16 January 2020
Dealing with a sensitive subject
The key to success for any motor racing championship is not only money but also credibility. A championship wishing to have a good reputation needs to create the right impression and to have its young champions moving on to greater things. A good example of this is the horribly-named Formula Regional European Championship (FREC), which was won last year in its inaugural year by Denmark's Frederik Vesti, with his Prema Powerteam team-mate Enzo Fittipaldi runner-up. Vesti and Fittipaldi will both now move up to the FIA Formula 3 Championship in 2020.
The cars used in FREC are the same as those in the W Series, the all-female racing series that also kicked off in 2019. The primary difference between the two series is that the W Series champion Jamie Chadwick, despite a great deal of positive publicity, has not managed to move up from W Series in 2020, despite winning $500,000 in prize money and will continue in the championship for a second season in 2020. If I was the W Series I would have kicked in some money to get her into the FIA Formula 3 Series, rather than accepting this unfortunate situation. However, Chadwick has been signed a development driver by Williams as a result of her W Series activities, following in the footsteps of Susie Wolff, who had a similar role with the team between 2012 and 2015.
The W Series has helped its competitors get more exposure for the efforts of female racing drivers. It is a big bonus that the drivers selected do not have to bring money and so their efforts are not dependent on funding. This is a good idea, although it doesn't exist anywhere else. Perhaps there is a place for a similar championship for men who cannot afford to go racing - if someone will put up the money.
The W Series has also attracted criticism by those who argue that it segregates females from the mainstream of racing, rather than climbing the ladder within the existing structures of the sport. Motor racing is not a ghetto for white males. If someone - man or woman - has talent enough they can rise to the very top. Most people I know in F1 seem to be happy to accept that women can be top racing drivers. Ability and diversity are not mutually exclusive. The key question is whether women are held back because they are women, or whether no-one thus far has made it because none has been good enough. In the course of my career I have reported on a number of women who were very competitive, including Lella Lombardi, who raced in the European Touring Car Championship when I was a cub reporter in that series. I was also impressed by Cathy Muller (sister of Yvan), by Simona de Silvestro and several others. And Giovanna Amati had talent as well, even if her F1 outings did not really show it.
So I am entirely open to the success of women racers and indeed look forward to the day when we can report such things. Whatever one writes on this subject one will be criticised, but broadly-speaking I welcome any initiative that will make the sport more diverse. I don't care who F1 drivers are, as long as they are good enough to be there. I am not a fan of teams that sign drivers without the right qualifications for the simple reason that they want to take money from them. Thus, I am less than impressed that Williams has recently signed a development deal with Roy Nissany. It is more a reflection on where Williams is today than it is on Nissany. Needs must, I suppose.
Having said all of this, it can do no harm that the W Series will be run as a support event at the United States and Mexican Grands Prix later this year.
“In just one year, W Series has contributed significantly to increasing interest in the topic of diversity and inclusion in motorsport,” says Formula 1’s Ross Brawn. “We are convinced that our sport must offer equal opportunities for men and women to compete together - it is no coincidence that improving the diversity of the F1 grid by supporting and promoting driver talent from underrepresented backgrounds is one of our strategic objectives. The ability for the great crowds who traditionally attend the Austin and Mexico City Grands Prix to see these talented female drivers up close will definitely further raise the awareness of the importance of inclusion and diversity in motorsport."
The W Series will be seen this year at eight rounds with races alongside the DTM in Russia, Sweden, Italy, Germany, Britain and the Netherlands and as an F1-support race in the US and Mexico. It will also be first time that the W Series has ventured outside Europe.