That there are few women competing at the highest levels of motorsport is no secret. For all the industry’s advancement in recent years, and even if opportunities for men and women to race on equal terms have long existed, motorsport has yet to become a truly gender diverse environment.
As the statistics indicate, the sport of motor racing has always been male-dominated. Of the roughly 700 drivers who have competed in Formula One over the years, only two have been women. Not since 1976 has a female driver raced in the championship, and across all forms of single-seater racing the number of women competing continues to fall.
It is little wonder then that female racing stars are few and far between. In the US, the likes of Indycar driver Pippa Mann and retired Nascar pilot Danica Patrick are household names, and other racers like Simona de Silvestro, of Australia’s Supercars, and Susie Wolff, the one-time Williams F1 development driver, have enjoyed fleeting moments in the global spotlight, but all are exceptions to the rule.
Yet that could be about to change. Last year’s launch of the W Series saw the creation of the world’s first and only all-female single-seater motor racing championship, and its formation has succeeded in shining a light on the issue of female participation in motorsport in general.
Hailed as a landmark development, the W Series has been established to increase opportunities and forge a pathway for women and girls into the highest levels of motorsport, including Formula One. For that reason, drivers do not have to pay to race, while their travel and accommodation expenses are being covered by the series’ organisers. Meanwhile all of the drivers compete in identical Tatuus F3-spec cars powered by 1.8-litre engines, a decision taken to ensure the series emphasises driver skill as opposed to technological or financial prowess.
“I think that will have a push-pull effect,” says Catherine Bond Muir, the series’ chief executive. “Hopefully we can push some of those drivers into higher series, but also it’ll have a pull effect in that hopefully we’ll be making stars of our drivers, they’ll be famous, we’ll be creating role models and thereby we will attract more young girls to pick karting and actually get them into the sport at grassroots.
“If we were going to get lots of women on to the grid, we could never have had a model where we asked drivers for money because if they were going to be able to raise money, there wouldn’t be a problem with [a lack of] women in motorsport.”
For its inaugural season, the W Series operated as a support series for the German Touring Car Masters (DTM). Under the terms of an agreement struck last year, the series secured a spot on the undercard at the first six of DTM’s nine races in 2019, beginning with Hockenheim in May and culminating at Brands Hatch recently.
For its inaugural season, the W Series operated as a support series for the German Touring Car Masters (DTM)
Funding for the series has been raised through equity, with reports estimating a budget of UK£20 million (US$25 million) in year one. A portion of that investment eventually will be offset by central sponsorships - in late March, a racewear deal was signed with Puma Motorsport - but the commercial model is likely to take shape over time alongside the series itself.
“We will be looking for sponsorship in year two,” explains Muir. “We may get sponsors in this year but actually what we’re really concentrating on at the moment is just delivering a very professional series.
“Of course, no one would ever turn money down in business but I think what is most important for us is not to sell sponsorship off cheaply in the first year because no one has an idea of what they’re actually sponsoring.”
A former IP lawyer specialising in sport and leisure who later moved into corporate finance, Muir describes herself “a massive fan of Formula One”, and she counts 13-time Grand Prix winner David Coulthard as an old friend. Coulthard is himself involved in the W Series, acting as advisory board chairman and a consultant along with Red Bull Racing design chief Adrian Newey and Dave Ryan, the former sporting director of the McLaren Formula One team.
Both Coulthard and Ryan sat on the panel of judges that oversaw the driver selection process for the W Series’ inaugural season, during which 18 racers were whittled down from an initial field of 54. Among those to make the cut were British GT4 and MRF Challenge champion Jamie Chadwick, former Red Bull junior Beitske Visser, and ex-Formula Renault driver Alice Powell.
David Coulthard sits on the W Series advisory board
“What we wanted to do was to create a sustainable business model by which we can keep having women go through W Series, so every year, hopefully, more women will want to join us,” explains Muir. “Every year there will be a selection process, so hopefully more women will want to join every year and through that process we will find one of the stars.
“As I say, the whole point is to create stars, to create followers. It would be great to think that if we have drivers from a whole variety of different countries across the world, then we can engage a whole new audience of young girls who will look to this and think this is a potentially really great and exciting sport.”
While the series is looking to expand beyond Europe into both North America and Asia-Pacific in year two, plans for the second driver selection process have yet to be formalised. The best-performing drivers in year one are likely to be given passes to race again, but it is not yet clear how many will be invited back and what the entry process will look like for newcomers.
“Is this a brand new selection process for everyone, or do we allow, for example, the top ten drivers an automatic pass?” ponders Muir. “We will make what we believe will be a decision in the best interests of the drivers and also the series.”
Whatever happens, efforts have been made to achieve the broadest possible visibility from the outset, with Muir and her team working to secure widespread distribution on free-to-air broadcast platforms.
