W Series: 12 months from launch

This month, W Series celebrated its first anniversary since launching to the world. From early beginnings to championship success, this is the two-part review of a thrilling 12 months so far…

October 2018 – London

After over two years of secret planning it was time for W Series to go public. In the early hours of the morning on the 10th October, we pressed send on that press release, and posted our first-ever tweet.

For our CEO Catherine Bond Muir that meant an exhausting but exhilarating day of radio and TV interviews, beginning just after 7am on the Today programme.

It’s our mission to shake up the motorsport industry, rethink ancient stereotypes, and prove that women and men can race against each another given the same opportunity and equipment. Inevitably on launch day we heard from sceptics, some of whom didn’t share our vision, some of whom desired a similar outcome but disagreed with our route to reaching it.

But we had complete confidence. Not only had we developed a rigorous business plan, we were demonstrating it was achievable. Over the coming weeks we announced a string of broadcast partnerships that would place W Series live on terrestrial TV across the globe, giving the women who would go on to compete in the inaugural season far greater exposure than they could ever have dreamed of earlier in their careers.

December 2018 – London

The Autosport Awards, held annually at the Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane, is the Oscars of motor racing. It’s a night of champions. Six of our 2019 driver-qualifiers and their guests took to the red carpet, surrounded by photographers and fans, and looked entirely at home there – despite the fact that they would be occupying what was the first ever all-female table since the Awards began in 1982.

January 2019 – Wachauring

Winter in central Europe might not seem to offer the friendliest conditions for driving, but with the clock ticking down to the first race of the season it was time to begin the process of filtering our 54 shortlisted candidates down to 28.

The Wachauring Driver Safety Centre near the picturesque town of Melk, on the banks of the river Danube, provided a venue for a battery of tests devised by Le Mans 24 Hours winner Alex Wurz. This being central Europe in January, it was snowing. But we weren’t expecting our candidates to prove their abilities in single-seat race cars just yet, or even just to drive.

Alex’s programme – based on his acclaimed work for the FIA Institute’s Young Driver Academy – kicked off with psychometric tests, fitness assessments and media drills. After that our candidates got to show off their driving finesse in Ford Fiesta STs and Porsche Caymans.

These three days in the snow and slush began a bonding process that would knit the W Series team together as a unit. It also made it doubly difficult to bid farewell to those candidates who didn’t make it to the next stage – but they went away reassured that the door would remain open to them to apply again next year.

March 2019 – Almeria

Set in the rolling Andalucian hills, the Circuito de Almeria proudly proclaims itself Europe’s warmest and driest racetrack. That made it the perfect venue for the second and most critical stage of our driver selection programme. Here our candidates would be evaluated both on how they drove in the actual race cars – Tatuus F3 T-318s powered by 1.8-litre turbocharged engines – and how they engaged with the crew from Hitech GP who would be running all the cars in W Series.

Over the course of four days our expert panel – including grand prix winner David Coulthard – weighed up every candidate’s skills and gradually came to a definitive selection of 18 plus four reserves. And what a powerful list that was, full of individuals with fascinating stories. Alice Powell was a Formula Renault champion forced to quit racing for lack of funds, and now working as a builder. Jamie Chadwick won the British GT Championship in 2015 but had also struggled to find funding after transitioning to single-seater racing. National karting champion Marta Garcia had taken a step back from racing after being dropped by the Renault Sport Academy in 2017. Jessica Hawkins was a professional stunt driver who had raced only at club level in recent years, having thought such opportunities as she would enjoy in single-seaters had come and gone.

“When I met W Series they asked me what I’d been up to and I said: ‘Yesterday I was unblocking a urinal,’” Alice told the Guardian newspaper. “I don’t think it was the answer they expected.”

W Series doesn’t expect drivers to bring a budget. All they need is their talent. That, and the level playing field of equal equipment run with equal skill and attention to detail, is what makes W Series a game changer.

April 2019 – Laustizring

While the TV crew from Whisper Films were ever-present during our selection programme to document it for posterity, we had yet to run out in the open, under the unflinching eye of the public and the media. That time would come during a three-day test in Germany as we got ready for the final step up – to prove ourselves ready to join the support bill of the DTM championship, one of the world’s pre-eminent touring car series.

Running on the same track as the DTM cars and sharing the scrutiny from fans and media was another key waypoint in our journey towards mainstream acceptance. Operational slickness is the key to running a compelling show during race weekends. That’s why our focus at the Lausitzring wasn’t on setting outright lap times but getting the boring-but-necessary stuff right: making sure everybody is in the right place at the right time when working from a remote paddock, learning the starting procedures, and keying the drivers into the philosophy of having a different engineer each weekend.

May 2019 – Hockenheim

For all the effort put into preparation and presentation, we knew the inaugural season of W Series would stand or fall on the quality of the racing. We’d done our best to assemble a high-quality field and give them the best equipment possible. Now it was up to them to deliver.

Given Jamie Chadwick’s recent single-seater experience in the MRF championship it was no surprise to see her dominate practice as some of her rivals shook off their ring rustiness. But then in a wet qualifying session she took pole position by almost two seconds.

Our guests that weekend included Desiré Wilson, one of the few women to have raced F1 cars, and Claire Williams, deputy team principal of the Williams Formula 1 team – who within months would give Jamie a job. If they thought the race would unfold predictably in favour of the most recently seasoned driver, though, those expectations would be overturned when the starting lights went out on race day.

In greasy, damp-but-drying track conditions, Chadwick made a clean start from pole while fellow front-row starter Fabienne Wohlwend lost ground as she picked up too much wheelspin. The second row followed a similar pattern as Sarah Moore hooked up well from third, but fourth-placed Emma Kimilainen stalled.

Under pressure from Moore, Chadwick locked her brakes at the hairpin and went wide at the exit, enabling Moore to surge by into the lead. The hairpin caught out several other drivers, including Megan Gilkes, who ploughed into the front of Kimilainen’s car as the Finn recovered from her stuttering start.

The collision eliminated both drivers and required a safety car period so that debris could be removed. When the race resumed Chadwick attacked, putting two wheels briefly on the grass as she carved past Moore into the lead again. As the field dived into the hairpin again, Powell came out on top of a four-way battle for second with Moore, Marta Garcia and Beitske Visser.

Powell initially challenged Chadwick for the lead but could find no way past. Garcia passed Moore – who lost four places running wide at the hairpin – and then began to occupy Powell’s mirrors, enabling Chadwick to build a small but significant gap over the second half of the race.

Chadwick crossed the finishing line ahead of Powell and Garcia, while Moore recovered from sixth to fifth at the flag, passing Wohlwend but unable to get by fourth-placed Visser. Miki Koyama rose impressively from 17th on the grid to finish seventh, just ahead of Tasmin Pepper, who had started 16th.

One casualty of Koyama’s charge was Esmee Hawkey, who had been running seventh until the two tangled. That dropped her out of the points-paying positions as Gosia Rdest and Caitlin Wood rounded out the top 10.

It had been an action-packed weekend, full of drama for all the right reasons: good, tough racing and no mechanical failures. But would anyone be able to challenge Jamie Chadwick in the races to come?

With the first W Series race under our belts, the whole team felt a sense of achievement, but it wasn’t time to rest on our laurels: the season had only just begun.

Click here for part two of the W Series story…