Sometimes in the cutthroat world of junior series driving, careers end way before they should. This is especially true for women, who often work with lower budgets and fewer opportunities than men in their respective positions.
As 2019 W Series runner-up Alice Powell said when asked why she took a long break from racing: “I haven’t lacked for talent.”
The desire to find a female driver capable of reaching Formula 1 seems stronger than ever, but the most proven woman in single-seaters today, soon to be three-time W Series champion Jamie Chadwick, cannot manage to leave the regional Formula 3 series and climb the ladder.
The W series is almost unique among junior series in not forcing the champion to move on. If you win in Formula 3 or Formula 2, you cannot come back the following season. It’s a system with its own problems, often condemning talented drivers to spend a year making tea in the back of an F1 team’s garage before they are offered a place to progress.
However, following the way the W Series unfolded, Chadwick found himself contesting – or indeed, winning almost completely uncontested – a third title. Her future looks uncertain, however, and she heads into the summer break (the championship resumes September 30 in Singapore) with a question mark over what she will do next. Or how she will take this step to progress in what is supposed to be a stepping stone championship.
“My goal is always to keep improving,” Chadwick said before the break. “I really want to step up a gear. I know I still have to perform this year, but I still have my eye on the future as well.
“Any feeder series is the target, so Formula 3, Formula 2, but also I’m looking at American opportunities and potentially Indy Lights as well. So I’m just exploring all the options. We have a nice big break after Budapest, he so there would be some time to really understand what we are capable of and what is the best opportunity.”
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It seems very clear that Chadwick cannot return for a fourth season in the W Series, for her and for the championship. It’s much less clear where she goes from here, however, she’s just turned 24 and with the professional part of her career tempting but seemingly out of reach.
The last two women to drive in Formula 3 and Formula 2, respectively, were Sophia Flörsch and Tatiana Calderón. Flörsch entered the series during lockdown and in an uncompetitive Campos car, scoring no points in the 2020 season.
Calderón had had more years in the junior Grand Prix support series and was a member of Sauber’s junior program, but still struggled with the HWA Racelab car she found herself in for the 2019 season, which the talented Anthoine Hubert won before his tragic death on track this season. But subsequent replacement drivers, all well experienced, found a lack of performance similar to Calderón’s.
Former F1 driver David Coulthard was one of the founders of the W series and now also of More Than Equal, a program to try, in particular, to bring a woman into F1. He said that naturally Chadwick had to wonder if she would be able to compete in F3 or F2.
“Motor racing, once you have created a platform, should be a meritocracy,” Coulthard told media ahead of the British Grand Prix last month. “Having said that, we know that in Formula 2 there are only one, two or three teams that win regularly.
“So there’s getting to F2 and there’s getting to F2 in the right car. And it depends on the individual teams. And when you try to get a driver into a two-car team, there’s a number of considerations that you look at.”
This could explain why Chadwick unexpectedly found itself without an F3 driver this year. The plan hadn’t been to continue in the W series; she had won back-to-back titles (barring a pandemic-level hiatus) and was not aiming to return. Her announcement that she was joining Jenner Racing for a third race in the championship was more defeated than most driver signing videos and she posted another a few days later, assuring fans that she was trying. to get to F3 but things just didn’t always work out.
Bruno Michel, CEO of F3 and F2, said he did not know why his deal fell through.
“I don’t really understand why she couldn’t get a seat in Formula 3, to be perfectly honest. There were teams that were ready to take her,” Michel assured reporters at the start of the season. “I know there was a discussion with a team, I don’t know what happened in the end.
“I think it’s a shame because I think she would be ready for Formula 3.”
Michel, however, also warned that female drivers coming into F3 and F2 must be able to qualify well enough to top the series’ partially reversed grids. Qualifying 12th in F3 gives you pole for the sprint race, a potentially massive points-scoring opportunity which Flörsch – whose best qualifying result of the season was 17th – missed.
“We absolutely have to prepare young female drivers to reach Formula 3 level successfully, and with success that means we have to be sure that when they get there, at least they can qualify in the top 12,” explained Michael. . “If it’s to be at the back of the grid, it will be counterproductive because we’ll have a lot of people saying ‘look’, which is exactly what we don’t want.
“We firmly, very strongly believe that there is absolutely no reason why a female driver cannot achieve the same result as a male driver, but it is a matter of preparation.
And preparation is a major hurdle. Chadwick has now contested 116 races in single-seater cars, more than any other W-series driver. Comparatively, before stepping into an F2 car, Lando Norris had done 162. Chadwick has closed the gap considerably, but she is , ultimately, inexperienced compared to her male peers.
In male-dominated fields of sport where there is no gender segregation, such as motorsport and esports, the overwhelming reality is that little girls start later and don’t gain as much experience as soon as the beginning. It’s easy to see the four-year gap between Norris, who started karting aged 7, and Chadwick, who started at 11.
W series CEO Catherine Bond-Muir said asking why Chadwick hadn’t reached the career heights of her male peers had an easy answer: she was still at an earlier stage.
“If you look at our best driver right now, which is unquestionably Jamie, and compare him to his peers in Lando [Norris] and George [Russell]they’re the same age, they meet socially, they’re all friends,” Bond-Muir explained. have had tens, if not hundreds of times the number of hours in a car that Jamie has.
“So just from experience, Jamie is not competing on a level playing field.”
And Chadwick doesn’t just drive for herself. If it gets a good run in F3 or Indy Lights, then it represents a (slightly delayed) major success for the W Series program. If she doesn’t, awkward questions about whether the show is truly advancing women’s careers or locking them into a lower-class expectation pattern inevitably have to be asked.
Coulthard hinted that the FIA, motorsport’s governing body, relied on the series to push Chadwick forward.
“Some figures within the governing body have suggested that we should force them to spend their money on the next step. We are not forcing anyone to do anything that the boys don’t have to do or the men don’t. be forced to do.”
And without a secure seat, Chadwick remains in this limbo. While a third title will surely put her in a better negotiating position, with the prize money lubricating a deal if nothing else, she has the added pressure of having to make it work. Teams can smell the desperation and they make you pay for it, financially, so unless a Trevor Carlin or the sadly deceased Jean-Paul Driot – two junior team leaders who sought talent rather than money – present, it could find itself in a weaker position. position than its budget suggests.
The costs are staggering, in any case. FIA Formula 3 is around 3 million euros for a season and Formula 2 costs in some cases up to 6 million euros or even more depending on spare parts. The W Series costs nothing to compete and actively pays its drivers, allowing most of its drivers greater freedom to focus on their racing careers rather than working as stuntmen or journeyman plumbers to make ends meet off the track.
If Chadwick doesn’t find a seat, it will be a problem for his career. And, unfortunately, women in general in motorsport. That shouldn’t be put on her shoulders, however, nor should the reputation she already carries heavily for her sex. This must be considered at the systemic level. The truth is that there are still huge obstacles to the advancement of women in motorsport and the struggle of a highly publicized and very remarkable woman to rise through the ranks must be seen as a brutal example of this, not as her failure.