If the mortality rate of Formula 1 teams roughly equals of that cheetah cubs in the wild – in 70 years around 90 per cent of start-up teams have gone to the wall – nascent race series arguably fare even worse, challenging the silverback gorilla or orangutan.
However, none of these faced the levels of scepticism that surrounded W Series when it was first mooted, let alone announced last October, nor such searching questiona about its legality given increasingly stringent equality laws in most civilised countries. Indeed, RaceFans understands that the FIA’s legal department took particular care to scrutinise the application from every angle before rubber stamping it as an officially-sanctioned series.
In the main, the governing body relied upon relied upon a European Union White Paper on Sport, which states that “the organisation of separate competitions for men and women is a specific feature of sporting activities”. W Series itself points out that workplace equality laws do not apply to in this instance as the drivers are not employees, but competitors contesting a sanctioned championship.
None of this was, though, a surprise to W Series founder Catherine Bond Muir, who, as a sport lawyer – primarily in football – and City corporate financier, had no concerns about the legality of a woman-only championship. Having stepped back from her career to start a family, she pondered her next move.
“By complete coincidence at that point I had a cup of coffee with a couple of mates, who suggested a women’s motor racing series.
“To begin with I thought, ‘That’s a great idea’, but the more I looked into it, the more I thought ‘That’s a terrible idea’, because if men and women can compete equally there’s no need for it.
“Then I did some more research. This was three years ago, if you looked at the previous eight years, the numbers of women in single-seater motor racing series, not just isolated races, actually the numbers were going down. So, what the hell was going on in motorsport when in the rest in the world women were participating more in practically every other sport around the world?”
There is no doubt that women can (and do) cut it in open motorsport – as proven in the past by the likes of Michelle Mouton, Desire Wilson and Divina Galica, plus more contemporary examples. But, as outlined here last year in an analysis of women in motorsport, fewer girls take up motorsport than do boys, mainly due to lack of opportunities.
Bond Muir’s take on the situation: “By definition, if that path for women is completely grown over because it’s been 43 years since you’ve got someone in Formula 1, and therefore it just struck me that whatever was going wrong in motorsport is that you needed something that was disruptive and a new platform to disrupt the whole of it. And the disruption obviously for women is having a women’s series.”
Thus, she thought, why not start a W Series create those opportunities by providing funded drives in equal cars for promising female drivers, who qualify on a shoot-out basis?
All well and good, but inspiration and FIA sanction don’t pay the bills for a pan-European championship contested by two dozen contemporary single-seater cars, none of which is paid for by the drivers – as is the case in every other category. So where does the funding come from, and why would investors pour money into a funnel with, on paper, a 10 per cent chance (at best) of surviving?
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“I can give you a banking response, she says: I think what they do understand, I say it’s a bit like a football club, is that I think the return is probably equity value rather than dividend return.
“So what they’re not in it for, is for a quick turnaround. [Primary investor, recruitment executive] Sean Wadsworth is the main investor. You do have to take your hat off to him, because Sean put a significant amount of money to begin with in a business plan [written by Bond Muir herself].”
Still, he (and co-investors) must surely be seeking a return on investment, so how to deliver that?
“I think the investors believe that if we get everything right, the money will follow,” she says firmly. “So what is great is that we are as a business concentrating on the product at the moment. When you do things for the first time, we strategise absolutely every single move that we make…it’s about a good delivery of our product, and then the money will come.”
Still, all major motorsport categories rely primarily on commercial support from whoever and for whatever reason, in turn facilitated by exposure and activation, whether on TV and social media platforms, plus live interaction.
To this end W Series has strung together some enviable TV deals – including live broadcasts on Channel 4 – with last month’s inaugural race in Hockenheim reaching 50 territories globally, with Spain joining the roster in the run-up to second race in Zolder.
“There are 15 nationalities represented on the W Series grid, with TV available in half those territories. In the others (US, Canada, Japan, Italy. Germany, Liechtenstein, Belgium and Hungary), we are on live-stream,” a W Series spokesperson told RaceFans.
Still, the cars are bare, with national flags on prime areas being the major differentiation between them. As of the second race W Series could count on the (trade) support of only ATS (wheel rims), Hankook (tyres) and Puma (shoes), surely not enough to sustain the series and provide a decent return on investment. What gives in this area?
“We’ve been speaking to lots and lots,” says Bond Muir. “Twenty years ago it was about putting stickers on [cars], but [now] it’s much more about telling stories through social media and engaging with audiences.
“We haven’t, because we have been about delivering the product, concentrated in our first year on getting sponsors in, because we knew we were financed.
“There were two reasons: The first that if we sold sponsorship before we started, how much money would we have got? And the second was just really bandwidth.
“It was about Matt making us famous around the word, it was about Dave delivering. I don’t know what I do but I never seem to stop working, and I do lots of other different things too. It’s about delivery.
Talk of Matt (Bishop, communications director) and Dave (Ryan, sporting director), both former senior McLaren employees – as is (ex-F1 driver) David Coulthard, who introduced his mate Wadsworth to W Series – begs the question: Is it not ironic that a women’s series is male top-heavy?
