going to be a goal for the longer term.
“I don't think Stefano and I have ever had a different view on how women progress,” she tells Autosport.
“You need to have that seven and eight year old karter who's starting now. And they need to start on an equal playing field, have the same amount of money, and have the same amount of time in the kart and in whatever cars they're driving.
“But I'm not going to write Jamie off, actually. There is so much momentum behind her. And I really do believe that there is so much momentum behind women's sport. I mean, I'm incredibly optimistic about how W Series is going to grow and expand that.”
Podium: race winner Jamie Chadwick, Jenner Racing
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Was Domenicali wrong to talk about a five-year timeframe? In realistic terms, the most qualified hopeful yet, Chadwick, still remains two steps away from getting that shot at F1.
Seemingly on course to capture her third W Series crown, potentially as early as this weekend’s event in Singapore, her latest success will not formally boost her cause - part of the FIA’s arrangement means repeat champions in the series cannot tot up extra superlicence points.
Her current tally stands at 25, including 15 points for winning the 2021 W Series and 10 points for finishing fourth in the 2019/2020 Asian F3 series. That leaves her 15 short of what’s needed to get into F1.
(As a side note, the FIA International Sporting Code only refers to ‘he’ in its superlicence application process...)
Chadwick also has a narrow time window to make up those 15 points. Essentially, do well in 2023 and the door opens for 2024. Otherwise, it risks being a much longer process.
To turn her current 25 points into the magic 40 would require potentially winning Indy Lights, or getting fourth overall in FIA F3 next season.
But were she to miss out on that target in 2023, she would lose the 10 points from Asian F3 going into 2024 - potentially leaving her playing catch-up over the long haul and needing even more points going forward.
Beyond Chadwick, the most realistic future F1 candidate is someone who still needs to progress through F3, and F2, as well as potentially a season or two of F1 testing. That is where a five-year timeframe seems most realistic.
As Domenicali said, in comments that did not get widely reported alongside his main soundbite: "We're trying to understand how we can prepare the right pyramid also for the girls to come into the pyramid at the right age with the right car. This is the key point.
“We are very happy with the collaboration with [W Series] but we believe that in order to be able to give the chance to girls to be at the same level of competition with the guys, they need to be more or less at the same age where they can fight on the track at the level of Formula 3 and Formula 2.
“So we are working on that in order to see what we can do in order to improve the system, and you will soon see some action.”
W Series start action
Photo by: Carl Bingham / Motorsport Images
W Series ambitions
From the days after its launch, when it faced criticism from some quarters for segregating female racers, W Series has achieved success, with a regular slot on the F1 support bill from last year.
Bond Muir praises the vision that then-F1 CEO Chase Carey had in getting W Series to race at F1 weekends – saying that she still hugs him every time he appears in the paddock.
The television viewing figures show that fans like it. There has been a 13% year-on-year growth in its live audience this year. W Series is much more popular than F2 and F3, and in the UK is the most watched motorsport outside of F1. It also proudly sits as Sky’s most-watched female sport by event in the UK.
Yet for all of W Series' achievements in securing eyeballs and attention, it is no secret that it has yet to deliver on one of the key reasons that it was launched: to get a woman into F1.
Indeed, as it nears the end of its third year, no W Series racer has yet secured a full-time place in F3 and F2 to help their aspirations towards a grand prix seat.
While some could view that as a failure, Bond Muir is crystal clear that it is unrealistic for W Series to have delivered like that in such a short time frame.
“What I say to that is Rome wasn't built in a day,” she responds.
“In 2016, when I started developing the idea, there was one woman racing in a [top level] single-seater championship for the entire season. You'd get the occasional entry in Indy or whatever, so I don't think it's realistic to say from 2016 to 2022, we should have got someone [in F1].
“This is our third season: the issues and the reasons why there aren't more senior women around are complex, but also deep-seated, and sit in a time period.
“What you need is the seven year old girls to say 'I want to go karting like the boys do', and then start off being pari passu with the boys. So there are those two paths [both long and short term].
“Obviously, we want one of our drivers to get into F1 as quickly as possible, but I do think we need to be realistic.”
Emma Kimilainen, Puma W Series Team, Fabienne Wohlwend, CortDAO W Series Team
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Breaking down barriers
The very hurdles that existed to spur W Series into creation – such as lack of opportunity and investment in young girls starting out – are not the sorts of things that go away in an instant.
“Her peers are George and Lando. No one knows the answer, but I suspect they've had hundreds of times the number of hours in a race car or doing testing than Jamie has,” she said. “And therein lies the difference.
“I think Jamie is a fantastically gifted driver but the question is, has she started too late with too little? With her talent, if she had the same career path as Lando and George, it is an open question: would she be competing equally with them now?”
The physical aspect of motor racing – especially in relation to power-steering systems in some categories –cannot be discounted as a factor either.
“I know that there's been some research done recently on steering loads on wheels, and there are many multiple times the steering load in an F2 car that there is an F1 car," adds Bond Muir.
“So the question is: does that give a woman a disadvantage? We don't have the data, and it's data-driven. But I know one of the good things that the FIA is doing is that they're starting to look at some research into this area.”
Abbi Pulling and Hamda Al Qubaisi
Photo by: Formula Motorsport Ltd
More opportunities are opening up. F3 recently conducted another dedicated test for four woman drivers: Abbi Pulling, Hamda Al Qubaisi, Chloe Chambers and Nerea Marti, while Chadwick completed a run in an Indy Lights car with Andretti Autosport.
These may seem like small steps at the moment, but W Series always knew that changing attitudes, and ensuring that the next generation of female racers has better opportunities, was not something that was going to happen immediately.
Ultimately, where Bond Muir sees W Series having been successful, is that comments like Domenicali putting a five-year timeframe on a woman racing in F1 are now viewed as something against the grain.
Several years ago, some people would have been accused of being mad for thinking even a five-year timeframe was possible. But now that opportunity for a woman is very much on the cards.
All it will take is for the correct elements to fall into place: the right female talent being singled out and backed early enough in their career for the pathway to the top to be clear.
Bond Muir added: “Historically, because it has been 42 years since women had driven in F1, none of the [sponsorship] money went to the woman drivers.
“I would describe it as having been a sort of path that had just become overgrown, because no one saw that it was open for women.
“I think the most significant thing that W Series has done is it has made people realise that women can race single seaters well.
“And I think we just need more drivers in, so they can race better, and they can keep improving and get faster.”
The F1 opportunity for a woman will not happen tomorrow, but where until even quite recently it appeared completely blocked, now at least the pathway is opening up.
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