The decision to create a women-only motorsport series has been branded a “sad day for motorsport” by British Indycar driver Pippa Mann. The W Series will start in 2019 and hopes to have 20 of the world’s best female drivers competing over six races for a $1.5 million prize pot.
The competition is free for drivers to enter and the final 20 will be chosen through an intensive program that will test the abilities of the candidates. The overall winner will receive a third of the total prize pot, $500,000, to be used to break into competitions such as Formula 1.
“What a sad day for motorsport,” said Mann, adding: “Those with funding to help female racers are choosing to segregate them as opposed to supporting them. I am deeply disappointed to see such a historic step backwards take place in my lifetime. For the record, I stand WITH those who feel forced into this as their only opportunity to race. I stand AGAINST those who are forcing the above-mentioned racers into this position as their only solution to find the funding to race.”
On the website for the W Series they state “there are no biological or hormonal impediments” to a women’s ability to compete with the best male F1 drivers, and that they “expect that the best graduates from W Series will be able to compete in Formula 1 on level terms.” This begs the question if the best graduates from the series should be able to compete on level terms with the likes of Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel then why is a women-only series needed? Matt Bishop, Communications Director for the W Series, said that “we don’t have the resources. Would that we did.”
“That’s why we’ve chosen to create what we hope will be a sustainable business that uses commercial sponsorship to create a series for women to race in, some of whom wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to race at all.”
Michele Mouton, president of the FIA’s Women in Motorsport Commission, is dismissive of the W Series. “One of the objectives of the commission is to help ensure females have equal opportunities to compete at the highest level of the sport. We know from our recent driver-assessment programme that there is a pool of very talented women drivers who deserve the chance to do this. As competitors, they want to be the best and the only way for them to benchmark their performance is to compete in a mixed environment, which they are already doing.
“While this new series is obviously giving an opportunity for women to showcase their talent in a female-only environment, our objective is to have more of them competing alongside men and demonstrating they have the same ability and potential to succeed in top-level FIA championships.”
Since the first F1 series in 1950, there have been over 900 drivers, of which only two have been women. Maria Teresa de Filippis started three races in 1958/9 and fellow Italian Lella Lombardi competed in 12 races between 1974 and 1976, yet despite several more female drivers being on the fringe of F1, none have managed to break into the starting grid.
This was not helped by Bernie Ecclestone, former Chief Executive of the Formula One Group, being dismissive of women driving in F1 saying that they “would not be taken seriously”. He has also said multiple times in interviews that women “should be dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances.” Ecclestone left his position in 2017 and many are hopeful that this could represent a turning point for female involvement in the sport.
With the recent news that 21-year-old Ann Carrasco has become the first female rider to win a motorbike world championship in the World Supersport 300, it seems that the only thing holding women back from excelling in top motorsport competition is opportunity, not skill. So does the W Series offer that opportunity? Whilst there has been a lot of criticism, especially from prominent female drivers, there has been praise for the competition too.
Former F1 driver David Coulthard believes that men and women could compete equally but the current structure for finding female talent has “not worked”. He said “if you want a fundamental change in the outcome, you need a fundamental change in the process. W is a fundamental change in creating an opportunity to bring through female talent to the highest possible level.”
Interestingly this is not the first time a women-only racing series has been attempted. ITV presented ‘Formula Woman’ to viewers in 2004 in an attempt to boost the female audience of the sport and bring more women drivers to the major competitions. There was not a happy ending for the series as the main sponsor, Mazda, pulled out at the end of the first season and within three years it was axed.
Only time will tell what the impact of this new competition will be, but every female drive that enters the W Series will be hoping to use it as a stepping stone to greater things. “As female racers we are racers first, and our gender comes second. We grew up dreaming of winning races and winning championships, against everyone – the same as every male racer does. We did not grow up dreaming of being segregated and winning the girl’s only cup.”