“Belated Thoughts on the W Series”

Jamie Chadwick took teh first W Series title. © W Series.

Last year’s launch of the W Series was dominated by plenty of criticism, plaudits and discussion – but with the first season completed, did the concept stand up?

“So, what did you make of it all?”

There’s nothing quite like being put on that spot, particularly when it comes from one of the leading behind-the-scenes members of the W Series. For my sins, honesty prevailed and my thoughts from the penultimate day of the season finale – seven weeks ago – to now have not changed.

In one sense, I believed that the W Series had raised the profile of female competitors in motorsport, while at the same time confirming what we already knew – that those at the head of the field were the quickest and seemingly the best prepared for the task going into the opening round in May.

The only big surprise, to me at least, was that Jamie Chadwick went on to claim the first W Series title with a somewhat wobbly display at the Kent circuit the next day. Following her displays at the opening two rounds at Hockenheim and Zolder, I had fully expected Chadwick to have the title wrapped come the penultimate meeting at Assen. Thankfully a persistent Beitske Visser kept Chadwick honest and on her toes.

There were three distinct sides to the field. As noted, out front there were the known racers such as Chadwick and Visser, while Alice Powell and Emma Kimiläinen showed their speed had not reduced, despite the long gaps to their previous single-seater experience.
The biggest surprise was Marta Garcia’s turn of pace, following a couple of solid, but not spectacular years in Spanish F4 in 2016-17. She would go on to take a win a Norisring and showed speed at both Hockenheim and Zolder, before fading later in the season.

Sometimes the challenge for any new championship is not to invite fast drivers to fight for wins, podiums and points – the real fight is to ensure that quality toward the rear of the field stacks up and this is one point where W Series fell down somewhat.
Some drivers from the mid-pack onward appeared to be really quite out of their depth, with some struggling with shaky on-track methodology, resulting in a gap from the rear to the front being far too great, particularly during race sessions.

In saying that, the series’ reverse-grid race at Assen did show that the likes of Megan Gilkes can peddle a car pretty quickly when the circumstances align – her late race defence from Powell, Jessica Hawkins and Sabré Cook proving that there may be something that can built upon, as long as the opportunity to develop is there.

And this may be the greatest barrier to development for those who are struggling. Part of the problem facing the W Series drivers is the severe lack of track time they have over the course of a race meeting. Testing is virtually non-existent and, this year at least, drivers are limited to two 45-minute practice sessions, one 30-minute qualifying session and a race distance that comes in at 30 minutes plus one lap.
As there are only six race meetings (for now), on track running for W Series over the course of a year is severely limited, and this may go some way to slowing the development and preparation for drivers who are close to the back, especially if they do not have easy or ready access to simulators.

On the other hand, the series does run to F3 Regional technical regulations, from which W Series has opted to run with an Alfa Romeo-powered Tatuus T-318; the same engine / car configuration that runs in F3 Asian Championship and the Formula Regional Championship {note 1}.
Any driver that opted to run a parallel campaign in either of those categories would no doubt receive a great advantage against their opponents. Next year, competitors in the W Series can claim Super Licence points and it is a dynamic that will add pressure to the level of competition {note 2}.

Whisper Productions employed plenty of talent for W Series. © W Series.

The one major positive about the W Series was that it did appear to attract plenty of girls and young women to paddocks in a far greater number than I had previously noticed before at a race meeting. There is little doubt that much of this attention came to pass through a big push by the communications team, while the controversy generated by the very existence of a female-only championship certainly didn’t hurt.
Following that up with terrestrial television deal (broadcast by Channel 4 in the UK at least) was the icing on the cake, although it did help that Whisper Productions – the company responsible for producing W Series content for television is itself part-owned by UK terrestrial TV company Channel 4.

Young women in karting do tend to fall off the motorsport radar in and around the time one would jump from karts to cars, but if it helps to promote or strengthen links between these segments of the ladder and raise awareness for sponsors, then that can only be a good thing.
However, there are still quite a few ifs and buts there and indeed quite a few questions regarding the business model of W Series. As it stands, there appears to be a large amount of money going out and – as far as I’m aware – not a whole lot coming in. Yet.

New cars, TV deals, no particular stand-out sponsors, support slots on the DTM, technical back-up from Hitech GP, drivers not paying for their seats and indeed being afforded prize money – this is a not insignificant amount of money.

While there was plenty of curiosity surrounding W Series at the European rounds, it was clear that many of those visiting Brands Hatch for the finale were there to see W Series, almost relegating DTM to a support role.

As related to the aforementioned series’ member, if it inspires girls and young women to make the jump into karts and eventually car racing, then it can be considered a positive result.
On the other hand, it is still both remarkable and sad that the creation of a female-only series may be considered the strongest way to draw females into motorsport. That really doesn’t say much for the rest of the sport.
I still don’t think it is the best answer to increasing inclusiveness for young women in motorsport. Individual championships, rule makers and sponsors also need to examine the invisible barriers they have introduced over the years, through selective business dealings and an in-bred catch-22 scenario that begins and ends with “no women competing in cars, leading to no female winners; therefore women cannot compete and win”. Frankly, that’s all bollocks.

For me, I’m still on the fence. I’m sceptical, but also curious to what happens next and how it grows.

{note 1}
On a visit to the BTCC paddock recently, it was relayed to me by members of the F4 support paddock – who also operate in the Formula Regional European Championship – that Formula Regional may not survive the winter. Either the cars will be sold and refitted with Renault engines, so as to be run in Formula Renault Eurocup. It was also said that some teams may opt to try to enter the EuroFormula Open championship, but that would be a significant investment, as it would require a new engine / car package.

{note 2}
As a reminder, a driver can claim Super Licence points from two championships that finish in a calendar year; however, there must be no overlap. This mean that if a driver competes in two championships during the year, only one of them will count toward Super Licence points.
It is believed that this may boost the popularity of the two main winter series that are currently in existence – the F3 Asian Championship (runs from Dec 2019-Feb 2020) and New Zealand’s Toyota Racing Series (runs from Jan-Feb 2020).

© W Series.

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