A global expansion, new young candidates under assessment, commitment from new teams and familiar faces: on the eve of the pre-season tests, W Series gears up for its third on-track season. We had a chat with some of the protagonists after the Arizona test.
The 2022 W Series season is getting closer and, after the announcement of an impressive 8-event calendar in conjunction with F1 over three continents, the hype for the new drivers' line-up is certainly growing.
The first all-female championship gears up for its third on-track season, having completed its first year on the biggest platform ever: the F1 paddock. After a cancelled season in 2020 for obvious logistical challenges, series' CEO Catherine Bond Muir had promised a "bigger and better" return to the track – and W Series delivered: the association with F1 was undoubtedly a marketing success and a great reward for the women on the grid, who enjoyed unprecedented media exposure.
At the eve of the 2021 season, W Series announced a progressive move towards a team-based structure, after running a centralized team in its inaugural season in 2019. New teams are set to enter the championship, with American Jenner Racing having already committed to the 2022 season and signed two-time champion Jamie Chadwick – in another attempt to attract the interest of a wider and more mainstream audience outside the circles of junior formulae.
Amidst many changes, the most innovative feature of W Series is here to stay: racing will remain free-to-enter for drivers and the revolutionary concept carries on into its new era, as Caterine Bond-Muir confirmed Racers: "For my foreseeable future, that is what W Series is about", she told us.
"Contractually, we are preventing teams from getting the drivers to pay them."
"W Series was set up to be free to drivers. If we're about finding the fastest women in the world, on that basis I believe it has to be free to enter", Bond Muir explained. "Because we can't be about the girls who have the richest family or just a sponsor that has supported them from the get go, I really strongly believe in that."
While the situation has indeed improved since W Series' inception, we are in fact still at a point where the few – yet increasing – number of females are getting no-way-near the amount of financial backing from the early stages of their careers required to succeed in the single-seater second-tiers. It's a matter of numbers at the base of the pyramid, but also of track time and opportunities for those who do rise to the top – and W Series will continue to work with the aim of addressing the issue at F3 level.
Providing drivers with a fully-funded seat on the F1 platform is indeed a big deal, and W Series seems committed to continue its unique approach to drivers selections via assessment tests. In shaping its inaugural starting grid in 2019, the series received applications from all over the world and produced a long-list of over 60 women who underwent evaluations at Melk, Austria. 28 of them would advance to the Almeria test in Spain, where they got behind the wheel of the Tatuus-Autotecnica T-318 cars.
18 race drivers and two reserves were selected for the first-ever campaign, which got underway on 4th May 2019 at Hockenheim, Germany.
Since then, the Spanish venue of Almeria has hosted the 2020 selections, as six new entries had the chance to join the championship alongside the top-12 from the 2019 points standings. After the 2020 hiatus, on track action ultimately resumed in 2021 and pre-season testing – again affected by pandemic-related travel restrictions – was moved to the Welsh racetrack of Anglesey.
In the attempt to increase its presence Stateside, W Series then hosted its 2022 assessment tests at Inde Motorsports Ranch – a 4.4km-long facility located 200 miles south-east of Phoenix, Arizona. The location choice has multiple reasons and, among the most evident, a climate-related one: rain was less likely to disrupt testing in the Arizona desert compared to the North of Wales, and at the same time, it gave W Series the opportunity to explore drivers outside the European circles.
"My greatest fear is that we're too British-centric and Europe-centric" – said Bond Muir.
"I think for W Series to be a success, we need to spread ourselves internationally."
In its first visit to the US, W Series attracted an unprecedented attention from the American public, helped by a record-breaking 400,000 attendance at Circuit of the Americas. After a highly-spectacular season finale in Austin, W Series laid down the foundations for its North American expansion, which is evident enough in the 2022 calendar featuring two US rounds and three rounds in the American continent.
"We've got two races in the US, we had the test and we want to demonstrate to everyone and especially people in North America that we are a global series" – continued Bond Muir.
"I think this year we're going to have a lot of activities in the US. I do think that's important for the business that we do expand outside Europe."
The short-list of candidates presented the youngest drivers to date, with several hopefuls just making their first steps into single-seaters. Among the 15 profiles, 6 had their programs mainly based in the US – another testament of the W Series efforts to increasingly involve drivers traditionally outside the European radars. And, while some of them might not be ready yet for a F3 campaign, the opportunity alone helped to shine a light on their careers.
