Feature: The series that will revolutionize motorsport
Not just about female drivers: a chat with Catherine Bond-Muir, CEO of the series that will change motorsport as we know it.
A little more than 3 months ago, the first ever W-Series championship kicked-off in Hockenheim, Germany. 96 days and five race weekends just flashed by, as we are about to pack for the sixth and last round of the 2019 campaign.
Brands Hatch will host, in fact, the first grand finale of the all-female series this weekend. An iconic venue in the history of motor racing, the British racetrack played host to several Formula 1 British Grand Prix and two European GPs between 1964 and 1986.
While the battle for the first, historical title is still far from over with top-drivers Jamie Chadwick and Beitske Visser separated by only 13 points, we can't help but feel a little bit of nostalgia already for a season that has truly surpassed every expectations.
As a long time supporter of women in motorsport, I started to follow the inaugural W-Series season with my fair share of doubts, but as soon as the Hockenheim weekend got by, I had already changed my mind.
I had met some of the selected drivers before and I knew most of them were somehow forced to put their careers aside due to a lack of funding in the past. To see again the spark in their eyes, as well as the many ladies that were for the first time entering an international series with this level of professionalism, it was for me enough to put all critics aside.
"When Alice Powell finished on the podium in the first race, she hugged me and said thank you for making me feel like this again. If we can give motor racing dreams back to people, that's really important." - C.Bond-Muir
I also had the opportunity to chat with Mrs. Catherine Bond-Muir, the CEO and mastermind of W-Series. What I found was a very open-minded person, genuinely interested in the sport and incredibly willing to listen to my opinions on the series. Initially, I did not hide to her my skepticism.
"I was with you on that." - she replied. "I had become a mother at 45 and I had just stopped working. So I got bored two years later and by complete coincidence the concept of a woman-only series was mentioned to me, and I thought it was a great idea. But then I did some research and actually thought it was a dreadful idea! Men and women can race equally, it's not right and I've never been a fan of positive discrimination."
"I thought that this was the wrong thing to do. But then I also did some research into the number of women that were racing in single-seaters across the world and the trend was going down. The situation was getting worse and it seemed to me that something fundamental had to change."
"Hopefully W-Series will have two effects: one is to help propel women into racing, not just Formula 1 but also other echelons. It's going to take years, obviously, but the super-licence points that we'll get are going to help enormously. And second, we're making stars of the drivers. We know already that there are a lot of people whose daughters are loving W-Series and haven't been motorsport fans before."
"But I have every sympahy with critics, because I've been one".
The W-Series did all the talking on track, starting from a very innovative approach. As I followed each and every session, my perspective started to change: I was not witnessing to a female alternative to Formula 1, a series that segregated women for not being able to race against males. I was in front of a revolutionary idea of junior formula, a training ground for talents from very different backgrounds that could finally have a platform to learn in a professional environment and, ultimately, go on to race competitively in mixed championships.
Everyone attending karting tracks will be able to see more and more young girls making their first steps in karting but less women are actually switching to racing cars. So Mrs. Bond-Muir does have a point: W-Series might be ideologically the wrong path, but it's a necessary path today.
While W-Series is certainly about women in motorsports, what I bring home from this first season is an even bigger picture: as someone who has struggled to race and has seen countless of drivers struggling for sponsorship, the overall business approach of W-Series is something that cannot go unnoticed. Never a company claim was better suited, as the series started to "rethink racing" from its core practices.
"We are allowing people to race for no money. It is allowing people from all backgrounds." - said Bond-Muir, pointing straight to the most innovative feature her series has been able to introduce. Sure, some of the selected drivers do have wealthy parents, but the vast majority of the drivers come from families that could not have supported a Formula 3 campaign, let alone planned a long-term career in motorsport.
"When Alice Powell finished on the podium in the first race, she hugged me and said thank you for making me feel like this again. If we can give motor racing dreams back to people, that's really important."
Eighteen drivers were selected from a pool of more than 100 entrants after a revolutionary selection process that involved no sponsorship money. An impressive game-changer for the industry, that raises the question of why other racing series are not following W-Series' footsteps in being just what motorsport should be: a fair competition between the best drivers.
"I predict that when we'll demonstrate that this is a sustainable business model other people will do it." - was Catherine Bond-Muir's answer.
As a new concept, the inaugural season certainly raised media attention and a lot mixed emotions. But now the real challenge will be to make this business model sustainable on the long-run.
"The thing is you have to deliver a really good sporting product, and that's the real advantage of the one-make model. It's about delivering really exciting racing."
Apart from using a spec-chassis and engine, W-Series also introduced the original concept of switching cars and engineers between drivers each weekend, as well as it has proved open to experiments such as a non-championship race with a reverse grid based on point standings.
"One of my biggest fears was that I didn't know how fast the drivers would be, wheter there would be seconds per lap between the top and the bottom. It was absolutely impossible to predict".
With a field of drivers with such a diverse racing backround, the risk of witnessing to a couple of drivers dominating the championship from the earlier rounds was, in fact, very real. Instead, weekend after weekend the whole line-up got closer and more competitive, another testament to the series approach to open-data as a learning opportunity.
"Once the audience will get to know the drivers as individuals, with all their different personalities, that will also help people be interested in the races. We are doing a behind the scenes documentary just as Formula 1 did, hopefully that will help to drive audience.
And obviously we must create income from sponsorships, media rights, just like any another championship. I think Alejandro Agag is a god, because he's done what I've done but twenty times bigger as he has set up his own races."
While Bond-Muir herself does not come from a motor racing background, she has been able to involve some of the most capable and influential people in motor racing: from Gerhard Berger that supplied W-Series with the DTM platform, to David Coulthard and most of the W-Series personnel that include figures like Dave Ryan, Matt Bishop and Annie Bradshaw.
"I've known David Coulthard for twenty years and he became involved at a very early stage. David is not just a celebrity that comes along, but he has been heavily involved in the decision-making and he was the one to introduce me to Dave Ryan. He described him as the racing director the other racing directors wanted to be. And then of course Matt Bishop, who was communication director at McLaren. Going into meetings with people like Dave and Matt gave the management team a massive credibility in motorsport. We need to have a pure pedigree in the sport."
"If I had said to Dave, for example, let's pick a Chinese girl, just because we need a Chinese girl for commercial reasons, Dave would have said no. I know there has been comments about favouring the Brits, but we chose the 18 plus 2 fastest drivers."
Three years ago, when W-Series was still in its embryonic stages, female sports were starting to gain momentum, especially in the UK. But "no-one watches women sports" was still a sentence that Bond-Muir was frequently told. Last month, the Women FIFA World Cup semi-final attracted a 11.7 million viewers, the largest television audience this year in the UK.
W-Series has delivered so far quality racing from 20 extraordinary young women, whose stories deserve to be known by the largest possible worldwide audience. While more accessible TV coverage in some areas is being worked on for next season, I hope that even the biggest skeptics will give W-Series a chance this weekend. Real motorsport lovers will understand that this so much more than women sports. It really is about rethinking racing, for the better.
"I did some research into the number of women that were racing in single-seaters across the world and the trend was going down. The situation was getting worse and it seemed to me that something fundamental had to change."
Cover Ph: W-Series Media