W Series: Round 5 - Drivers' reactions
The fifth round of the 2021 W Series championship turned out to be quite an intense and eventful weekend. From the big scare on Friday, to Emma Kimilainen's rain masterclass on Saturday: here's what the drivers had to say about the latest Belgian GP.
To await the drivers after a four-week summer break it was the round that everyone had been looking forward to since the release of the 2021 calendar: the legendary motorsport cathedral of Spa Francorchamps.
But it would be the weather to mess with everyone's expectations and the rain heavily impacted the whole weekend. After all, the W Series race on Saturday turned out to be the only real Belgian GP, after a controversial F1 race.
After a promising free practice session – led by championship leader by the tiniest of margins on Fabienne Wohlwend – in changeable conditions, the qualifying session of the fifth round of the season turned into the scariest moment in the history of W Series. The images of the horrific 6-car pile up on top of Radillon have now been seen millions of times online, but they never cease to be chilling.
Luckily, everyone involved escaped serious injuries and the whole paddock tried to switch back its focus onto the race – but inevitably it was a Belgian GP run in the shadow of Friday events.
Nevertheless, there are several interesting points to take home after the first race of the second-half of the season: first and foremost, four out of the six drivers involved in the accident were able to line up on the grid and get back in the car as quickly as possible, which always represents the best psychological response to a shocking accident when the medical conditions allow.
Sarah Moore, Bélen Garcia, Abbie Eaton and Fabienne Wohlwend – with the latter two also scoring points – found their cars fully rebuilt following an outstanding effort by the W Series crew and were immediately up to speed in the race, despite the difficult conditions and visibility worsened by their start at the back of the grid.
The second major point is undoubtedly the return in the title fight of Emma Kimiläinen: her masterclass in the rain brings back the 32-year-old driver to the highest step of the podium after a difficult start of the season.
Here's what they had to say after that proving weekend.
Emma Kimiläinen returns to W Series victory after Assen 2019 and to the podium after a third place at the Austrian GP earlier this year. But, anyone that knows Emma's potential, will understand that the expectations on the Flying Finn were high ahead of the W Series' sophomore year.
Long breaks have been part of her racing career, marked by outstanding results and lack of funding. But, after getting back in the groove in 2019, the 2020 hiatus has probably hurt her momentum more than she would have expected and she has been struggling to fight for victories in the first half of the 2021 season.
With a complete masterclass, Kimiläinen - the "oldest" driver on the grid - proved that she has indeed unfinished business in W Series and took an epic victory in a rainy Spa Francorchamps. Scandinavians are famously at ease in low-grip conditions, but Emma's pace – 3 seconds per lap quicker than defending champion Jamie Chadwick – and her pass for the lead around the outside at Fagnes were nothing short of jaw-dropping.
"This is such an amazing feeling! I had a really good car and I have to thank my engineer, driver coach and mechanic for getting everything spot on today." – said Emma.
"The Ecurie W team is rocking and this track is just amazing – it's great to be here and race in front of this lovely crowd."
"More wins are what I'm aiming for in the remainder of the season. It hasn't been the easiest start to the year for me, but anything can happen from here and I'm still aiming for the title, that's for sure." added Kimiläinen, who now heads to Zandvoort third in the standings.
She led the 30-minute practice session and took her third pole position in difficult circumstances, but reigning champion Jamie Chadwick couldn't do anything against Kimiläinen's charge on Saturday.
"I had no answer to Emma [Kimiläinen] today." – she stated. "She was really impressive and just seemed to be able to use better parts of the track for the tyres."
But Chadwick, who entered the fifth round with a one-point advantage over compatriot Alice Powell, knew that she had to look at the bigger picture and not take unnecessary risks, as she banked 5 more points than her closest rival.
"From my point of view, it's still a good day for the championship because I finished ahead of Alice [Powell] and, all things considered, I'm just happy to come through that race unscathed because it was pretty tricky out there." – added Jamie. "I wanted to go racing when we started behind the safety car, but we managed the situation well and Emma [Kimiläinen] simply did a better job today so all credit to her."
If Kimiläinen was in a class of her own in Spa, another driver came pretty close in terms of race pace: Marta García. The Spaniard also had a frustrating start of the season and struggled to score points throughout the opening rounds. In Hungary, Marta had a positive weekend and finally brought home her first points - but the winner of the 2019 Norisring race is aiming for much more.
