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W Series is a serious step forward in promoting female Formula 1 drivers – but difficult questions remain

A new all-female racing series has launched to decidedly mixed reviews, but there are numerous positives, writes Jack de Menezes

Thursday 11 October 2018 07:31 BST
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No woman has competed in Formula One since 1976
No woman has competed in Formula One since 1976

It’s a decision that has divided its entire following: is it right to have an entire series dedicated to women-drivers only?

On the face of it something needs to change. While every man, woman and dog who has a passion for motorsport had their say on the ‘W Series’ on Wednesday following its launch, what was perhaps the most eye-catching part of every report was the absence of any female driver starting a Formula One grand prix for the last 42 years.

‘That’s because women can’t drive!’ numerous male voices bellowed from their final sanctuary, the garage where they flip between working on their prized possession – normally something that comes with a Cosworth engine – and the October model on the mandatory topless calendar that hangs on the wall.

Take this side of the argument, and throw it in the bin. Had that been the case, one of the many other men would’ve beaten Ana Carrasco to the World Supersport 300 Championship this season, or Jamie Chadwick to the 2015 British GT4 title and at Brands Hatch this year when she became the first female race winner in British Formula 3.

What were the rest of the IndyCar field doing at Motegi in 2008 when Danica Patrick became the championship’s first female race winner. Taking a break? No, they were trying to win, and they were beaten.

There is enough evidence to suggest that given the opportunity, women can drive not only as fast as men, they can drive faster. But it’s this opportunity that is the problem. Given the number of women competing in motorsport compared to men, these victories are going to be few and far between. There can be no disagreeing with that. Unless more women are on grids across the globe – and for racing reasons – then there will never be a fair crack at the sport.

The current ladder used for British drivers to get to F1 – the ultimate goal – is a tried and tested one that involves progression along the lines of karting to single seaters to Formula 3, followed by various steps through Formula Renault or GP3, Formula 2 and the eventual top class. But it is one where a number of female drivers appear to reach a blockage just when they need to take the crucial step by failing to secure the funding or opportunity to move on from F3.

One driver who did make the leap to reach GP3 is Alice Powell, who has backed the new series as a “positive” move in order to help more women follow in her footsteps. "It's also an important means to an end – a stepping stone for female drivers on their journeys from the lower formulae to more senior single-seater series, taking the skills they've learned in W Series on the way."

David Coulthard has helped launch the series

As David Coulthard, one of the series’ backers, so perfectly summed up, a series that promotes female talent could lead to finding those capable of rivalling the best male drivers.

“If you want a fundamental change in the outcome, you need a fundamental change in the process,” said former Williams, McLaren and Red Bull driver Coulthard. “W is a fundamental change in creating an opportunity to bring through female talent to the highest possible level."

"Can they be as good as Lewis Hamilton? I don't know. But I do know there are an awful lot of men in F1 who are not as good as Lewis.

“So if we don't create a platform that may give an opportunity to accelerate that access, then nothing is going to change."

Carmen Jorda sparked controversy when she called for an all-female series

That’s the positive side of the argument. The negative side is worth taking into account too before making a decision on which side of the fence you sit. IndyCar driver Pippa Mann has been a vocal critic of the W Series ever since she was first contacted by it. The 35-year-old, who has competed fleetingly in the America single-seater series over the last seven years, rejected the chance to get involved with the project and believes that the money going into the funded championship is wiser spent on helping drivers already in the system move up the ladder.

“What a sad day for motorsport,” Mann wrote on Twitter. “Those with funding to help female racers are choosing to segregate them as opposed to supporting them. I am deeply disappointed to see such a historic step backwards take place in my life time.

“For the record, I stand WITH those who feel forced into this as their only opportunity to race. I stand AGAINST those who are forcing the above mentioned racers into this position as their only solution to find the funding to race.

“Support talent. Help racers race in F4, F3, GP3, GP2, sports cars, touring cars. Help talented racers keep racing at appropriate levels for their experience, in real championships, where they can get real results. Don’t force them into segregation for your own ends.”

It's a valid argument and one that carries weight not just for those competing, but for those watching. Will fans go to watch the W Series in the knowledge that there are drivers just as good or better in the same class who are off competing with the rest of the boys? It’s a difficult question to give a definitive answer on when both sides are properly taken into account.

But one thing that does emerge, and that Coulthard mentions, is that something needs to change, and there appear to be more positives that come from the W Series than negatives. A lot of the voices against the idea among female drivers are those who have ‘made it’, but then have they really ‘made it’ when there hasn’t been a women on the grid in F1 since 1976? The usual pathway remains open to those young, aspiring girls that want to take it, but if they’d rather spend a season or two in a fully-funded championship that could promote them to the calibre of team that can take them to the next level, the provision is there.

This isn’t a new women-only ladder that will act as the solution. It is hopefully a step towards GP3 and F2 and, ultimately, F1. All of those championships are mixed gender, and by no means does competing in the W Series prevent graduation to those.

It can’t hurt to explore more ways in promoting female racing talent, and if the end result is the return of women to an F1 grid, then why not get behind it.

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