The Verdict On W Series’ First Weekend
Since its launch last year, W Series has attracted much attention and debate. But with its first race, which took place at Hockenheim last weekend, what was pure speculation turned to fact. Here are the key takeaways from the event
“I spent three years planning this. I planned the business, I planned the hospitality, the cars, the drivers, all the races – the thing that I hadn’t run through was everyone being lined up on the grid, I hadn’t thought of that moment and suddenly it was so big. It was an extraordinary moment and for me, a memory of my life. I don’t know if anything will supercede that.”
That was W Series CEO Catherine Bond Muir’s immediate assessment of the championship’s inaugural race, which took place last weekend.
Indeed, there was quite the ‘historic’ – to use the word that became almost synonymous with the atmosphere at Hockenheim – buzz around the shiny and highly stylised ‘W HQ’ hospitality unit and base sat in the corner of the DTM support paddock.
It was all quite Formula 1. And it had also attracted the attention of more than a handful of the British F1 press pack, with the opening weekend’s TV coverage also fronted by an all-F1 team, on a channel and in a broadcast slot formerly occupied by grand prix events.
So, that buzz was inevitable. There has also been much debate and conversation about W Series in the seven months since its launch, which, by Bond Muir’s own admission, it has been inspired by and benefited from. But Hockenheim presented the first real opportunity to prove the point it’s been arguing up until now.
“Whatever we are, we’re a sport – a good credible sport producing exciting motor racing,” says Bond Muir. “I spent years looking at what everyone else was doing. I like the idea of a one make series so that at the end of the season we can say “this is the fastest driver’.”
Jamie Chadwick was, somewhat unsurprisingly given her wealth of recent single-seater experience, that fastest driver and dominant force on the opening weekend, claiming the inaugural victory after topping every session and taking pole by a margin of almost two seconds.
“Whether it means dominating every race or not, performance does matter,” she says. “Whatever series I’m in – F2 or F3 – if I’m not in the top three I wouldn’t expect to progress to the next level. I want to be there on merit and it’s the same with W Series. If it’s not me that wins it and one of the other girls gets the opportunity to progress up the ladder that’s how motorsport should work.
“Outside of the car and as a person I see it as a huge, huge thing. It’s exciting for us because we’ve seen behind the scenes and we’ve seen over the last few months what these guys have done that’s only just becoming public now.
“It’s no surprise that it’s got the reaction it’s got. [But] from the first [selection] session in Melk through to now – the professionalism and the guys they have working are incredible. For the wider world to see what’s been put together is incredible for women in motorsport. As a racing driver, it makes no difference, but as a person and as a female in motorsport I think it’s incredible.”
From the start, W Series has repeated time and again that the main thing it hopes to achieve is boosting the profile of its drivers, allowing them to harness the star power that all the media hullabaloo provides. The names of a few new drivers will have certainly been etched into the brains of those who were watching Channel 4 last Saturday afternoon.
Chadwick aside, the first event featured an impressive drive from Marta Garcia, who pushed former GP3 racer Alice Powell hard throughout the race. Garcia is someone who had largely written off her own single-seater career after being dropped from the Renault Sport F1 Academy programme. But she is now firmly back in the spotlight as a result of her impressive showing at the weekend and sits third in the championship standings.
Fabienne Wohlwend is another driver who impressed, as in qualifying on Saturday she took second on the grid. She might have dropped back in the race – she reckons some nerves and pressure got the better of her at the lights – but she nonetheless still enjoyed a race long battle with Beitske Visser and Sarah Moore to keep the action alive in the midfield.
Miki Koyama was another star. She scythed her way through the field from 17th on the grid to seventh, finishing ahead of another stand-out performer in Tasmin Pepper, who came from 16th to eighth.
Not everyone emerged from inaugural race covered in glory. Emma Kimilainen and Megan Gilkes crashed at the Turn six hairpin on the opening lap, with Gilkes wiping out Kimilainen after running onto the damp side of the track. This was less than perfect and caused a significant safety car period.
It was frustrating for Kimilainen, who after the race was left lamenting the further challenge she now faces in her bid to win the championship with Chadwick having marched straight to the top of the standings with 25 points. But the accident was realistically nothing more than just another junior single-seater crash and any suggestion that it had anything to do with the gender of either driver is outright sexism.
Gilkes – at 18-years-old the youngest driver in the field – maturely held her hands up post-race and accepted full responsibility for the messy incident, putting it down to her lack of experience of the Formula 3-spec car in the wet.
How many other regional F3 drivers would have done that? And how many other regional F3 drivers would have been unfortunate enough to make that mistake while live on prime time television, ready to be analysed and evaluated by an exceptionally big field of social media ‘experts’ for a series at this level?
That is not at all to say that drivers such as Gilkes should be given a free pass to make similar mistakes in the future – doing so would create a different kind of problem on the already tricky to balance question of positive discrimination. But she deserves just as much chance to make those mistakes without being slammed. Gilkes was, after all, running within the top five in the opening practice sessions of the weekend, and the conditions at Hockenheim were less than ideal.
The three leading drivers at Hockenheim all admitted to feeling extra pressure as a result of the expectation and intense media scrutiny on W Series’ opening weekend. Chadwick event went as far as to say she was “relieved” when she eventually crossed the line to seal the win.
For now, everyone in the W Series paddock can breathe a sigh of relief: the first round is done, but there’s still a long way to go and the trend established at Hockenheim should continue onto Zolder. But some of the novelty has worn off and the hubbub will have died down, leaving W Series to get on with what it is – a brand new, start-up racing championship that happens to be contested entirely by women.