At Spa, García was finally back on the podium, and did so by finding speed in extreme conditions, having started from fifth on the grid. Marta battled with teammate Caitlin Wood on the first lap, advanced to fourth and then was the only driver able to keep up with Kimiläinen's pace; when the Finnish racer passed Powell for second, García also started to put pressure on the championship runner-up, building at the same time a 6-second gap to the group of cars behind.
With a great move at Stavelot, she grabbed the final podium spot with four minutes to go.
"The start to my season was not what I had expected and this podium tastes like glory to me." – said Marta after the race. "To achieve it in such difficult track conditions – and in Spa Francorchamps – has been amazing."
"I knew I had a better pace than Alice [Powell], so it was just a matter of keeping the pressure on her and I did it at Turn 15." – she recalled. "There are only three races left, but I feel able to keep fighting and go for more results. I have felt the strength of those who support me daily, whom I am thankful for everyday in my career. I feel happy, relieved and grateful."
Alice Powell, on the other hand, certainly didn't get the result she wanted at Spa.
Her difficult weekend started with a technical issue in free practice, which left her in the pits in the final minutes, when the track conditions massively improved.
Then, as the qualifying resumed, Powell looked really strong and likely able to challenge Chadwick for pole - but the Racing X driver got stuck in traffic and failed to respond to her championship rival on the final attempt.
Powell used the slipstream from a Bunker Racing's car on the Kemmel straight, but she wasn't then able to get past Cook in the middle sector, which left her second on the grid.
In Saturday's race, though, Alice was visibly struggling for grip and could do nothing to keep behind Kimiläinen and García – who were seconds faster than anyone in the second sector.
"Well, it was like driving on ice for me out there" – Powell said.
"Really struggled with pace in the race, hugely lacking in grip, so we ended P4. Thinking caps on to find out why and then onto the next one at Zandvoort, next weekend."
Despite the disappointing weekend, Powell remains second in the standings, 7 points behind Chadwick.
Caitlin Wood was back in the seat of the second PUMA car, and she didn't disappoint.
Wood, a reserve driver due to the fact that she had missed the automatic entry in the series by one point in 2019, returned to racing at the previous round in Budapest, where she impressed in free practice. Unfortunately, a technical issue in qualifying relegated the Australian to the back of the grid, which made for a tough round on the notoriously tight Hungaroring.
At her second chance in the car, though, Caitlin was brilliant throughout the weekend: steadily in the top positions in practice and, after her best qualifying effort in her W Series career - she lined up third on the grid.
Wood struggled for grip in the opening lap of the Belgian race, but a strong fifth place put the Aussie 14th in the championship, as the highest placed reserve driver.
Even if she struggled with consistency in 2019, the 24-year-old is proving to deserve another chance for a race-seat.
"I came home P5 in today's race in tricky weather conditions and Marta P3 – great team points!" – she wrote, as the PUMA W Series team scored its first double-points.
"I'm super proud of what we achieved this weekend, from being P3 in qualifying and P5 in the race. I leave Spa happy and ready for more. Thanks again to PUMA and W Series for the opportunity, I thoroughly enjoyed it"
Jessica Hawkins also scored her best result in W Series, topping two 7th place finishes at the end of the 2019 season that granted her the seat.
Hawkins has shown flashes of brilliance, as well as low points due to either technical issues or mistakes. But the British driver remains a talent that must never be underestimated and, once on a known circuit, she claimed a solid P6 with a controlled race.
One of the drivers of the weekend must be Fabienne Wohlwend. The fastest woman in Liechtenstein took a pole position and a podium in 2019, but has really stepped up her game in 2021: she finished on the podium at the opening race in Austria and then marginally missed out on her first win at Silverstone, after leading most of the British GP.
Her first retirement in W Series came at Budapest, after a first corner contact - influenced by a qualifying issue. But at Spa Francorchamps, Wohlwend was back on top form in free practice, where she finished second by a tenth of a second.
The opening minutes of the qualifying saw Fabienne involved in the shunt at Radillon - but, with a rebuilt car and after a stunning charge through the field, the Bunker Racing driver was able to recover to seventh and score good points. Wohlwend was the fourth fastest driver in the race and made up 6 positions – the last one on the final lap on Nerea Martí.
