W Series: the parable of a project that dared to be different
Opinion: Daring, visionary and groundbreaking – but also divisive and flawed. Here’s our honest look at the story of a project with big ambitions and whose impact will probably be appreciated over the next decade.
W Series going into administration is a sad yet unfortunately unavoidable development for the first all-female formula championship, which halted its on track operations at the end of 2022 into its third season, having hit financial troubles. Founded by Catherine Bond Muir in 2018, the series launched its first, historic season in 2019 on the DTM package. Since its curtain raiser at Hockenheim, W Series has been a groundbreaking project with an innovative approach that went beyond the "female-only" feature. By hosting a driver selection shootout, W Series was the first professional motorsport series to put talent over money, offering free drives to many female racing drivers. Sure, it was controversial. For many established drivers – as well as some long time supporters of women in motorsport – the idea of a separate championship for female drivers felt like a step backwards, in a sport where men and women can compete on equal terms. "Men and women can race equally, I've never been a fan of positive discrimination" – Bond Muir told us in our first meeting in 2019, as we expressed our skepticism. "[Initially] 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", she continued. After an increase in numbers in the mid 2000s, a few talented drivers had reached elite racing series – both in Europe and, mainly, in the US. But their presence had hardly ignited a real grassroots movement, as momentum was lost especially in single seaters. Female drivers continued to struggle to break the glass ceiling.
As her series was starting to raise interest around the motorsport world – as well as criticism – Bond Muir told us the two main goals that her project was trying to achieve: "One is to help propel women into racing, not just Formula 1 but also other echelons. 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." Three racing seasons later, one of the most common arguments detractors raise is that W Series failed its purpose by not bringing a female driver to Formula 1. Famously, the last woman to compete in F1 has been Lella Lombardi, who last entered a Grand Prix in 1976 – almost 50 years ago.
While breaking this hiatus for women at the top of the single-seater pyramid will be an incredibly important moment and goal for the sport itself, it wouldn't be fair to expect a single project to carry this task on its shoulders. A lot of work at grass-roots level, infact, still needs to be done, and W Series was always going to be only one of the many initiatives required in order to reach the top of a system that has to address cultural, numerical and financial barriers.
Giving motor racing dreams back to people
What W Series successfully did was spark a much needed conversation, as well as bringing back behind the wheel drivers that had often put their dreams on hold for financial reasons, with the aim of inspiring the younger generation. Role models can be extremely powerful – but the results wouldn't be felt in the short term. With a background in corporate finance, the mastermind behind the series always came across as genuinely interested in learning about the sport, as well as open minded enough to take onboard criticism and suggestions. The management's lack of a motorsport background had its pros and cons. The biggest pro was clearly the fresh, uncompromising approach that start-ups need in order to be truly revolutionary – but on the other hand eventually played a role in the execution, which had its flaws. "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" – Bond Muir told us after the first ever race, clearly filled with pride and enthusiasm for what it was shaping up to be some form of redemption for drivers that lacked the funding to showcase their talent.
Via W Series' centralized structure – that featured no teams and no title sponsor at the beginning, in order to maximise the growth of the W Series brand itself – the championship was aiming at something truly revolutionary for junior motorsport: offering fully-funded seats to the best drivers, via a selection process. Drivers of the likes of Alice Powell, Beitske Visser, Emma Kimiläinen, Vicky Piria, Marta García, Sarah Moore, were back in the driving seat after years-long budget-improsed interruptions. And they proved to be competitive, finding in this second chance a re-launch of their careers. To see again the spark in their eyes, alongside drivers entering their first international season in formulas, was certainly commendable. Talent was, for once, put ahead of money – but with an average age of 24, the inaugural grid raised questions whether the series was targeting the correct drivers with chances to progress up the single seater ladder. In the same year, FIA F3 - the championship one step above – featured an average 19,7 year old's grid.
Driver development vs quality of the racing product
Having positioned the championship at Formula 3 Regional level made sense with the glass ceiling often found at F3 level. Only Tatiana Calderon had in fact reached FIA F3 and FIA F2, after Visser, Piria, Powell, as well as Carmen Jorda, and Samin Gomez raced in the previously-branded GP3 Series at least four years prior. This strategic positioning, though, inevitably meant scouting for drivers with some racing experience coming from very different backgrounds. The Tatuus Formula Regional T-318 has been notoriously a difficult, heavy car to drive for young drivers – and women have traditionally struggled physically with it. In the attempt to make it more manageable for the 18 drivers, W Series opted for a different steering rack which would make the car lighter – as well as a set of limitations to the car setups to level the playing field. With the cars being centrally run, these limitations translated into close and exciting racing – but also limited the drivers' development and learning opportunities. Drivers that eventually returned to mixed-gender Formula Regional competitions in fact found a different car, with many more changes available to make it faster.
