The W Series, entering its third season, is set to kick off as part of the first-ever Formula One Miami Grand Prix on Saturday. The all-women driver series was launched in 2019 by CEO Catherine Bond Muir in response to disturbing data that showed the already dismal number of girls and women in single-seater* motorsports was declining instead of growing.
Lining up on the grid this weekend are purportedly the 18 fastest female drivers in the world, including the undefeated W Series champion Jamie Chadwick.
With the popularity of Netflix’s “Drive to Survive,” a behind-the-scenes docuseries about the world of Formula One, American interest in elite-level motorsports has skyrocketed. While all 10 of the W Series 2022 races will be held in conjunction with F1 Grand Prix events, it’s a mistake to think of it as simply the women’s version of F1. For starters, nobody in W Series is aiming for a “separate but equal” future for women in motorsports, and further, Bond Muir intentionally designed W Series to counteract some of F1’s faults.
“There are two strands of DNA in W Series. One is that a driver doesn’t have to come and pay for their seat. It’s incumbent on W Series to pay all of the driver’s expenses and the cost of the car,” Bond Muir said. “And second is that the cars will be identical. Because where we stand as a business is we’re looking for the fastest drivers.”
Due to the exorbitant expense of building and maintaining insanely fast vehicles, the traditional world of motorsports is infamous for favoring drivers whose parents or sponsors have well-lined pockets. A driver who may not be the fastest athlete available, but is nonetheless selected for a seat because of their financial resume, is what those in the industry refer to as a “paid driver.” On a recent episode of The Ringer’s F1 podcast, motorsport journalist Elizabeth Blackstock lamented the prevalence of “paid drivers” in F1, but also savvily quipped, “Paid drivers were the original drivers. They were the people who could afford to buy a car and go race.” The extent that financial access and backing now influence driver selection has prompted many to call for change.
For her part, Bond Muir is wholeheartedly committed to keeping money out of the equation when filling W Series driver seats and looking solely for the best raw talent.
“In my tenure, I certainly don’t believe that drivers will be paying for their seats, because that is a point of differentiation for W Series,” she said. “I never want that to change. I don’t want it to be about rich kids. I want it to be about kids.”
To Bond Muir, a large portion of this year’s W Series drivers are still just “kids.” Out of her 18 drivers, six of them are teenagers. But she’s also referring to the larger impact she envisions for W Series on junior levels of racing.
“There is money that goes into the young kids who are super-fast because they believe that either their child or the person that they’re choosing to sponsor can get into Formula One or into IndyCar,” she said. “When I started looking at motorsport in 2016 … women were not being thought of as a group of people who could do that. Maybe the next female driver in Formula One is [now] 7 or 8 years old, but because we have changed the environment of motorsport to demonstrate that women have a valid place in motorsport, that 8-year-old, when they are super-fast, money will go into them at that point.”
Along with her large-scale vision for how W Series can change the world of motorsports, Bond Muir is at base level a pure sports fan, and one of the things she’s most excited to see this season is, “Who’s going to challenge Jamie?”
Jamie Chadwick didn’t start karting until she was 11, which in racing made her a bit of a late bloomer. But she caught up quickly, and what started as a fun family activity became a serious competitive endeavor, demonstrated by her becoming the youngest driver and first-ever woman to win a British GT Championship at age 17. Now, having won both the 2019 and 2021 W Series titles (the 2020 season was canceled due to the pandemic), Chadwick is entering her third season with an enormous target on her back.
“I think where I’ve been fortunate in the past two seasons is consistency,” she said. “In the championship with so few races, you need to be scoring in every race or otherwise. If you have even one bad result, it can really set you back in the championship.”
Just 23, Chadwick is now cast as the seasoned vet who will have to defend her crown against a new class of young speedsters.
“It’s getting more and more competitive,” she said. “There’s a lot of young girls, which is really exciting. Great for the sport. Harder work for me.”
Chadwick has been very direct about her long-term career objective to become a Formula One driver, as she told Kelley O’Hara on JWS’ The Players’ Pod last year. Of the current W Series drivers, she has the strongest resume, but a significant gap remains between W Series and F1. The traditional path for the minuscule percentage of drivers who eventually get to F1 is to progress from karting to F4, then F3, then F2, and finally F1. Currently, W Series falls somewhere next to or just behind F3 based on the car they race. Where Chadwick lands next will be a telling indication of how W Series fits into this leveled progression.
“There’s still quite a lot I need to achieve and different series that I need to go through before Formula One is an option,” she said. “But I made no secret of the fact that’s my ambition.”
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Jamie Chadwick (@jamiechadwick)
A post shared by Jamie Chadwick (@jamiechadwick)
There are positive signs that F1 teams are interested in growing their pool of female drivers. Three W Series drivers have now signed on in some capacity with F1 teams. Chadwick, for one, has been a development driver for Williams since 2019.
Chadwick also isn’t shy about where her career would be if W Series didn’t exist.