"Thanks to W Series & The Bunker we were able to have a mega race at Spa yesterday." – wrote Fabienne. "I finished 7th after starting from P13. While you could say it was a weekend of what could have been, I am just so thankful that we were all able to go racing after Friday’s events".
The best-placed rookie in the standings, Nerea Martí, had a mixed weekend. The Valencian was coming off her first podium in W Series in Hungaroring and had just claimed the third spot in the points ranking; the W Series Academy driver, one of the series revelations, proved to be again one of the stars of the future after a stunning qualifying in third place.
Thanks to a quality testing program during 2020, Martí was able to increase her mileage in the Tatuus F3 car and had also completed a 2-day test at Spa Francorchamps in difficult weather conditions. This newly-gained experience surely played a role in her Friday's performance, but ultimately her weekend would be compromised by a 4-place grid penalty picked up in Hungary, where she failed to slow down sufficiently after the chequered flag.
The penalty put Nerea in seventh place on the grid and she spent most of the race battling with Jessica Hawkins in low visibility.
"Conditions have not been the best but we have room for improvement for the next race", said Martí after the race, adding that she was not happy with how she felt the car.
Nevertheless, Martí remains fourth in the championship standings and, with another solid top-10 under her belt, she heads to Zandvoort with new learning experiences.
Miki Koyama returned in the points with a ninth place at Spa, after a few rough rounds for the young Japanese racer.
Koyama had a good race: started from ninth on the grid, passed her Sirin Racing teammate early in the competition and was never under threat until Wohlwend got by in the latter stages, but Miki is rarely satisfied by her performances.
"Spa was the round that I was most looking forward to, but not in the rain." – she said.
"I couldn't make good progress with the setup, and in the few runs from practice to the race, I couldn't learn much because the things I was doing weren't working", she added.
It was her first racing experience in wet conditions outside of her native Japan, as she described the conditions as particularly challenging. "I was locking the fronts and the rears and there was no way to stay on track. Since 2019, I have been struggling to get the tyres to work and it was my first wet race overseas. But I want to do better next time".
Another contender for drive of the day has to be Abbie Eaton: the Briton made it out of the terrifying crash with just some bruises and like her colleagues, she was ready to fight the following day.
"Probably the biggest crash of my 20 year career and my first one since 2014." – Eaton wrote. "Glad all of the drivers made it out fairly unharmed, just bruised and battered! Testament to how strong the cars are."
Her Ecurie W's chassis was signed off after Friday's accident and a new car was ready.
Eaton started 14th on the grid and recovered to tenth, after passing Sabré Cook on the very final lap to score the final point.
"Started P14 in the race after not putting a qualifying lap in due to the crash." – she summed up. "Started under the safety car because of the horrendous conditions, so much spray you couldn’t even see the rain lights of the car in front. Managed to get up to P10 and had pace for top 5. Really enjoyed driving in the conditions, just needed more laps as I worked my way through the pack."
"Main thing from this weekend is that we all lived to tell the tale!" – added Eaton. "A few days of rest and then it’s Zandvoort next".
The weekend had started in the most promising way for American Sabré Cook, who was sixth in free practice having also led the session with a few minutes left on the clock. Cook seemed at ease in the mixed conditions and was surely fast around Spa, but the 27-year old Colorado native couldn't improve on her last qualifying attempt and was P11 – with high hopes of scoring her first points of the season after an incredibly tough start of the season.
Cook's specialties are lightning starts – and on Saturday she was again off the line quickly to move into ninth place. She battled with Piria and with her Bunker Racing teammate Wohlwend, before dropping to tenth.
Unfortunately, she missed out on the first point on the final lap, when Eaton found a way through. A disappointment for Cook, who nevertheless continues to make progress in both qualifying and race pace.
"Tricky race yesterday, tons of water and cool temperatures made it hard to get heat into the tires and see through the spray on track." – Sabré said. "Was up to P9 but fell just out of the points to finish P11 on the final lap."
"Disappointed to miss out on points but happy with the progress made this week.
Thanks to the W Series and The Bunker team for continuing to support me! And special shout out to all the mechanics and engineers for the hard work on the cars and lots of standing in the rain", she rightfully added.
Vicky Piria had a similar race in Belgium: a very promising Friday, followed by disappointment on Saturday. The Italian was often running in the top-5 in practice, and her previous experience at the legendary racetrack in GP3 Series brought good promises for the rest of the weekend.
