W Series, the supposed controversial new single-seater motorsport championship, ended its six-race season at Brands Hatch earlier, crowning Briton’s Jamie Chadwick as the first champion.
W What Now?
Wanting to expand my interest of motorsports, and always keen to look at something considered controversial, I found myself catching the first race of the female-centric W Series season at Hockenheim back in May. I had heard a few things about the series; the selection process, the big names attached to the championship, the mantra of changing the face of motorsport…
But as always with new championships, a large pinch of salt must be taken when assessing its long-term ability to maintain itself as a motorsport series, it’s ability to produce decent racing and its ability to actually be a worthwhile watch when compared with the other offerings available.
Twenty-or-so female drivers of differing nationalities, abilities, backgrounds and experience, competing in identical F3 cars at six rounds, accompanying the DTM series as it winds its way around Europe.
With relatively short races and competing on a variety of different circuits, the championship seemed interesting perhaps mainly because if it wasn’t, well, it is short and to the point, so the investment of time and energy for the viewer isn’t massive. This is especially so when compared with a 20+ Grand Prix Formula One season, with each race lasting between 1.5 and 2 hours, plus qualifying the day before being an hour and for the really invested follower, the practice sessions and everything in between.
Each race is timed to 30 minutes plus one more lap. If a safety car is released, the timer continues.
Each car is identical, just minor set up differences that are actuated by the driver and their engineer.
The cars and engineers are rotated each race, so even if a driver feels one car is performing better than another, the car will move to a different driver for the next event.
The is no refuelling or tyre changes, although I imagine a tyre change would be allowed if there was a concern over safety. It didn’t happen in 2019 although there were a number of front wing changes at the various races.
The points system follows Formula One: 25, 20, 18… down to 1 point for tenth. There is no fastest lap point nor any reward for pole position other than starting from the front of the grid.
W Series is free to enter, but the drivers do have to pass a selection process or finsh in the previous season’s top-12.
Is Ted Involved?
Of course Ted is involved, that’s a silly question to ask.
I’m sure Mr Kravitz will make a post-season recap video, at which point I’ll swap this one out. But the video above highlights the openess of the W Series paddock and gives a little insight into the access to the drivers. For a few races, Channel 4’s Lee McKenzie actually ventured onto the grid just prior to the formation lap and spoke directly to the pole sitter either via the radio or by sticking a microphone to the helmet of the driver.
When the series was announced around a year ago, it proved divisive among female drivers and employees/alumni of motorsport. Many felt a motorsport series dedicated entirely and solely to women was just what was needed. To showcase the talents of one side of the human species to prove to the naysayers that females can compete at a high level in what is generally a male-dominated sport.
Flipping the coin over, many felt that segregating the species would only prove that women cannot compete with the men and thus need their own championship in order to race.
This series is founded on segregation, and while it may create opportunities for some female drivers, it sends a clear message that segregation is acceptable. Charlie Martin
Admittedly, both arguments carry merit. But there is a crucial element here that I feel many have missed.
W Series isn’t setting out to compete as the highest echelon of motorsport. The cars are not as fast as can be made, the races are not as demanding and generally speaking, it hopes to be a feeder series to Formula One. A route to the big league, rather than its replacement.
And that’s a key element, I feel. Those who understand motorsport will have heard of the stories of drivers struggling in their teens and early twenties to get funding to race, and to get noticed by the right people to eventually make it to the point where they can earn enough to not worry. Multiple Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton has been speaking quite openly about this recently, perhaps over-indulging his ‘poor boy done good’ story. But even for a driver like himself, the financial burden of choosing motorsport as a career can be tremendous in the early years.
W Series has enabled Jamie Chadwick to earn herself many things. She will leave Brands Hatch this evening $500,000 better off. She will bask in the glory of becoming the very first W Series Champion, having raced very well and consistently (perhaps up until the final race itself). She has earned respect and has already been signed up to a development role with the Williams Formula One team. And if Jamie decides to defend her title next year, she will earn points towards her super license, a key component to moving up through the ranks to the ultimate goal of Formula One.
Does It Work?
Erm… let me have a little think about that while I ask a different question and wonder about the point of the actual championship itself.
Is it such a bad thing having a series dedicated to females?
I think not. I was initially on the side of the fence that didn’t believe in segregation of any kind. But I soon realised the point of W Series. And that is to get noticed, earn money and prove racecraft. Formula One doesn’t discriminate against women, they are allowed to enter the championship and a few have done over the sport’s lengthening history. But in order to get there, you have to be on the right journey.
