Image: W Series

The idea of a “female Formula One championship” has been public for more than a year, and that idea—now called the “W Series”—will apparently become a reality with its inaugural season this spring. It has merits from a practicality standpoint, at the cost of taking a large step back for women in the context of motorsport.

Basically, the W Series has the right goals with the wrong approaches.

We first heard about this W Series midway through last year, when professional driver and six-time Indianapolis 500 starter Pippa Mann posted about it on her website. Mann was offered a potential spot to race in the series, but she wasn’t a fan. She called it a “handmaid’s racing series,” referencing the book and Hulu series where women exist as second-class citizens.

More details about the series that solidified Mann’s point came afterward, as if it wasn’t solid enough already since former F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone brought up the idea of women’s F1 in 2015. But a more finalized layout came this week with the announcement of the 2019 season, which the series said will be free to enter for the women who compete in it.

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The gist of the W Series, the announcement said, is that 18 to 20 women will race in spec Formula 3 cars on tracks across Europe, “most of which have staged Formula 1 races for many decades.” Later seasons will include races outside of Europe. There will be a selection program to decide the women who ultimately get to compete, and, according to the announcement, the W Series will provide the cars and will also pay out prize money to its winners. The total prize fund will be $1.5 million, and the champion will get $500,000 of that.

An earlier plan said the W Series champion would also get a test in F1, but the release this week didn’t include that. A representative from the W Series told Jalopnik that’s not in the prize pool currently, but said the series “of course” hopes that “one day a W Series driver or drivers might graduate to Formula 1.”

If it works as it should, the W Series seems like it could have financial and exposure benefits for the women who race in it. The series’ apparent goals have merit, but there are far better ways those goals could have been reached.

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It’s a frustrating concept if you believe people can compete equally in racing regardless of gender. It sends the wrong message by putting willing women in their own, separate box with a lady-label on it, while gender-neutral but male-dominated racing series continue to run all over the world, unaffected by the goings on of the W Series.

The Good

The biggest benefit of the W Series is that seems to have an almost fairytale financial structure funneled into giving women seat time in cars, for however long that structure can keep from imploding on itself. They’ll get a Tatuus T-318 Formula 3 car with a 1.8-liter turbocharged inline four, six-speed sequential transmission and the halo, funded by the series.

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But if this series really is free to enter and free to race for the chosen drivers—so long as they’re racers with a true career goal of racing in the highest levels of motorsport and not promotional mouthpieces—they’ll have a platform to race without a struggle to get attention, funding and rides at the same level as their male competitors.

Motorsports writer and Jalopnik contributor Hazel Southwell made a good point on Twitter, comparing successful women in open-wheel racing with younger male drivers already in F1 or who are about to be there: Those women had far less seat time. (Her posts are here.)

In addition to the free entry, the W Series creates a stage where women can be the only focus of potential sponsors and partners that could help advance those women in their careers, if the series can get potential sponsors and partners to pay attention to it in the first place. All a person has to do is look at women’s sports in general, like the WNBA, to see that they get far less attention and have far less cashflow than their male counterparts.

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The disheartening part is, most sports with male and female counterparts are like that by way of regulations. Motorsport is male by default and female by exception, and the catch with the W Series is that it’ll give women funding—if they agree to race in a series that, by rule, separates them from men.

The Bad

The series has a very second-class ring to it, as Mann put it, since it’s a junior division for women. Now even the proposed grand prize of an F1 test is gone, which removes a lot of the value—most of it, even—this series could’ve had.

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Additionally, the announcement said at the heart of W Series “is the firm belief that women can compete equally with men in motorsport,” and that the series is there to “force greater female participation.” If that’s the case, the release should have had something on how the series will help integrate women into existing motorsport structures outside of training, not just give a handshake and a $500,000 check. Development drivers need a pipeline, not a dead end.

