Why controversial W Series deserves a chance to make a difference

Seven years ago, Vicky Piria felt like she was on the verge of achieving something special. The Italian racer was talking to F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone and the Caterham team about the possibility of a test role for 2013.

Just 18 years old, she was racing in the GP3 series, two steps below F1 in the racing pyramid, and the world was at her feet. Two years later, she would compete in a single-seater race for what, until this weekend, appeared to be the last time.

"It's hard because when you're there, you feel like you're nearly touching the stars," Piria told ESPN. "When I was talking with Ecclestone and Formula One teams to be a test driver, it feels like it's happening."

Although Piria believes there were a number of factors that prevented her from achieving the dream of F1, or even maintaining a racing career for longer than she did until this point, one topic is inescapable.

"What people wanted was the full package already; I was just 18 and it was my third year of single-seaters, so I still had a lot to learn. Nobody wanted to help me and invest in me from time A to time X when I was ready to be in Formula One; everyone just wanted me there.

"People didn't believe in a female talent enough to invest that last bit. So I was by myself until GP3, and then you hit this glass ceiling and they are not willing or don't believe enough in the project to invest that money it takes you to get there. ... I suddenly reached the highest stage I could by myself. I needed bigger help."

Piria will be one of 18 women who line up on the grid of the all-female W Series this Saturday at Hockenheim. Those 18 were whittled down from a shortlist of 55 after two tests earlier this year. The championship consists of six races, with identical cars and a prize fund of $1.5 million -- $500,000 of which goes to the winner.

One of Piria's quotes about the championship stood out above the rest: "What kind of driver would you be if you refused an opportunity like this?"

Opportunity is the key word to consider when looking at W Series. Of the many drivers to have started a Formula One grand prix since the dawn of the world championship in 1950, just two have been women. Maria Teresa de Filippis and Lella Lombardi combined for 15 starts between them -- Divina Galica, Desiré Wilson and Giovanna Amati all competed at race weekends but failed to qualify (something more common in the past than it is today) since Lombardi's final start at the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix. This problem is a regrettable, but sadly unsurprising, by-product of a sport that started out as a gentleman's pursuit.

Unlike the majority of other sports, motor racing has no men's and women's division, meaning both compete together. While that's all well and good in principle, in reality the ratio of men and women entering racing in junior categories is hugely skewed in one direction -- in this case, a problem at the top is reflective of one at the bottom. There are lots of figures on this; Piria estimates the ratio is 98-to-2 in favour of men.

"At the end of the day, it's a question about statistics," she says. "In that 2 percent, it's going to be harder to find a girl that has talent, that has the mental attitude, the physical fitness, the technical knowledge, the budget, the management, everything together.

"[W Series] helps get over the statistics as it puts all the female talent in the same position so eventually the female talent that has the pace, that has the knowledge, has the racing attitude, will come out and be shown. Maybe if this opportunity wasn't here she would be like I was, doing support races every now and then and living for this sport, but without racing regularly."

There have been a few exceptions. Danica Patrick went mainstream in 2005 when she entered, led and nearly won that year's Indy 500 as a rookie -- in 2008 she became the first woman to win a race in the history of American open-wheel racing, but her career failed to live up to the lofty hopes that 'Danica Mania' placed on her shoulders.

W Series' aim is to 'rethink racing' and ensure the next Danica Patrick makes it to the very top. On the series' launch in October last year, series CEO Catherine Bond Muir said: "There has never been a female Formula One grand prix race winner, let alone a world champion. Our mission is to change all of that."

Despite its objectives, there is no escaping the fact the W Series has been controversial. British driver Pippa Mann, who has contested five Indy 500s and a handful of other IndyCar races since 2011, called its creation "a sad day for motorsports" and "a historic step backwards". Female racer Carmen Jorda was criticised last year when she said F1 has a physical barrier preventing women from competing with men, but some have voiced fears that the creation of W Series implies exactly that.

Even some who will line up on the grid needed convincing of the series' merits. Shea Holbrook is one of the two Americans in the series. Her career started late, when she enjoyed a NASCAR track experience so much she decided to turn her attention to racing aged 16 -- fairly late in the world of motorsports. The struggle of establishing herself after that late start contributed to her uneasy feeling when first told about a series exclusively for women.

"I was quite sceptical at first because I didn't want to be involved in some big pity-party fest for women," Holbrook said. "For me, I've never really focused much on the male-female thing, because it was hard for me regardless of whether I was a guy or a girl because of how I got into racing. It's always been difficult.

"But for six straight years in [America's SRO] World Challenge, I was the only girl on grid -- six years! Now I've gone through the processes, I chose to be a part of it and I'm very proud to be a part of it.

"This is not a feministic play on 'boy's rule, girls drool'. It's not just some big political thing. ... In a way it is, because they want to put more women on grid and in this industry ... but ultimately it's about the racing, not politics."

This viewpoint is shared by Bond Muir, who told those 55 initial applicants that she wanted to equip female racers with the opportunity and tools they needed to go and "kick men's asses".

