The new women-only racing series ‘W Series’ was announced on Wednesday, and initial reaction to it has certainly been mixed.
There’s no way around it: this subject is a divisive one. As a male, commenting on an issue like this can lead some readers to thoughts of prejudice, as well as the possibility of being branded a ‘dinosaur’ for not being fully convinced of the merits of this idea. Well, I say “not fully convinced” but what I really mean is “I think segregated racing is a terrible idea”.
Let’s start with the facts. A new series, beginning in 2019, is set to introduce around 18-20 women to the world of motorsport by giving them drives in the ‘W Series’. This is an F3-spec level series, due to race on Grand Prix tracks around Europe, and the women to race will be selected after going through a rigorous screening program after application. It all sounds perfectly lovely and, on paper, it is. However, there are issues straight away. The first is that it is completely free to enter for the selected competitors. Great stuff, apart from that there is no such deal possible for competitors, male or female, in other categories like this. A little unfair, then, to have a series with such opportunity that discriminates in terms of sex, “positively” or otherwise. The winning driver of the championship will receive a prize of $500,000, which is considerably more than the winner of the F3 Euro Championship – current Champion Lando Norris would have received around $115,000 for winning that title, external incentives from sponsors and his team aside.
There are zero gender restrictions to racing in lower categories at the moment. Which is somewhat confusing in terms of who W Series is exactly aiming at. An F3 car should be beyond the scope of the abilities of a ‘normal’ person to handle, so presumably the intended racers are already within the racing sphere and, thus, already racing against men. Why would any aspiring young female racer who wants to make it suddenly swerve sideways into a series that has seemingly been specifically designed to reduce her level of competition and improvement?
There’s, understandably, been quite a bit of backlash from some established female racing drivers. Pippa Mann has been the most vocal of these. She has branded it the ‘Handmaids Racing Series’ and says: “As female racers we are racers first, and our gender comes second. We grew up dreaming of winning races, and winning championships, against everyone – the same as every male racer does. We did not grow up dreaming of being segregated, and winning the girl’s only cup.” In an article she wrote after being approached by the series to race, she said: “The ring masters of this travesty are desperate to sell themselves as the solution needed to the sponsorship struggles faced by so many female drivers. Stripping away our identity as racers and forcing us into segregation is not empowerment. Oppression masquerading as opportunity is still oppression.” Her full comments can be read here.
Ginetta Racing’s Charlie Martin also spoke out by saying: “This series is founded on segregation, and while it may create opportunities for some female drivers, it sends a clear message that segregation is acceptable.”
There is support for it too, of course. Jamie Chadwick of British F3 says: “W Series is giving female drivers another platform to go racing. It’s no secret that motorsport is an incredibly tough industry often dictated by financial factors. As a funded championship, W Series not only offers a fantastic opportunity for top female talent to race but will also encourage many more young females to enter the sport. I’m a racing driver and, if I could, I would race 365 days of the year. I will still race against men in other championships but W Series is the perfect supplement to help me develop and progress further through the junior motorsport ranks. I’m excited about what’s to come!”
The main problem with W Series is that there is no confirmed path beyond it. There’s no confirmation that the series will count towards the FIA Superlicence requirements, no confirmation of any reward of a seat in another championship, and no confirmation that the winner of the series is actually any good, seeing as she will only have had to defeat a selected small group of her peers as opposed to the wide and varied field that is currently available in the likes of F4 & F3. As an aside, there’s also no word on whether members of the team must also be female.
The funny thing is that motor racing is a great leveller, moreso than most sports, further negating the need for segregation. A car can only go as fast as the driver can, and laptime is what counts. The person crossing the line first is what counts, not what appendages are below the belt. We’ve seen successful women in motor racing – ‘Der Schwarze Vulkan’ Michele Mouton’s rallying exploits probably being the most famous. Danica Patrick, Pippa Mann & Katherine Legge are all household names for IndyCar fans. Ana Carrasco has just picked up a Supersport 300 title on a Kawasaki, while Jamie Chadwick teamed up with Ross Gunn to win the British GT4 class in 2015. Hailie Deegan has recently become a winner in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series in the US, while 12 year old Juju Noda is now a multiple race winner in Japanese F3 with recent wins coming at Okayama. Flick Haige won a round of British GT3 in an Aston Martin earlier this year while Sophia Florsch & Abbie Eaton are also carving out successful careers; Florsch in Euro F3 with Van Amersfoort and Abbie Eaton in GT racing as well as being a performance driver on Amazon’s The Grand Tour. Keiko Ihara will race at this weekend’s 6 Hours of Fuji in the LMP2 class.These are women who are going through the exact same processes that the men are, and coming out on top.
Michele Mouton, former rallying legend in WRC and long-time President of the FIA’s Women in Motorsport Commission, is against the segregation. Speaking in an interview at the end of 2016 after initial suggestions from Bernie Ecclestone about a women-only series, Mouton said: “When you have the possibility to be at the same level [as boys], I don’t see the point. When you are behind the wheel, who can tell if you are a man or a woman anyway, unless you wear a pink helmet? I don’t see any reason to segregate girls.”
“At the end of the day, you are racing on the same track, and even if you have a female-only series, people will still compare the laptimes with those of the men.”
David Coulthard, the most public figure behind W Series for now, says: “In order to be a successful racing driver, you have to be skilled, determined, competitive, brave and physically fit, but you don’t have to possess the kind of super-powerful strength levels that some sports require. You also don’t have to be a man. That’s why we at W Series firmly believe that female and male racing drivers can compete with one another on equal terms given the same opportunity.” Accurate and fair words from DC, and he clearly believes it as he is one of the shareholders of the series. He continues: “At the moment, however, women racing drivers tend to reach a ‘glass ceiling’ at around the GP3/Formula 3 level on their learning curve, often as a result of a lack of funding rather than a lack of talent.” This would be the exact same issue that affects pretty much all racing drivers, then. It still tends to be the drivers with the most talent who make their way to the front, or become noticed. Even the ‘rich kids’ like Lance Stroll are multiple race winners, or Champions in lower categories. Suggestions that young driver programs should sign up women as part of a gender quota are misguided and, let’s not forget, Red Bull did have a female racing driver on their books relatively recently. Beitske Visser joined the program in 2013. She was axed in 2016 due to poor results. Along with plenty of male racers.
At this point, it’s almost an advantage to be a fast female racer. Such is the desperation for one to come through into F1, that opportunities are being handed to those who don’t deserve them. Susie Wolff was far from a bad driver but her record was very far off the standard required to make it to F1. Carmen Jorda was completely out of her depth anywhere near a high end single seater and yet was still signed by Lotus as a development driver. If Max Verstappen had been Maxine Verstappen, she still would have been fast tracked into F1. If any female racer is coming through the ranks and shows promise, they will get the opportunities. The same standard of driving in W Series will not garner the same level of attention compared to doing it in F3 against a completely open field.
I don’t believe there’s anything but good intentions from the creators of W Series, and I genuinely hope I’m proved wrong in that I don’t see the benefits for any driver taking part. If anything, the drivers could be seen as scared to take on a normal mixed field of competitors. Maybe the series will prove to be extremely beneficial and will create a huge surge of female interest in becoming race drivers and can immediately move into a mixed field to continue the more logical progression through the ranks. But, until a racing driver has gone toe to toe with everyone that’s thrown at them, they remain unproven.