W Series: Women-only racing prompts mixed opinions

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A year or so ago, Carmen Jorda took serious incoming over a comment she made in which she said the thought of an all-women’s racing series might be a good idea. Leena Gade and more overtly, Pippa Mann, were very strong with their criticism of Carmen’s seeming insouciance about women in motorsport.

The outrage really ramped up as other female racers chimed in and precious few in support of Jorda. Then plenty of males got into the fray and waxed poetic about the debasing of women and futility of an all-women series and what an awful concept it was. It got worse as many more (mostly males from what I could tell) chimed in personally attacking Carmen and denigrating her character, driving ability, beauty as a prop and worse.

Back then, same as I did for the grid girls who spoke out on the ban, I defended Carmen for what amounted, simply, to her opinion. There was no reason for the berating, harsh words to her. I found it odd for these guys to be championing women in one tweet only to denigrate a women in the next tweet.

Yesterday it was announced that a new series has been created called the “W Series”. The goal of it is to be an all-female open-wheel racing series to bring the world’s best female drivers together in Formula 3-spec cars to race.

The intent is to offer a $1.5 million prize fund with $500k going to the winner to fund their next step in the ladder toward a racing career. It is a fully funded series in which the drivers will not have to bring funding with them for the privilege of getting a seat which is what happens in most, if not all, of the junior racing series for Formula 1.

The announcement was met with very strong opinions from Pippa Mann and others. The narrative has quickly cemented in social media circles and much to Pippa’s credit, she set the tone of the debate around not building a new series but getting these investors to invest in female drivers for existing series. All noble endeavors to be sure.

I try to see all sides of an issue and leave the politics, #Rhetoric and #Actually commentary to those who thrive on them. Is there not a reason and positive result for the W Series? I do not have all the answers but I’ll share these thoughts with you and would be keen to read yours.

For me, it is important to consider the topics through the lens of more opportunities. No one can guarantee outcomes for any driver, male or female, that begins karting but it is the opportunity that is critical for anyone aspiring to become a champion in F1 like Lewis Hamilton. Lewis came from a humble background and through sheer talent and incredibly hard work from his father, he managed to secure the support he needed to succeed but that’s few and far between. Lewis’s story is not unique.

Jolyon Palmer, Sebastien Buemi, Pastor Maldonaldo, Paul di Resta, Anthony Davidson, (soone to be) Stoffel Vandoorne and Marcus Ericsson, Jerome D’Ambrosio, Jaime Alguersuari, Heikki Kovalainen, Adrian Sutil, Esteban Gutierrez, Will Stevens, Max Chilton, Jean-Eric Vergne, Alexander Rossi, Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde are all drivers who didn’t last in F1. They all raised serious support and backing from investors but couldn’t survive the series for a host of reasons and lack of pace was one of them.

Supporting female drivers and not building a new pigeon-hole series segregating women:

I understand the desire to race with the best and not be segregated as an inferior driver due to gender. What I know of Matt Bishop, head of comms for the new series, I don’t think this isn’t something that he would sign up for if he thought it was marginalizing women or designed to send a message that women are inferior. He’s been a long-time advocate for social issues to be sure.

Numbers: Out of the entire world of aspiring drivers, are there more males or females lining up to start karting and advance through the ladders to become racing drivers? The answer is males. If the numbers are weighted towards males due to interest levels but we still would like to see female participation then having more opportunities for females to drive increases the chance of exposure for those women who are incredibly quick.

In Pippa’s equation, I am slightly confused about the math versus the opportunity. If they took the entire $1.5m of prize money for the W Series and put that behind Pippa Mann to drive in GP2, how long would that last? Would that buy her a competitive seat? Would that ensure her a drive in F1? What if she wasn’t as fast as the other drivers in GP2? Would she still find a home in F1? It is estimated to cost €8 million to get a driver from karting to a position to be considered for F1.