There were surely also familiar faces to followers of the main feeder series, with 24-year-old Léna Bühler probably the highest ranked due to her experience in the 2021 Formula Regional European Championship, which employs the same Tatuus Regional car also used in W Series. Coming from F4 Spain – a championship that has historically seen several graduates – were also Emely de Heus and Lola Lovinfosse, who battled for the female trophy in 2021.
Drivers from Europe, though, had to quickly familiarize with a new car: the vehicle chosen for the Arizona test was in fact the US-spec Formula 4 car, which also gave the karters a chance to showcase their talent.
"It was difficult at first to adapt to this car, because coming from the F3 it's difficult to go to a lower downforce car – the driving style is so different – but it's been very cool" – explained Belén García, the driver in charge of setting the reference lap times for the new candidates.
The 22-year old Catalan has raced full time in W Series in 2021, having been selected after a remarkable campaign in the Spanish F4 championship which included a race win and the female trophy title in 2019.
"This [US-spec] F4 car is very different [to the one I drove in F4 Spain]. Of course you have less power compared to the F3 and the driving style in this regard is a bit similar, but it has no downforce. In F4 Spain you did have some more downforce, so the gap between the [Tatuus] F4 and the W Series F3 car was not that much."
García had an outstanding W Series debut and was fast right off the line, almost scoring a podium at her first race in Austria. After impressing in the previous selections in Almeria, Belén found herself on the other side – in the role that had previously been of championship runner-up Beitske Visser and Miki Koyama.
"It's been nice to get to know other drivers and you've been in their very same situation." – she told us. "Being able to help them and see their points of view and where they come from is very important. It's always important to remember where you come from and what you've done to be here."
"W Series have trusted me to do this job, to be consistent, to be fast and set the benchmark and I have to do the job well and I have to be fast", Belén continued. "You're always comparing, you're always trying to do your best, because all time on track counts."
Since its first test in 2019, W Series opted to not release the results and lap times. While this strategy initially raised some criticism, it is a policy that allowed the drivers to fully focus on their progress and improve session after session without outside pressure.
The main target has always been spotting talent, and that often consists in monitoring the drivers' room for improvement and ability to learn – it's not just about being the fastest.
Some of the 2021 exceptional rookies, in fact, were able to rise to the top after a few races, showing significant progression with more mileage under their belt. This is what W Series racing director Dave Ryan has always focused on during the assessment tests.
Nerea Martí and Irina Sidorkova – the two youngest drivers on the 2021 grid – were placed on the Academy program, which granted them a two-year seat regardless of their results. Both proved to be exceptionally fast, scored podiums and will return in 2022, moving away from the Academy team in order to offer two new young drivers with guaranteed seats for the next two seasons.
The program allows young up-and-coming talents a chance to develop their skills without the incredible pressure involved. The same pressure that they were faced at Inde Motorsports Ranch: the stakes were high.
"I was talking with Corinna [Kamper] and she was telling me – 'this is a lot of pressure, you want to do well for yourself and you're comparing yourself to others.' It is so much pressure even for me, that I'm not in the selections, because I'm the girl to beat." – said Belén García. "I'm the one to go after."
For some of them, though, that situation was not a new feeling. 16-year-old Julia Ayoub has spent the last couple of years under the scrutiny of some equally demanding programs: the young Brazilian won the Richard Mille karting selections, before becoming a two-time finalist of the FIA Women In Motorsport-backed 'Girls on Track - Rising Stars' project, which also aims at finding the next female superstars.
Ayoub went through all the selection stages in karting and was shortlisted in 2020 and 2021 among the world's best candidates to potentially enter the prestigious Ferrari Driver Academy. She was part of training camps at Circuit Paul Ricard and at the Ferrari headquarters in Maranello, where certainly had to learn how to cope with such mental stress.
"In 2018, when I won the Richard Mille karting selections, I was already working very hard on the mental side, so I could perform well" – Ayoub said. "Then I've been twice in the Girls On Track Rising Stars finals, so for sure it helped me to go through [the pressure] here – and now it worked out pretty well, so for sure it helped me", she continued.