In late April, evidence of that approach came with the news that all six races this year will be shown live and for free by UK broadcaster Channel 4. Further rights deals have since been struck with major networks around the world, ensuring the series’ broadcast footprint spans 16 territories in Asia, as well as Australia, New Zealand, sub-Saharan Africa, Scandinavia and the Netherlands. Video content produced in-house is also being shared via social media networks to “tell the stories of our drivers” and appeal to digital audiences, says Muir.
“We do have a policy that, wherever possible, we will put W Series in front of the paywall,” she adds. “We don’t want to hide it, and it isn’t because we’re against pay-TV at all. It’s just that we want as many people to see it as possible and by definition going to pay-TV fewer people have access. We’re looking country-by-country. We’re making decisions at the moment, putting contracts together that will maximise viewership as far as possible.”
Muir has previously described the W Series as an “artificial device” whose formation was required in order to reverse the downward trend of female participation in motorsport. But the chosen approach has not sat well with everyone. While many accept that female racing drivers are chronically underfunded and thus underrepresented in motorsport, there are those who believe the creation of the W Series is not the way to bring about greater female participation.
Commenting in a tweet shortly after the series’ launch in October, Indycar’s Pippa Mann described its formation as a “sad day for motorsport”, adding: “I am deeply disappointed to see such a historic step backwards take place in my lifetime. Those with funding to help female racers are choosing to segregate them as opposed to supporting them.”
Muir, however, sees it differently.
“I don’t recognise the word segregation,” she says. “We would be segregating our drivers if we were saying to them, ‘you can’t race against men’. We’re encouraging all of our drivers to race in other series and all of those series have men racing in them too. And also our ultimate aim is to give our drivers more experience, especially more racing experience, so that they’re better capable of racing against men in the future.
“If you want to have a fundamental change of the outcome, you have to change the process fundamentally. We knew that W Series would be controversial because of course it is. Ultimately what it is, is positive discrimination - and there are always people that sit on the two sides of that debate.”
I don’t recognise the word segregation. We would be segregating our drivers if we were saying to them, ‘you can’t race against men’
Catherine Bond Muir, W Series chief executive
For Muir, one the biggest hurdles for female drivers is their inability to secure the necessary funding. Sponsorship for young women with aspirations of making a career out of motorsport has long been scarce, she says, and understandably so.
“Because there’s no recently trodden path to Formula One for women, it became apparent that the problems that female drivers were having is getting money in to progress their careers,” she adds.
“The sponsors and the people putting money behind drivers were always going to favour young boys, or older boys and young men. You back young drivers because you think you’re going to find the next Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel, but you’re never going think of that of a woman because if it hasn’t happened in 43 years, why is it going to happen in the next few years?”
“We can’t deny what we are. There is a huge amount of sponsorship that goes into motorsport. There is a statistic that US$5.9 billion went into motorsport last year and therefore, by definition, that will be money that will eventually go into the pockets of men and male drivers.”
Still, attitudes are beginning to change, not least among brand marketers. Recent months have seen many signs of progress in the commercial development of women’s sport. Pointing to the strides that have been made in soccer, where blue-chip companies like Barclays, Visa and Adidas have all made significant financial commitments, Muir sees “a sea change” in the way the corporate world views women’s sport.
“Almost every other day there is another global announcement,” she continues. “The historic numbers of the sponsorship going into women’s sport have been absolutely appalling, and I think there is just a lot of pressure from the media, from the shareholders of larger companies, and from the boards themselves, that actually this is wrong. Lots of companies have 50 per cent of their staff being women and they’ve got to start being seen to support women in sport.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Muir plans to tap into that changing mentality. “It’s a competitive world,” she accepts. “If I can get money out of existing motorsports sponsors, of course I will. But unquestionably what we’re doing is opening up motorsport to a whole load of new sponsors, and that’s new in two ways. One, obviously sponsors who want to associate themselves with women because they are female-leaning products, but also on the other hand, I think sponsors who have been put off motorsport to date because it is so male-centric.”
There is, however, a balance to be struck. Whilst she wants to raise awareness of the W Series and champion its founding cause of increasing female participation, Muir is keen to avoid stressing the gender lines to the point that hardcore motorsports fans - the vast majority of whom are men, of course - feel alienated by this all-female property.
First and foremost, she says, the W Series has to deliver an on-track product that stands up on merit if it is to be taken seriously, only then will it be seen as a viable career path for young girls and not just a purpose-led or charitable endeavour.
“At the heart of our business proposition is that we will entertain and inform as many people as we possibly can until the lights go out,” Muir says. “Once the lights go off, we are a tough, hard, dangerous, fast sport, and it is about the fastest and best drivers winning.
“I want to be judged on our results. I want to be judged on whether we have created a new exciting sport that people want to watch. I want to be judged on whether we get audiences interested and engaged.
“I think it is absolutely no coincidence that since we’ve launched, there has been a huge amount more interest in women in sport generally, so I’d like to think that we were one of the catalysts for that debate to change. And frankly, if the controversy that we’ve caused causes everyone, and the whole of motorsport, to think about this issue, for me that’s a great outcome.”