W Series Joining F1 Could Be a Watershed Moment for Women in Racing

Marshall Pruett
·12 min read
Photo credit: Dan Istitene - Getty Images
Photo credit: Dan Istitene - Getty Images

From Road & Track

Recent news of a season-long partnership between Formula 1 and the W Series has the potential to radically alter the sport’s future.

Among the biggest developments of the year, F1 selecting the all-women driver development championship as its preferred support series is poised bring a vast new audience to the women who will form the 2021 grid. The W Series is expected to be embedded for eight F1 weekends, at to-be-announced venues.

The alliance brings the weight of F1’s legitimacy, influence, and fanbase to the growing new series. Freed from the notion that it lives on the fringes, the W Series has now received racing’s most coveted endorsement. With F1 in their corner, we can envision a future where decades of apathy and tokenism directed at female racers will meet a welcome end. Good lord, it’s long overdue.

Above, left to right: Beitske Visser, W Series CEO Catherine Bond Muir, series champion Jamie Chadwick, and Alice Powell celebrating on the podium at Brands Hatch in August 2019.

As part of the next F1 calendar, the W Series has a transformational opportunity to showcase the skills within its driver ranks. Set for a grand new stage, F1’s welcoming of the series is the dream outcome long sought by CEO Catherine Bond Muir and her colleagues.

"I think we have had a lot of happy dances today," Muir told Road & Track after the news was revealed. "I think all of us are really just overwhelmed that we have traveled so far in such a relatively short amount of time. We started off with a really small team of people; we only had 11 full-time employees in the first year. And what they managed to do was put on a really professional motor racing series that reached all corners of the world. We only had six races, [but] in the U.K., for example, we were the second-most-watched female sport and we were the second-most-watched motorsport. So I think what we did struck a chord, and we were so jubilant after the first year."

Launched in 2019, the open-wheel training series spent its first season attached to the DTM championship. Two exceptional talents garnered most of the accolades during the W Series’ debut, with England’s Jamie Chadwick earning the inaugural championship and her countrywoman Alice Powell placing second. But despite the interest the W Series earned, its placement on the undercard of the storied but comparatively small DTM meant that Chadwick, Powell and their competitors performed far from the strongest international spotlight.

Forced to cancel its sophomore season due to the global pandemic, whatever degree of momentum the W Series generated in 2019 was all but lost as the drivers set to contest its second championship sat idle in 2020.

"Sitting here where we are, we're just on the verge of showing ourselves in front of the world and we will have so much greater exposure," Muir said. "And we thank Formula 1 so much for wanting to be a partner of ours so we can work with them and make Formula 1 weekends more diverse.

"I think Formula 1 has done very well to date about expanding the numbers of women who work in all of the teams. Certainly Formula 1 itself [has] an awful lot of very senior women who work there. And I suspect they felt the one area that was missing was actually in women being out on track. And I think W Series helped solve that diversity issue for them."

The W Series was never going to fulfill its potential while connected to the wonderful but niche German sports car organization. Mass and volume have been the missing ingredients in normalizing women athletes in motorsports.

Chart the lineal influence of Janet Guthrie, the first woman to race at the Indianapolis 500. Those who followed her 1977 debut can thank the soft-spoken American as a pioneer, inspiring young girls and women to pursue careers in racing. Lyn St. James, Sarah Fisher, Danica Patrick, and Simona de Silvestro are among the small number of inspiring women drivers who’ve followed the path the Iowa native carved to Indianapolis. The same can be said of rallying legend Michele Mouton and her influence on a generation of women racers.

There are more, but not many. In most instances, fans can count by hand every female racer to have graced a popular championship, with fingers to spare. It’s a dishearteningly familiar tune heard in too many racing series.

A historical lack of representation and visibility is the core of the problem. Too few women have had quality opportunities to drive, own, manage, mechanic, or engineer.

"There's so many different forms of motorsports today that have enabled so many different types of people to get excited and participate and be successful in the sport," said the 73-year-old St. James, who qualified sixth in the field of 33 drivers at the 1994 Indy 500. "But then it boils down to, where's the cream of the crop? Where are the top levels? There's NASCAR, there's IndyCar, there's NHRA [...] if you aren’t in those categories, you don't exist in their eyes."

When the W Series comes to the international stage as the next F1 season gets underway, it will offer inspiration to audiences that have rarely seen themselves in the top echelons of racing. "A lot of those [watching] are young girls, or young Hispanic or young African-American people," St. James said. "And if you don't see it, you can't be it."

Norway’s Ayla Agren shows what an inspiring role model can mean to a young woman. Inspired by Danica Patrick’s stunning rookie performance at the 2005 Indy 500, Agren began karting in Europe, moving to the U.S. in her late teens to pursue open-wheel glory. Working with a tight budget, Agren was often relegated to smaller developmental series or partial-season campaigns.

More than a few team owners showed interest in her talent, and some offered assistance with heavily-discounted rides when possible, but Agren's career stalled in 2017 due to a lack of adequate funding. Now 27, she has a second chance on the horizon, pursuing her dream in the W Series next year—a common bond with most of the women chosen to compete in the championship.

