April 2022 marked the 30-year anniversary of the last female driver to enter the Formula One world championship.
Giovanna Amati participated in the first three rounds of the 1992 championship, but failed to qualify for any of the races before being sacked. Since then, only Susie Wolff has taken part in a Formula One race weekend, when she drove for Williams in the first practice session at the 2014 British Grand Prix. To find the last woman to start a Formula One race you have to go back to 1976, when Lella Lombardi finished 12th at the Austrian Grand Prix.
This illustrates the scale of the challenge currently facing W Series. Founded in 2018 before racing for the first time a year later, the championship's mission has been clear from the outset: to push for greater female representation in motorsport.
The all-female, free-to-enter championship is still a fledgling proposition in the wider world of motorsport, but it is one of only a handful of women’s sport properties that compete globally on an annual basis. Now in its third season, the 2022 W Series calendar comprises ten races across three continents, including stops in the US, UK, Mexico and Japan.
“If people want to have a global reach for a challenger female brand, then we’re the sport to go to,” W Series chief executive Catherine Bond Muir tells the BlackBook. “I believe the tide rises for us all in women’s sport. There’s a lot of information sharing, there’s a lot of discussion [with other properties], because we believe we’re in a rising tide and we don’t believe we’re competing against each other for the same dollars.”
‘We need to reinvest to make it grow’
Indeed, assessing the landscape more broadly is something that offered inspiration at the start of the W Series journey. Recent years have seen greater support for women’s sport after decades of underinvestment, creating better market conditions for the launch of an all-female championship. Bond Muir (below, right) points to the success of English soccer’s Women’s Super League (WSL) overseas, and specifically in the US, as a sign of the direction in which things are heading.
She says: “What [the WSL has] achieved in the last decade gives me enormous comfort that one, there is a market for us in the United States, and two, if they are embracing women’s sport in the US, then they will do that here [in the UK] too.”
Armed with regular free-to-air (FTA) and pay-TV coverage, the WSL is now at a point where it can inspire young girls to grow up wanting to be like the players they’ve watched competing at the elite level, something that motorsport still lacks. Alice Powell, a W Series driver for the Click2Drive Bristol Street Motors Racing team, believes the importance of having these role models cannot be overstated.
“I think [the lack of role models] is one of the reasons why it’s been so slow for females coming in,” she explains. “When girls watch the pinnacle of the sport, which is Formula One, they don’t see any female involvement really. I’ve heard people say, ‘I didn’t realise girls were allowed to race in Formula One’.”
But things are certainly starting to move in the right direction. Visibility of the series has been boosted in two very distinct ways. Firstly, W Series is in its second season supporting the Formula One world championship. Secondly, at the start of this season, the series secured a three-year broadcast deal with UK pay-TV network Sky Sports, marking the championship’s largest media investment to date. This season also saw it embark on a new agreement with Sky Italia, adding to its existing deal with Sky Deutschland.
Since then, W Series has achieved record-breaking viewing figures. The championship’s recent round at Silverstone in July scored a domestic TV audience of one million across Sky Sports and commercial network Channel 4, making it the most-watched motorsport event outside of Formula One since 2014. Bond Muir also reveals that the season-opening race in Miami had delivered the series’ biggest audience since last year’s race in the UK.
W Series races at Formula One Grand Prix weekends around the world
The exposure its broadcast arrangements have given W Series has been invaluable, and Bond Muir is well aware that the series’ visibility across all platforms is crucial to growing its audience and achieving its commercial goals.
“Whether we like it or not, viewing figures matter,” she acknowledges. “We’ve been delighted by the audiences that we’ve received on Sky.”
Indeed, because it is so early on its growth journey, a significant chunk of W Series’ revenue is currently generated through sponsorship. The championship has partnerships with beer brand Heineken and cyber protection firm Acronis, as well as sportswear manufacturer Puma, tyre maker Hankook and sparkling wine producer Ferrari Trento.
But as the series’ audience and exposure increases, there could soon be opportunities for that sponsorship portfolio to grow.
“The bigger we become, the more sponsorship we can attract, and at higher values than we can currently attract,” Bond Muir continues. “That money can then be reinvested, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re not in a stage at the moment where we have to give money back to our shareholders, we need to reinvest the money that we make into the sport and into the marketing to make it grow.”
‘They’ve not just been dragged along’
For all the commercial progress that has been made, it’s worth noting that it wasn’t always plain sailing at the beginning, with W Series receiving a mixed reaction upon its arrival. Former Indianapolis 500 driver Pippa Mann described the championship’s launch as ‘a sad day for motorsport’, saying that ‘those with funding to help female racers are choosing to segregate them as opposed to supporting them.’ Meanwhile, Sophia Flörsch, currently driving in the European Le Mans Series, tweeted: ‘I agree with the arguments – but totally disagree with the solution.’
What a sad day for motorsport. 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 life time. https://t.co/8ZrKqaADwx— Pippa Mann (@PippaMann) October 10, 2018
Despite that, Powell never saw the merits of fighting something that was swimming against the current in the way that W Series strived to.
“I get why people would see it as a bad thing, I’m always one person that tries to listen to both sides of the story and not just assume that I’m right,” she says. “At the same time, it opened the doors up for a lot of us to progress and have different roles in the sport.”