A fully-funded series where 20 women can drive, hone their skills and get visibility toward the higher ladders in the system seems like we are not taking the resources to invest behind 5 women but increasing the opportunities for more women to gain the attention of sponsors and other teams in higher ladders.

Even if you took the total investment in the series, how many Pippa’s would that support in GP2? Now, if the series has 20 cars, that’s 20 women driving, developing and possibly becoming an interesting prospect for GP2 or other series each season.

As I said, I am trying to find the upside in the equation beyond the immediate reaction of gender segregation. To be fair to Pippa, if the total investment in this series is $50-80 million, then that would support several female drivers in GP2 for a while but my hunch is that this is also a series investment for profit by the investors. Let’s think about that for a minute.

With so many young boys interested, there are precious few spots for young girls and perhaps this is a way of giving them a platform for developing race craft without needing the massive financial backing it normally takes the boys in Karting, Formula Renault, F4, F2 and so on.

The opposite argument of Pippa’s coin seems to be not limiting opportunity to only a few Pippa’s out there but getting as many females into racing, developing skills and providing all of this without having to burden future Pippa’s with raising thousands for a seat in a junior series. I’m not singling Pippa out, she has just been a very vocal critic of the series and I am trying to consider all sides.

What traction, exposure and ROI does an individual investor get from putting €8 million behind Pippa’s career versus being an investor in a series with cars, advertising, possible (maybe not) TV rights and sponsors of the brand? Has the concept of backing an individual driver changed? I think it most definitely has and the lengths that young drivers are going to in order to secure and guarantee an ROI for their backers is big. I’m not suggesting that model is dead, but it is changing as F1 teams rely more and more on paying drivers. Again, this impacts the number of opportunities across the board and with fewer females interested in racing than males, that makes it even more difficult.

The end game

Look, I am not trying to marginalize Pippa’s opinion in the least. I’ve heard her opinion as well as those of Leena Gade or other female drivers in the sport. I found the attacks on Carmen very terse last year just as I found the scathing comments about grid girls who spoke out about losing their jobs.

I understand that Pippa feels it would be better to invest in her and other drivers like her and let them compete against the best. Completely get that point. I saw her tweet about an organization that is trying to enable that effort called Shift Up. It looks like a terrific organization but they immediately jumped into the W Series conversation asking for sponsors to call them. That’s the issue. The W Series presumably has the investors/sponsors and are trying to help increase the opportunities for more female drivers.

I do not believe that the W Series is trying to send a message to all women that they are inferior, rather that they’ve increased the access to opportunity without the yoke of massive backing that most young drivers have to raise. In short, they are trying to remove road blocks for aspiring female drivers. My biggest concern is the TV audience. With all racing, and even F1 struggling for eyeballs, how will W Series draw an audience?

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Fabio
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Fabio

Yeah, the problem seems to be the grass roots level and financial backing.
How do we get the young ones interested and in a position with enough financial backing to get the results that teams will start to take notice. Really a tough situation.

I would argue that Lewis was born with a massive advantage, he was born a male.

Are there any women on here that can educate us (grumpy old men) to what it’s like???

Member

You mention that there is a disparity between gender participation even at the most early stages. Are there any stats on what is the male/female ratio of participants at various age groups for the feeders (karting, F3, F3, GP?, etc.) leading, ultimately, to F1? Any analyses of the impact of role models or lack thereof at each stage. This may be similar to the male/female ratios in STEM and the impact of visible role models. Drag racing seems to have a somewhat better record in these regards but is their overall record that much better? How about NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA,… Read more »

Paul
Guest
Paul

I contribute to your patreon account and listen to your podcasts as you always provide a fair logical and balanced view. Just like this article.
Keep it up mate.

