12 months of W Series: Part Two

We continue our year one story with the second race of the W Series season which takes place at the famous Belgian circuit in Zolder.

May 2019 – Zolder

Briefly the home of the Formula 1 Belgian Grand Prix during the 1970s and early ’80s, Zolder was Belgium’s first purpose-built racing circuit. Set up by local racing enthusiasts as the Omloop van Terlaemen in 1961, the track as we know it today was redesigned by John Hugenholtz – who was also drawing Suzuka at the time – and officially opened in 1963.

W Series followed up a successful maiden outing at Hockenheim with another action-packed weekend including two new faces. Reserve driver Vivien Keszthelyi made her first appearance in place of Emma Kimilainen, who had aggravated an old neck injury during her accident in the first round. Second reserve Sarah Bovy made it a 19-car grid.

Although Jamie Chadwick pipped Beitske Visser to pole position on Saturday, on race day Visser capitalised on confusion at the start – the cars were held on the grid for longer than expected owing to an engine problem for Bovy – to grab the lead. 10th-placed Gosia Rdest jumped the start and at Turn 1 got in among the drivers who had started two rows ahead, sending Fabienne Wohlwend wide through the dust and down three places to ninth.

The safety car was deployed immediately to cover the removal of Bovy’s car, and on the restart Visser backed the field up and then dropped the hammer early to break clear from Chadwick. She wasn’t to make a clean break early, though: at the end of the lap Esmee Hawkey made a lunge on Rdest for seventh place at the Bolderbergbocht corner, spinning them both out, and Sabre Cook tapped Kesztheyli into the barrier. Out came the safety car again.

Visser bossed the restart once again and pulled away to win by 8.451s. Chadwick fell back as she became embroiled in a wheel-to-wheel battle with Alice Powell, who briefly took second place in the final minutes before Chadwick reasserted herself on the penultimate lap.

Hockenheim podium finisher Marta Garcia was three seconds further in arrears in fourth, having spent the entire race fending off Sarah Moore. The pressure only lifted in the final laps as Moore came under attack from Tasmin Pepper and the resurgent Wohlwend.

Chadwick left Zolder still in the lead of the championship, with 43 points. Visser leapfrogged both Garcia and Powell to go second in the standings, just six points behind.

June 2019 – Misano

As the inaugural W Series season reached its half-way point in the midsummer heat of the Adriatic coast, Jamie Chadwick consolidated her points lead with a second win of the season.

It was another 19-car grid as Vivien Kesztheyli stood in for Emma Kimilainen once again and Sarah Bovy got another chance to race after a mechanical problem ruled her out at Zolder.

Chadwick had just been announced as the Williams F1 team’s development driver but Fabienne Wohlwend stole the limelight by claiming pole position. Zolder winner Beitske Visser started third, ahead of Alice Powell, and there was a new look to row three as Vicky Piria was joined by Miki Koyama – the first time the hard-charging Japanese driver had started inside the top 10.

Wohlwend made a great initial getway as the lights went out, but then picked up too much wheelspin and both Chadwick and Visser got by as the field approached the sharp right-hander at Turn 1. Powell was looking for a way past, too, but there wasn’t enough room on the outside and she banged wheels with Wohlwend, bouncing into the air and off into the gravel.

After a brief safety car period the leading trio of Chadwick, Visser and Wohlwend resumed their battle, gradually easing away from the duel for fourth between Piria and Koyama. Wohlwend tried to pass Visser but ran wide and dropped back, finishing two seconds down at the chequered flag, while Koyama took fourth at mid-distance when Piria missed a gearshift. Marta Garcia and Tasmin Pepper were sixth and seventh ahead of Sabre Cook, who had made great progress from 15th on the grid.

Powell’s failure to score would prove costly as she dropped another place in the championship standings, losing third to Garcia, but the Spanish driver had lost ground as well. Chadwick was now more than a race win ahead with 68 points to Visser’s 55, with Garcia on 35.

July 2019 – Norisring

After fast, flowing Misano the tight confines of the Norisring – a 1.4-mile street circuit in Nuremberg – offered a huge contrast. This is an unforgiving track where the slightest mistake can put you in the wall and out of the race.

That certainly didn’t put off Emma Kimilainen, who returned to the field after recuperating from her neck injury.

“I’ve had long breaks in my career so a couple of races was nothing,” she said. “I would not have missed this for anything. Even if I can’t win the championship this year it’s just important to drive and enjoy it and be a part of our community.”

Given the nature of the track, practice and qualifying were highly likely to be eventful as well as important to the outcome of the race. And so it proved as Alice Powell hurt her wrist in a collision with Esmee Hawkey during practice, then halted with a transmission problem during qualifying. That left her at the back of the grid as Marta Garcia annexed pole position by 0.08s from championship leader Jamie Chadwick, with Fabienne Wohlwend third. Beitske Visser, Chadwick’s nearest rival for the championship, was on the third row.

This was a vital race for Garcia’s title hopes and she delivered in style, converting pole into the race lead and then stretching away to win by 3.6s. Chadwick, by contrast, made a poor getaway by her standards and lost out to the fast-starting Visser at Turn 1.

Visser managed to rebuff several challenges from Chadwick over the closing laps to hold on to second, with Wohlwend fourth – just 0.4s ahead of the returning Kimilainen. Mika Koyama enjoyed another quietly impressive race at the head of the midfield pack, rising from ninth to sixth in the final reckoning.

