W Series was one of the most talked-about junior single-seater series in 2019. It arrived with a big, bold message and a similarly large image, and has detailed its plan to return on an even grander scale in 2021
That it divided opinion within motorsport is an understatement, but its objective to address the lack of female role models, on and off-track, within the sport was clear.
As a result of the global pandemic, W Series is one of a several series that has had to call off its 2020 on-track plans. But, as series CEO Catherine Bond Muir explains, it aims to come back with a vengeance next year for its second season.
Its inaugural season – won by Jamie Chadwick – ran over six one-race rounds in Europe, with an additional non-championship reversed grid race at Assen. It was a very short season and supported many of the DTM rounds, but the series was able to boast a mix of women from a range of motorsport backgrounds, was able to secure a free-to-air television deal in the UK and made the sort of headlines across the broader sporting world that junior single-seaters rarely do.
For 2020, the plan was to take things up a notch. W Series had worked its way onto Formula 1’s support package in Mexico and the United States, and – arguably more crucially – added itself to the list of series which drivers could earn FIA superlicence points in.
The FIA’s own series get preference over those that do not in this system, and despite using identical cars, drivers in W Series would have earned fewer points than in Formula Regional European Championship – which also started in 2019. But they would have earned as many as the Formula Renault Eurocup, which uses the same car and has been around for decades.
W Series is looking at other series beyond F1 to potentially tie-up with in the future, and may have to with the health of the DTM currently in question following the withdrawal of Audi – leaving it with just one manufacturer on its 2021 grid.
“We are obviously speaking to a number of series at the moment, but you will appreciate that people are very much concentrating on this year rather than looking to next year,” Bond Muir explains.
“We will race at least eight races, it may well be 10 races. We would be delighted to have up to 10 races.
“It’s not for me to comment on DTM and what will happen to them, but we certainly haven’t given up racing with them. We’ve had a fantastic partnership with them to date and we would love to carry that on.
“We would love to go into Asia too, and we always said that we would that in our third year. I think we are looking internally as next year being our second year for very obvious reasons as we had to go on sabbatical this year. We are not ruling Asia out, but it may well be that I have much more certainty that we will be there in 2022 than ’21.
“The last conversations we have had with DTM was about that they hadn’t agreed their races yet and as soon as they did they would be back in contact with us. We are looking at lots of different potential opportunities with other series, or maybe we would do our own races, but we’re just working through the economics on that.
“I think the message that I would want to give is that if DTM is racing we would love to continue our partnership but if it doesn’t then we do potentially have a back-up plan. We’re looking at everything at the moment, we don’t operate in a microcosm.”
In part due to its dependence on the DTM calendar, W Series joined Indy Lights in the list of this year’s cancelled series. Many of the latter’s drivers (and teams) found refuge in Formula Regional Americas, whereas the W Series grid hasn’t been quite as fortunate in sourcing replacement drives thus far.
But, looking ahead to 2021, Bond Muir outlines the markets the series aims to reach and how the calendar – and event format – may change, with one repeating topic coming up…
“The girls would certainly like more reversed grid races. Especially if we could repeat the experience at Assen. I’m not convinced we can necessarily have them as championship races and that’s all bound up with television but if we possibly can we will have reversed grid races. We are about producing as exciting races as possible and if we could possibly mimic the whole race, plus the finish between Alice Powell and Megan Gilkes where she got over the line three thousandths ahead of Alice, that would be just fantastic.”
In addition, the decision not to run multiple races in a weekend as most other junior single-seater series do, was clarified.
“I have every sympathy with the drivers for wanting more than one championship race, I really do. In other junior formulae that they do have. The problem that we have got with that is we punch above our weight with the TV deals that we have done and that we will do in the future. Now the problem is that we’re lucky to get ourselves onto terrestrial TV in a whole variety of territories across the world. But we can only get onto them for one race.
“What it does is that we would have to race on separate days. What the TV broadcasters have is one of two opinions: either they can’t give you that amount of space for that amount of broadcasting, or it confuses the audience over which is the most important race.
“Is the Saturday race the most important or is the Sunday race the most important? OK, you can only show one race and the other in highlights, then what we’re doing by definition is that one race is more important than the other and that’s simply not the case.”
While there are already series with similar TV arrangements in which only some races are broadcast – such as British Formula 4 – and live broadcasts could always be run online when TV schedules are full, it’s clearly a topic that matters a lot to W Series.
