Monday, August 12, 2019

Musings From the Weekend: We Should Talk About the W Series

A.J. Allmendinger was not disqualified this weekend. There were a slew of drivers picking up their second victories of 2019 this weekend. MotoGP had another thriller in Austria and once again it came down to the final corner. NASCAR raced in two different states. McLaren is getting in bed with Schmidt Petersen Motorsports and people are still trying to put the pieces together. Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters made a trip to Brands Hatch and that is where we start but the main event is not what is getting the attention. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

We Should Talk About the W Series
A champion was crowned this weekend in the inaugural W Series season and it was Jamie Chadwick who took the title with a fourth place finish at Brands Hatch. Alice Powell won the season finale.

Regardless of whether or not you kept an eye on it, the W Series is a series with developing drivers and this series could lead to future opportunities for many down the road and we need to talk about it. It is a series that is no different then U.S. F2000, Indy Pro 2000, Formula Three, any of the numerous Formula 4 series around the world and more. It is a stepping-stone for drivers hoping for more.

I am going to come out at the start and say this might seem choppy and this is one person working through some thoughts in the moment. I am going to try and be nuanced as much as I can be.

The W Series was met with a fair amount of criticism when it was first announced and during its development and during the driver selection period. There was a split in the reception of the series. There were prominent people for it and prominent people who had reservations about the series, including Pippa Mann, who saw the series as segregation.

Looking at the W Series grid when it was first announced, seven names I had knowledge of: Jamie Chadwick, Beitske Visser, Alice Powell, Vicky Piria, Caitlin Wood, Sabré Cook and Shea Holbrook. A few names that stood out from the 2019 season were Marta García, who was a front-runner on a regular basis, Emma Kimiläinen won at Assen and unfortunately missed two races due to injury and Fabienne Wohlwend won a pole position, finished on the podium and scored points on a regular basis.

Chadwick, Visser and Powell all had respectable results in single-seater racing prior to W Series. Chadwick was a British GT champion before her success in British Formula Three and her MRF Challenge Formula 2000 championship. Visser was apart of the Red Bull development program and competed in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series and had a few GP3 Series starts before shifting to sports cars in 2017 and 2018. Powell won the 2010 Formula Renault BARC championship and made it to GP3 in 2012 but her career had taken a pause for the three years prior to the W Series opportunity.

It was not really a surprise to see Chadwick, Visser and Powell excel in the inaugural W Series season but the results of García, Wohlwend and Kimiläinen suggest that some talent had been overlooked. Wohlwend had not been in single-seaters since 2016 when she ran Italian Formula 4 and since she had been driving in Ferrari Challenge. Kimiläinen had not run single-seaters since Formula Palmer Audi in 2009 and she was out of racing from 2010 to 2013 before returning to competition in Scandinavian Touring Car Championship, where she raced from 2014 to 2016. García had run mostly in Spanish Formula Four prior to W Series and even took a step back to karting for the entirety of 2018.

W Series is a great thing in that it gave women an opportunity to compete. When you look at the Road to Indy, Formula Three and Formula Two and you see between five series a grand total of two women competing that number is disappointingly low especially when we are off the heels of a decade that saw the rise of Danica Patrick, Simona de Silvestro, Sarah Fisher, Christina Nielsen, Katherine Legge and Mann all be competitive drivers in top series while winning races and championships. The W Series gave 20 drivers jobs and if you love motorsports you should want race car drivers to get the chance to be race car drivers regardless if they are a man or a woman.

On the other hand, I fear W Series will struggle to get past its greatest detractor, as Mann called it, segregation. By being an all-women series its adds to the sentiment of fans to single out that these are great women drivers, not great race car drivers because they are not competing against male counterparts. There are going to be people who look down on the W Series and all of its champions going forward because none of them are competing against men.

Separating the competition causes a riff when top W Series drivers are mentioned in consideration for greater opportunities. They will be compared with the likes fifth best driver in Formula Three or the ninth best driver in Formula Two and because it is another series where no men are competing in W Series driver will likely not be taken as seriously no matter how successful they are.

Let's put it in different terms for some of you to understand the problem with that: IndyCar fans don't want Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi, Josef Newgarden and the rest of the lot to be disrespected because they are successful in IndyCar and not Formula One and immediately dismissed as not being equals to Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Valterri Bottas and Max Verstappen. If you don't want IndyCar's best to be immediately written off as not great drivers because their success is only in IndyCar and not in Formula One or even NASCAR then you should understand this hurdle facing W Series' future.

I am for giving more opportunities in motorsports and I applaud W Series for what it did in its inaugural season. Hopefully we see the likes of Chadwick, Visser, García and Powell get that next opportunity, whether it be on the road to Formula One or IndyCar or possibly the highest levels of sports car racing.

Looking at the Indy Lights grid and seeing only nine cars entered for each race and the series not meeting the minimum criteria for FIA Super License points I have to think the series would benefit from adopting something similar to W Series or possibly even partnering with W Series to get four or five women on the grid.

First off, it would benefit Indy Lights, as it would make it a series where the drivers would be able to score Super License points and secondly, it would give these drivers an opportunity to compete against a higher level of competition but also a chance to standout. Who is to say someone like Chadwick or Visser couldn't enter Indy Lights right now and be a regular competitor for podium finishes and race victories? The current Indy Lights grid is not that deep and I think the likes of Chadwick, Visser, García and Powell would make that field better.

We should want the W Series drivers to move up and we should want other series to embrace these drivers and see the benefits of having them on the grid. Indy Lights needs more drivers and the series should not care if those drivers are men or women. The W Series has great potential to be a springboard for women drivers unlike anything that has existed before.

It could be a place where young drivers get their start and know they will have an opportunity to compete the following year especially if they get results. The top 12 in the W Series will be reserved a spot on the grid for the following season if they choose to take it. No other series in the world can make that guarantee that results will mean your job is safe.

Job security is great but the top drivers each year from the W Series should branch out to the Road to Indy and into the Formula One ladder system and it should be a pipeline where six to eight women a year are moving on and another six to eight drivers come in and it provides a constant flow of opportunity.

The greatest success of the W Series will come down to whether or not we are vigilant that those competitors get opportunities outside of W Series. If in five years none of the champions and race winners have been given serious opportunities whether it be in IndyCar, the Road to Indy, Formula One and its ladder system or sports car series around the globe then not only has the series failed but the entire motorsports world has failed for not recognizing talented drivers that are already competing.

Only time will tell how W Series plants itself in the global motorsports infrastructure but it has the chance to be something wonderful for greater participation in series all around the world.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Jamie Chadwick and Alice Powell but did you know...

Andrea Dovizioso won MotoGP's Austrian Grand Prix after a final corner pass on Marc Márquez. It is Dovizioso's second victory of the season. Brad Binder won the Moto2 race with Álex Márquez finishing second. Romano Fenati won the Moto3 race, his first victory since Misano in 2017. Mike DiMeglio won the MotoE race.

Kevin Harvick won the NASCAR Cup race from Michigan, his second victory of the season. Austin Cindric won the Grand National Series race from Mid-Ohio, his second consecutive victory. Austin Hill won the Truck race from Michigan, his second victory of the season.

Martin Wittmann and René Rast split the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters races from Brand Hatch and each driver has four victories on the season.

David Gravel won the 59th Knoxville Nationals.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar has a 500-race at Pocono.
NASCAR has a night race at Bristol.
Super Formula has a day race at Twin Ring Motegi.