The all-female open-wheel W Series has announced that, starting in 2020, it will no longer allow a season champion to compete the following year. This has come as some pretty disappointing news for both fans and drivers alike, reminding us once again that the series has the right intentions but the wrong execution.
The move does admittedly have a sound basis in reason. W Series drivers will start being allowed to accumulate FIA superlicense points next season, Motorsport.com reports, which enables drivers to compete in Formula One once they have earned enough points. However, one of the criteria for becoming a superlicense-sanctioned series is that drivers who win the championship cannot return to defend their title the following year.
(As a quick note, this does not impact current 2019 champion Jamie Chadwick. She will be able to defend her title in 2020. But if she wins the championship again, she will no longer be able to compete in the series.)
This concept is implemented in junior categories like Formula Two in Europe and Indy Lights in America. Unfortunately, withholding an opportunity for competition from a proven driver may have unintended consequences.
Currently, W Series champions are awarded $500,000 with which they are supposed to pursue other single-seater opportunities higher up the ladder. However, that’s an admittedly measly sum. According to this 2015 report from Raconteur, entering Formula 3 alone can cost drivers $722,000 to $1,110,000. A W Series champion would make nowhere near enough to afford a season with an F3 team.
As my coworker Alanis King noted in her initial post dissecting the W Series, drivers need a developmental pipeline, not a dead end. For example, winning a championship in IndyCar’s feeder series Indy Lights guarantees that driver three races in an IndyCar (one of those races being the Indy 500). Young drivers are given a shot to prove themselves in on-track race conditions in the big leagues, thus at least giving them a minimum of experience to their name.
The W Series could use a similar guarantee. It’s already tough enough to be a woman in the racing world today. Winning a championship and then being left high-and-dry by the only series pretty much guaranteed to want you there seems antithetical to the series’ ethos of promoting female talent.
Personally, I’d love to see the series expand into a wider scholarship program, similar to the Road to Indy program. By all means, continue on with an all-female series, but let’s find a way to have the series guarantee placement for its champion elsewhere.