Jamie Chadwick will attempt to defend her W Series title in 2020, the Daily Telegraph can reveal, in what she has confirmed will be her final participation in the all-female motor racing championship.
The W Series burst onto the scene this year as the first global female-only championship of its kind, a development series providing drivers with a fully-funded seat in a six-race competition with a £1.15 million prize pot. Chadwick went flying out of the blocks in May, winning the first race and holding onto her lead until the culmination of the season at Brands Hatch in August, despite being chased closely by runner-up, Holland's Beitske Visser.
The Daily Telegraph can now confirm that Chadwick will return to the W Series in 2020, along with the rest of the top 12 from last season, which includes three other British drivers - Jessica Hawkins, Sarah Moore and last season's third-placed Alice Powell. The calendar for next season is yet to be released, but is expected to be expanded to eight races.
Chadwick has made no secret of her ambitions to one day race in Formula One and the fact that FIA Superlicence points (40 of which are required to be F1 eligible) will be granted to W Series winners next season had a major sway in her decision.
"That was a really big factor," she said, before adding that 2020 will be her final year with W Series. "My ambition is to defend my title, I'm going to put pressure on myself to try and win the championship one more time."
Six new faces will also debut on the circuit next year after securing spots on the 20-driver grid during the testing week in Almeria, Spain last month, which the Daily Telegraph was granted exclusive access to.
Over three days, fourteen drivers were assessed based on everything from their car control, lap times, engagement with engineers and their fitness. And whereas the W Series' last visit to the desert track in Almeria was punctuated by the relative unknown, as they grappled to pluck drivers from anonymity ahead of the first season, this time the candidates were clear on the huge opportunity at stake.
The attention garnered by the series this year saw winner Chadwick secure a place as a development driver for F1 team Williams, and other drivers, like Visser and Powell, have also secured drives as a result of their performances. The W Series is now being seriously regarded as a pathway for women to make inroads in motor racing.
One new British driver emerged from the testing pack to qualify for next season and is no stranger to the spotlight. Abbie Eaton, 27, stars as the test driver on Amazon's Grand Tour, racing Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May in some of the most valuable cars in the world. She has not done a full season of competitive racing in over three years but did not put herself forward when she initially heard about W Series as she worried, like others in the sport, that it would be gimmicky. "I was quite sceptical about it," she said. "I'd raced against guys all through my life and was worried about the segregation.
"But by the middle of the season, sat on the sofa watching, I thought, 'I regret not doing it'."
Katherine Legge, a veteran British driver who has competed in NASCAR XFinity Series and IndyCar as well as Formula 3, has also previously been open in her criticism of the all-female concept. At 39, she was the oldest candidate in Almeria and marvelled at the weight of expectation on the youngsters competing for spots.
"A 17-year-old is trying to prove herself and probably wants this opportunity more than anything in the entire universe - I remember how hard it was. I come here and don't have any self doubt, so it's totally different."
A handful of the younger drivers impressed though. Four new drivers aged 21 and under booked their seats for 2020, the youngest being 16-year-old Russian driver Irina Sidorkova. Legge is conspicuous in her absence on the list of 18 confirmed drivers, as is Danish driver Michelle Gatting, who stood out during testing for recording superior lap times to last year's runner-up Visser, and grew up karting with the likes of F1's Max Verstappen and Kevin Magnussen.
Both she and Legge could yet make the grid next season, with the two final spots still being mulled over by organisers. The assumption is the W Series would be keen to have them complete the line-up, but scheduling clashes could hinder that. Some would suggest the presence of such experienced drivers at all contradicts the idea the series is still a 'development' championship. It is a tension W Series CEO Catherine Bond Muir is aware of, but she insists: "We need to be open for all."
Formula 2 and F1 Alfa Romeo test driver Tatiana Calderon, considered one of the leading female drivers in the world, was invited to Almeria for testing, though did not formally take part as a candidate. She thinks winners returning defeats the stepping stone series concept. "I think if it was me, it wouldn't make sense to do it again," she said. "Why would I take away somebody else's chance?"
Chadwick recognises the point, but the reality is that even with her £500,000 prize money from last season, racing remains too expensive and competitive to ride on the success of just that. "I completely agree with what she's saying, but the way the sport works, the next step financially is huge," she said in response to Calderon. "For me to use it as a development series it needs to be a two-year programme, alongside something else hopefully. Potentially at the end of that I have a budget that gives me the opportunity to step up."
W Series line-up for 2020 season
Jamie Chadwick – United Kingdom – 21 – 1st in the 2019 W Series championship
Beitske Visser – Netherlands – 24 – 2nd in 2019
Alice Powell – United Kingdom – 26 – 3rd in 2019
Marta Garcia – Spain – 19 – 4th in 2019
Emma Kimilainen – Finland – 30 – 5th in 2019
Fabienne Wohlwend – Liechtenstein – 21 – 6th in 2019
Miki Koyama – Japan – 21 – 7th in 2019
Sarah Moore – United Kingdom – 25 – 8th in 2019
Vicky Piria – Italy – 25 – 9th in 2019
Tasmin Pepper – South Africa – 29 – 10th in 2019
Jessica Hawkins – United Kingdom – 24 – 11th in 2019
Sabre Cook – United States of America – 24 – 12th in 2019
New entrants for 2020:
Ayla Agren – Norway – 25 – new entrant
Abbie Eaton – United Kingdom – 27 – new entrant
Belen Garcia – Spain – 20 – new entrant
Nerea Marti – Spain – 17 – new entrant
Irina Sidorkova – Russia – 16 – new entrant
Bruna Tomaselli – Brazil – 21 – new entrant