Just one post by Lewis Hamilton grew the W Series social media community by 17k followers. Hamilton took it upon himself to visit the W Series paddock at the Hungaroring to offer his support for the women only, single-seater series. The sanction of Hamilton, who made his admiration for the drivers clear during the 30-minute communion, was another milestone as the series continues its integration into the motor sport milieu.
At Silverstone last month, the W Series race attracted more than one million live viewers for the first time across Sky Sports and Channel 4, making it the most watched motor sport event outside F1. The series is gaining momentum in its third year of running, highlighting the capacity of women to provide thrilling, high-speed racing in the single-seater format. However, there is always a but. And Hamilton highlighted it with his observation that more needs to be done to capitalize on the W Series initiative and promote female participation across all levels of motor sport.
This is a drum that W Series founder and CEO Catherine Bond Muir has been banging since the launch in 2019. “Lewis was an inspiration to our drivers. We had no idea how much he watched our races. He said he sits in the garage and watches it with all the mechanics and engineers. They all love it. He said the racing is fantastic. It is that endorsement that is so important. I don’t want us to be worthy, for people to feel they need to support us because it is a tick box. We are an entertaining sport.”
Bond Muir believes that W Series is part of a historical moment in women’s sport that she likens to the #MeToo movement. “I don’t mean about sexual conduct. It’s about people recognizing the quality of women’s sport, that it is just as entertaining as the men’s. Look at the women’s football team: people aren’t switching on because they feel they should but because its great competition with excitement, great wins, great losses, all the tension the best sport creates. So when Lewis comes to us and says, I love your racing, that is the biggest endorsement we can have.
“If that message can be spread we know we can succeed. Major brands are going to see women’s sport is just as entertaining, increasing numbers of people will watch it on TV, which means the sponsors will follow.”
Rome was not built in a half-hour session with Hamilton, as Bond Muir knows better than anyone. And motor sport is a more complex environment than football, rugby or cricket at both ends of the spectrum. Historically the pathway for women into motor racing has been nonexistent and for those who have found a route the progression to F1 has proven almost impossible. The few that have made the grid found competition impossible to sustain. Talent has never been the issue.
What happens next for double champion Jamie Chadwick, the outstanding driver on the W Series grid, for example? While she is hoping to raise the finance to drive in F3, at £2m a year to compete nothing is straightforward. At the other end of the scale, it costs 250k a pop to fund a season in karts. Not many kids have exposure to that scale of parental indulgence.
“Bruno [Michel, head of feeder series F2 and F3] and I have spoken extensively about this issue. He is genuinely keen to get our drivers into F3 and F2. He tested four drivers last year in F3. There is this massive desire,” Bond Muir said.
“The problem is, the maximum age in F3 is 25. When we set out we needed to get the best drivers available. What we need are younger drivers coming in to W Series. This year we have five new teenage drivers but they are competing against others in their third season.
“The whole problem is the lack of money around women in motor sport and therefore the lack of time in the car. The rookies are never going to be able to compete in their first year because they have not been driving enough.
“What Bruno recognizes is the need to create a pathway for young females to be able to get into F4 so they gain the necessary experience. And then the best go into F3 and F2. There are systemic problems and you can’t turn the tanker around quickly.
“We are constantly discussing how best to solve this problem. The money required to compete in motor sport is effectively a deterrent to inclusivity. What we have to do is make it cheaper.”
Bond Muir believes the green shoots of cultural change are showing, that we are starting to recognize this thing called “women in motor sport”, an entity no longer the niche pastime of a lucky few but widely recognized. It remains the holy grail of Liberty Media, the owners of F1, to identify a woman good enough to compete in F1.
Although we are not there yet, Bond Muir can see a day when the racer moving the F1 needle is female.
“We will find that female driver. What has happened to Lewis will happen to her, and she will have the same star power, if not more.”