Piria lined up eighth on the grid, following her best qualifying in the series this year: "very tricky day with mixed conditions, but that’s Spa - you love it, but it can bite, it’s so difficult."– commented Vicky.
But then, once the Safety Car pulled off in the pitlane and the race started, the conditions in the midfield were extra challenging: "Heavy rain and bad visibility in today’s race, it was a real fight and we finished 12th. Don’t know what is wrong this year but we move on and refocus", she wrote. So close, yet so far away – Piria spent the whole race battling for points in a group of cars, but the points eluded her.
Sarah Moore and Belén García were back on the grid on Saturday – and that by itself was a huge accomplishment. Moore was leading the pack in qualifying and was the first driver to reach the top of the famous hill of the Eau Rouge-Radillon complex when the rain started. On slick tyres, she was just a passenger at that point, and was the first driver to hit the barriers. After her, it was carnage. Moore had high hopes for the Belgian race after a stunning third place in free practice; her pace would have likely brought the Briton back in the top rows of the starting grid – but the outcome was a much more important one, as she escaped injuries when cars, wheels and debris flew inches from her helmet. "Firstly I am so glad that everyone involved in the incident is ok" – wrote Sarah in a heartfelt post. "Secondly, a huge thank you to the medical team at Spa Francorchamps, and all the staff at W Series for looking after us." "Finally, [thanks to] the mechanics for doing such an amazing job to get the car ready to be back out for the race on Saturday. It was by far the biggest crash of my career, and as we all know it is not a corner you want to go off. So I am thanking my lucky stars" "The race may not have been anywhere near the result I needed going into the second half of the season, but I count myself lucky that I was able to get back out in the car for the race. It was so important for me to do that, even if it wasn’t the best result, to just do the race meant so much". Moore preceded her Scuderia W's teammate Belén García, 13th and 14th respectively. The Spaniard was also involved in the accident and had to start from the back, thus dealing with the visibility issues. Despite being her first wet race, Belén's weekend had also started off in a positive way, with ninth in practice on a new circuit. “Free practice started very well in the wet, one of my first experiences in those conditions and I was very happy, because I really enjoyed it. It is a very special circuit." "Then I went to qualifying with this attitude, really wanting to go all out - and I was involved in an accident that I couldn't avoid. Luckily we all came out of the accident well and I am very happy for that, for the good work of the FIA designing the cars and the Halo in particular. The truth is that it is a guarantee that it will be possible to run as safely as possible," García commented on Friday afternoon.
Belén's car slid underneath other cars in the impact and the Halo device played a major role in saving her life.
When the race started, Belén overtook Gosia Rdest and managed to remain under the two second gap to Sarah Moore ahead. Lap after lap, she got more used to the track conditions and improved her rhythm. With four minutes to go, Belén overtook Tomaselli and temporarily got ahead of Moore, before the two switched back positions.
She managed to set the seventh fastest lap of the race, which leaves García optimistic for the remainder of the season.
“After the accident, what I needed was to get out on the track, get that feeling off of me and that's what I've done." – Belén said, echoing some of her colleagues. "In the beginning I could see absolutely nothing, it was impossible to know where to put the car, where to brake and so on. Those in the first group had an advantage over me, as I was last,” she explained.
“Once we dropped down a bit, I was able to push more, I passed two cars and the truth is that I have a very good taste in my mouth. I had a very good pace and for my first race in the wet, I think it's very good." – she continued.
"I am delighted to have been able to race here and I am going home very happy, despite what happened on Friday. It has been a positive weekend and I had an incredible experience."
The Belgian GP turned out to be a challenging one for Bruna Tomaselli as well.
The only South American on the grid took advantage from the summer break to return to her native Brazil, as the pandemic had made overseas travel core complex and the young driver had been staying in Spain during her first European campaign.
“I kept my focus on preparation. Coming back to Brazil and being close to my family is great, mainly because no one can accompany me during the races. It's always great to have these breaks to return to Caibí”, said the W Series rookie.
Tomaselli was really looking forward to driving for the first time at Spa Francorchamps, a technical circuit that she had only driven on the simulator like most of the European circuits. Unfortunately, her weekend started off with the wrong foot as she picked up a penalty at the end of the practice session, when she missed the entry of the support series pitlane.
Her tenth place in qualifying was thus demoted to 12th, leaving the Veloce Racing driver in a difficult position for the race.
