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Opinion

Why W Series must survive, and further steps are needed

OPINION: The all-female W Series will not see out the 2022 season for its three remaining races, and is now focusing on trying to resurrect the championship for 2023. While there remain questions about where its drivers should progress to, the prospect of losing it altogether should be a worrying one for motorsport, and underlines that more must be done to help female talent

Abbie Eaton, Scuderia W, Sarah Moore, Scuderia W

It’s truly saddening news that the W Series has been forced to curtail its 2022 season due to financial difficulty, not least because promoting female racers in our sport is more important right now than ever.

I can’t remember a time when Formula 1 was more popular, attracting new fans and followers to the sport all the time. Motorsport.com’s global fan surveys have shown there are more women following F1 than ever before. And while female representation in the F1 paddock – within the teams, on the pitwall and in the stewards’ room etc – is slowly growing too, there is zero sign of an F1-ready driver any time soon.

I’ll admit I was initially a bit torn over the ethos of W Series – which takes female racers out of open competition to race against each other – but I absolutely took the point that they need all the help they can get, such is that paucity of their numbers on the traditional ladder system. On the F1 support bill, it gives a mega spotlight under which to perform on a level playing field, and the racing I witnessed in person at Miami earlier this year was proper stuff.

But what we really need here – to complement all the fine work going on in W Series – is a well-financed and dedicated scheme that gets right into the heart of the sport for what comes next. Red Bull’s American driver search is one example, which achieved its aim by putting Scott Speed into Formula 1 after four years… and many, many millions of dollars.

What I’d like to see is an independent female version of that – operated along the lines of the Racing Steps Foundation project, which ran in the UK for a decade. It hand-picked young British talent and gave them the break they craved, using successful businessman Graham Sharp’s fortune to ensure its drivers got the very best equipment in the upper echelons of the single-seater ladder system.

Now, it didn’t quite produce a full-time Formula 1 driver – James Calado’s free practice runs for Force India were as close as it got – but it delivered on its targets of making Oliver Turvey, Jack Harvey, Jake Dennis, Oliver Rowland and Ben Barnicoat all paid professionals at international level. In Calado’s case, he became a world champion with Ferrari in the World Endurance Championship – and don’t forget John McPhee in motorbike racing too.

The Racing Steps Foundation backed the likes of Calado up to the top of junior single-seater racing and helped provide them with a platform to make a professional career

The Racing Steps Foundation backed the likes of Calado up to the top of junior single-seater racing and helped provide them with a platform to make a professional career

Photo by: Sutton Images

Imagine if a benefactor did that today for female drivers, taking talent at its formative stage and guiding it – John Surtees, Martin Hines and Derek Warwick worked wonders for Racing Steps – to the verge of F1. RSF’s youngsters not only got to drive with top teams, they received expertise from physicians, mind coaches, healthcarers and legal practitioners: in fact, the project worked like a racing team in itself, trying to find a competitive advantage over their rivals to help beat them.

Via Sharp’s generous benevolence of not discriminating against their wealth background, the scheme became that ‘millionaire father fund’ with benefits that gave them a shot to rival those who literally did have millionaire fathers who bought them the best drives – or in some cases, bought the best team…

The drivers still had to perform to keep their place on the scheme, both on the track with results and their conduct off it, and I recall attending a training session at the Porsche Human Performance HQ at Silverstone, where the foundation drivers all tried to outperform each other in stamina tests. I also remember sitting poolside with the French Motorsport Federation’s young drivers doing likewise in a ‘who can hold your breath underwater the longest’ contest – we genuinely feared Jean-Eric Vergne had drowned at one point! Competition improves the breed on many levels.

If you take away the middle rungs of the ladder, then you’ve got very chance of getting to the top anyway

W Series put its money where its mouth is to promote female racers, and I’ll also tip my hat at this point to other schemes like the FIA’s Girls on Track project, Beth Paretta’s predominantly-female IndyCar team (the attention it received at the Indianapolis 500 a couple of years ago was amazing) plus the Iron Dames and Richard Mille Racing initiatives in GT and endurance racing.

W Series gives the opportunity on a meritocracy basis, to prove who’s best in that field – clearly Jamie Chadwick – but then what? I applaud W Series for its prize fund and generosity in giving its drivers this chance, but those next steps are the ones where a Racing Steps-style project would provide the missing link.

I’m hoping right now that there are girls around the world who see W Series races and say ‘I want to do that’. But I also hope there’s something in place for when they get there, if they high achieve, that gives them that ‘competitive advantage’ that Racing Steps sought.

The only other alternative to an independent scheme would be via an F1 manufacturer junior team. Red Bull has the best known of those but has been strangely female averse – Beitske Visser was only the books for a single season in 2013. More recently, fellow W Series racer Marta Garcia got seven months with Renault’s F1 junior team in F4 when she was 17, not helped by team-mate Christian Lundgaard (now in IndyCar) blazing his way to the title as she struggled in comparison for results.

Current W Series racer Visser was briefly on the Red Bull junior programme in 2013 - female drivers have rarely been supported by the Austrian energy drink company's famed scheme

Current W Series racer Visser was briefly on the Red Bull junior programme in 2013 - female drivers have rarely been supported by the Austrian energy drink company's famed scheme

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Williams supports Chadwick, and gave Susie Wolff serious F1 seat time when she took part in testing and free practice sessions in 2014-15. W Series driver Jessica Hawkins has a role with Aston Martin Racing as does rival Abbi Pulling with Alpine, while the Ferrari Driver Academy – via FIA Girls on Track and Iron Dames – has promising teenagers Maya Weug and Laura Camps Torras on its books. Mercedes has Luna Fluxa and, although she’s only 12 right now, it’s not beyond the bounds of reason to think that it’s going to be someone born in the 2010s who’ll be the next female F1 driver unless there is a big, concerted push.

Recently, W Series founder and CEO Catherine Bond Muir mused of Chadwick’s talent: “Her peers are George [Russell] and Lando [Norris] and 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 that Jamie has. 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, and none of us know the answer to it, but it is an open question as to whether she would be competing equally with them now.”

It's a great question. Success in motorsport is as much about money, opportunity and seat time as it is about talent. Even then, that all has to be applied with every conceivable facet available to extract the maximum potential.

W Series should be a means to an end, but if what happens next doesn’t lead to the ultimate destination then the dream of producing the next female F1 racer will remain just that: a dream. And if you take away the middle rungs of the ladder, then you’ve got very chance of getting to the top anyway.

And where is F1 in all of this? It’s not great optics when you claim ‘We Race As One’ to champion diversity to then stand by and watch something fail that actually delivers that. I’m not suggesting it should bankroll or underwrite the W Series as a business, but it should certainly do all it can to offer further assistance to ensure it doesn’t die.

The day that W Series should end is when it becomes the norm for female racers to be well represented, because then it will have served its purpose. But I fear that’s a long way off in the future.

Chadwick has been the standout driver of W Series' three years to date, but hasn't been able to progress

Chadwick has been the standout driver of W Series' three years to date, but hasn't been able to progress

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

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