By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - W Series organisers say they have moved a step closer to getting a woman driver into Formula One after announcing on Thursday a deal to be on the support programme for this year's U.S. and Mexican Grands Prix.
Conceived as a platform to help women gain experience to compete with men further up the motorsport ladder, the all-female series started last year with six races in Europe alongside the DTM German Touring Car championship.
"In just one year, W Series has contributed significantly to increasing interest in the topic of diversity and inclusion in motorsport," Ross Brawn, Formula One's managing director for motorsport, said in a statement.
"We are convinced that our sport must offer equal opportunities for men and women to compete together," added the Briton.
"It is no coincidence that improving the diversity of the F1 grid by supporting and promoting driver talent from under-represented backgrounds is one of our strategic objectives."
Formula One has not had a female racer line up on the starting grid since 1976 but W Series chief executive Catherine Bond Muir told reporters the new deal was of crucial importance.
"Progressing within motorsport requires people to have access to a lot of money," she said. "You need the support and the sponsorship as well as the talent.
"I think what this will give our drivers is a much bigger and better platform in which to promote themselves... so they will be able to attract more sponsorship.
"I think we are already starting to achieve our ambitions. We are closer to getting women into Formula One."
Bond Muir said there could be further expansion into Asia next year, with Formula One's season-opener in Australia still a possibility.
"We've always said we have very bold and ambitious plans to expand across the world. In our first year we purposely stayed in Europe because we didn't want to expand too quickly," she explained.
"I think these two races represent a sensible expansion in 2020 and hopefully we will expand across the other side of the world towards Asia in 2021."
Bond Muir said she wanted, however, to avoid big gaps between races on the calendar.
This year's series champion will earn $500,000 but also acquire 15 points towards the 40 needed for a Formula One superlicence over a three-year period.
The new races at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, and Mexico City's Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez will be on successive Saturdays when Formula One qualifying is the main draw.
The Formula One title has been decided at one or other of the circuits in four of the last five years and both have space on support programmes without the usual junior series.
The 2019 W Series title was won by Britain's Jamie Chadwick who is also a development driver for the Williams F1 team.
Former F1 racer David Coulthard, who competed in 246 grands prix between 1994 and 2008, is chairman of the W Series advisory board.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ed Osmond and Christian Radnedge)