As W Series stumbles, will F1 Academy pick up the baton for women racers?

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Records were smashed last summer as a peak of 17.5 million fans in the UK watched England’s women’s football team lift the European Championship trophy, a clear sign interest in female sport is on the rise.

But with the men’s Euro 2020 final between Italy and France attracting a UK audience of 30.95 million in comparison, there is clearly still a long way to go.

The same goes for female participation in sport, and motor racing is no different. So what is motorsport doing to end the 30-year wait for the next female competitor in Formula 1?

Women in Sports, a charity dedicated to transforming sport for the benefit of every woman and girl in the UK, found a large gender gap in team sport participation in a recent survey. While 58% of boys take part at least once a week, the corresponding figure for girls is just 40%. Girls also continue to have lower motivation than boys throughout every age group, especially in relation to enjoyment, confidence and competence.

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Though motorsport is open for all to participate it arguably remains even harder for women to get involved with than conventional sports. To succeed you need backing from a young age from teams and sponsors, as well as parents willing and able to fund you. As we can see, this is not happening anything like as often as it needs to.

W Series was marketed as the saviour for women in motorsport. A free-to-enter championship designed just for women, in the hope of eliminating the financial barriers for women, raise their profiles in the sport and send them up the ladder to F1.

Starting in 2019 (though put on temporary hiatus during 2020 due to the pandemic) the series was a success in many ways and helped give women a platform to race against each other. Its profile was further elevated by its addition to the Formula 1 calendar.

But over its three seasons it did not achieve its stated goal of propelling a female racer into a higher series. Jamie Chadwick, who won all three W Series seasons, kept returning to the championship as few opportunities presented themselves to her elsewhere. The CEO of Formula 2, Bruno Michel, admitted he couldn’t understand why Chadwick struggled to move onto the next phase, after reports she was approached to race in F3, admitting he had heard of discussions with one team that fell through.

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W Series’ third season came to an abrupt halt after financial challenges this year. It was forced to cancel its final three races and still hopes to continue next season.

Chadwick piled up the W Series trophies
It would be wrong to describe W Series as a failure. It succeeded in raising the profiles of many of its competitors including Naomi Schiff, who is a successful pundit on Sky Sports F1, Chadwick, Abbi Pulling, Emma Kimiläinen and Jessica Hawkins at Aston Martin’s F1 team.

After W Series hit trouble, a new category emerged. F1 Academy, which was revealed at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, is an all-female championship aimed at the junior end of single-seater racing, much like W Series.

F1 Academy will consist of five current F2 and F3 teams, each entering three machines to form a 15-car grid. Its first seven events next year will each feature three races plus ample practice time. There will also be 15 days of official testing – a significant amount considering even grand prix drivers get just three days of pre-season testing on the 2023 F1 calendar.

Drivers will race the Tatuus T421 Formula 4 car. Formula 1 will contribute €150,000 for each entry, drivers will be expected to contribute the same amount and teams will cover the rest of the budget.

Seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton, one of the most vocal supporters of diversity on the current F1 grid, welcomed the creation of F1 Academy but suspects further research is needed into why more women and girls aren’t getting involved at a younger age.

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“From my own experience, in the years I was racing there were maybe two or three girls, through my whole karting period of eight to 16, and there’ll be a class of 40 kids, 40 boys and one girl,” he said.

Wolff did four practice sessions for Williams
“We’ve got to create a more inclusive environment because the inclusivity is an issue all the way down into karting, so we can have a bigger pipeline of young women trying to come through, and then that class will be good.”

The closest F1 has come to having a female competitor in recent times is Susie Wolff, who proved her speed in karting, DTM and took part in F1 practice sessions for Williams in 2014 and 2015. Her partner Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, explained how difficult she found it, and what she is doing to change the perceptions of women in motorsport.

“I was with Susie for the end of her career in DTM and in Formula 1 and I saw the stumbling blocks that were thrown in her way,” he said.

“She was very competitive at Williams, she was being put into FP1 and was very close to the main driver. But still, even with a female team principal, she wasn’t given the opportunity, although it would have been great for the sport and probably great commercially also for the team”

She later founded Dare to Be Different, an organisation which aimed to increase the participation of women in all forms of motor racing. It later merged with the FIA’s Girls on Track scheme, which has a similar goal.

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“She is still very much involved in how can we get young girls into Formula 1,” the Mercedes team principal added. “But it needs to start with grassroots. I think if you look at go-karting, there are 400 drivers and there are three girls and we’re talking about the 20 best drivers in the world. So clearly, this is where we need to start.”

