The new female-only W Series Racing is yet to turn a lap but the championship and its objectives have already polarised opinion like a high profile courtroom drama. But beyond both sides of the argument, a far more useful alternative exists writes Andy Webb.
The two sides of the W Series argument
Pitching the case for the defence of the W Series are the organisers – including F1 race winner David Coulthard and former McLaren PR guru Matt Bishop – plus a selection of up and coming female racers. All are convinced of the benefits of a dedicated female racing series, to attract more women into motorsport and to provide a well-funded and promoted series in which to showcase their talents.
Leading the case for the prosecution are established female racers – most notably IndyCar driver Pippa Mann – who consider a ‘segregated’ championship for woman a step back. The cash to be lavished on the series, they believe, would be better spent supporting young female drivers as they progress through the junior ranks.
Credit is due to the W Series organisers for making an attempt to promote and support the development of female talent in motorsport. Some of the criticism levelled at the concept was more akin to the vitriol normally reserved for heinous crimes. The W Series is not the perfect solution but neither is it a complete waste of time and effort.
The case for promoting women in motorsport
Getting more females involved in motorsport – across the board – is essential. There are more than enough reasons for large swathes of society to intensely dislike motor racing without rampant sexism and gender bias. On paper, the W Series does, however, seem like a step backwards and a missed opportunity: instead of promoting female racers we are going to hide them away in their own championship.
Elements of both the W Series concept and the alternate proposals from the likes of 6-time Indy 500 qualifier Mann have merit. But neither is the right solution. A look back into the history books suggests there is a tried and tested model which would be far more effective than either option.
An alternative to W Series Racing
Back in 1988 3-time F1 champion Sir Jackie Stewart Paul Stewart Racing. Primarily the team was a vehicle to help Paul pursue his goal of reaching F1. At the age of 28, he retired from driving to focus on his eponymous team and ended up creating a fertile breeding ground for future racing talent.
Both Paul and Jackie recognised that the world of modern motorsport was changing. To make it to F1 drivers still needed talent, determination and funding. But in the age of TV, they needed to know how to speak to the media. They required driver coaching, advice on how to attract sponsors and manage career decisions. Thus the Stewart Racing ‘staircase of talent’ was created.
Young drivers like Dario Franchitti, Gil de Ferran, Helio Castroneves and W Series backer David Coulthard benefitted from the programme immensely. Their progress through the junior single-seater ranks was smoothed and accelerated by the knowledge, connections and backing they gained from being part of the team. Gradually evolving into polished, professional, media-savvy young racers that forged successful careers in F1 and IndyCar.
Racing for the best and among the best
The ladder system allowed them to compete within recognised and established championships. Which of course is the primary and justified criticism levelled at the W Series. Competitors in the W Series will always run the risk of team bosses, prospective sponsors and manufacturers wondering how good they will be against ‘the boys’. A moot point until, of course, they move to a non-segregated championship and race with their male counterparts.
A season or two in the W Series may get a female racer exposure, seat time and prize money to fund their next career move. But will it actually have helped the cause of female racers progressing into top-line championships? Ironically that will depend entirely on how alumni of the W Series perform in other championships against the male drivers they have been separated from.
A waste of invaluable talent and experitse?
Consider how the talents of Coulthard, Bishop et al could be used within the auspices of a similar ‘staircase’ programme. All the key players in the series have navigated the path to F1 and/or top-level motorsport in their chosen areas of expertise. That knowledge of the inner workings of such elite groups is, in itself, priceless. Driver coaching from proven race winners and media management from the best in the business, ditto. Then there is the question of the substantial investment that arguably W Series is taking away from supporting female racers trying to break into junior categories.
Running a fully-fledged motor racing championship is an expensive business. Even more so when the series is ‘free to enter’ as W Series claims to be. The opportunity cost of covering these considerable fees is budget that could be used to fund and support drivers in non-segregated championships. Showcasing their talents, not as a female driver in a female championship, but as a driver in a drivers championship.
W Series on the surface has great potential but feels like a missed opportunity. Female racers undoubtedly face an uphill struggle in finding opportunities and support to start out and progress in motorsport. Taking a holistic approach to the problem – from karts to GP2 – however, offers a better chance of getting more females into F1, than hiding them in their own championship.