Paul

jtr
Member
jtr

Whether this is a good thing all comes down to whether this integrates into the existing support series structure or ends up standing alone. If it ends up being a legitimate stepping stone, where the top drivers in the W Series end up getting promoted into higher series, then it’s going to be a good thing for women. They’ll get a better shot at securing a seat and a chance to focus on driving rather than coming up with sponsors. The potential pitfall is that if teams in other series aren’t going to be seriously recruiting the top drivers from… Read more »

The Captain
Member

Good off week content Todd! For some strange reason I don’t think the best way to get black players into the majors was to set up the negro league. Ok, snark aside (I couldn’t resist) I gotta agree with Pippa here, this seems like a bad idea that’s trying to exploit the idea of a novelty ‘women in cars’ for the investors more than help actual careers. NC, I think the main problem with your defense of the series is the basic foundation is an assumption I don’t share. That is, the new series is considered ‘legitimate’ from other team… Read more »

Member
Fast Freddy

Women are winning championships in NHRA and there a lot in the grass roots as well. Maybe it’s because it easier (cheaper) to get started in drag racing. Karts and AutoX are as well, but after that you have to be rich!

Lemongrab
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Lemongrab

I’m not well versed in the ladder system, but a quick google tells me that GP3 is merging with F3 Euro Championship next year (theoretically a loss of ~24 seats? Could it be said that FW is sort of taking it’s place?) to become a more universal Formula 3, running only in support of F1 races. I’m not clear on number of teams or drivers per team for next year though, does anyone know?

What about the team structure for FW? Could this also be an opportunity for female mechanics and engineers?

Tom Firth
Editor

Not really, no. The ladder will go: F1 F2 F3 International F3 Regional F4. F3 regional and F3 International will broadly use the same regulation framework but the international series will be a step up in performance. The Regional level is already in place with FIA F3 Asian and US F3 already launched. A plan exists for Renault to perhaps upgrade Formula Renault Eurocup to a European F3 Regional series, with or without formal FIA backing next year. The international series will launch next year as you say, the FIA have capped the number of entrants at 30 and as… Read more »

Lemongrab
Guest
Lemongrab

Thanks! I knew it couldn’t have been anywhere nearly as simple as I’d hoped, but I think you’ve dumbed it down for me as well as anyone could!

Peter Riva
Member
Peter Riva

There used to be two levels of pilots too… and eventually ability and training started to level things out. NOT completely, but on the same playing field. If they allow this W series, it’ll be like tennis, never the twain shall meet and no one will know just how good Serena Williams is.

Dan Cooper
Guest
Dan Cooper

I like the all women’s series, I think it should be set up to allow women to compete against each other and demonstrate who’s at the level to go to and open series at the same time. I think in the beginning you have to create an advantage for having a female driver. You can call it manipulative (and it is) but it’s necessary. In the Volvo Ocean Race teams were allowed a certain number of crew, then as many women as they wanted after that. Different teams took different approaches but since more crew is generally better in long… Read more »

Tom Firth
Editor

Polite but firm message from the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission at the World Motorsport Council (WMSC) meeting in Paris today. “In association with the Drivers’ Commission, a two-day women drivers assessment programme was hosted at the Circuito de Navarra in Spain in August. As the FIA continues its commitment to increasing the number of women competing in its championships, fifteen drivers who are currently competing in a variety of different categories were invited to participate. The assessment was designed to achieve a clear overview of the potential of women drivers from different disciplines of international motor sport. With concrete… Read more »

ShocksAndAwe
Member
ShocksAndAwe

I get Pippa’s reaction, she’s fighting hard for equal consideration, and this is a step backwards for her, but I think it would actually be a step forward for women in the sport as as a whole. Visibility is key to getting support, as well as the key to inspiring young girls to follow in their heroines’ footsteps.

But the real key, as Grace often says, is the racing. If the racing is good, this will be a real benefit. If the racing sucks, critics will use it to negative effect, I’m afraid.

Scott Crawford Crawford
Guest
Scott Crawford Crawford

I agree. While all the discussion is valuable, I don’t think society is as advanced as we like to think we are; what this series really needs to do is tell 3 year old girls watching TV, or looking at picture books, that yes – girls can be racing drivers too.