Ninety years ago Eliska Junkova – the queen of the steering wheel as she was known – lit up motor racing. An exceptional talent, the Czech driver was an inspirational figure for women in the 1920s. This weekend 18 of her spiritual heirs will take to the grid for the inaugural round of the all-female W Series. They believe the championship will be equally groundbreaking, changing the landscape for women in a sport that has remained almost exclusively male-dominated since Junkova’s time.
The W Series, using single-make, single-seater F3 cars, will hold its first race at Hockenheim on Saturday, with practice taking place on Friday. It aims to give female drivers the chance to race, to promote them so they can move on to other series and to provide inspiration to a new generation. The series’ chief executive, Catherine Bond Muir, believes it will herald a new age.
“In 10 years’ time there will be so many women involved in motor sport it will be commonplace,” she says. “We will have to remind ourselves that back in 2019 we could count the number of women across the globe racing in single-seater series on one hand.”
The series hopes to follow Junkova’s pioneering example. In 1926 she was the first woman to take part in the fearsome Targa Florio, featuring a 67-mile lap of about 1,400 corners in the mountains of Sicily. In 1927 she became the first woman to win a grand prix, a class victory at the Nürburgring. In 1928 she led the Targa Florio only to suffer a water pump failure on the final lap. Junkova proved – if proof was needed – that women could master both the physicality and art of motor racing.
The floodgates did not open in her wake, however. In Formula One, of the almost 900 drivers who have competed since the world championship began in 1950, only two have been women. Across the sport today, not only are few women involved, many have to drop out for lack of funding and as they fall away, so do the chances of inspiring a new generation.
A women’s-only series to address this is not new but the W Series model is radical. It is funded by private investment and equity, so the drivers are not required to bring any backing. Instead they have been selected through on-track tests. Skill, not money, is dictating the seats. It gives them the chance to showcase their talent, while forging what is hoped to be a long‑term championship to keep female drivers in the spotlight.
Alice Powell is one of five British drivers on the grid. A huge talent and winner of two championships, she was forced to drop out of racing in 2014 because of a lack of funding and has described the sport as “a billionaire boys’ club”. The W Series has given the 26-year-old a second chance.”I want to try and progress and reintegrate myself into other series,” she says. “Whether that be F2, Le Mans, DTM [the German touring car series], I just want to be driving again at a high level.”
She is not alone. Despite success in karting, the 24-year-old American driver Sabré Cook struggled to find funding for a full season in cars and is appreciative of this chance. “I probably wouldn’t have been driving at all if it wasn’t for the W Series. They want to give women the time to develop as drivers and the necessary connections and funding, so that if we do well we can move on and compete and win against men. It will show the younger generations they can choose this as a career, give young girls something to aim for.”
There has been opposition to the concept, given that motor racing is one of the few sports where women can compete equally against men. Last year Flick Haigh was the first woman to win the British GT Championship but lack of backing has left her without a drive this season. Yet she still rejects the series’ concept. “You are segregating women in a sport where it does not need to happen and shouldn’t happen,” she says. “You are saying to the public: ‘Women need to race with other women.’ That is not the case, it is not about strength or power.”
Other drivers share this view, as well as the belief the money should have been spent backing women in existing series against men. Their arguments are answered robustly by Muir. “I don’t recognise it as segregation,” she says. “We are encouraging our drivers to race against men, an aim of W Series is to enable women to compete more successfully against men.” Equally, she believes their strategy’s long‑term goal is more effective. “If we had spent that money on individual drivers that money would be gone, where we have invested it in the business model,” she argues.
The model’s success is far from guaranteed. Pre-season running suggests it will present a genuinely close contest and Channel 4 has opted to show every race live. There is also a sense the series is generating interest beyond motor racing’s traditional audience. The criticism, especially from female drivers, is understandable but equally it seems clear something positive is being achieved by putting women on the track and in the public eye.
Certainly the enthusiasm of the drivers is unmistakable: they do not feel segregated but empowered. Now they and the W Series must make their mark. If it brings more women into racing and helps promote some into the highest echelons, it can count itself a success, Junkova’s legacy fulfilled.