Athletes Unlimited raises $30 million in new funding
AU has had a big year.
Wrapping up its second year on track (its 2020 season having been cancelled due to Covid-19), the W Series is headed to the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas on October 23-24 for a double-header race event. Best of all, the two preseason favorites, Alice Powell and Jamie Chadwick, are tied in points for the championship.
Below is a primer on the W Series, an overview on how it’s breaking ground for women in racing, and what to expect in this suspense-filled season finale.
Motorsport is one of the hardest sporting arenas to break into if one’s path isn’t well paved by family legacy and financial backing. It has been dubbed by critics as the “billionaires boy’s club,” which partially explains what has made Lewis Hamilton’s Formula 1 career so compelling. The irrefutable GOAT of F1, and the only Black F1 driver ever, Hamilton broke into the sport as an outsider while his father worked multiple jobs and provided the mechanical work to support his son’s natural gift for racing.
The number of women who’ve successfully broken into the ranks is similarly few and far between. Out of 900+ Formula 1 drivers who’ve ever lined up on the grid for a Grand Prix event, only two of them have been women (Maria Teresa de Filippis in 1958 and Lella Lombardi in 1975 and 1976). For Catherine Bond Muir, a British lawyer and corporate financial advisor, those numbers were so bleak, she felt compelled to take matters into her own hands by founding the W Series, an international all-female driver racing league.
Some don’t like the idea of a segregated series for women and believe efforts should be focused on bringing more women up through the standard pathways of racing. Pippa Mann, a British IndyCar race driver, has argued, “We [women] grew up dreaming of winning races, and winning championships, against everyone—the same as every male racer does. We did not grow up dreaming of being segregated, and winning the girl’s only cup.”
For Bond Muir, the fact that the number of women in single-seater motor-racing series globally was on a downward trend convinced her that the existing pathways for women weren’t working. In a sport where individual sponsorship is fundamental, there is a dismal number of companies willing to spend big money on female drivers who are as yet unproven against male drivers on the biggest stage. And without preemptive funding, the opportunity to go out and prove themselves doesn’t exist for these drivers.
This is where the W Series comes in. With a structure that covers all expenses for drivers, the financial barriers into the sport are made null and void, allowing the W Series to showcase the best female drivers from all over the globe, racing some of the fastest machines on the most iconic racetracks.
Unlike Formula 1, where a driver’s individual financial sponsorships are a major factor in being selected for one of the coveted 20 driver seats, the athletes in the W Series are selected solely on their racing ability. Applicants are put through rigorous on-track testing, simulator assessments, technical engineering and fitness evaluations, and then the top 18 make the cut.
Another critical difference from F1 is that every driver in the W Series competes in an identical race car (the Tatuus T-318 Formula 3 car). In F1, there are certain parameters for the vehicles, but the ten teams are allowed to customize much of the car, which results in the wealthiest teams dominating for years on end as they pour money into either buying or creating the latest and greatest technology.
During this second season of the W series, even though they are in identical vehicles, the drivers are divided into nine teams sponsored by partner companies. A team championship based on overall points accumulated by each team’s two drivers will be debuted in 2022. Currently, there is a $1.5 million allotment for the individual driver championship. The overall winner will be awarded $500K with the remainder trickling down from second to eighteenth place.
Another new aspect for this 2021 season is that all eight races are being held alongside Formula 1 Grand Prix events, giving these women the grandest of stages to showcase their abilities.
With six of eight total races completed, the top two drivers, Alice Powell and Jamie Chadwick, are deadlocked in points at 109 apiece (a 1st place finish is worth 25 points, 2nd gets 18, 3rd gets 15, and so on). The two Brits have been neck and neck throughout the series, trading the top podium back and forth with only one other driver, Emma Kimilainen of Finland, snatching a single race win in between.
Twenty-four-year-old Chadwick is the reigning W Series champion from 2019 and has been a steadily rising star, coming up through karting and junior racing programs in the UK and then moving on the Formula 3 series in both her home country and Asia. During the inaugural W Series season, she was also named a Williams development driver for the F1 team.
Powell’s path to competitive racing has been a bit more stop and go depending on when funding has been available. After several years competing in Formula Renault series in the UK and abroad, Powell (28) had been out of competitive racing since 2015 and was doing building renovation work for her father when the W Series opportunity arose.
“Racing has been the sport of privileged billionaires for years and it’s hard for women to get sponsorship. Despite writing hundreds of letters to businesses and race teams my funding dried up in 2015,” she once vented. “Then W Series came along and changed the game. I had just been unblocking a urinal when I got the call.”
With three 1st-place finishes to Chadwick’s two, Powell currently has the upper hand to edge out Chadwick for the overall title if things remain equal after the final two races. With 50 first place points up for grabs between the final two races, Kimilainen is also still within striking distance of a come from behind victory. And in racing it doesn’t take much—a tire puncture, engine issue, rainy weather—to drastically change the fate of title contenders.
For Bond Muir, she couldn’t have hoped for more as her brainchild heads into a suspenseful finish of its sophomore season: back-to-back races at the Circuit of the Americas to determine who walks away the champion.
“If you had told me then that we would stage two races on the same weekend at one of F1’s flagship events in just our second season, I would have pinched myself,” Bond Muir said.
“It will be a fitting way to end our breathless and action-packed eight-race season and promises to be a very special weekend as we celebrate everything that W Series stands for and the giant strides we have made since launching three years ago.”
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