"I already had the vision of being a complete driver before [the Girls On Track training camp]: a complete driver needs to know how to behave on and off track, needs to have a personality inside and outside the track, focus on the mental and physical sides." – Ayoub explained. "Afterwards, I just kept working on it, I learned a lot and for sure it will help me for the future."
The Brazilian had always been a fan of W Series and jumped at the opportunity to get back behind the wheel of a F4 car when she was offered the chance.
"When I was invited I already had an amazing impression of W Series. When I arrived, it was even more than I thought: it's all very professional, organized, they know what they're doing – you can feel their motivation to put women in motorsport, so it felt amazing and surpassed all my expectations."
"The opportunities of W Series are the main plus – we don't really have right now in motorsport an opportunity to race on these terms. They built W Series to give us a chance, like men have. This is the main difference. Drivers don't have to pay to race and can focus on the driving and technical side. It's really unique."
Ayoub had driven a Formula 4 car as part of the 'Girls on Track' evaluations, but had then returned to Brazil and made her debut in the Formula Delta series.
"I was 5 months without driving a F4 car so to be back with W Series was something special" – she commented. "It felt great to be back and I felt fast, I managed to improve a lot lap by lap and I'm really happy and proud about it."
"I previously drove the Tatuus [F4 car], it felt a bit different and I had to put everything together as quickly as possible so I could focus more on my performance on track and my driving skills. But it went pretty well, I thought I would not adapt as quickly as I did, because there were girls with already a lot of experience in formula cars, but it turned out I adapted pretty quickly."
While there was plenty of talent on display over the five-day test, probably one of the American drivers with the most experience of single-seater cars was Chloe Chambers.
At 17, Chambers competed in the US Formula 4 championship in 2021, scoring points in her first season and showing promising speed.
"I was feeling pretty confident coming into the test – I already knew the car and it all came down to learning the track and refining my driving" – said Chambers, a young woman with strong determination and self confidence.
"It definitely helped in knowing pretty much the exact car that I was driving [in F4 US], having a year of experience definitely helped", she explained. "Pretty much I showed up and I already knew the car and didn't have to spend time on trying to figure out how to drive the car differently from other cars. I was just learning the track."
"I was able to get up to speed really quick, I learned the track really quick and it just came down to fixing some small things in my driving to just try to make the lap as perfect as it could be and I think overall I really did a good job."
Chambers, like most of the candidates, was not familiar with the Inde Motorsports Ranch – a track which proved to be very technical but rewarding.
"I think the track is really fun, it has a lot of elevation change and I think it's a technical track which is difficult to learn because it has a lot of different corners to pick up on – but that makes it even more fun to me."
"This track is really different from all the tracks I had driven before" – echoed Ayoub. "I tried to get all the similarities between the corners at Paul Ricard and Fiorano, but still it was really different. In the first session it was a bit confusing because there are a lot of blind corners, but once I got used to it, it wasn't an impossible job and I think I did well and had a lot of progress."
While several drivers had either raced or completed test sessions in F4 machinery, only Bühler, de Heus and Chambers have already amassed mileage in F3 Regional cars.
"Currently I've been just testing during the winter with Alliance Racing – with whom I tested the Formula Regional car." – explained Chambers. "I had some good experiences with them, we had some useful tests and they really helped a lot in preparation for this W Series test as well."
Chambers is part of Shift Up Now, an organization led by Indy500 veteran Pippa Mann aimed at supporting fellow female drivers. Also part of the collective are Shea Holbrook, Sabré Cook and Ayla Agren – all drivers with W Series racing experience.
"I actually did not talk with them before the test – I think that coming into this test I just had enough confidence in myself that I didn't necessarily need to talk to them" – said Chambers, who feels that she might have a chat with her colleagues if she'll progress in the selections.
"That's probably a time that I can talk to them, as they have more experience in the Tatuus W Series-spec Formula Regional car. That might come in handy."
The best prospects, in fact, will join the rest of the confirmed W Series drivers at Circuit de Montmelo, Spain, where the 2022 collective pre-season test will get underway in a week's time. Having run in Formula 4 cars, the new candidates will have to prove themselves once again – this time in the more physically demanding F3 Regional car. And with the awareness that being announced for the Barcelona test does not automatically qualify them for the 2022 W Series season.