“It was raining a lot and the track was very wet." – she stressed. "Even behind the safety car, conditions were complicated. When the safety car went in, I tried to get closer to the cars in front but I was sliding a lot and I ended up being very cautious."
"This, added to the fact that I have no experience in Spa – that ended up playing a big role. Now I have to analyze everything so that in the next round I can have a better performance, like in the first races of the season” – added Bruna, who spun and lost a few places towards the end of the race to finish 15th.
After Irina Sidorkova tested positive for Covid on Friday morning, reserve driver Gosia Rdest stepped in the W Series Academy car last minute and took part in the Belgian round, having previously entered the two opening races of the season in Austria. Rdest, an experienced racer in several categories, had not an easy task in Spa. The Polish racer was among the drivers to lose the car on top of Radillon in qualifying, but she luckily ended up spinning towards the outside run-off, thus avoiding the other drivers involved. "I've never seen anything so scary with my own eyes – I witnessed every hit, one by one." – reported Rdeston Saturday morning. "I was literally saved by centimeters that kept me away from that bunch of cars". "It was a huge relief as soon as I found out the girls were ok. Someone was watching over them. The situation caused by the treacherous droplets at Eau Rouge only shows how dangerous our sport is", she observed. Two drivers were not part of the fifth round of the season, as they were sent to the local hospital for checks on Friday night. MForbes Motorsport's teammates Ayla Agren and Beitske Visser took massive hits and the latter was sent airborne over the tyre barrier, before being hit a third time that sent her car rolling across the track. "I'm a little sore and bruised after the accident in qualifying but, luckily, I have everything intact." – commented Ayla Agren. "My knees banged together and the right one is quite bruised, so it's not the best now but I'll be fine in a couple of days." "It happened so fast", she continued. "I came through Eau Rouge and saw Abbie [Eaton] locking up and thought: 'that’s going to be a big one'. Then I saw Beitske [Visser] going around and I knew I was going to do the same. My rear started snapping and I braced myself for the impact before waiting for the next few drivers to arrive. It's one of the scariest accidents I've been involved in because I was sitting there waiting for someone to hit me. I'm just happy that everyone's okay." Agren, 26-year-old from Norway, passed the neurological test that ruled out any serious injury, but was advised by the medical team to sit out the race.
Beitske Visser was the last driver to be discharged from hospital on Friday night, as she awaited CT scan and X-rays results. The Dutchwoman managed to get out of the car unaided, but had to receive assistance for a pain in her right leg.
Once the exams revealed no fractures, Visser returned to the paddock on Saturday morning, before heading back home for some rest ahead of her home race at Zandvoort.
"It was, of course, a very bad accident during qualifying on Friday – the worst I have been involved in in my career so far – but I'm glad I'm relatively okay. I still have pain, but luckily there are no fractures and that is a great relief." – commented Visser.
"I was going towards Eau Rouge and then it suddenly started to rain. I saw two cars in front of me lost the rear and had already come off the gas but, because it was so wet, I couldn't hold the back end either. I was praying I wouldn't hit the others, then I saw several cars coming towards me and I was praying they wouldn’t hit me too hard."
Among the takeaway points from the last weekend are again the importance of the FIA efforts to constantly make the sport safer, especially with the development of devices such as HANS, Halo, and the wheels' retention cables; as well as the safety standards of the Italian-made Tatuus T318 chassis.
"These cars are absolutely safe, although I was lucky this time." – said Beitske. "I was hit three times hard from different angles and still managed to get out of the car on my own, so I think someone was with me – I had an angel on my shoulder."
After Lando Norris' accident in the F1 qualifying session – and with precedents from the 24H of Spa less then a month ago and the 2019 FIA F2 accident where Anthoine Hubert lost his life and Juan Manuel Correa was seriously injured, the entire motorsport community debated about the configuration of the Eau Rouge-Radillon inside barrier, which tends to make cars bounce back onto the racing line in one of the fastest – and blind – corners of the season.
It is very likely that the barrier will now undergo a renovation.
Meanwhile, Beitske Visser wants to get back in the car as quickly as possible, and her home race at Zandvoort is luckily just around the corner: "It's perfect to be back in the car at Zandvoort next week – I'll definitely be there. After such a serious crash, I think you should get back in the car as soon as possible."
The recently-renovated Dutch circuit of Zandvoort will host its first F1 GP since 1985 next weekend, with W Series coming back for its sixth and final European round before the North American flyover.