Calderon was the only woman to race in F2 this year
Only a handful of women have appeared in the junior series immediately below F1 in recent years, nowhere near the representation which is needed. Tatiana Calderon had chances in F2 and F3, but struggled to put together a successful campaign. Sophia Floersch spent one season in F3 racing at the back, but has now found her niche as an endurance racer. Chadwick is leaving Europe for IndyCar feeder series Indy Nxt.

Some F1 teams have young female racers on their books, such as Aurelia Nobels who recently joined the Ferrari Driver Academy and will compete in Formula 4, and Luna Fluxa on the Mercedes F1 Team’s junior programme.

Is this, by itself, enough? Clearly not. But, as Hamilton points out F1 Academy can add to it, be a further beneficial change, contribute to a bigger pipeline of female talent coming through and ultimately have a positive effect.

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Author information

Claire Cottingham
Claire has worked in motorsport for much of her career, covering a broad mix of championships including Formula One, Formula E, the BTCC, British...

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30 comments on “As W Series stumbles, will F1 Academy pick up the baton for women racers?”

  1. Here’s an idea, why don’t they join a series and do it the same way as everyone else.

    1. Isn’t that exactly what Chadwick is trying to do?

    2. That is precisely the subject of the article, it doesn’t work. With so few of them the probability of a female reaching the top steps is so low that it needs to be worked on right from the karting level.

      1. ” the probability of a female reaching the top steps is so low that it needs to be worked on….”

        It NEEDS to be worked on?!? Why does it NEED? Does basketball need to get worked on so that more short players can succeed? Does marathon running need to be worked on so that more people with poor stamina can succeed?? Absolute nonsense. Nothing needs to be worked on.

      2. As long as its fair then let it be.

        If say only one girl vs every 100 boys wants to be a racing driver, let alone reach F1, then the likelihood of them ever getting to F1 is tiny and so it should be.

        In fact an excellent female driver will have an advantage over males because she’ll have tons more press and sponsorship opportunities.

        Just let it be. They will make it if they are good enough.

        Forced diversity is reverse discrimination.

      3. The probability of women reaching the top levels is low because the probably of ANYONE reaching the top levels of racing is low. take a group of 10yr olds in Karting that love it and you’d be lucky if 1 out of 1,000 make it to F1 and in that group of 1,000 i’d be surprised if there were more than 10 girls. If you actually want to make a difference, promote karting to girls, provide financial and technical assistance to get them started and keep it going when they show talent.

  2. Young male drivers from outside of Europe struggle to make it through to higher categories in European series cause of similar hurdles. Merit is how progression should be obtained, not quota filling

    1. @mick80 Unfortunately “selecting on merit” has proven to be quite bad at selecting people on merit. Hence the search for ways to either get “selecting on merit” to work better, or find other ways of counteracting the inequalities in ability for people to get in on merit based on matters not related to their actual merit.

      1. It would probably take enormous effort to really go out there and find a decent proportion of all young children worldwide who are talented for motorsports and then support them to a level where they can really have a shot at F1 @alianora-la-canta @mick80. Merit is only quite a small part of the equasion right now. Opportunity to find the support needed is FAR harder to find and yeah, it is hard for everyone not in Europe or the USA and then again harder for women than for men within that group.

        And you might note that there are more and more opportunities slowly coming through the ranks as individuals, companies and even governments support people to make it in motorsports. With women the gulf vs. men is still so enormous that the FIA has decided to help and give them at least a bit of a chance to show what merit they have.

      2. so when was the last time a male driver that’s a DTM back marker or hasn’t been on the podium since Formula Renault UK got a chance at driving an F1 car?

  3. There’s a video on YT of a 12-year-old girl on a boy’s football team, and she scores a briiliant goal from a free kick and they don’t even congratulate her! It’s be the same in F1, just imagine, the shame at being beaten by a girl!

    1. And there’s also one of the top football team of the US playing against saturday-subs (men) and getting absolutely destroyed. Which I think is more accurate than your example.

      OT: Chadwick has had more than enough financial backing to get a decent seat in F3/F2. Not just talking about prize money from W-series, but also general backing from family/companies. In interview however, she has noted multiple times she wants to be with a top team. Which I can sort of understand, but also not. Why give the possibility for saying ‘yeah but you were at a top team’ when you can show off any skill in a mid-team? Everyone knows the answer as to why, but it’s a bit of a shame from her part to be honest.

      The last article regarding her going to the States for that Indy Light really focussed on ‘If she performs well there, it shows everyone here is biased, terrible and yada yada’, but it barely covered the other side. What if she doesn’t perform well? What if the top of the crop from women in autosport barely makes a dent on a grid with some pretty good male drivers (and also some pretty not so good drivers)? Will there then also be someone that admits that this entire venture is doomed?

      I doubt it, since it’s an unpopular opinion, but still. The W-Series will have proved to be a massive waste of money because no one wanted to be ‘that person’. Are they really going to repeat that just for some desperate pity attention?