On the sporting side, though, the fully-spec centralized approach run by British team Hitech worked well in W Series' inaugural season, where also a car rotation draw was pioneered, in order to guarantee the fairest equality of equipment. The rotation of engineers, on the other hand, was less appreciated, as the driver-engineer bond is a crucial peculiarity of the sport; with a new engineer at each round, drivers struggled to build on the work they did on the car after each round.
A team with a background in F3 and F2, Hitech's work felt competent, with a good mix of experienced and younger but always qualified engineers, in a transparent, positive, and constructive atmosphere. The professional-yet-open environment of DTM was the perfect setting for a new series to grow – as media and the audience's attention increased.
When fans in the DTM paddock could get close to the cars and mingle with the drivers – who would never deny a picture or an autograph, as their popularity expanded – fans at home never had it particularly easy to follow the action. A free-to-air TV deal was put in place for the UK, where W Series was visible on Channel 4 – but outside the UK, the series remained mostly unknown, with little effort to promote it in other territories.
A British-centric approach was felt also throughout media engagement, sponsorship and marketing – which felt slightly odd for an international championship and potentially limited its growth.
Severely wounded by Covid
Just as W Series was gearing up for its second season and had already scheduled its testing dates, the global pandemic hit. Covid was a disruptive force that ended up shattering the championship's plans. As the world came to a halt, W Series understandably cancelled testing, then the whole 2020 season due to the evident logistical challenges of holding an international series amidst the crisis.
The stop turned out to be a massive blow for the company's business plan: Bond Muir had
worked on a three-year plan to break even, and halting operations in what was effectively a start-up second year overturned every profitability prediction.
DTM, the championship that had hosted W Series at its first breakthrough season, was in deep waters as well: the German series was itself rippled by the economic consequences of the pandemic and had to initially scrap its calendar, before attempting a mainly German-based season with events behind closed doors and with the headache of one of its three manufacturers leaving the championship.
Troubles continued for W Series with the split from its technical partner Hitech, financially hit by the cancellation of the 2020 season and that would not return for 2021.
While cars continued to be prepared, maintained and managed centrally – with a new partnership with 'Fine Moments', a sister company of Double R Racing – W Series would introduce from the second season a new team-based structure, aimed at steering towards a more financially-sustainable format.
"This is still very much a drivers' championship, just with extra support from external names and brands", W Series stated. Teams were in fact fictional entities, as the series aimed to maintain the equality of equipment for its drivers, but monetizing with the association to brands and sponsors.
While a switch to a fully traditional team format would have possibly represented the loss of the fully-funded and selection-based entries – Bond Muir's solution was a step in the right direction by still protecting the series' identity.
"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 told Racers as the series was about to resume its on-track operations. "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."
Blinded by the F1 light
The biggest development, though, was the announcement of the alignment with the F1 calendar, as W Series returned to the track on the world's biggest stage and as a support series to seven Grand Prixs.
The move was praised across motorsport, with Bond Muir describing the return as a "bigger, and better" version of W Series – but it wasn't without its challenges.
The association with F1 certainly helped in bringing W Series under a more mainstream spotlight, in its quest to attract new sponsors – and was a great opportunity for drivers, who had the chance to race at F1 venues and under the eyes of F1 teams.
At the same time, 2021 was a season still massively marked by the Covid pandemic, with F1's strict protocols. The whole W Series paddock was closed off, with drivers and personnel having to travel in social bubbles, with no family or guests allowed, fearing the spread of the virus and potentially penalty clauses with broadcasters below a certain threshold of cars on the grid.
The highly restricted paddock – a distinctive trait of the F1 environment – was arguably not the best setting for a series that was not yet established enough and attempting to raise its popularity by reaching a new audience. The spectacular scenes of the 2019 season finale at Brands Hatch, with a record number of fans including many young girls wandering around the paddock and taking pictures with the drivers, were increasingly looking like a distant era.
The Covid effect also meant no media, guests and sponsors on site – which further hampered the series' efforts to increase engagement with a wider audience.
In its first season alongside F1, W Series' TV reach also remained substantially unchanged: extensive coverage in the UK, hardly anything elsewhere. A lack of comprehensive coverage in the US was particularly problematic, as the series remained essentially inaccessible in one of the biggest markets.
As it embarked on a global calendar with intercontinental rounds, the overall feeling was that W Series had joined F1 too early – not because it was ready, but because it had no choices.
Short on mileage
Track time was also reduced by joining the busy F1 weekend schedule: from two practice sessions, drivers' hit the track for a single 30 minute practice, followed by a single qualifying and a single race – with the exception of COTA, which hosted the first double header.
