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By Rachel Steinberg
W Series CEO Catherine Bond Muir used to think the competition’s eventual extinction would justify its very existence. Not anymore.
The all-female single-seater series heads into the second half of its sophomore season at Spa-Francorchamps on Saturday, with British drivers Alice Powell and defending champion Jamie Chadwick separated by a single point at the top of the table.
A record 600,000 people tuned in to watch Powell take first place at Silverstone – part of this season’s new eight-race partnership with F1 – where her 18-year-old mentee Abbi Pulling also lined up from the reserves.
When Bond Muir, the series’ inventor and architect, started raising funds in 2016, she was repeatedly told “no one watches women’s sport.” Even after chair Sean Wadsworth contributed considerable capital, the endgame for many involved was to see a woman on the F1 grid for the first time since Lella Lombardi in 1976.
“I’ve moved fundamentally from it,” said Bond Muir. “I used to say, in an ideal world, if we achieve what we want to achieve, the W Series doesn’t have to exist.
“But I’ve seen the reaction of people. We’ve got fans, we’ve got people who love it.
“I think we stand on our own two feet as we are. So if people want to watch us racing, why do we have to stop?
“If our drivers can go on and race in other series, and we are truly a platform, we don’t need to take that platform away.
“If we provide fantastic, entertaining racing, and if we can carry on inspiring young girls to do whatever they want to do, which is I think what we can, we demonstrate that anything is possible.”
Bond Muir, a former solicitor with a background in sport and corporate finance, readily acknowledged that money is fuel in the world of fast cars.
W Series drivers Sarah Moore and Abbie Eaton both took up delivery driving during the pandemic to make ends meet, while the former famously crowd-funded for the helmet spec she needed to race on the F1 tracks. Lids are one of the only items not furnished by the W Series, which provides identical Tatuus F3 cars to its competitors.
“In an ideal world,” said Bond Muir, “we’re raising their profile so much that they can go off and get their own personal sponsorship deals.
“There are so many ways we can go as W Series, but the most important thing for us as a business is that we don’t overreach ourselves in the early stages, you know, I don’t want to be a flash in the pan. We’ve got to be cautious.”
This season, the W Series has introduced an Academy with two drivers, Russian Irina Sidorkova, who celebrated her 18th birthday on the season’s opening weekend, and Spaniard Nerea Marti, 19.
Both teenagers are guaranteed a fully-funded seat for two full seasons, as well as mentoring, coaching, media training and access to fitness and nutrition experts.
Marti sits in third heading into the home stretch, with Sidorkova seventh on the 20-woman grid.
“I do wonder whether those two Academy drivers are doing so well because they don’t have that pressure or performance in order to get their drive next year,” Bond Muir posits.
“We had no idea at all how good they were going to be, but then, it’s like, wow!
“But are we lucky? Or is it they’ve actually lost the shackles of pressure, so they can go out and drive much more freely?”
Bond Muir spends a lot of her time considering why people – and women in particular – aren’t more involved with motorsport, sitting on the board of Motorsport UK and chairing its diversity committee.
“Historically, without question, motorsport has been male and pale,” she said without hesitation.
“But I do believe that it is changing considerably at the moment.
“One of the biggest problems that motorsport has is the cost and the expense of it.
“And it is how do you attract people to the sport unless you have a rich parent?”
“You cannot compare the hours that our drivers have had in a racing car to the equivalent males. They have had so much more testing and racing experience from age seven or eight.”
Even the exposure to potential sponsors and networking opportunities in the Grand Prix weekend paddocks, drivers have said, could be life-changing.
Britain’s Sarah Moore made history during the season opener, becoming the first openly LGBTQ+ driver to stand on a podium during a Grand Prix weekend.
Bond Moore thinks, realistically, the next female F1 driver is at maximum “eight or nine” years old today. By the time she reaches the W Series starting grid, there’s a good chance language and attitudes to sexuality and gender will have evolved, too.
Just this month, Canadian football star Quinn became the first openly trans and non-binary athlete to win Olympic gold.
The W Series hasn’t outlined a specific eligibility criteria, but Bond Muir would have “absolutely no issue at all” welcoming an application from a trans driver like British pioneer Charlie Martin.
She is, however, routinely frustrated by the “many” men who have told her, “Well, all I have to do to race in the W Series is identify as a woman.”
She said, “I think you take every application on its own merits”, adding: “You’ve got to be about promoting the underrepresented.”
And when one of her own reaches that F1 grid?
“I think, unquestionably, they will be a global superstar.”
Superstar, sure – but no longer the asteroid that wiped out the W Series.