W Series will support F1 at all its eight rounds in 2021

Credit: W SERIES

In sport’s great coronavirus-induced hiatus there can have been fewer longer gaps between action than that experienced by W Series.

The 2020 season did not happen at all, cancelled due to the pandemic. 685 days on from Jamie Chadwick’s title-clinching drive in the inaugural all-female single-seater championship, the wait for action to resume finally ends this weekend. Saturday’s first race at the Red Bull Ring in Austria is the first time that W Series and Formula One have been on the same bill.

There has still been some pandemic disruption this year, with the pre-season test being moved to Anglesey from Valencia but, after a fallow year, 2021 marks the start of a momentous period.

An ‘unofficial’ team championship is being introduced before being fully implemented in 2022 if successful. This will, for the first time, allow sponsorship of the cars and different team liveries. Channel 4 will again broadcast all eight races live, building on the strong viewership figures of 2019.

Most significantly, after a season supporting Germany’s DTM touring car championship, this season’s eight rounds will all run alongside F1 races across Europe and North America. The championship is continuing to gain prominence quickly. Yet it is not just momentum that W Series has been gaining – it is acceptance.

When W Series launched, the most noteworthy negative reaction came from top-level women drivers.  Pippa Mann, a British IndyCar driver, said it was “a sad day for motorsport” calling the series “segregation”. Susie Wolff – who drove four times for Williams in F1 practice sessions – had similar grievances.

Even some of the drivers who ended up taking part had reservations, like Jessica Hawkins. She combines her racing career with stunt driving work, which features in the upcoming James Bond film, No Time To Die. Hawkins finished 11th overall in 2019’s W Series.

Jessica Hawkins came 11th in 2019's W Series after a strong finish

Credit: JEFF GILBERT

“I was a little bit sceptical. It wasn’t until I started to hear more information about it, that I was like, ‘wow, I’d have to be silly to not apply for it’,” Hawkins says.  “In the first year, I think W Series did such an amazing job and the racing was so fantastic that we’ve kind of proven the people that were sceptical about it wrong.”

Hardened attitudes about “merit” have softened. Most importantly, away from the on-track action, its aims – exposure and opportunity – are already being achieved. Chadwick is now a Williams development driver and Hawkins was recently confirmed as a driver ambassador for Aston Martin’s F1 team – attending races in Baku and Le Castellet this year already – and has raced in the British Touring Car Championship this year, too.

Wolff might still be the last woman to take part in an F1 weekend, but progress is being made.  These results, Hawkins says, speak for themselves and the series has more than played its part in her development.

“I don’t know what route I would have taken without W Series. I doubt they [Aston Martin] would have known who I was. I’m sure there will be more opportunities for other girls and myself that arise because of W Series,” says Hawkins, who is returning to the grid this year.  “I have so much to thank them for because I genuinely wouldn’t be racing without them.”

Having “another shot” is a pertinent point. The precarity of racing at the lower levels is all too evident, even now, especially for the minority of women that take part. Before coming into W Series in 2019, Hawkins had just one full season of racing under her belt. Moving up a category would have required an amount of money that simply did not exist. Hawkins’ situation is a long way from unique.

“I didn’t have the budget to do it. I really didn’t,” she says. “I focused a lot on my other work, like my stunt work started driving that forward. I hadn’t been racing for a good few years before W Series came along,”

W Series calendar 2021

That uncertainty has not disappeared, worsened by the effects of the pandemic. “Me and my partner and a few friends started delivering for Hermes. We were driving to Scotland and back in the night, which was one, keeping us occupied and two, paying the bills,” she says of the time when racing stopped.

In the age of F1’s equality-driven We Race As One campaign, it is noteworthy – if not even a little embarrassing – that since even 2000 there have been numerous women to compete in IndyCar (in May, Simona de Silvestro qualified for the 2021 Indy500) but none in F1. Danica Patrick led the way with six consecutive top-10 championship finishes, including seven podiums and three pole positions, but there has not even been a sniff of a woman entering a Grand Prix.

It is difficult to overstate the value, then, of the series’ proximity to the pinnacle of motorsport in only its second season. Simply being around in the paddock and rubbing shoulders with motorsport’s great and good will provide another avenue for a wealth of opportunities in a landmark year for women in motorsport.

It might not ultimately lead to any one on the current grid ending F1’s sustained period of absolute male dominance – that will be not the work of a moment, but years.  At this point the direction of travel is as important as that ultimate but lofty goal.

“I think there will be more opportunities for not just me but a lot of the other girls. More people know our names, more people can see us racing and doors will open. And also, for the younger generation as well, it’s something for the younger females to aspire to.”