Compared to most of the junior single seater championships, it was clear that W Series would need to step up its track time in order to remain a relevant development stage in the drivers' careers.
At 90 minute of track time per weekend, W Series offered almost half the track time of Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine – the mixed-gender equivalent (175 mins), and was severely behind Euroformula (190 mins) and the top European F4 championships (200 mins), as well as FIA Formula 3 (155 mins).
With a 8-event calendar, W Series' drivers amassed a total of 690 minutes of driving time throughout the season, against the 1750 minutes of the FRECA drivers.
The obvious difference was the price tag, with W Series being free-to-enter unlike the above mentioned championships. Yet, an over-controlling attitude towards the drivers – due to potential conflicting sponsorship and commercial initiatives – ended up severely limiting their opportunities outside of the series, especially from 2021 onwards.
While racing for free was highly admirable and continued to address the funding issue for several talented drivers, those aiming to progress up the ladder were nowhere near the amount of track time required to fight on equal terms with their peers.
The action on track remained exciting and once again the title was assigned at the final round following a close battle for the championship. Unlike the inaugural season, though, several technical issues were recorded throughout the year and, with the car rotation abandoned, mechanical problems did play a role in a championship that, with a short calendar, rewarded consistency.
Outside the track, some key personnel left the company ahead of the 2021 season and employee changes became more frequent.
The communication department underwent considerable changes through 2021 and 2022, as well as other important roles working with drivers and in marketing. The frequent turnover arguably might have represented a hurdle to stability in critical years for the W Series brand.
At the same time, despite engaging in often expensive marketing activities, the series struggled to attract big brands, capitalizing on the platform.
Possibly one of its biggest missed opportunities, the docu-series "Driven" had extremely limited release and mostly went under the radar.
Produced by Whisper Films, the documentary followed the entire inaugural season of the championship, with a high-end film crew enjoying unlimited behind the scenes access. As the series was aiming to make stars of its drivers, Driven had the potential to bring the protagonists to a way bigger audience in a similar fashion as Netflix's Drive to Survive did.
In a few seasons, F1's own docu-series has skyrocketed the sport's popularity in markets where it had traditionally failed to engage with a mainstream audience; while Drive to Survive often relied on the over-dramatization of events within the sport, Driven put the spotlight on the human side of the drivers – young women fighting for their chance in a highly competitive environment, offering an exclusive insight into their lives, passions and dreams.
As VOD contents thrived during the first stage of the pandemic, the 2020 W Series cancelled season would have been the perfect moment for the release of Driven.
Yet, it would be released in June 2021 on Channel 4's online platform, not available outside the UK. To this day, the existence of a W Series docu-series remains a rather unknown fact to many racing fans around the world.
A high-budget product, W Series was possibly aiming for an acquisition of the documentary from a bigger platform – which eventually didn't happen. Yet, it remains a missed opportunity in a moment when it might have helped to bring awareness to the sport and increase its appeal to bigger brands.
Business model: an already written fate?
W Series' business model was in fact not necessarily destined to fail like critics might believe. In order to succeed, though, it needed a substantial involvement of brands able to believe in the project and subsidize the running costs of racing, in order to maintain its mission of addressing the sport's financial barrier.
The move to a sponsor/team's structure was a step in that direction, but sponsors failed to materialize. Not helped by the bleak post-pandemic economic scenario, W Series wasn't able to bring onboard companies that shared the same vision – with the exception of sportswear brand Puma, which remained by W Series' side throughout the two seasons of branded teams – as sponsorship retention looked in fact just as problematic.
Following a very popular season finale at COTA in 2021, W Series sensed the importance of the US market and planned an American expansion for 2022. Drivers' selections were hosted for the first time in the US and with the US-spec F4 car, involving more drivers with an American racing background. Catherine Bond Muir herself would often travel to the US, in the attempt to involve US-based companies and personalities.
This led to the commitment of controversial TV personality and former athlete Caitlyn Jenner, who sponsored Jamie Chadwick's team to her third title; despite several marketing activities on the other side of the Atlantic throughout the season, though, the US audience continued to struggle to get an accessible TV coverage. Efforts to secure enough financial support ultimately went unrewarded and unfortunately the series halted its operations.
A difficult ladder to climb
One of the most controversial outcomes of the W Series three seasons remained the difficulty for its deserving champion – British Williams F1 Team junior Jamie Chadwick – to move up the single seater ladder. Despite its rich prize fund, in fact, Chadwick was unable to secure a seat in FIA F3 in the following year, raising questions on the development value of the series itself. The real question that should be raised, though, is about the sustainability of a system that is so out of control that turns out to be inaccessible even for a driver with prize money and with support from a F1 team development program.
