The W-Series: a pathway to success or a token gesture?

While the on-track events in the world of motorsport have been petering out into an end-of-season anticlimax, the off-track news has provided fans with plenty of topics for discussion. The futures of Daniel Ricciardo, Charles Leclerc and Esteban Ocon have been subject to much heated debate, but a potentially more divisive and less discussed recent development has been the announcement of an exclusive womens’ feeder category, to commence in May 2019. The organisers of the W-Series believe that women are not being presented with the opportunities to reach the promised land of Formula 1, and that the new series can provide female drivers with a platform to showcase their talents. They are basing their new model on a “firm belief that women can compete equally with men” despite the current lack of female representation in the sport. They are offering free entry for 18-20 female drivers based on merit alone, and the winner will receive $500,000 to fund future endeavours in the sport.Gender inequality in motorsport is not a new issue by any means, but history suggests that it has never been a priority for motorsport authorities. The statistics are shocking: only two female drivers have started a Formula 1 race since the inception of the F1 Championship in 1950. No woman has ever scored a full championship point. Lella Lombardi is the only female points scorer in F1 history, having scored half a point in a shortened race in 1975. In recent history, Susie Wolff drove in some practice sessions in 2014 and 2015 for the Williams F1 Team, but retired from the sport after 2015 citing a lack of further opportunities. Tatiana Calderon, a Colombian driver, currently leads the way for women in motorsport as the test driver for the Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team, but with the current shortage of seats on the F1 grid, it would hardly be surprising to see her being forced to backtrack as Wolff did before her.David Coulthard, a former F1 race winner and a member of the advisory board for the W-Series, believes that the struggles of the likes of Wolff to pursue their F1 dreams are because of a “glass ceiling” between women and the top tiers of motorsport. It is hard to argue with this claim given the lack of female competitors in F1 history. It seems that they can progress through the karting ranks to Formula 3, but that any further progression requires a significant level of funding in addition to an incredible level of natural talent. The organisers are presenting the W-Series as a stage on which female drivers can progress towards the next level, and as an opportunity for them to develop the skills which will hopefully see them break the “glass ceiling” in the future. However, in the meantime, the W-Series can be a competition through which the best female drivers can inspire young girls to pursue a career in motorsport. The unfortunate truth is that young girls often turn away from karting at a young age in favour of another sport due to the lack of female role models in the higher Formula categories. The W-Series would be well placed to show aspiring female stars that there are opportunities for them in the sport.Unfortunately, while the intentions of the organisers of the new series are honourable, the concept is not without its flaws and notable detractors. Claire Williams, the deputy principal of the Williams F1 Team described the idea as a “regressive step.” Pippa Mann, a British racer who has competed six times at the Indy 500, was even more scathing in her criticism, labelling the announcement of the W-Series as a “sad day for motorsport” as the concept will only serve to “segregate” female drivers “as opposed to supporting them”. While this stance does not acknowledge the positive intentions of the series organisers, it does raise a critical question: does creating a women-only series really give female drivers opportunities to progress to F2 and F1, or is it merely a token gesture towards them?It is unclear as to what the next step would be for successful drivers in the series: there is no guarantee that F2 or F1 teams would ever recruit W-Series winners. There is a chance that they might look to the W-Series for drivers, but recruitment decisions will always be based on performance alone. It could be argued that the W-Series will present more female drivers with a platform on which to showcase their talent, but if the end goal is to increase female competition in the male dominated environment of F1, is it not a counterproductive step to segregate them into their own exclusive series?While the creation of the W-Series clearly displays the willingness of the governing bodies of motorsport to address the challenge of gender inequality in the top tiers of the sport, it is unclear as to whether their solution will produce the desired changes. If the funding is there to create a whole new series for women, surely this money could be better spent on helping the top current female drivers to compete in the existing feeder series of F1 against their male counterparts? While the W-Series will inspire young girls to pursue a career in motorsport, it may not provide more women with the opportunity to compete against men in the top tiers of motorsport. If women like Lellu Lombardi and Tatiana Calderon can reach F1 without a women’s feeder category, there is no reason why other aspiring female drivers can not do likewise with some serious funding. The W-Series has been created with all the best intentions at heart, but it is unclear as to whether it will address the problem of gender inequality in F1.