Interview, Women In Motorsport

This Changed My Mind About The W Series

Hello, everyone! For those who don’t know, the W Series is an all-female single-seater championship – the first of its kind. Like many fans, I initially had my doubts about the series, but after thinking about it in more detail and speaking to Channel 4’s Lee McKenzie, who presents the W Series, I gained a whole new perspective.

The W Series divided motorsport fans during its inaugural season in 2019. Some questioned whether the series would segregate female drivers from their male equivalent. Others were excited to see a series supporting and bringing to light the struggles of female racers. Even Claire Williams herself was sceptical at first. But with the series’s successes came more supporters, and this year, the W Series is back. I toyed with the idea of several different formats for this article but settled on a simple Q&A of my interview with Lee so that our conversation can speak for itself. Enjoy!

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Credit: W Series

Hi Lee! I initially had reservations about the concept of the W Series. What were your first impressions?

“I was the same. There are very few sports in the world where both men and women are allowed to compete against each other, equestrian is one, cars are another, and there was one class at the Olympics for sailing. I was a bit like, ‘I don’t know if we need this.’ So, when I was asked to do the W Series, I was a bit unsure. I decided that before I committed to it, I would go and see it. I went to Spain, which was where they were testing. I spent three days in a truck; it was very old-school. I watched the timings and sat with Dave Ryan, who is the Racing Director at the W Series. I didn’t want the series to be a gimmick because that undoes all the good. It needed to be high-quality racing. These women had to be great drivers. I spoke to some of them, including Alice Powell, who is such a talented racer. At that stage, we knew Jamie [Chadwick] was going to be incredible, but she hadn’t got to the level Alice had been doing, which was F1 support races. I asked Alice, ‘why is this needed?’ All the drivers were saying that they had no support, that they couldn’t get sponsorships. They couldn’t even get test days. Then you start to think, they’re on the front line, they know exactly how tough it is. It made me realize that I was a bit uneducated about it all. The more I spoke to these racers with such great ambitions and a lot of talent as well, I realized that this was something that needed to happen. I wanted to be a part of it because I loved everyone’s enthusiasm and passion. When I saw how talented the W Series racers are, I thought, ‘they have every right to be on a grid, it’s a positive thing.’’’  

“What pleased me most about the 2019 season was the caliber of the racing. Motorsport is a faceless sport, and until someone took their helmet off, you wouldn’t know they were female until loads of long blonde hair, or something came flying out. You just would have been watching a good motor race and you wouldn’t have known who was in the cockpit.”  

Top 3 2019 W Series drivers with their checks. Credit: W Series

Do you think W Series racers should be awarded a test drive in F3, F2, F1 instead of money?  

“There’s an understanding that everyone who races, male or female, wants to get into Formula 1. I get that, after all, it’s the pinnacle. But – and don’t get me wrong, many of the W Series racers would leap at the opportunity to get into an F1 car – people like Fabienne Wohlwend are hugely talented sports car drivers as well. Say she wins first prize. Does she want to put that towards half-a-day in an F1 car or toward a longer amount of time in sports car racing? In terms of making a career, I think most drivers would want the latter. Some people might have a slightly different plan – one that doesn’t involve following the F1 route. There are only 20 seats and it’s incredibly difficult to get there. It’s difficult to say.”

Do you think the W Series is the best way to engage female racers?  

“Well, I think they do some things very well. If we take the UK as an example, the W Series is the only motorsport series that is live and free to air. You don’t have to pay, and you don’t have to go out of your way to find it. I think that’s a strong platform for the W Series. It lets little girls sitting at home tune in, watch it, and they might get hooked on motorsport. Not just as a driver, but as engineers as well. Not everybody wants to be a racing driver, I didn’t. I wasn’t good enough at STEM. Many more men choose to go into STEM fields, so when I see females on the pit wall [blog pun!] in Formula 1, engineering a car, I love that. I find that just as exciting as seeing female racing drivers!”

How do you think it’s paved the way for motorsport as a whole?  

“It’s going to be interesting this year when it’s alongside Formula 1, because it will naturally get even more coverage than the inaugural season. Formula 1 is the third biggest sport in terms of eyeballs in the world, and I’m not saying all those people will then watch the W Series. It doesn’t work that way. But on our W Series Channel 4 programme, at Silverstone I will present F1 and W Series as one big broadcast, which is hugely important. Even if people tune it just out of curiosity, fingers crossed that they’ll just see it as good motor racing and keep watching it. I think it will be in a couple of years that we finally get to see how strong the impact the W Series has made really is.”

I’m a thirteen-year-old girl. I recognize that I’m a part of the target audience for the W Series and who they’re aiming to inspire. Seeing such a lack of inclusivity in F1 can be both disappointing and disheartening at times. In my infinite knowledge as a thirteen-year-old, I initially felt that separating women from men to give them an opportunity in racing felt wrong. Talking to Lee and listening to videos of female drivers talking about these issues helped me see the bigger picture. When Lee told me that W Series drivers can’t get test days or sponsors in other racing series, I felt uneducated as I had made my mind up without considering the perspective of drivers directly facing those troubles. While being an actual racing driver isn’t for me, the series will no doubt attract a new generation of female racers. But perhaps more importantly, it will pique the interest of many other women. Who knows? They might become motorsport’s future engineers, trainers, media personnel and even CEOs. It’s all about getting young girls and minorities involved and making sure they know that they can do it too.

Thanks to Lee for her time – I loved chatting with you. Your insight and knowledge of this sport and series were fascinating to hear. I hope our paths cross many times in this industry.

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