That message resonated with another American, Sabre Cook, 23, who is dovetailing W Series with work at Renault's F1 base for the rest of this year, having won the Infiniti Engineering Academy last year.

"We definitely can do it and it's been proven time and time again, women have won at junior and higher level, but the W Series will grow women's involvement in motorsports because it gives girls a goal to aim for.

"The motorsports world, how you get from point A to point B is a bit murky, especially if you don't have the funding. So it's like, a young girl starts, but instead of getting lost, or confused or not sure about what direction to go in or how to make the final destination, she sees the W Series, aims for it as a goal, aims towards it and uses that for where she wants to go."

On the subject of sexism she's encountered in her career so far, Cook said: "I could tell you a million stories -- it's like the story of the girl who walks into an auto parts store and they're like 'erm, are you lost, do you know what you're looking for?'

"I've definitely had comments, situations where maybe I didn't get something because I was a female or didn't get treated the same way. But I've dealt with that even in karting, so it's not a new thing for me, you always just shrug it off.

"People don't always realise they're doing it, either, that's kind of what I've realised. We have this horrible perception as a society where if you're doing something poorly, they say you're throwing like a girl, or you run like a girl, which is just really sad. This is a bad thing, but you just kind of grow up being told that, 'don't be such a girl'; I think it's a big problem, and I didn't realise it until I got older."

There is another key factor W Series deserves credit for. Killing many junior careers -- male or female -- before they've had a chance to flourish in motor racing is the question of finances. It can be ruinously expensive to progress up the ladder. Many of the best talents get picked up early by an F1 team; many others have to rely on sponsorship to get by. Finances get even more key the higher you go. For example, a seat on this year's Formula 3 grid costs between 650,000 and 750,000 euros ($720,000-$837,000); Formula 2, the level below F1, costs between 1.6 million and 1.8 million euros ($1.7m-$2m).

Those are both single-make series with no tech developments, but even a driver with a full budget will have an advantage to someone bringing less -- earlier access to a new transmission, suspension or engine, for example, helps as everything on a race car loses performance as it gains mileage. In motor racing, money talks from the moment a young driver first turns a wheel in anger.

So by comparison to the rest of the racing pyramid, W Series is quite remarkable. It asks for no entry fee from its drivers and covers everything, right down to flights and accommodation. W Series is coy on exactly how its first year will be funded, revealing only that it has private investors and that it hopes to bring major sponsors on board soon. One of Mann's biggest criticisms of the series was that this money wasn't being used to sponsor women in existing categories, but this allowed W Series to focus on one key metric in how it selected its drivers: it all came down to their performance over a series of tests at Melk, Austria, in January and Almeria, Spain, in February. Those were also all-expenses-paid affairs, even for those who did not make the final cut.

The impact of removing the financial question cannot be understated; something Piria understands all too well -- last-minute calls to go racing can be a relief, but can also be detrimental to a young racer trying to make a mark and progress up the racing ladder.

"I never had the chance to race and just thinking about the racing," Piria said. "I still remember once in Formula 3, there was a race in Monza which was so important for me. They called me Thursday morning and said 'OK, Vicky, we've got the money, you can come', so I packed my helmet and race suit and drove to Monza to do the race.

"W Series is just a great opportunity to be performing because racing isn't always like this. Sometimes you're struggling with sponsorship, you don't have testing days, you don't have an engineer for the testing or your engineer for the testing isn't that good, or you don't have new sets of tyres -- that's always happening. It's crazy, I never had so many sets of new tyres in three days [as over the W Series tests].

"So it's the first time I'm racing knowing I will be doing six races."

Cook is another who became used to racing event by event -- struggles to secure funding delayed her elevation from karting until 2017.

"It's the only opportunity in the world like it, so you have to really appreciate the fact of what's being provided to us," Cook said. "It definitely takes a lot of stress out of it for the drivers as you have something to count on. For me, the W Series is a dream come true, it's anything a driver could ask for.

"It gives you, for once, the chance to plan around it and get the best out of the season as a whole rather than being so consumed finding sponsorship that you maybe don't get the time to put the right plan together or get the time to put the training in that you want."

In truth, given the series' stated aims, it will be hard to judge its true success for a few years. One measure will be how the 18 from season one and their successors in coming years fare after a W Series campaign. For example, Cook's profile on the website states her dream of becoming IndyCar's first female champion, and she insists she is still "100 percent" committed to making that series in future. It will be a feather in W Series' cap if she is propelled closer to that goal this year -- and there will be 17 other sets of career prospects the championship will hope to have enhanced come the end of the season in August.

While personal ambitions will be key throughout this year for all 18, Holbrook says there is also a wider picture underpinning everything W Series does in its first year.

"I feel honoured to be part of this, as part of the inaugural season," she said. "The first of anything means you're helping to create history. It's an honour we shouldn't take lightly. I would venture to say this is the best opportunity currently in motorsports for women coming through the ranks -- if someone can think of something else, please let me know."