So was it worth the investment of time to watch the W Series this year? Well that is questionable. My thoughts on the actual racing, and therefore the entertainment value of the series isn’t great.
Firstly, driver indentification is a nightmare. This is something that has become a similar problem in all FIA-sanctioned open-cockpit motor sports recently, with the introduction of the halo effectively blocking the view of one of the main ways of identifying a driver: their helmet.
But W Series make it harder still by forcing the drivers to change chassis each race, so using the colours of the car to pick out a particular pilot is useless because half the time one cannot remember if they are in a predominantly yellow, purple, black, pink or white car. Furthermore, there’s 4 of each colour in every race. Not that remembering any of this matters because they’ll be in a differently coloured car for the next race. The driver’s name and number is splashed on the top of the monocoque and down each sidepod but even this is hard to make out during races.
The graphics used on the TV during events do indicate the colour of the car to the driver, but it isn’t shown all the time, and when it is it’s only visible for a few seconds.
The graphics displayed during races are simply not good enough. In fact, they are some what embarrassing. The position change updates happen far too slowly and time-distances between drivers or between the lead driver and another are not shown with enough regularity.
This lack of timing, and obviously I am comparing to Formula One, could be down to having fewer sensors on the cars and/or at the tracks themselves. Although the series did open at Hockenheim, a circuit used for F1, so I would imagine it is more to do with either the cars or the system used in the background to capture times and report to the production staff.
The position of the television cameras around the circuits wasn’t the best and it didn’t capture the cars at their fastest. Often the cars looked slow and lethargic, and often times key action was missed. Having said that, the final round at Brands Hatch was a huge improvement. Again, whether this was down to the production company learning, the circuit itself being better equipped or pure luck, only time will tell.
The actual racing was quite bland for most of the year. As each car is identical, more emphasis is placed on the skill and racecraft of the individual driver. But this tends to lead to processional races. Generally speaking, the fastest and most proficient driver will take pole in qualifying, and then continue this dominance in the race. And by and large, that is what happened until the final event at Brands Hatch.
What made the British round of W Series more interesting to view was perhaps due to the mentality of the drivers themselves. Although Jamie Chadwick took pole, the championship was pretty much hers and she could afford to drive a little more conservatively and as she said so herself afterwards, “just get the car home”. This led to fellow Briton Alice Powell to pounce on the leader and drive to her maiden W Series victory, followed by the very talented driver Emma Kimilainen and the only driver who could steal the title, Beitske Visser. All three passed Chadwick with brilliant moves that were clean but very racey.
W Series isn’t as gimmicky as Formula E, which is a blessing in my view. I personally cannot stand the boost features of Formula E, linked to driving off-line over a Mario Kart style go faster line, or with a driver’s popularity on Twitter. W Series is core-skill motor racing, and that is important.
Would I watch W Series next year? Well CEO Catherine Bond Muir is promising more races, again following the DTM series I imagine it would stay in Europe. Muir also stated that 2021 would see a push to move into Asia and the Americas. So an expanded season could be interesting, and presumably it will be covered (in Britain) by Channel 4 again, a free-to-air channel.
Also, W Series did openly experiment with a non-championship reverse-grid race after the fifth round in Assen. Interestingly, Chadwick improved from last to eighth, but perhaps predictably, last-placed Megan Gilkes did go from ‘pole’ to victory. Possibly a gimmick best left on the sidelines.
The series seems to have a good footing and fairly sensible people making the decisions. The mantra of changing the face of motorsport is all a bit too far fetched, but that aside it looks to have enjoyed a successful first foray. Of course the majority of women competing in the series this year are already too old to move into Formula One, so I feel it will be a while before W Series get to boast of the first female competitor in Formula One since Giovanna Amati in 1992.
But already it has raised the profile of a few drivers – Kimilainen and Visser particularly impressed – and it has shown that there are actually plenty of female racers out there. Hopefully W Series can continue to promote these drivers through the championship.
I think I will watch the first races of the 2020 season just to see how it is again, but I imagine my interest might wane after that, especially if the racing continues to uninspire.
Please note the article that is linked to above was also written by myself, although nearly twelve years ago. The article did not consider test or reserve roles for female drivers in Formula One, something that since 2007 has become more of a common sight; Susie Wolff, Carmen Jorda, Tatiana Calderon, Simona de Silvestro and the late Maria de Villota. Although it should be noted, not one of the many female test/reserve drivers have actually competed in a Formula One Grand Prix.
Image © Jamie Chadwick.
Video © W Series.