It’s difficult to believe that it’s already a year since the first W Series race took place, at Hockenheim, in Germany, but it’s true. In fact I’d say a little bit of motorsport history was made that day, Saturday May 4th 2019, exactly a year ago, for it was the first ever FIA-endorsed single-seater race for female drivers only.
I flew from London to Frankfurt on the Wednesday before, and checked in to the Villa Toskana, in a town called Leimen. It was a really comfy hotel, which was good, because W Series had arranged for all the drivers and staff to stay there. A group of the drivers went for dinner that evening, and there was definitely a nervous, excited energy amongthe group. I can only liken the feeling to the first day of school.
The next day, Thursday, we went to the circuit, did some light work-outs, saw our physios, knocked off a few media interviews, then sat down with our engineers to make plans. It was the first time that we’d seen the W Series ‘set-up’, including the amazing WHQ facility provided by the great Velocity Experience team, which ended up being our home from home during the season. That evening the drivers presented the W Series team with a bottle of champagne signed by all of us, to say thank you for everything so far, and to mark the occasion.
To be honest, I really didn’t know how competitive I was going to be. We’d all done extensive driver selection trials – at Melk in Austria and at Almeria in Spain – and obviously we’d all passed them or else we wouldn’t have made it through to the first race at Hockenheim. Also, the lap-times at our pre-season test, at Lausitzring, had been very closely bunched. So I really didn’t know which of us were going to be up at the sharp end, or whether I’d be one of them. Even so, despite the unique dynamic in W Series whereby we share all our data and telemetry, my approach remained the same as ever before – the best form of defence is attack. I was therefore keen to hit the ground running and lay down my marker as a potential front-runner from the offset.
The next day, Friday, I awoke early, looked out of my hotel room window, and saw low, grey clouds. It wasn’t yet raining, but it looked like it might do later. The rain stayed away for FP1, and I was delighted to be fastest, clocking a lap of 1min 38.650sec. Second-quickest was the experienced Emma Kimilainen, and third-quickest was Fabienne Wohlwend.
Sure enough, as I’d expected, it rained for FP2, and there wasn’t a lot of grip to be found. Not surprisingly, there were a couple of spinners, and the session was red-flagged both times while their cars were recovered. Amazingly, at the end of the session the same three names were at the top of the timing screens – Fabienne, Emma and me. Best of all, I was quickest again, with a lap-time of 1min 56.007sec, a lot slower than my FP1 lap of course because of the rain in FP2. Growing up in the UK, I’d done a lot of driving in the wet so I knew the conditions would suit me.
I slept OK that night, but I woke up super-nervous. Even though I’d been quickest in both FP1 and FP2, I wasn’t fully confident before qualifying. As in FP2, the track was very wet,but it was also quite a lot colder than it had been the day before – really chilly for May in fact – and it was obvious that it was going to be really tricky to get the tyres up to a good operational temperature.
W Series doesn’t allow its drivers to make a lot of car set-up changes, but there are a number of settings for the rear roll-bar and usually in wet or damp conditions you’d tend to opt for a softer setting. My engineer and I discussed going for a soft setting but in the end we decided to go for quite a stiff setting, more like what you’d select in the dry. We reckoned that if I worked my tyres aggressively with a stiff-ish set-up, hopefully I’d be able to get them up to temperature better.
The car felt very nervous at first, with cold tyres and our stiff-ish set-up, but, as we’d hoped, as I gradually worked the tyres harder, their temperatures began to rise, even on that bitterly cold track surface, and my lap-times began to fall. Towards the end of the session I got a clear run, with no traffic or yellow flags, and the result was that I managed to drive the only lap under two minutes of the whole qualifying session: 1min 58.894sec.
I was enormously relieved. Pole position was the reassurance I needed. I knew then that, as long as I didn’t mess things up, I could win the race that afternoon.
But, as it happens, I nearly did mess things up! The race started at 4.10pm, and the track, which was still a little damp, was at last drying here and there, so we all opted for slick tyres. On the one hand that was good news – if you’re on the pole you usually want a dry track – but on the other hand we hadn’t raced on a drying track yet so that was going to be a bit of an unknown quantity. Also, because of the endlessly changeable conditions we’d had to tackle across FP1, FP2 and quali, none of us had had a chance to do a proper series of practice starts. So as I drove my car around the parade lap and brought it to a stop on the P1 grid slot, I wasn’t at all sure how many revs I needed to dial up, or how much to slip the clutch. So I just played it by feel.
In the end I made a good start – heaven knows why or how – and I had a good lead into Turn One. I then dropped the hammer and got my head down so as to give myself as much of a buffer to second place as possible. That all went to plan up until Turn Four,where I locked a wheel on a damp patch and ran wide. Sarah Moore then passed me for the lead. The Safety Car came out straight afterwards, owing to an accident between Emma and Megan Gilkes.
When the Safety Car peeled away, I got a better restart than Sarah did, and I was able to retake the lead. In second place now was Alice Powell, who had qualified only sixth but as I was soon to learn was always fast in race conditions. Luckily for me, however, just behind Alice, in third place, was Marta Garcia, who had qualified fifth but had got her car really well hooked up in the race and was clearly looking for a way past. That helped me: Alice was a bit too busy defending her second place from Marta to be able to risk making any ballsy moves on my lead, and we circulated in line astern – first, second and third – for the remainder of the race. But I could never relax, because Alice never dropped back, and, at the end of the 18th and final lap, she was just 1.329sec behind me, and Marta was just 0.363sec behind Alice.
I was delighted. Spraying the champagne on the podium was great fun – although Marta very nearly dropped her bottle I seem to remember – and after that I couldn’t believe how many messages I got from people who had watched the race saying well done. It had been such a great day, and it was lovely to celebrate with the whole W Series team that evening as well.
It ended up being a great year – definitely the best year of my racing career. I’d had good times before, but not-so-good times too, and the summer of 2019, the first season of W Series, reminded me just why I love this sport so very, very, very much. I finished second in the next race, Zolder, won the one after that, Misano, and was third in the next two, Norisring and Assen. And then, at home in the UK, at Brands Hatch, the season finale, I finished only fourth, but that fourth place was the best fourth place of my life, because it earned me enough points to make me the first ever W Series champion.
And I’m not exaggerating when I say that winning the inaugural W Series championship has changed my life. I learned a lot, of course I did, but I also gained a vast amount of exposure from the W Series PR machine, and that increased profile has been hugely beneficial to me. Also, Claire Williams, the boss of the Williams Formula 1 team, was at Hockenheim for that first ever W Series race, she watched me win it from pole, and I’m now a Williams development driver. I’m not saying that the one led to the other, but I think it’s safe to say that winning a race in front of a Formula 1 team principal can never be a bad career move!
We don’t yet know when the next W Series race will be – the entire motorsport world is still in a state of flux owing to the COVID-19 pandemic – but, whatever happens, I’ll always look back on Saturday May 4th 2019, exactly a year ago today, as the start of a magical journey: the W Series journey.