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W Series holds little appeal for NZ’s fastest women

Ask Christina Orr-West what she thinks about the W Series – the new equivalent of Formula One exclusively for women – and she laughs out loud. “I personally wouldn’t touch it with a 20 foot pole,” she says.

Orr-West, one of the country’s top race car drivers, says she can see both sides of the world-wide debate that has sprung up since the series was announced – offering a handful of the world’s leading female drivers the chance to race in Formula 3 cars next year for $US1.5 million prizemoney.

She can see the W Series appealing to women who want to be recognised as skilled drivers, and don’t like the aggressiveness that comes with racing men. But Orr-West, who’s been driving with guys for 25 years, says she won’t be changing direction.

“I want to beat the best – not the best female, but the best there is regardless of gender,” she says.

“If you asked most of the top women at the moment – like Danica Patrick and Simona de Silvestro – they would probably poo-poo the series, too, because that’s not what we’re about.

“We don’t put on our helmets and go, ‘We’re female, let’s go!’ We put on our helmets and say ‘We want to win, let’s go!’”

Internationally, women drivers are torn over the series, which has the support of former grand prix driver David Coulthard. New Zealander Dave Ryan, a former McLaren team manager, is the racing director.

IndyCar driver Pippa Mann called it "a sad day for motorsport", while Tatiana Calderon, a development driver for the Sauber Formula One team, believes the series will give "opportunities to some young rising female talent and eventually allow the best to prove that we can compete at the same level as men".

Orr-West's greatest fear is that an all-women series will be the first step in segregating the genders, until eventually “there will be no women allowed to race with men”, she says.

Her response is typical of women in motorsport throughout New Zealand, says Deb Day, who’s on the Women in Motorsport NZ advisory commission.

They appreciate that anything that raises the profile of women in motorsport is a good thing, she says. “And any opportunity for a driver – male or female – to race in a top level, open-wheel series is fantastic.

“But do we want to be there because we’re good enough, or because someone has given us a free ticket?”

And it will be a free ticket to the 18 or 20 female competitors who, according to the series organisers, will be selected “purely on merit after tests and appraisals”.

With six 30-minute races to be contested on some of Europe’s top racetracks, the idea behind the W Series is to hone the skills of female drivers so they can graduate to racing men in higher-level series.

"At the heart of W Series' DNA is the firm belief that women can compete equally with men in motorsport," a statement from the organisers said. "However, an all-female series is essential in order to force greater female participation.”

There is, of course, no guarantee that the women who succeed in the W Series will go on to race in Formula One. It’s been a staggering 42 years since a woman last raced in an F1 grand prix, when Italian Lella Lombardi competed in 12 races over three seasons. The only other female driver to race at that level was fellow Italian Maria Teresa de Filippis, who broke through the glass ceiling in the late 1950s.  

Many women have proven they can drive as fast, and in some cases faster, than men since then. It’s just that the opportunities to compete at the top echelon of motorsport haven’t been there.

At 19, Chelsea Herbert is a rising star of motor racing in New Zealand who’s already made history – becoming the first woman to win a V8 touring car race here. Herbert has footed it with the boys since she was racing karts at seven years old, and next month she graduates to class one of the BNT V8s, racing in the champion Richards Toyota team.

“I’ve always known women are a minority in our sport, but I’ve never looked at that as a disadvantage. It’s always been my goal to make sure that I’m in front, especially when you’re the odd one out,” she says.

“The W Series certainly hasn’t made me want to change tack and go racing solely against females. I’ll continue to always race with the guys.”

The number of women and girls competing in New Zealand is growing, says Day, but it’s slow.

Right now in New Zealand, there are 5,255 competitors licenced by MotorSportNZ, but only five per cent of them are females. The number of women officials in the sport is slightly better, at 11 per cent.

“When I grew up in the sport there were only two women competing, and a couple in rallying. Now there are quite a few female rally co-drivers. We’re seeing more women in engineering too,” Day says.

One of them is Frances Buckley, a Kiwi mechanic working for the Erebus Motorsport team in the Australian Supercars championship.

Christina Orr-West says she's copped hits from other drivers "who didn’t like the fact that there was a girl out there". Photo: Geoff Ridder.

Day says women drivers like Orr-West and Herbert are holding their own with their male counterparts week-in, week-out. “Their lap times are spot on, as is their focus and concentration. I feel like they’re even more determined because they feel they have something to prove,” she says.

Herbert, whose aim is to rise to racing V8 Supercars, sees no handicap in being a woman behind the wheel.

“Throughout the week I’m training as hard - if not harder - than most of them, so I know when I’m out on the track I’m just as strong as they are,” she says.

“When the helmet’s on, no one’s going to know that I’m a female, and no one’s going to think 'she’s racing like a girl'.”

So, if you don’t have a series promoting women drivers on the world stage, how do you get more girls and women involved, or even interested, in motorsport?

In New Zealand, the Women in Motorsport Commission is a panel of eight women from different aspects of the sport – competitors to administrators – trying to raise the profile of women like them.

They’d like to introduce a programme like Dare to be Different, a campaign first launched in Britain by former Formula One test driver Susie Wolff to “inspire, connect and showcase female talent in the motor sport industry”.

“They go into schools and talk about becoming engineers or competitors. The more girls we can get interested, the better it is for the whole of our sport,” says Day, who’s also on the board of MotorSport NZ.

“Part of it is changing the perception of the girls baking the muffins and making the lunches, while the boys are out racing.  Girls get treated exactly the same as the boys out on the track.”

Herbert is still surprised to turn up at the track, and see only two other female drivers there.

“Maybe women prefer shopping and getting their nails done to doing millions of miles around a track in beasts of race-cars?” she says.

“I’ve heard a few say ‘Oh I’m too old to start now’, when they’re only 18. But anyone can start at any age, as long as they have the right people backing them, the right people teaching them.”

Orr-West would like to see more money spent on scholarships and mentoring for women, and an invitation given to a woman to drive in a Formula One race.

She’s raced in the Indy Lights series in the United States, and the Bathurst 12-Hour race with all-female teams in 2007 and 2011. She’s just finished second overall in the North Island Endurance Series racing a Mercedes for the Dayle ITM Mike Racing team, and is now racing a ute in the SsangYong Series, with four other women in the field.

“I can understand there are some women who only want to race against other women. They want to show they have skill but don’t want to be roughed up,” she says.

“I copped some hits when I was younger from people who didn’t like the fact that there was a girl out there. It’s very different racing against a male; the way women drivers think behind the wheel is totally different.”   

Day says that, while women competitors struggle to get sponsorship to take them further in the sport, “it’s hard for all of our teams, male and female”.

“Until we get to the point where motorsport as a whole is seen as a viable option for sponsorship, then that’s where it’s always going to be difficult.”

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