Chief executive says series aims to promote female participation across all facets of motorsports
W Series not just about getting women drivers on the grid, says Catherine Bond Muir
When the new, all female W Series was launched last week it reignited the debate as to whether segregating women was the best way to promote them to the upper echelons of motorsport, with the ultimate aim of one day having a female driver line up on the same grid as men in Formula One.
A tall order, since no woman has competed in Formula One since 1976. Indeed no woman has even as much as scored a point.
But barriers are there to be broken down. That's the message from Catherine Bond Muir, a lawyer and corporate finance banker as well as chief executive of the W Series, whose firm belief is that women can compete equally with men in motorsport, and that the all-female series is essential in order to force greater female participation.
The scope, actually, is much broader. Not only does W Series aim to get more female drivers on the grid but also working behind the scenes as well.
"W Series is a mission-driven programme with the ultimate goal of putting female drivers on elite motorsport grids," Bond Muir told The National.
"Beyond that it aims to raise the profile of support professions in the garage, workshop and lab to female students to encourage girls into STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects at school and college."
The inaugural season will see six 30-minute races take place in Europe starting May 2019. Racers will drive identical Tatuus F3 T-318 cars provided by W Series. If successful, the series plans to expand to Asia, Australia and the US. On Friday the FIA - world motorsport's governing body - ratified the series on the same day the organisation announced it would support the 2019 German Touring Car Championship.
Trials will take place before then with free entry for all competitors. Dates and venues for the trials are still to be determined, but applicants will be judged on a variety of criteria, including simulator exercises, on-track performance and physical fitness.
Each driver's flights, accommodation and even food and beverage would be covered by the organisation, Bond Muir said. She anticipates around 50 applicants to sign up for the trials before settling on a final grid of 18-20 drivers. "We have already had informal approaches from a number of drivers, and remain open to any female driver at this stage, but it’s too early to talk about names."
Explainer: What is the new, all-female W Series?
While funding remains a glass ceiling for women to progress beyond Formula Three, there is an argument that the W Series risks reinforcing the gender stereotypes it seeks to break free from by segregating women drivers from men.
Reaction to the series has been decidedly mixed. Alice Powell, the 2010 Formula Renault champion who now works to promote youngsters in motorsport through the Dare to be Different organisation, said in an interview with Motor Sport Magazine that the W Series was a force for good and would provide female drivers more opportunities to test themselves on the grid while overcoming funding issues.
At the other end of the spectrum, Pippa Mann, the British Indy Lights driver widely acknowledged as one of the greatest female drivers of all time, said the event preyed on vulnerable drivers starved of sponsorship and that she was "deeply disappointed to see such a historic step backwards take place in my lifetime".
Bond Muir, however, sees the series as a chance to shake things up.
"We are proudly disruptive, and W Series is committed to tackling gender imbalance in the sport that we all love," she says.
"We all want the same things ultimately – mixed grids of male and female drivers competing against each other in elite motorsport. The current system has had over 50 years to identify and develop female Formula One drivers, so we believe the time is right for a radical new approach. If you do what you did, as they say, you get what you got."
With the likes of Adrian Newey, technical head of Red Bull, and former F1 driver David Coulthard also involved - as well as having FIA approval - the series has a legitimacy previous concepts for all-female series lacked.
Coulthard, winner of 13 grands prix from 1995 to 2003, is on the series' advisory board. He said at last week's launch: "In order to be a successful racing driver, you have to be skilled, determined, competitive, brave and physically fit, but you don't have to possess the kind of super-powerful strength levels that some sports require.
"You also don't have to be a man."
However, several readers contacted The National to point out the irony of a man who once said that women will never beat men on the race track because they lack a killer instinct caused by "the mothering gene".
Bond Muir defended the Scot's appointment, however, saying: "David is world-class driver, an F1 winner, an astute businessman and a passionate ambassador for the sport. We are proud to have him on the W Series advisory board."