      1. @duuxdeluxe @zann They’re actually two parts of the same equation. Exclude girls from sport by treating them worse (which especially extends to funding), and they don’t develop their talents fully as women. There’s a reason there’s been a big improvement in women’s football in the last 3 years following a significant (but still a drop in the ocean compared to men’s football investment levels) increase in funding.

        The what-ifs don’t work when we already know that for this generation, women were denied the opportunity to meaningfully compete on merit against men (most likely due to finances).

        I don’t think F1 Academy is likely to be any more successful than W Series because both miss the actual problem – they treat women as important as an accessory to men’s sport instead of doing it as an integral part of a combined sport and showing their worth in and of themselves. I did an equation and worked out that W Series would probably have been better off funding 4-6 cars in British F4 and providing the support structures W Series had (feasible with the money said to have been budgeted) and doing a documentary/TV series to garner media interest.

        1. @alianora-la-canta

          The what-ifs don’t work when we already know that for this generation, women were denied the opportunity to meaningfully compete on merit against men (most likely due to finances).

          Do we “know” that? How? Because they say so?

          I call nonsense. Getting sponsors and funding is hard for everyone and only the best succeed to stand out and get sponsorship to fund them upwards. If they fail at that level, they drop out due to losing funds.

          And yes, there are always drivers that get bankrolled no matter how they perform. But first of all that isn’t exclusive to males (we had Calderon reaching F2, more in the past that reached F3 or GP3) and after some time they will still drop out.

          There haven’t been as many good women that stood out enough to attract meaningful fumding, there have been some though, but then they prove to not be as good when reaching some level in the single seaters.

          It has nothing to do with “women not being funded”. It has everything to do with talent being picked. Or lack of talent not being picked.

          I will accept objections to this post, but not without being given names of women that bested their peers and were ignored.

          1. @mattds We know that because we’ve seen sponsors largely refuse to fund this generation of women, even when they have been better than men the same sponsors have been perfectly happy to fund.

            We know because of multiple actions taken with the obvious result of making the ladder more expensive to climb (with the alleged aim being to force the best together earlier), when it is well-known that young men get far more access to money than young women. Vast numbers of women weren’t even allowed to put a toe into the water because parents could see it was too expensive, and put their brothers in instead (or didn’t go there at all). While it’s been a differential obstacle since the mid-1960s (it’s not a coincidence the number of women in high-level motorsport dropped in the early 1980s), the compression made things a lot worse.

            We know because of relatively recent revelations that the spec feeder series are designed for young men, and not for young women. For example, did you know that in F3, there are only 2 pedal positions allowed optimised for… …average-height men and somewhat-taller-than-average men?

            We know because of the rampant bullying of women on social media in motorsport spaces – especially F1.

            We know because of posts like the one you just produced. You’re talking about the very rare woman allowed just enough funding to get a seat at the back of a particular field, and not seeing the bigger issues that cause it.

      2. Well you’re the example I was talking about @duuxdeluxe. Obviously women can’t compete with men at football, why did you need to go on about that? My point was the boys not liking a girl doing it well even when she’s on their team.

        And it’s the same with women drivers. It’s a risk the boys don’t need to run isn’t it. And it’s quite easy to put barriers up, like the horrible coverage of W Series with not enough cameras or interviews, stodgy commentary and cars that can’t really overtake each other.

        And all this focus on getting girls into the boys’ series when it’d be perfectly easy to just stay with a girls’ series on their own ladder, like football which is perfectly watchable as the article says, just like skiing or biathlon and all the others. Boys and girls ARE different after all, it doesn’t matter if one gender is better or worse at something. But, you know, with driving – it could be a bit risky :)

  4. Sadly (or not) – this series won’t do any better than W series did, because it suffers from the exact same limitations.

    Unless the FIA is thinking about starting up a female-only F1 series, and also female-only F2 series to act as a feeder, I don’t see how this really helps.

    If the goal is simply exposure and showing people that women can drive racing cars – there are certainly better ways to achieve that, without making them appear inferior to males (as in, unable to compete equally on a level playing field).

    1. A female-only F1/2/3 would be a disaster for equality. Unfortunately I am starting to fear that this is the goal.

      1. Mark in Florida
        9th December 2022, 14:58

        @alianora-la-canta) why do you think that way for? Women have the WNBA, GOLF, TENNIS and lord knows how many other sports that cater to women only. I don’t mind if women race, if they’re good enough but to force one organization to accept people just because they are somehow disenfranchised group isn’t fair either. The better question is if women outnumber men in the world why don’t they start their own organization and run it how they see fit. Thats what the W series was trying to do. But how many women went to the track and supported it? Apparently not enough.
        Mostly what you are asking for is equality of outcome and that disenfranchises the group its being forced upon. What you need to be fair, is equality of opportunity. If you are good enough you should get the spot not because your special.