"I think it’s fantastic news that the W Series will be a support series of F1 in the 2021 season," she told R&T. "W Series exists to support the careers of female racing drivers everywhere, and to foster interest in and enthusiasm for motor racing among girls and women all over the world. What better platform to achieve this than together with F1? Is there a more prestigious series in the world? I think it’s a massive step in the right direction, showing again how serious the W Series is about its mission and the drive forward for women in motorsports."

Agren's story reads like a W Series mission statement: a young girl seeing Danica Patrick in action, visualizing herself in the same car, at the same race—then embarking on a journey to make that dream a reality. Decades before Agren was born, St. James had a similar moment of inspiration watching NHRA trailblazer Shirley Muldowney, the first woman to compete in Top Fuel drag racing.

St. James also found motivation in a different sport: tennis. "To be honest, the most pivotal thing that got me was when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs," she said. "I mean, I was never going to be a great tennis player at that level, but when I saw her do that [...] I was going to the races, and I was a crew member for my husband, making sandwiches and keeping timing and scoring. I'm like, 'Damn, I really like to drive and I really like to drive fast. [...] If she can do that, I can get in my Pinto and drive a race car.'"

Individual stories of inspiration and empowerment have been the norm for women in racing. Muir recognized the monolithic, lingering problem: Women made up a nominal percentage of participants in the sport. The conceptual solution was to build an academy to address the issue. This evolved into the W Series.

"When I was planning this, I went through a period of thinking that it was the wrong thing to do," Muir admitted. "If men and women can race equally, [I worried] it was absolutely wrong to have a separate female-only series. But then I looked at the stats, and the reason why I believe that W Series was the right way to go was that, if you were looking at the numbers of women that were racing in single-seater series across the world in the previous eight years, year on year, the numbers of women competing was going down. This was at the point of inflection where lots of other sports across the world were gathering momentum for women [...] in traditionally male sports. And I thought there was just something really wrong with motorsports.

"I would like to think W Series has galvanized a lot of these activities. Since we've started and since we have gained such a high profile [...] there is a lot more activity around the world. And I think Formula 1 supporting us is the ultimate validation for the idea that W series is the right thing to do. [Ex-F1 driver] David Coulthard, one of our co-founders, always said that if there is a problem with a system, then you have to change the system."

If there’s one area of caution that comes with the F1 link, it’s in tempering expectations. The problems that the W Series set out to solve won't disappear instantly. The increased promotion and awareness that await the series will certainly help, but it’s the first of many steps in a lengthy journey. Akin to a university, the majority of W Series drivers require years of training before they'll be considered for opportunities in all the series where women are absent or underrepresented.

And then there’s the question of whether a sport dominated by male team owners will show a willingness to hire W Series alumnae. Beyond the volume of women learning and racing in a centralized championship, the series’ deepest impact will be felt when it begins generating a significant number of graduates who go on to race in F1, IndyCar, and beyond.

"It takes a volume of people to flood the gates, to be able to then displace the other ones that are there," St. James said. "But I think we need leadership.... We need the leaders of the sport, the sanctioning bodies, the team owners, to step up and go, 'This is something we should do. We should provide some opportunities. We should provide some incentives. We should look beyond our own mirrored image of ourselves to realize that there are other people out there that could get the job done and that could with some opportunity and with some support.' It'll grow the sport."

Considering the scale and reach and new fans that F1 can offer, and the support of new sponsors who see the value in supporting female talent, Muir believes the W Series could become a mainstream championship in years to come. Her proof of concept came in 2019 when the W Series held its first race in England, at Brands Hatch.

"[T]here was thousands of people who were coming just to watch W Series," she said. "And they were saying that they had never seen an audience like it. We don't hide ourselves away from crowds. We want to be absolutely next to the public and for them to see our drivers. And it was just full, the crowds were full of young girls, and also young boys, getting autographs from all of the drivers. And you could see the look of excitement on all of these girls' faces about being able to see the drivers up close, get their autograph, get selfies with them. It was a day that was actually just pure joy, because people were witnessing something that they'd never seen before.

"We always hoped that our diversity would attract boardrooms. I think what is happening in major boardrooms, lots of people are now saying 'we can't support exclusively male sport'.... I think we offer a fantastic and complementary alternative to either F1 sponsors or new sponsors coming in, that can come along and be part of our story. I believe that we can grow and build a really, really large audience across the world, because our audience engagement to date has been significant, but there is a huge amount of growth that we can achieve in a very short time."

Another one of Muir's goals is to expand the W Series beyond its European base—especially by branching out to North America and creating a pipeline to IndyCar.

"I do believe that in the future, W Series will not just be associated with Formula 1," she said. "It would be great to have a conversation with Roger [Penske, owner of the IndyCar series], and I would love to see some future growth of more activity of the W Series in the United States. If I had a dream that isn't being fulfilled at the moment, it would be to see W Series at the Indy 500."

St. James hopes the words of one of her heroes will resonate with the women who will represent the W Series, as well as in other championships where female drivers are fighting to reach the top of the sport.

"I stayed focused on my mission of my personal love and passion and desire when I did get to IndyCar, and got a little more successful and more visible.... [That's] when I accepted it was a responsibility," she shared.

"Billie Jean King literally said to all of us, 'You are the most powerful while you are competing. It isn't just about you, and you can make a difference in the world.' And I'm like, Holy shit! There's no wiggle room there."

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