Last November, F1 announced an all-new female-only racing championship, mere weeks following the disappointing news that W Series would not complete its 2022 season. Inevitably comparisons between the two championships followed. After all, gender-segregated racing series aren't all that common. But are F1 Academy and W Series alike in any other ways? And with the radio silence about any 2023 W Series racing, would it be correct to call F1 Academy a spiritual successor? What should we expect?
Let's start from the basics first. Like W Series, F1 Academy is available only to female drivers, and it has an F1 connection. W Series raced in support of F1 for its latter two seasons, but it didn't have any direct tie to the pinnacle of motorsport other than sharing some racing weekends. F2 and F3, by comparison, have direct links to F1, and F1 Academy is following that process, although, unlike F2 and F3, it will not support F1 at every round of its opening championship.
However, that calendar separation will change in 2024 after F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali confirmed F1 Academy's second season will race alongside the F1 weekend at every round. It's noteworthy that W Series also had a season jumping around Europe without F1 before reaching the F1 support bill.
Alongside F1 or not, F1 Academy will race on several circuits W Series visited over its three seasons. The opening round sees a trip to the Red Bull Ring, the same venue that opened W Series' 2021 championship. Barcelona, Zandvoort, and Paul Ricard all feature, as they did in W Series' latter two seasons, as does Spain's Ricardo Tomo circuit, the venue for one of W Series' pre-season test days in 2021. And just like that 2021 season, Austin's Circuit of the Americas will host the F1 Academy 2023 season finale as a support race for F1.
Continuing the parallels, several W Series names will race in F1 Academy for 2023. 2022 drivers Abbi Pulling, Nerea Martí, Marta Garcia, Bianca Bustamante, Emely de Heus, plus 2019 racer Megan Gilkes all will race in F1 Academy this year, accounting for over a third of the F1 Academy grid. With W Series often featuring the same drivers every season, this is a slight variation, but there are enough drivers of W Series fame for some to consider this a 'W Series lite' at first glance.
However, that's where the comparisons stop from a racing and setup perspective. Gender segregation aside, the uniqueness of W Series lay in its business model that promoted meritocracy. Although it perhaps became W Series' financial death nail, allowing its drivers to drive without raising a budget was an admirable approach that allowed many who couldn't afford it to participate. While the original idea of chassis swapping didn't last all three seasons, the 18 cars were the closest thing to equal I've seen in a motorsport championship.
F1 Academy is not the same. The seats are partially funded by Formula One, with €150,000 per seat covered by the sport. The drivers must bring another €150,000 to race in F1 Academy from sponsorship, previous prize money, or, let's face it, family wealth. That may seem like a sizeable chunk of change for you and me, but that's a slither of the cost for a drive in many junior single-seater championships. Finally, the teams will cover any remaining costs to limit the amount competitors must pay.
Speaking of the teams, that's perhaps the most notable variation between W Series and F1 Academy from my point of view. The five teams contesting the championship, each bringing three cars, have racing pedigree behind them. PREMA, Rodin Carlin, MP Motorsport, Campos Racing, and ART Grand Prix are well-versed in supporting young drivers, running teams across Formula 2, Formula 3, Formula Regional, and various national Formula 4 championships.
They may not have the gravitas of Mercedes, Ferrari, or Red Bull for casual fans to recognize, but they're still huge in their own right. Lewis Hamilton once raced for ART, Charles Leclerc for PREMA, and Lando Norris for Carlin to highlight the professionalism involved.
A huge operational benefit that F1 Academy has over W Series is track time. Each race weekend will see two 30-minute races, a 20-minute reverse grid race, two qualifying sessions, plus two 40-minute practice sessions. All that is in addition to 15 test days before and during the season to give the 15 racers enough time to familiarize themselves with the car. By comparison, W Series had one practice, one qualifying, and one race on a standard weekend.
I have high hopes that the championship will serve its purpose as a stepping-stone for female drivers to gain experience and exposure to reach F3, F2, and eventually F1. Some question marks exist over the benefit of F1 part-funding drivers as old as 25 for the opening season who are highly unlikely to reach the top. Should the 2023 season prove successful, I wonder if we'll see a flurry of 16-year-old racers in future seasons. Equally, €2.25 million seems like a relatively low investment from F1 if they're serious about equalizing the gender imbalance in motorsport, but it's a start.
After two days of mid-April testing, F1 Academy will begin on April 29 in Austria with a flurry of European races over May, June, and July. The season finale alongside Formula One comes on October 21-22, where America will witness the crowning of the inaugural F1 Academy champion.