  5. When an imbalance exists, it’s difficult to fix it without creating bias for the side being oppressed.
    A lot of disagreeable steps have to be taken to achieve the balance because the imbalance was created by many years of gender discrimination against women.

    1. Oppressed :’)

      It’s not the 1970s. People are falling over each other to show how progressive they are.

    2. A lot of disagreeable steps have to be taken to achieve the balance because the imbalance was created by many years of gender discrimination against women.

      No they don’t. Equality isn’t about ‘balancing the score’ from history.
      Your viewpoint is the perfect way to create more division.

      Whatever happened in many specific scenarios and even in general society (and still does in some cultures) hasn’t happened in motorsport – until the advent of female-only racing series….

      Unless you mean that there should be a male-only series created to ‘balance the score?’

  6. Gotta love Toto and his revisionism. Looks like Suzie was, in all but 1 fp1 session, between 1-4 seconds behind Massa. Hardly close. And I don’t know what hurdles he says she faced, but a “Sean Wolff” wouldn’t have got anywhere near an F1 test seat with the same lacklustre junior record (no DTM points ever, a couple of Formula Renault podiums from ten years ago). And that’s even if Sean was also married to a senior Williams shareholder.

    1. Ah, damn, I was about to say she should’ve been given a chance in f1 then, but that’s a huge gap compared to what he made me believe!

    2. But given his record, I suppose one always needs to check if what wolff says is true!

    3. But actually I saw 2 sessions where she was 8 and 9 tenths behind respectively, another 2 tenths, that’s not bad at all, these are only the fp1, don’t know if there were also fp2 or something, but as for the fp1 only the first was horrible, which is not unreasonable.

      And massa wasn’t a bottom tier driver either, on this basis I think she could’ve been worthy of a f1 spot in a backmarker team, should’ve got a shot at least, since there’s been a handful of female drivers before, most of which looked worse than this.

      1. @esploratore1 if you’re not good enough for DTM, you certainly are not going to be good enough for F1. Not even for a backmarker team.

        The big issue with the FP1 based argument is that it fails to take into account that the actual F1 drivers do not have ultimate performance goals in FP1. It’s a testing session to get a setup together. They aren’t trying to get the perfect and fastest lap. So any performance differential is completely arbitrary and meaningless.

        I have to insist on this: during her entire junior career in cars before she became Williams test driver, she never won even a single race, never set a pole position, never recorded a fastest lap. She got a few podiums on the very lowest level of single seaters but never did beyond that.

        I’m pretty confident when I say there hasn’t been a single deserving F1 driver every that was unable to win a race in their junior career.

  7. NASA are showing F1 the way. They are spending billions of dollars in order to get a woman on the moon at last.

  8. I imagine it’ll still be held back by pure numbers, for at least another decade unless there’s a huge, rapid shift in the number of girls entering karting.

    There were 89 rookies across British, German, Italian and Spanish F4 last year. A quick look at the results and points scored suggest at least half (and that’s being kind) will never even sniff around the back end of an F3 field. If we take Hamilton’s 1:40 ratio, two of the 89 would have been female. If we assume each driver, regardless of gender, has an equal chance of being good, you’d have one passably talented female F4-level driver per year coming through from those major talent sources.

    F3 and F2 and ultimately F1 work because they have a huge pool of drivers to draw their fields from, so the numbers involved inevitably mean they end up with some genuinely talented drivers. F1 Academy won’t have that any time soon, so I worry it’ll end up like W Series, with a weak field being dominated by a driver who is, at best, an F3 midfielder.

  9. Women get an unfair advantage marketingwise due to looks and the rarity that is seeing a woman in top flight competitions. They only need to have average talent compared to males and they do just fine. Take Danica Patrick who has a net worth of about 80 million dollars yet if you were to see her accomplishments disregarding the fact she’s a woman you’d see she was just an average driver. So the failure of the W series maybe just meant that there was not even an average, serious talent within that pool of drivers, otherwise sponsors would have flocked to back them.

    Perhaps the problem is the fact the women will always be weaker compared to the top 1% males and that fitness gap which will never be breached means they will never be able to reach top driver level. They would definitely be able to be part of F1 grid, but what then? It is impossible they will be in the front competing against the likes of a Hamilton or Verstappen. Perhaps maybe focus should be to increase women’s presence in rally racing or other categories. Either way, I would prefer single seater racing to just be about merit and having the fastest most talented people, regardless of gender or anything. The focus to me should be about making racing cheaper so pay drivers can be a thing of the past.

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