Are female only series a solution to Gender Participation Gap?

W-series and the origins of F1 academy explained

Are female only series a solution to Gender Participation Gap?
F1 Academy 2024 Grid (Photo Credit: GETTY IMAGES)
"There has not been enough focus on women in sport for the whole of F1’s life. There is not enough emphasis on it now. They're not magnifying enough the great work that is being done there. There is not enough representation across the board within our industry. There is not really a pathway for those young, amazing drivers to even get to F1." - Lewis Hamilton, 7 Time F1 world champion to Sky Sports

2017, in recognising the lack of female drivers progressing to the highest levels of motorsport, discussions in the motorsport community started in regards to creating a female only series. Those in favour believed that a female only series would help karting drivers reach Formula feeder series. The main problem was drivers dropping out after karting owning to low media profiling and lack of investment as a result of that. Former F1 driver, David Coulthard, Redbull Engineer Adrian Newey and Mclaren sporting director Dave Ryan were amongst the proponents of the series.

The main criticism for the series came from female racers themselves who believe that in a sport where gender doesn't play any role, the financiers of the series should fund women directly for feeder series instead of segregating them to a separate category.

"What a sad day for motorsport. Those with funding to help female racers are choosing to segregate them as opposed to supporting them. I am deeply disappointed to see such an historic step backwards take place in my life time." - Pippa Mann, British IndyCar driver
"This series is founded on segregation, and while it may create opportunities for some female drivers, it sends a clear message that segregation is acceptable." - Charlie Martin

Backed by Financier Sean Wadsworth and under leadership of Cathrine Bond Muir, W Series, an all female single seater Championship was launched in 2018.

W Series: An all female single seater championship inaugurated in 2019

The series started its racing season in 2019 with support from Puma and racing in Tatuus F3 chassis. Hitech GP, an experienced Feeder series team ran all the twenty cars in the championship. The series followed a standard 25-1 point system for the top 10. Due to the car being used, it was placed equivalent to Formula Regional championship. Drivers, all young and older, participated together in the series.

The championship was made free to enter and competitors were not required to bring any sponsorship. It also offered a US $1.5M prize fund with the winner taking $500,000. While this made the series lucrative and accessible to drivers who didn't have sponsorship, it also created financial problems for the series and led to its demise.

W series went on to have three more seasons after 2019. The 2020 season was plagued with cancellations due to Covid 19 pandemic and 2022 season saw cancellations due to financial difficulties. The series eventually entered into administration and folded in 2023.

An article by Racers Behind the Helmet explains what W series really was and how it folded -

W Series: the parable of a project that dared to be different
Opinion: Daring, visionary and groundbreaking – but also divisive and flawed. Here’s our honest look at the story of a project with big ambitions and whose impact will probably be appreciated over the next decade.Photo credits: W Series / Sam BloxhamW Series going into administration is a sad yet unfortunately unavoidable development for the first all-female formula championship, which halted its on track operations at the end of 2022 into its third season, having hit financial troubles. Found

While the W-series failed its objective, it gave female drivers a platform to showcase their race craft. The series was broadcasted on Channel 4 and had broadcasters worldwide showing the race live. In 2022, SkySports took over broadcasting rights and the series faired well in viewership across the world. The series also opened gates for many drivers to join Formula 1 affiliated junior academies and reach other championships. It gave racing audiences an in- in understanding that women too are part of this sport.

From the ashes of W-series, F1 academy has risen to be better and achieve what W-series failed to do. In 2023, Formula 1 itself announced the creation of F1 academy under the leadership of former racer Susie Wolff. With F1 backing, F1 academy has better opportunity than W-series. While a female only series is not the solution to the gender participation gap, it's a start in intervening to help drivers climb up the ladder. Unlike W-series, F1 academy is at F4 level with the goal to be a go-to between karting and F4/F3.

Watch | Video by Josh Revell explaining the W-series

This article is part of series titled "The long road to seeing a woman drive in Formula 1". F1 academy, what it is and what it seeks to achieve - all and more in the next article.

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