“Honestly, I don’t think I’d be racing,” she said. “I think I probably would’ve had a year or two maximum of continuing to try and find something, and it definitely wouldn’t have been in single-seaters … W Series came about at the perfect time. It gave me this opportunity to continue racing with a huge platform. It’s been pretty career-changing.”
W Series is much more than a potential stepping stone to F1, but this encapsulation is what is most appealing to many of the youngest drivers. They see its potential to serve as an express lane, providing them with critical track experience and full-funded support to make up for the lack of opportunities for girls and women in the existing pathways.
“The younger drivers are much more fixated on getting into Formula One, because they’re young enough to be able to do that,” Bond Muir said. “Without putting our older drivers down, if you are in your late 20s, you’re not going to get into Formula One.”
It’s a harsh reality that exists in racing regardless of gender. But in the mind of 17-year-old Chloe Chambers, the sky’s the limit.
“My goal from when I first started racing was to get into Formula One. Obviously getting into Formula One is an accomplishment, but I want to be competitive in it. I want to be able to win and fight for race wins and just show to the world that I’m a good driver, not just a good female driver,” she said. “W series is definitely a stepping stone for that. It can definitely help me a lot in getting me up into F3, F2, and then F1.”
Adopted from China when she was 11 months old, Chambers lives in New York with her parents and two younger siblings, both also adopted internationally.
“I think it’s really cool for me to be able to have that kind of experience and that knowledge of other cultures,” she said of her family’s diverse heritage. “Especially in a sport like racing, where you have to experience a bunch of other countries and cultures.”
After quickly making her way through the karting ranks at the same track where Danica Patrick raced as a kid, Chambers spent last season in the F4 U.S. Championship before being selected for W Series this year. Despite the fast progression, Chambers says she feels very comfortable in the car heading into Miami this weekend.
“I think you get used to the speed. All the things that people would find scary, you get used to it really quickly, especially having grown up racing,” she said. “I am just going in with a fresh mind and willingness to learn.”
And she’ll be learning from the best. In her corner will be her Jenner Racing teammate, Jamie Chadwick, and team owner Caitlyn Jenner.
“Caitlin has just a wealth of knowledge in the sports world, and she loves racing too,” Chambers said of her new boss. “She has so much to say about racing and cars and just things that I love. I can just learn so much from her.”
Besides the fact that her profession is to drive some of the fastest cars in the world at ridiculous speeds, Emma Kimilainen is just like most working mothers trying to find that delicate balance between career and family.
As a sports loving kid, Kimilainen pursued basketball, soccer and karate before deciding her primary passion was in racing. By the age of 12, she was winning almost every karting race she entered, and by 18 she was an Audi factory driver in a European junior single-seater series. Unfortunately for Kimilainen and many of her peers, the financial crisis of 2008 made sponsorship funding almost impossible to come by for the next few years, so she stepped away from the sport and eventually accepted it was a thing of her past.
Fast forward to 2014, Kimilainen and her husband were adjusting to life as new parents to their baby daughter when she received a very unexpected phone call.
“When she was 6 months old, I got that golden phone call that no one ever gets,” Kimilainen said.
The caller was the team manager of PWR Racing, a Swedish touring car team, offering her a driver seat, which she enthusiastically accepted. The physical challenge of getting back in shape and adjusting to being back in the car was easy compared with the emotional challenge of the accompanying “mom guilt.” On her daughter’s first birthday, Kimilainen was out of town, competing in her very first race back behind the wheel.
“Being away from home, from my daughter and family when she had the birthday was like a slap in the face,” she said.
It took a lot of self-examination and reevaluation of internal and external expectations for Kimilainen to feel secure in her work-life balance.
“With the first three years, I really worked hard mentally to balance what I thought that a good mother is, to what I actually am,” she said frankly.
Kimilainen found that her driving performance improved significantly when she got back on the track.
“I’m a lot better driver than I have ever been because of being a mother,” she said. “I realized that I’m a lot more than a racing driver. My identity is not the thing that I’m passionate about. I can be very passionate about it, I can be very ambitious about it, and it’s something that I really love to do, but it doesn’t define who I am as a person. Getting that right was the whole key to a completely new performance level.”
Having finished fifth overall and third overall in the previous two seasons, Kimilainen said she’s better prepared this time around and is optimistic she’ll be competing for the championship at the end of the year. She’s also more confident than ever that her decision to pursue her dreams will be invaluable for her daughter in the long run.
“Even though I’m away a lot, I hope that she understands why and then can appreciate it later,” she said. “I just want to show her that you can become whatever you want and there’s no barriers or limits, no boundaries of what she can become.”
W Series Miami Race 1 takes place Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET, with Race 2 to follow on Sunday at 10:35 a.m. All qualifying sessions and races will be broadcast in the U.S. on ESPN. You can also follow W Series action on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
*The term single-seater, in motorsport, refers to racing cars with only one seat and wheels that are outside the body of the car. Single-seater race cars are seen to have a higher degree of technological sophistication than other types of racing vehicles.