It continued to be a disastrous weekend for Powell, though. She retired with a mechanical problem almost within sight of the chequered flag having battled through to ninth.

With just two points-scoring rounds to go, this second consecutive retirement put Powell out of any realistic contention for the title. Garcia’s win reduced her deficit to championship leader Chadwick, while Visser also gained ground. Just 23 points separated the top three as W Series moved on to Assen.

July 2019 – Assen

TT Circuit Assen, to use this famous venue’s official title, has almost a hundred years of racing history in the record books. It’s better known for motorcycle events and its beguiling mix of super-fast sections and tight bends certainly suits two-wheelers, but it’s no less challenging at the wheel of a single-seater.

This W Series weekend had an unusual flavour since we were running two races, one not counting towards the championship but enabling us to evaluate a different event format under real conditions.

In the points counter Emma Kimilainen secured her maiden W Series victory after setting the pace through practice and qualifying. Alice Powell started beside her on the front row and took an early lead, but the action was then put on pause behind the safety car after an accident at Turn 1.

Championship leader Jamie Chadwick had qualified third and tried to squeeze between Kimilainen and Powell away from the line, but had to back off and settle into line. Behind them the rest of the field crowded into the first corner and Tasmin Pepper was forced onto the kerb, spinning across the track into the path of Miki Koyama.

Once the safety car withdrew Kimilainen and Powell were in a class of their own, pulling away to the tune of over four seconds. Kimilainen patiently applied pressure to Powell before pouncing as the leader ran wide at Turn 1, then held the lead to the chequered flag.

Powell’s second place wasn’t enough to keep her in the title hunt with one scoring round to go, but it did put her ahead of Fabienne Wohlwend, who finished 15th after picking up front-wing damage in a clash at the restart.

Third-placed Chadwick spent the race with title rival Beitske Visser occupying her mirrors, claiming enough points to build her advantage to 13 – but the race for the championship remained open, if only for Chadwick and Visser. Marta Garcia was a distant 13th, dropping to 36 points off the lead.

The grid of the experimental race was set in the reverse of the championship order, placing Megan Gilkes on pole with Sarah Bovy alongside on the front row.

At 17, Gilkes was the youngest driver on the grid and one of the least experienced, but when the lights went out she showed extraordinary resolve to hold on and win the race from a charging Powell, who started 17th. Over the closing laps Gilkes had eight other cars in her slipstream but she defended like a veteran.

Powell gained 11 places in the first two laps and made it a photo finish as she crossed the finishing line virtually alongside Gilkes. Sabre Cook narrowly prevailed over Kimilainen to complete the podium.

August 2019 – Brands Hatch

While it was fantastic for the W Series and the eager spectators at Brands Hatch for the championship to come down to a final-round decider, it made for a nervous weekend for the competitors – particularly since the points leader was racing in front of her home crowd.

To overturn the 13-point deficit in the standings Beitske Visser needed to win with Jamie Chadwick no higher than fourth. There were other permutations involving Visser finishing second or third, of course, but no driver enters a race weekend no expecting to win, do they?

Chadwick drew first blood by qualifying on pole from Alice Powell, with Visser very much on the back foot in fifth. To attack Chadwick and Visser she would have to get by Esmee Hawkey and Emma Kimilainen first, and that seemed very much on the cards as Hawkey stalled when the lights went out.

Chadwick led from Powell and Kimilainen as Visser initially struggled to hang on to the leading trio. Powell was determined to make up for her disappointments earlier this season and put the leader under sustained pressure, eventually forcing her way through at the iconic Paddock Hill Bend at mid-distance. Kimilainen took advantage of the gap to go through as well, but Chadwick was still ahead of her title rival.

Then Miki Koyama spun at Sheene Curve and stalled in the middle of the track. The safety car compressed the field and left Chadwick vulnerable at the restart.

Visser pounced as the race was green-flagged and took third place, but as the laps ticked down she was unable to do anything about Powell and Kimilainen ahead. With Visser finishing third, fourth was enough for Chadwick to claim the inaugural W Series title and a $500,000 share of the prize fund.

Since the top 12 in the championship gained automatic qualification for the second season there was plenty to play for all down the field in the closing laps. Powell’s victory brought her to third overall, ahead of Marta Garcia (who finished eighth this weekend), while Kimilainen overhauled Fabienne Wohlwend for fifth in the final reckoning.

Koyama had already done enough for seventh overall, while Sarah Moore’s 10th place at Brands Hatch put her eighth in the standings. Sixth-placed Vicky Piria jumped Tasmin Pepper in the points for ninth overall. Seventh place at Brands enabled Jessica Hawkins to go from 14th to 11th, ahead of Sabre Cook.

And so the season was complete. Brands Hatch, with its gripping finale and fan-packed W Village, (those post podium celebrations by the girls from London Youth were a particular favourite) was a great success.

But what next for W Series?

As a competitive series with a generous prize fund, W Series has marked itself out as a significant international championship. And, following confirmation that entrants will be eligible for FIA Super Licence points in 2020, it’s become exactly what we intended: a genuine route to the very top for the most promising young talent.

With 18 of 20 drivers now announced for 2020, the future of our brand-new series is looking very promising indeed.