Budgets for feeder series have skyrocketed over the decade, as the financial barrier continues to be the main hurdle for male and female talents to emerge.
W Series offered a total prize fund of US$1.5 million, with the series champion receiving $500,000. Every driver on the grid received a share of the remaining $1 million, based on the points' standings. This system effectively allowed the drivers to focus on the sporting side without worrying about sponsorship and funding – effectively turning its stars into fully professional athletes. On the other hand, the prize fund discouraged drivers to move up into other forms of mixed-gender motorsport, partially playing against its ultimate goal.
A possible solution to this issue could have been investing the full $1.5 million prize pool for a seat in a higher category for the series' champion – similarly to the Road To Indy program, whose scholarships have proven to be the most helpful tool for young drivers to progress up to IndyCar.
What is certain, though, is that Jamie Chadwick did eventually graduate to a bigger series, having made her debut in IndyNXT, IndyCar's closest stepping stone. And, crucially, she hasn't been the only driver to turn W Series into an opportunity in the sport: Alice Powell, who had stopped racing before being selected by the all-female series, had the opportunity to contest one round in North America's premier sports car championship IMSA, became development driver of the Envision Racing Formula E team and is currently part of the management of the Alpine Academy.
Beitske Visser raced in ELMS and WEC for the all-female team Richard Mille Racing Team in LMP2, and is currently part of the Girls Only by WS Racing team in the Nürburgring Endurance Series, together with Fabienne Wohlwend – who also races in the ADAC GT4 championship. Sabré Cook won the Porsche North America Scholarship as well as the Kelly Moss shootout, which secured her a seat in Porsche Carrera Cup North America. Esmee Hawkey has competed in DTM; Bruna Tomaselli has joined the Brazilian Stock Car Series; Belén Garcia is moving up the ranks of endurance racing in LMP3 machinery in the Le Mans Cup.
Chloe Chambers made history and became the first woman to take pole position and to win a race in Formula Regional Oceania; Miki Koyama became the first woman to claim a mixed-gender Formula Regional title, winning the 2022 Formula Regional Japanese Championship. Sarah Bovy has become a sportscar superstar, has won in class the 24 Hours of Spa and entered three Le Mans 24H, as well as seasons in ELMS, WEC, GTWC and IMSA as part of the Iron Dames project. Abbi Pulling is now a member of the Alpine F1 Team's driver academy – and joined, together with fellow W Series racers Nerea Martí, Bianca Bustamante, Marta García, Emely de Heus and Megan Gilkes the new F1 Academy championship.
A long term legacy
As W Series fought to return to the track, in fact, F1 launched its own all-female initiative, the Formula 4-based F1 Academy, which would aim to help develop young drivers in a more traditionally-structured championship. Five teams with experience of F3 and F2 joined the project, lining up 15 cars for the inaugural season – which features 21 races across six race weekends and 15 test days included in a capped budget of 300,000 euros per seat, 50% covered by F1 itself. The launch of F1 Academy was possibly the final nail in the coffin of W Series, as F1 decided to go its own way. However, what W Series has proven is that, despite its marketing and commercial shortcomings, it was not a sporting failure. Many young female drivers were inspired and motivated by the presence of W Series on the motorsport scene and many switched from karting to formulas with that prospect. The number of female drivers racing in Formula 4 championships globally was 9 the year before the launch of W Series; 29 young women are today competing at F4 level. W Series sparked the conversation and got the ball rolling at a time when numbers for women in single seaters were effectively declining; it raised the bar for opportunities to women in technical roles such as mechanics and engineers; it was effectively the blueprint for the launch of F1 Academy. W Series' true legacy might become fully noticeable probably only in a decade from now, when the movement it kick-started will start to bear fruits. As the NASCAR Diversity Program proves, such efforts can take up to ten years before impact can be appreciated. Launched in 2010, NASCAR's program to increase the presence of minority groups at the top of the sport has promoted to national level drivers like Bubba Wallace, Kyle Larson, Daniel Suarez. While F1 Academy will hopefully be a further step forward, addressing some of the W Series' flaws, by tunnel-visioning on the F1 ladder we might lose track of the opportunities that the vast world of motor racing can offer to talented drivers – how already showcased by many W Series' alumni. Having a female driver in F1 will be an incredibly important moment for the sport – and, with consistent and serious efforts it will only be a matter of time. But we must not forget that the real impact will not be measured by how many women will race in Formula 1, but by how many women will make motor racing their profession, at all levels. In that regard, the daring, unconventional, flawed and divisive W Series will have represented an important milestone.