W Series 2022 season preview: series returns to champion female racers
Formula 3 racing is almost always close and often explosive
With equal machinery and no barrier to entry other than talent, the W Series is back to launch the careers of the best female racers
Six hundred and eighty five days. That’s how much time will have stretched between Alice Powell pulling off a fabulous victory at Brands Hatch to conclude season one of the W Series and the opening round of season two at the Red Bull Ring in Austria.
Since that dramatic finale in August 2019, the all-female initiative was sent into a hibernation that was essential for its survival of the pandemic. Now it’s awake again, and its profile will be raised to new and heady heights by a blessed endorsement from above. In 2021, it’s a Formula 1 support act, appearing on the bill at eight grands prix from here on, its season concluding in Mexico in late October.
Opportunity: that’s the key word that Powell and her 20 comrades on the W Series grid use to describe a series that still has to occasionally bat away critics who dismiss it as segregation.
“It would mean everything to me to win the title, especially this year, when it’s on the F1 support bill,” says Powell, whose original single-seater career petered out in line with her budget in 2014. “I get asked why I’m doing it a lot, and the answer is that I wouldn’t have had an opportunity to race if it wasn’t for W Series. It’s an opportunity for the likes of me to get back out there but also an opportunity for other young girls to aspire to W Series, to help them up the motorsport ladder.”
Crucially, you don’t pay to race in W Series: you apply and then win your place purely on merit.
For boss Catherine Bond Muir, there’s plenty to be excited about 22 months on from the last race. “Number one, we’re going back racing again: that’s the most important thing after last year,” she says. “And two, there’s the unknown of the impact that F1 will have on us and the general excitement of racing on motorsport’s largest global platform.”
It’s an achievement – if not a total surprise to those of us who picked up on the interest that the W Series generated at Brands Hatch – that F1 has taken the series under its wing this early in its life.
Former McLaren team manager Dave Ryan, who still carries respect in F1 circles, heads the team of engineers and mechanics who run its 20 Tatuus T-318 Formula 3 cars, which use 1.8-litre turbo engines. David Coulthard, 13-time GP winner turned Channel 4 F1 commentator, is among the series’ directors. And in an age when gender inequality in sport is finally being addressed, the timing of the W Series couldn’t be better.
“If someone had told me in our second year of racing that we would be having all our races with F1, I would have laughed,” says Bond Muir. “It’s an enormous endorsement of Dave Ryan and his team. I hear now from people at F1 that they were sitting watching it in the first year, and actually a whole number of F1 people came down to our race at Brands Hatch just to have a look at it.
“The professionalism of our team produces a well-run series but also great sport, and Brands was a great race. Thanks to Jamie [Chadwick] for maybe losing her nerve at the end of it, which made it all the more exciting! I gave all the drivers instructions when we were at Anglesey that no one is allowed to win the series before the last race…”
The North Wales circuit was the choice of venue for the pre-season test in May, after the pandemic scuppered plans for the mothballs to be shaken off earlier in the year at Spain’s Circuit Ricardo Tormo.
“It was great to see everybody again,” says Powell, who divides her time between keeping in shape, coaching young female racing drivers and working on building sites for her father. “It has been really tough times for us all and for the series, so to see everyone turn out was incredible. Just to be sat behind the wheel again… I haven’t driven much since my win at Brands, so it was amazing to be back out again and just to drive.”
Others returning include Chadwick, who will defend her crown and attempt to scoop another $500,000 (about £355,000) – the top prize in an impressive purse. Such prize money is rare in motorsport these days, and it’s clearly a major part of that opportunity Powell talks about.
“You’ve got to look at Jamie as the champion with a title to defend,” says Powell. “She had a year racing in Formula Regional last year, so she has had time in a car, and you know she’s going to be up there. You will have Beitske Visser and Emma Kimiläinen, too. At the last two rounds in 2019, it was Emma and me battling at the front. But you’ve got to look out for the new drivers as well; it was hard to say at Anglesey, because people were on different test plans. Marta García was a race winner in 2019 as well. There’s a lot of people to choose from; I certainly couldn’t pick just one rival.”
“They’re the most extraordinary bunch of women,” says Bond Muir. “They must have character and personality to get to as far as they have already. They have lots of drive, because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be where they are today.”
Is there a sense within the W Series that they’re all pulling together, then? “Everybody is competing against each other,” says Powell, “and we all want to beat everyone else. But there are no set teams, so you’re all mixed together in the meetings we have with Dave and the engineers. Everyone talks to each other, we all have a laugh, we discuss this and that. Whether we’re all telling the truth, I have no idea! We all stay in the same hotel and the camaraderie is really nice.”
Bond Muir is defiant about the decision to not race in 2020. “What people have to remember is that the W Series is set up differently from other series,” she says. “We own the cars, we pay all the drivers’ expenses and we’re bringing 20 in from all corners of the world. In other series, the teams are responsible for two drivers. I don’t think we could have got all our drivers in from all over the world. Unquestionably from a logistical position, it was the right decision. I look back and I’m pleased that our second season didn’t end up being a ‘W Series lite’. Now we’re returning and going full throttle.”
Building the TV audience is the prime target in 2021, and with Channel 4 back on board to ensure a big free-to-air viewership in the UK, it’s one that’s entirely achievable.
Powell is excited about racing on eight F1 circuits, specifically the Red Bull Ring and Austin’s Circuit of the Americas and especially her home race at Silverstone on the British Grand Prix weekend. The prize money and profile-building opportunity make this a huge year, not only for her but for all the drivers in a sport that’s continuing to open up for women.
“Things are changing for the better,” she says. “It’s still a slow process, and nothing will change drastically in the space of six months to a year. Things like this take time. But for women’s sport as a whole, this is a great time to be involved. We’re finally getting the recognition that we deserve.”
*The 2021 W Series title favourites*
*Jamie Chadwick, 23: *Brit almost choked in the 2019 season finale but held it together to claim the inaugural title after two wins and three more podiums. Prolific in recent years. Also racing in Extreme E this season.
*Alice Powell, 28: *Made it to GP3 before her money ran dry. Grabbed the W Series lifeline in 2019 and grew in strength as season progressed. But will she now be rusty again as season two begins?
*Beitske Visser, 26:* Highly rated Dutch racer who is also competing in an all-female line-up in the World Endurance Championship’s second-rung class. Was runner-up in the 2019 W Series with one win.
*Emma Kimilainen, 31:* Experienced Finn who was unlucky to be T-boned at Hockenheim in the first-ever W Series race. Missed the next two rounds but won at Assen and finished second to Powell at Brands.
*Four women chase $500,000 W Series top prize *
*Racing lines: How W Series supports female racing *
*Jamie Chadwick Q&A: Why she’s racing in W Series*