There’s also the fact that one of the main people talked about and quoted in the release was David Coulthard, who will help run a training program for W Series drivers “on driving techniques, simulator exposure, technical engineering approaches, fitness, media skills” and other aspects of racing. The W Series plainly said in its announcement that its leaders know women can compete equally with men and want them to do so, yet former F1 driver Coulthard, one of the W Series’ big-name gets and shareholders, said last year that he thinks women could never win in F1 due to their “mothering gene.”

Here’s Coulthard on the record with the Daily Record last year, saying he wasn’t trying “to sound too caveman about it” but that he had to recognize the “well-understood physical and profile differences” between men and women:

The Scot, who spent 15 years in F1 without taking the title, reckons men are superior racers. [...]

Speaking ahead of the start of the new Grand Prix season next weekend, Coulthard admitted women could compete at the highest level but added that they wouldn’t win.

He said: “We all have different skills and some people choose to develop those skills in competition and there’s no reason why a lady could not compete at the highest level.

“It’s not the physical aspect that limits ladies’ ability to compete in Formula 1 at the top level.

“It’s maybe that last little bit of separation between the mothering DNA that makes ladies capable of having a child and providing for that child. [...]

“There would be lot less war if the guys weren’t doing their thing.

“Show me other sports where you can have males and females competing on the same sports ground.”

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But perhaps the biggest issue is that the W Series, at its core, is the wrong use of however much money the people funding it are willing to put in. To put on a full racing series—the cars, the maintenance, the selection process, the tracks, the organizing fees, the travel, the prizes, all of it—costs unfathomable amounts of money, and that funding could have simply gone to women already competing against a sea of men in motorsports. Helping women in existing series through scholarships or development programs would’ve been a far better use of the cash.

If all of this boils down to the brand behind the W Series, women funded by the money that would have gone into this whole production could just be labeled W Something drivers—like a women’s version of the Red Bull pipeline, without all of the nonsense and chains attached to the drivers that Red Bull has.

By having women compete in a women’s series to access funding they may need to keep their racing career alive instead, some women racers called it essentially a force of hand.

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Here are some opinions from professional female drivers, including Mann, who also linked her blog post from last year, The Grand Tour test driver Abbie Eaton, and hillclimb racer Charlie Martin:

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But opinions aren’t uniform across the board. Other female racers like British F3 winner Jamie Chadwick and F1 test driver Tatiana Calderon, as quoted by the W Series, supported the idea of the series.

Chadwick called the W Series a “fantastic opportunity for top female talent,” and indicated that she’d be competing in it.

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“It’s no secret that motorsport is an incredibly tough industry often dictated by financial factors,” the series quoted her as saying. “I will still race against men in other championships, but W Series is the perfect supplement to help me develop and progress further through the junior motorsport ranks.”

Where All of This Went Wrong

All things considered, the creators of the W Series had the right goals in mind. A separate series just wasn’t the right option, and it certainly wasn’t the only one.

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It’s a separation of genders in a sport women have so long fought to prove themselves as equal in, despite everything they have to deal with—the widespread stereotyping of household names like Danica Patrick, for example, who was either seen as someone who wrecks all the time or as a woman who got into the highest levels of racing by her status as a sex symbol. Both stemmed from unfair assumptions about her, and from the unwarranted extra attention she got just because she was a woman in a man’s sport.

A women’s series only furthers that disconnect between men and women in a sport that’s typically seen competition without official gender labels when the rare opportunity arises. But despite not having official gender labels, racing’s been geared toward men for much of its history—the grid girls, the boys’ club atmosphere, the societal factors leading most boys to choose cars and most girls to choose dolls from a young age, everything—despite women being around and able to compete against men since its inception.

The money for the W Series should have instead gone into a program meant to actively further women’s careers in the areas of racing they already compete in through legitimate, substantial funding, under a brand name, if the organizers need that to justify the investment. But an outright separation of women does nothing but communicate that women need to race against each other and not men in order to win. After all, that’s what W Series shareholder Coulthard said just last year.

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A women’s series may help bring attention to women racers, but it does so in a way that, by regulation, puts them on a lower level than men. Women already face hurdles like that in society, even the most casual of situations. We don’t need one of those hurdles to get taller for the sake of a free ride in a new racing series.