Bond Muir agrees: “Because we have given the drivers a free [opportunity], I think they are very appreciative of what’s given to them. [Two-time W Series champion] Jamie [Chadwick] has always said that she will be an ambassador for W Series and she will promote it.”
However, this also highlights the biggest challenge currently facing W Series. While still in its infancy, no driver has yet progressed beyond the series to race in Formula Two or Formula Three, Formula One’s other support series. That’s not to say there hasn’t been progress. Multiple W Series drivers have been accepted into the driver academies of Formula One teams, like Chadwick at Williams, Jessica Hawkins at Aston Martin, and Abbi Pulling at Alpine.
Powell only needs to look back at her early days in karting as a reminder of just how stark the difference already is today.
“Early days in karting, there was a paddock where there could have been one, maybe two other female drivers if you were lucky,” she recalls. “I still remember those times as if they were yesterday. It’s got a lot better. There’s a lot more females about, they’ve not just come with their boyfriend, husband or partner because they’ve been dragged along. They’re here actually enjoying it and kitted up.”
Bond Muir also points out that W Series has created opportunities for women in motorsport beyond the track.
“Look what’s happened with [television presenter] Naomi Schiff,” she says. “She may have found her way onto Sky Sports eventually, but W Series was the event that gave her a platform. We took her on to be a presenter last year, and it was as a result of Sky spotting her in our broadcast that they picked her up.”
W Series recently agreed a three-year broadcast deal with Sky Sports, marking its largest media investment to date
Still, critics will continue to point to the fact that Jamie Chadwick has won consecutive titles and is well on her way to her third championship in as many years having won every race of the 2022 W Series season so far.
It’s important to remember, though, that the first woman to make the move from W Series to either Formula Three or Formula Two will have the weight of expectation placed solely on her shoulders. If that driver’s season is underwhelming, then the sceptics will link that with the success of W Series as a whole. The last thing the series needs, therefore, is a rushed decision.
Speaking to motorsport website RaceFans, Bruno Michel, chief executive of both Formula Two and Formula Three, emphasised the importance of the first step being the right one.
He said: “If they come just to make [up] the numbers, just to say we have female drivers in the championship, not only [is] it not going to work, but it’s not going to serve the purpose of trying to show that female drivers can win races at this level, because that’s really what we want to show.”
Michel’s stance is one that is shared by both Bond Muir and Powell.
“They should be there on merit,” Powell states. “Obviously funding is a huge stopper to lots of people progressing up the ladder, but you need to be there on merit. The talent is out there, it’s just about nurturing it.”
Bond Muir adds: “The last thing Jamie [Chadwick] wants to do is go into a series, be a winner in W Series, but be at the back of another series. Those detractors will be even more vociferous, they’ll look at W Series and say: ‘They can’t even produce people that can compete against men.’”
‘We have truly global ambitions’
Even when this step is eventually made - and it only seems like a matter of time before a driver moves across to at least Formula Three - W Series has plenty more work to do to build its profile. This is not lost on Bond Muir, who has big plans for the series moving forward.
“I always say I have a white cat on my lap that I’m stroking because I’m looking for world domination,” she jokes.
But what does the future look like for the series?
“I would like W Series to be synonymous with the best of female motorsport,” Bond Muir continues. “We’re not a global name at the moment. Whether you like sport or not, you’ve heard of Formula One, and that’s what I want W Series to be. I think we’ve got such engaging stories from our drivers, stories that can engage an audience in the way Drive to Survive has in the United States. I want Bianca Bustamante to become a household name in the Philippines, I want Chloe Chambers to become a household name in the United States.”
Examples of progress outside the world of Formula One support series will also offer great encouragement, such as the Iron Dames team competing in the World Endurance Championship (WEC). The brainchild of Deborah Mayer, president of the International Automobile Federation’s (FIA) Women in Motorsport Commission, the all-female team has competed in the European Le Mans Series and the 24 Hours of Le Mans since 2019, among other events. Earlier this month, they became the first ever all-female team to stand on the WEC podium.
Over in the US, Beth Paretta is continuing to blaze a trail in IndyCar with her Paretta Autosport outfit, the first female-owned, female-driven team in IndyCar history. After its debut last season, the team returned for 2022 with the majority of women who took part in Paretta’s 'female-forward' Indianapolis 500 campaign the previous year, which gave 20 women the opportunity to work in various roles across the team.
"I know that when she sees female #representation in male-dominated arenas, it opens her world to possibilities beyond traditional roles." -crew member Mallorie Muller on how her daughter motivates her— Paretta Autosport (@ParettaSport) July 14, 2022
#WomenInRacing | #STEM | #IndyCar pic.twitter.com/9MJEahSvSD
For W Series, it can certainly be seen as a positive that it is in such a strong position so early on in its existence. In the short term, building its fanbase is the goal, with a focus on growing that all-important visibility moving forward. Beyond that, there is still plenty more to achieve.
“We need to engage with our fans more, we need to grow our fanbase much more,” Bond Muir asserts. “We’re at the start of a mountain range, and it’s a very large mountain range, and it’s a very long way from where we want to be.
“We have truly global ambitions, and that is going to take time.”