W Series CEO Catherine Bond Muir reflects on the runaway success of the female-only championship’s first season and suggests an expanded calendar, including the Middle East, could be coming soon.
With a host of new fans, sponsors and broadcast partners, as well as a high-profile tie-up with Formula 1, the W Series has a spring in its step. If season one was about proof of concept for the all-female motorsport championship, season two is about cementing its status as a pioneering sporting property.
CEO Catherine Bond Muir created the W Series to provide a platform for aspiring female racing drivers and her unshakeable belief in that modus operandi helped convince major players NBC and Channel 4 to broadcast the inaugural championship in the United States and the UK respectively.
A competitive 2019 season, which saw six races hosted around Europe, was won by 21-year-old Brit Jamie Chadwick and now preparations are continuing apace for the second incarnation.
A major development arrived in December as the W Series secured its first major sponsor, signing a multi-year partnership with ROKiT Phones that will see the global telecoms business appear on all 20 cars and drivers’ overalls.
For Bond Muir, it was another welcome endorsement for a product that has exceeded all expectations so far.
“There are a lot of shared values between the W Series and ROKiT,” Bond Muir explains to Sport Industry Insider. “They are a disrupter in the mobile phone space, and that is certainly what we have been trying to do with motorsport – to mix things up. We’re now having much more meaningful conversations with other global sponsors and, hopefully, we’ll be able to announce more in the next few months.
“The W Series is a great proposition. When we began, lots of people sat with their arms folded saying ‘what is this and is it really going to work?’ But when people saw the racing, it took their breath away. They saw it was a great sport and that, surprise surprise, women are fantastically able motor-racing drivers.
“Still, I would never have imagined the level of global coverage we have secured, that’s been extraordinary. We’ve reached nearly 5 billion people with our stories across the first season and I think we knocked it out of the park with our NBC and Channel 4 TV deals in particular. It was extraordinary to me that people signed up to TV deals with us when we’d never even had a race but we rewarded that trust.”
Despite the W Series’ ambition to improve opportunities for female racing drivers, it was met by initial opposition by men and women alike, with some decrying what they deemed to be ‘segregation’. But Bond Muir insists that many of the most vocal doubters have now been persuaded of the benefits of the W Series.
“I’m delighted by the criticism because a bit of controversy keeps you in headlines,” Bond Muir laughs. “Abbie Eaton, who was on the Grand Tour [TV programme], is racing with us in 2020 after being an open critic last year and I think that demonstrates the impact we’ve had. She has since admitted not realising that, actually, all the people involved had the right ambitions for women in motorsport.
“We’re not sexing women up, all we want to do is give women more experience and to have as hard-fought, competitive motorsport as we can possibly have. Some people still say segregation at any cost is wrong but I’m sure they didn’t see our final race last season at Brands Hatch, when 20 great drivers raced in front of thousands of people in a carnival atmosphere. A truly mixed audience with men and women, young and old.”
“Some people still say segregation at any cost is wrong but I’m sure they didn’t see our final race last season when 20 great drivers raced in front of thousands of people in a carnival atmosphere.”
W Series was launched, it seems, at the perfect time – capturing the zeitgeist by joining other previously unheralded women’s sports in making a way into the collective mainstream.
“I remember first suggesting the W Series three years ago and one guy said to me that no-one would want to watch women’s motorsport. Sadly, I think he may have been right back then but in the past few years we have witnessed a huge shift in perceptions of women’s sport.
“Then we had the Me Too movement, the Women’s World Cup – and that, I must say, has been our luck. If we had launched the W Series even two years before we did, I think we may not have been successful.”
Expansion is now on Bond Muir’s mind and that has begun with two additional races in 2020. In a historic move, those two final races of the season will take place on F1 Grand Prix weekends in Austin, Texas and Mexico City.
“It has given the W Series a stamp of credibility. Formula One obviously has a much larger audience than us at the moment so if we can tap into that audience to expand our own business, that is only a good thing.
“What is most important to us is that we just get more female racing drivers. Certainly, all the feedback we’ve got is that lots of girls are going karting now on the back of W Series and that is exactly what we wanted – it is aspirational. One of the problems that motorsport had is that no one had a significant vision of what women were achieving. Obviously, there have been some isolated women who have done it, but seeing 20 women race together is a wonderful spectacle.
“We want a highly competitive championship and we want to see pathways too. As we’re at Formula Three level, there are going to be some of our drivers who want to progress into international Formula Three, Formula Two, and as we hope Formula One – that would be a very high-profile justification of our existence if we were to act as a feeder series.”
The roll-out of new races in North and Central America may be just the start of the W Series’ movement into new markets. With Abu Dhabi and Bahrain hosting F1 Grands Prix and Saudi Arabia readying itself to bid for a race in 2023, the Middle East has emerged as a desirable motorsport destination over the past decade.
Given Saudi Arabia only lifted its ban on women drivers in 2018, Bond Muir recognises that criticism would likely be forthcoming if the W Series were to race in the Kingdom. But she still believes a home could easily be found in the Gulf.
“Our plan was always to start off in Europe and have a well-contained event before expanding into the Americas in year two, and again into Asia in year three. We would be delighted to race in the Middle East and obviously Abu Dhabi is a most extraordinary circuit. We haven’t started any formal discussions with anyone for 2021 but I anticipate that will happen in the next few months.
“There are already some talented female drivers in the Middle East like Amna and Hamda Al Qubaisi from the UAE and Reema Juffali from Saudi Arabia. I think the W Series has a lot of synergy with the Middle East and hopefully, if we ever had a race here, women would come out to support the drivers.
“I understand what people might say about Saudi Arabia but historically the UK hung women and burned them at the stake. It’s a question of timing. We want to look forward not backwards and I think it would be a much more difficult thing for us if Saudi didn’t allow women to drive.
“Now they do, so if we could go there and garner massive support from women in Saudi Arabia and help them into motorsport and help them express themselves, we’d be a force for good.”