"From what I've seen in Arizona, what you have to do with the F4 car is pretty much the opposite than the F3", explained Belén García. "It's not that much about power, but about the driving style. But of course everyone in the test will be more than capable of adapting, and I'm sure they will be good."
"There are some very young and talented girls here that will have to adapt and learn a lot. I don't know if they will be fast straight away, but they can get there. There's a lot of talent here and they will be up to speed very soon."
How many of them will share the paddock with F1 this year we don't know yet, but the opportunity to gain experience and insights within W Series will surely provide some extra motivation along their journey in single seaters with a tangible target. This has been easily found in the past couple of years, where more young female drivers – from karting across F4 series – are increasingly mentioning W Series as their short term goal.
"I think the best thing they can get from this is the experience to drive a Formula 4 car – that little push to try to be in a F4 car for a season" – agreed García. "I think that's the best they can do. For me, it was W Series that pushed me to a whole season in F4, because you see a future in it, so it motivates you, your parents and your sponsors."
"Also, what is most valuable for them is that they have the chance to meet the W Series team and get to know them, and try to get in next year."
While W Series is thinking long-term by including drivers with mainly karting experience and actively engaging in a broader recruitment compared to the traditional European racing scene, Bond Muir assures the decisions about the next line-up will remain uncompromising: "What we don't want is to take some drivers that aren't on the same level as our drivers, because we want to have as a competitive field as possible" – the series founder stated. "We don't want half the field that is always going to be in the top-half. So the purpose of these tests is obviously to figure out how fast these drivers are going to be."
This means that some of the 2021 drivers that ended outside the top eight – nine, including Sidorkova's confirmed seat – will potentially have a chance to return to the series, but their number will depend on how fast the new hopefuls will be in F3 cars.
Among the racers hoping to find their way back in the championship is also Belén García herself. After a few unfortunate circumstances – and the frightening accident in Spa Francorchamps – Belén was in fact 10th in the drivers' standings and narrowly missed out on the automatic entry. In this regard, the Arizona test was just as crucial for García, who had to prove the series' management to be quick enough to earn a second chance.
"I am available for them to pick me up for this season and I'm preparing for that – and for other things too." – Belén told us. "I think last year was very unfortunate, it was very very hard. This year I'm taking things differently, I'm much stronger in all ways and I think I can be much better, even if a lot of things that happened last year were not on me. I think I can do well."
"I see a lot of good level and I see a lot of talent here, but also I think that I'm capable of being at their level or higher, so I think that I should be there – otherwise I wouldn't be a racing driver."
The increasing marketing value of W Series is certainly great news for female drivers, whose main issue remains securing enough funding to move on and step up to either the F1 or Indycar ladders. Hopefully, sponsors will be encouraged by the general audience's progressive discovery of female athletes, creating a driving force for the whole movement.
"My plan is to find a sponsor – whether I'll be racing in W Series or not" – Julia Ayoub told us. "Since last year with the pandemic, the situation all over the world has not been easy for us drivers. So I'm just trying to get a sponsor to keep my activities on track and that's my main goal for now."
Certainly, having the W Series champion coming back in 2022 to defend her title is an exciting story for the series' fans, who will continue to follow one of the best female talents the world of motor racing had in recent years. However, addressing the issue of securing a seat in a bigger series to its champions must remain high on the W Series' priorities.
A partnership with Bruno Michel's championships was supposed to facilitate a bridge between W Series and FIA F3/F2, and Formula 1 – in its quest to actively promote diversity – should encourage this path. Sure enough, this is not only W Series' problem, though: the series has been awarding remarkable prize money to all its participants, with half a million dollar allocated to its champion, yet, this is nowhere near the budget of a F3 – let alone F2 – season. This is a symptom of a broken system which can no longer be sustainable: the skyrocketing costs of the road to F1 is something that goes way beyond W Series.
Yet, in a few month's time, we will have almost 20 women lining up on the grid again, under the eyes of hundreds of thousands of spectators, a 500-million viewers reach and the close scrutiny of F1 teams. Albeit imperfect, W Series cannot but be commended for that.
The first all-female championship will hit the track at Barcelona for pre-season testing from 28th February to 4th March, with the series expected to release the line-up of invited drivers shortly.