Is W Series the answer for women in motorsport? | Thank Frankel it’s Friday
I was sad to hear that the W Series for women racing drivers had folded with two rounds of the current season to go. More sad, I should say, than at the loss of any other series I can recall. And there have been plenty that have gone the same way.
And I am aware, acutely so, that I run a risk even in writing what follows, because regulars will probably have spotted by now that I am a bloke, and when a man chooses to write about subjects concerning women, he exposes himself to charges of mansplaining and worse. I don’t think anything hereafter will offend, and it is certainly not my intention to cause any, but I am the person who said Auto Express would not last six months, predicted the imminent demise of the SUV 30 years ago and that no one would ever build a faster car than the McLaren F1. So a fat lot I know.
Even so, I’m not going to delve into the reasons for the W Series demise, other than to state the obvious which is that it ran out of money, largely because I am far from an authority on the subject. But I will say I was in two minds about the series when it was born at the start of the 2019 season. How could women show that they could cut it among the men if the racing they did was specifically designed to separate them? Was it not adding weight to the argument of those who said that, for whatever reason, women simply couldn’t drive as fast as men so needed to compete away from them? They’d then point to the fact that in the 72-year history of the F1 World Championship just five women have entered grands prix, of whom just two had actually taken a start of whom just one had scored points. Well, a point or, more accurately, the half point earned by Lella Lombardi at the abbreviated 1975 Spanish Grand Prix.
But then I started watching the W Series, first out of professional curiosity, but soon out of genuine personal interest. And I really enjoyed it, far more than say, Formula E. They raced hard, fast and fair at great circuits in cars without much downforce so overtaking was never far away. As a show for the viewers, it was as good if not better than any other single seat formula I’ve watched that wasn’t Formula 1. And at times it was better than that.
Nevertheless there were problems and the fact Jamie Chadwick won all three championships was among them. I don’t think it was intended as a feeder series but you can see from a commercial point of view that interest might wane if one driver is more likely to win any given race than all the others put together. And so it proved: Jamie did 21 rounds of the W Series over three years, finished 20 and won 11 of them. Of those races she finished she was on the podium for all bar two of them. But what would you do instead? Kick out the champion every year? Introduce success ballast? Put all prospect names into a hat and allocate places according to random draw? It’s so easy to point out what’s wrong, so much harder suggest how it might be put right.
And even then, there’ll always be those who’ll point out that while Jamie may be the queen of the W Series, her star shone a lot less brightly in British Formula 3 which she did for the two seasons prior to W Series, with just one win and two other podium places to show from 48 rounds completed.
Me? I simply don’t know and I don’t think there is yet nearly enough evidence even to suggest that a woman could not make her way to the top of the motor racing tree and stay there. Because rightly or wrongly – in my view wrongly but understandably so – motor racing has been an overwhelmingly male sport from the outset. It would be fascinating to learn what proportion of all competition licence holders all over the world are women. I’d be amazed if it were one per cent.
But let’s say that it is. That means the pool from which female talent is drawn is one hundred times smaller than that for men, and that’s before you consider those women who, also entirely understandably, have all the talent in the world but no desire to spend their lives in a world so macho, so testosterone-fuelled that to date there has not been a single openly gay male Formula 1 driver. Which, given that 772 drivers have started world championship grands prix to date, is something of a statistical anomaly.
So it is no surprise that no woman has yet established herself as an F1 frontrunner and, so far as I can see, this says everything about the lack of women in the sport and nothing whatever about their ultimate potential. I’m sure there are some very good footballers in San Marino, but no one is surprised they’ve not yet made it to the World Cup final.
As for me, I’ve only once shared a race car with a woman, her name is Alice Powell, she’s been one of Jamie Chadwick’s closest rivals throughout the W Series and at the 2015 Silverstone 24 Hours she made me and my other male team-mates look hopelessly off the pace. We were in an Aston Martin Vantage and came fifth, us undoubtedly holding her back. The race was won by a similar car driven by a 17-year-old upcoming hotshot called Jamie Chadwick. The professional racing drivers with whom she shared the car were in awe of her talent and predicted she was headed for the top.
And I hope she gets there, but until the sport changes in the most fundamental way, and becomes something young girls might naturally choose to do from the earliest age they can get into a kart, I fear the wait for greater female representation at the top level of our sport is destined only to continue.