“Can I go back to history as to why that is?” asks Bond Muir. “You know how this was set up – what was glaringly obvious to me was that I’m not a motorsport person, and that we needed to get expertise in.
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So what my belief was, we just had to get the best of breed in every area. By definition, on the technical side, it’s going to be men, because that is the whole problem with motorsport. So, as we move forward, we will change.”
Is there, then, a desire to correct this perceived imbalance?
“Absolutely. The CEO [Bond Muir] is female, our Financial Director is female and we’re getting a new commercial director, who’s female. So we are becoming much more female orientated.
Then Bond Muir adds, with a smile, “What you can’t do, you can’t say we’re only going to be female, because that’s illegal… so it’s still going to be the best of breed.”
We return to the commercial side: What sort of partner categories is W Series looking at, will they be mainly female-orientated products?
“It’s quite interesting.,” she says. “At the moment our social media numbers are moving towards more women, and our TV numbers started off in a traditional motorsport audience of gender, but we’re attracting a very young audience. That’s the interesting thing.”
The perception is that W Series is locked into the DTM calendar, but according to Bond Muir the series could add its own races, whether in, say, Spain or international destinations such as North America, South Africa or Asia.
“I think when we’re looking at expansion in the future, obviously we’ve got Miki Koyama, but Juju Noda is potentially a star of the future, she’s 14 years old, doing fantastic things in Japan, and I assume that if someone like Juju came along it would be foolish of us commercially not to go and have a race in somewhere like Japan.
“So I think what will happen is that countries may be self-selecting according to where our fan base is, and I suspect our fan base may, who knows, because we’ve got to do the analysis of it, be concentrated in the countries where our drivers are from.”
Present in Zolder to award trophies is Divina Galica – Desire Wilson did the honours in Hockenheim – which provides a perfect opportunity to obtain a steer on W Series from the seventies F1 driver and current (race) driving instructor.
Divina, former captain of Britain’s Olympic skiing team, broke into motorsport after being invited to contest a Ford Escort celebrity race. Would she have made it otherwise?
“No,” she says openly, I wouldn’t have got further than Formula Ford! I was lucky, I was at the right place at the right time.”
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So what, then, does she make of the opportunities offered to women racers by W Series?
“Well, in 1994 I went to the United States to teach, and the first thing they said to me was ‘As a teacher you’ve got to do our three-day school,’ and I did the three-day school and after it I said ‘Oh my god, I wish I’d done this before I started driving an F1 car, because I would know what cause and effect was about.’
“These girls have the most incredible opportunity. They are taught to get fit, they’re taught about nutrition, they’re taught to read data. Of course we didn’t have data in my days, but that’s not the point. This is a huge opportunity for them to get publicity for themselves, and to learn how to drive a fast race car and prove themselves.
“It’s even beneficial for the people at the back, because they will learn something that their parents probably don’t have the money to put them. Up to now they’ve had the parents paying for everything they do, and suddenly they’re allowed to drive a Formula 3 car in a championship for them. And their parents really couldn’t afford a Formula 3 season.”
Jamie Chadwick, winner of the first W Series race at Hockenheim, tells a similar story. In a column for RaceFans last year, the BRDC F3 race winner made it clear she believes male and female drivers should ultimately race together. But W Series offered a precious chance to continue her career in single-seaters.
“I think for anyone in motorsport funding is one of the biggest obstacles,” she says. “And actually even for me the opportunity to do single-seaters this year, or the level that I wanted to do, wasn’t necessarily an option because of the budget that was required for me to race.
“So this really does offer an opportunity for obviously female racing drivers, but ultimately racing drivers to be out racing at a high level in top cars. So, yes, I think that’s how I looked at it, as an opportunity for me now to progress going forwards beyond the W Series, it’s the best option.”
Chadwick was denied a repeat victory at Zolder by Beitske Visser, whose path to W Series was somewhat different. While Chadwick raced GT cars before switching to single-seaters, Visser’s path was more conventional. After karting she was briefly part of Red Bull’s Junior Team and raced in the more senior Formula Renault 3.5 category, after which her progress stalled.
“In single-seaters it wouldn’t have been an opportunity in this kind of car to race in Europe,” she says. “You’re talking about raising half a million and that wasn’t possible for me. So for single-seaters it wouldn’t have been something I would have been able to progress in. Maybe in sportscars there were opportunities available but I really wanted to continue the journey in single-seaters.”
The rise of women’s sport outside motor racing gives Bond Muir greater confidence that her vision of W Series elevating more talents female racers to higher levels of competition which might otherwise have been closed to them. Three years ago she doubted whether the championship would ever come together. “But I’m much more confident now,” she says.
“Not because I’m doing it but I think the macro environment has changed significantly in the last three years. What has happened to women’s sport in the last three years is something that I could never have predicted.
“Everyone needs luck in business, and I think our luck, the W-Series’ luck, has been the movement towards women’s sport and the support by all the stakeholders for women’s sport. The fact that we got on terrestrial TV in the UK – before we’d even had race– is pretty extraordinary.”
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