Last year, when we first heard that a global single-seater series just for women was being launched, I wasn’t sure it was necessary. The fact that men and women compete on a completely equal basis on a race track or rally road is one of motorsport’s greatest assets. If you have the talent, skills and backing, gender shouldn’t play a part in your success as a motorsport competitor. So why did female drivers need this special women-only race series?
But the more I thought about it and listened to what competitors like New Zealand-based Australian Alexandra Whitley and Aucklander and BNT V8s racer Chelsea Herbert (main picture) had to say, I concluded that I’m now on the fence about the W Series. I can see why some people think it’s needed; I can see why some people think it dents the hard work achieved so far for gender equality.
We all look at the world from our own perspective, don’t we? It’s very hard to step away from your own upbringing, education and experience to consider something from a truly neutral point of view.
From my own perspective, starting out in the media/PR side of motorsport as a volunteer for Rally New Zealand, I have seldom experienced any negatives being a female in a male-dominated sport. Well, there were lewd comments once from a lecherous international journalist, but I gave him short shrift! To the best of my knowledge, no one ever doubted my ability to do my job just because I’m female.
That’s all most of us ask – a fair chance to demonstrate our worth. I was lucky. I know it hasn’t been so straightforward for other women in motorsport. Christina Orr-West, for example, tells of the sexism she faced as a young competitor in this excellent article on Newsroom. She won’t be the only one to have been confronted with this kind of sexism from males who couldn’t deal with strong, focussed women. Herbert says she doesn’t see herself as different when she puts her helmet on in this stuff.co.nz article. “Sure,” Herbert told stuff.co.nz, “being a minority in the sport means you stick out and for sponsors that can be a cool thing… But it only takes you so far. You can only play the girl card to a certain level, then you actually have to prove yourself as a race car driver.”
The question is how do we gain the necessary experience for a particular job – publicist/media, competitor, volunteer – if someone doesn’t give us that chance? What if someone makes it so difficult or unpleasant, that we stop trying and go do something else?
That’s where an initiative like the W Series has a role. It’s a chance for these competitors to lift their career to a whole new level. It offers capable female racers a massive opportunity to compete in a modern F3 single seater, to get that all valuable and expensive ‘seat time’, to learn new circuits, improve their race craft, their media skills, and their physical and mental preparation, and to win prize money!
Whitley was picked for the inaugural season’s selection camp and made it through to the test in the F3 car. Although she wasn’t selected for the 18-strong 2019 driver line-up, she said: “I have had the most incredible experience on this journey with 28 of the best female drivers from around the world. I have grown and learnt so much as a driver and a person throughout this process so far. I have had the most amazing opportunities, that I will be forever grateful for and am blown away by the professionalism of the W Series and their team along with HiTech Motorsport. This series is racing done right!”
Looking back on that experience 18 months ago, Whitley said recently that the W Series has already provided a leg-up to a lot of racers and she sees that continuing.
“The top runners in the W Series would have absolutely been competitive within other F3 events, some of them were already racing there and others at very high levels of motorsport.”
Whitley is currently racing in the inaugural Australia TCR series and is keen to re-apply for the W Series if the opportunity arises.
“The concept is fantastic, and they are giving women the opportunity that none of us would have had before. I have learnt a lot and improved as a driver and I’d love the chance to show my improvements and growth. There was a lot that’s helped me since both on track and off, the biggest being working with slick tyres, data and engineering a car.
“I believe if the W Series organisers continue to do what they are doing, they will not only help women in motorsport globally, but prove that taking the politics and money out of the sport brings us back to the heart of racing.”
Herbert recently returned from Spain where she participated in the 2020 W Series driver selection test. Herbert was one of 14 women competing for a space on the 2020 grid and a decision on the final driver line-up is pending. She was thrilled to have been selected for the test, but prefers not to comment further until the organisers announce their decision for next year’s series.
I wonder if some people’s opinion of the W Series will change if we have a Kiwi on the grid. I’ll be perched on my fencepost, waiting to see.