“We thought at great lengths about this but it’s just not something that we’re going to be able to deliver if we keep the TV broadcasting in the way that we want to. Because it’s either we’re not going to get the TV broadcast, or the drivers get more racing, but it won’t be broadcast and from that, we don’t get the sponsorship value and the whole deck of cards fall over.”
Bond Muir reflects on a recent call with Formula E founder Alejandro Agag regarding the potential long-term benefits from this year’s unplanned hiatus – explaining how it gives the chance to enhance W Series’ future.
“Certainly, one of the reasons why we went on sabbatical this year was to preserve cash so that we spend our money on a series that was not as brilliant as the first series,” she explained. “I personally felt very strongly that I didn’t want the second series to be less than the first. Next year unquestionably will be bigger and better.
“Just to sum up, I’m fantastically positive on one hand while I’m quietly cautious on the other because no one knows where the world will be in another six months’ time.
“Alejandro Agag described in a call this morning all that Formula E was doing in its first couple of seasons was just getting to races and it was crazy and mayhem.
“He had every sympathy with me as to say that the best thing is to actually pause and have some time to breathe and as a result of that, I think we will have a more professional, more well-thought product when we get back to races.
“We love what we did at Brands Hatch. [It] is the sort of thing we would like to replicate going forward. It looks quite easy to do but it takes quite a lot of planning of all of the different countries that you’re in. And I think to have a wider hospitality area, something like a fan zone to get the fans to really interact with the drivers.
“What I thought was really wonderful about Brands Hatch was that if we replicate a fan zone and have our drivers and garages closer together, and I don’t want to shy away from having our fans have access to the drivers and have that up close. I really, really like that and I think it would be such a shame if that couldn’t continue.”
A decision has yet to be made over the status of the 2020 qualifiers and the 2021 season, but Chadwick – who is racing in Formula Regional Europe this year with Prema – would provide Bond Muir with varied emotions if she was to re-appear on the grid.
“I have very mixed feelings as to whether Jamie will be part of us or not because if she’s not racing with W Series that means that she’s gone on to do greater things and racing in more senior series,” she said.
“I feel a bit like a parent who is saying goodbye to a child who’s going off to university and I have very mixed feelings. Personally, I would be very sad to not see her around because she’s a great personal part of W Series and we all love her involvement but I would be very proud if she went on and got a high profile drive somewhere else.
“We are a platform to promote women into higher echelons of motorsport and that would just prove our thesis as to what we are. We would applaud that Jamie would go on.
“Obviously, she’s got her [development role] with Williams and she got that after she joined W Series so that’s part of our story. And who knows, there may be the first woman race driver who gets into Formula 1 [since 1992].”
Bond Muir also pointed out that moving to FREC would be the right stepping stone for a W Series champion if the circumstances are correct. While the equipment is identical, there are differences between the regional F3 series.
“It would be fantastic to think so but there are so many different things people will take into account. I think that would be the sort of landing spot that, say, and we have absolutely no idea, if [2020 newcomer Irina Sidorkova] won next year and couldn’t continue in the following year with W Series. Because of her age, I think that she will be more in demand than one of our drivers and they win and they’re in their late 20s. I think it’s obviously much more complicated because it depends on where the driver is in her particular career.”
W Series’ second season will be important, arguably more than its first. The narrative for it has shifted from ‘can anyone stop Chadwick?’ to what will likely be ‘can the young stars outshine the experienced runners?’ and that could be a more fascinating story to watch.
From a purist point of view – simply in terms of racing – there is a lot to like. Bond Muir spoke briefly but positively of the strong relationship with Hitech GP, which runs all of W Series’ cars and effectively rules out the performance disparity element that comes with multiple teams, and puts more onus on the drivers.
It brings a lot of colour and a vibe that is not replicated elsewhere within motorsport – and it is happy to toy with the idea of alternative race formats without adding championship implications onto them.
The jury remains out when measuring the long-term success of the series. We simply will not know until much further down the line. But in an environment where we are discussing diversity and inclusivity more than ever, the message that W Series aims to send to the motorsport world will look to be more prominent than before.
For what to expect in 2021, Bond Muir outlines four simple points. “We can expect more races, more countries, greater media engagement from around the world, and I can’t promise better racing but I hope it will be just as good as it was last year and I can’t see any reason why it won’t be.”