W Series CEO hails crucial timing: 'Three years ago, no one was watching women's sport'
It may have taken three years of “blood, sweat and tears” to realise her dream, but W Series CEO Catherine Bond Muir’s plan to launch a groundbreaking new all-female racing championship has, so far, been an unmitigated success.
Announced in October of last year, the W Series launched with a clear message; ‘to change the face of motorsport. Quite literally’.
A mixed response followed, with some of its harshest detractors suggesting the idea was ‘patronising’ and could send the wrong message to young girls that segregation was acceptable in top-level sport.
In an exclusive interview with GPFans, W Series CEO Muir explains her initial surprise at who her loudest critics ended up being, and why she feels “overwhelmed” at the impact the championship has had in such a short space of time.
“The men were mostly supportive [when we launched], especially from within motorsport, it was actually some of the female drivers who [were most critical] and that I was quite surprised about,” she says.
“[The strongest objection] seemed to come from women who had had their motor racing careers, or who were at the end it and obviously they’d worked in a certain environment.
“Sometimes I think when you battle so hard, it's difficult to see a slightly different future. Therefore, they felt it was offensive because we were undermining women, but now you're here and you can see it, actually, it’s the last thing we're doing.
“For me, it was absolutely about producing great motorsport, and I think it was that passion that has helped to galvanise what has become a grown-up professional motor racing series.”
Muir expressed her delight at the attention the W Series has attracted during its first season and believes the quality off the on-track action has played a huge role in generating a buzz around the championship.
Former journalist and McLaren PR chief Matt Bishop, who Muir describes as “phenomenally brilliant”, has been instrumental in managing the championship’s relationship with the media and Muir believes the idea of an all-female series is now an easier sell due it being “a really good, exciting product.”
“I'm actually feeling quite overwhelmed at how successful we've been, in terms of audience engagement and press attention, but that attention is only there if there is a demand there,” says Muir.
“I think it all goes back to the heart of W Series, which is about sport. You know, it's not necessarily just about women's sport.
“When we were planning this, you know obviously everything's been planned meticulously, but one of the things that we couldn't control was how good the racing was going to be because we didn't know.
“That's one of the wonderful and fantastic things that has come out of it. What we have delivered, I think., is a really good, exciting product.”
In her former career as a lawyer, Muir played a key role in the sale of two Premier League football clubs with the most notable deal she oversaw being Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich’s 2004 purchase of Chelsea.
As no stranger to working in male-dominated environments, Muir admits she initially had some doubts about launching an all-female motor racing series and was even told by some colleagues that “people don't watch women's sports”.
After discovering the declining numbers of women getting opportunities to race in top-level motorsport, Muir knew her idea had potential but says the timing of it was absolutely crucial to its success.
“I knew of the gender imbalance, but the statistic that absolutely changed my mind that this was required, was when I did some research into the numbers of women who were racing in single-seater series,” Muir explains.
“Actually almost year on year, the numbers were going down. There was a hiatus when women were racing in GP3 and Formula E, and Danica [Patrick] was in Indy, [but after that], they were just tailing off.
“Obviously there were a lot of critics when we launched, but I was absolutely steadfast because of that statistic, that we were required.
“I've got a lot of friends in senior positions in a whole variety of sports who said ‘Catherine, it's a great idea, but people don't watch women's sports’, and they were not wrong.
“Three years ago it was true. No one was watching any sort of women's sport, apart from probably tennis and downhill skiing, so if we had done this five years ago, it would not have been as successful as it is now.”
When Muir talks of success, her goals for the W Series are much broader than simply getting a female driver on the F1 grid as many assume.
Much has been discussed regarding what the W Series’ measure of success should be, but for Muir, it’s as much about kickstarting the conversation as it is about getting her drivers hired.
“It's about audience engagement. When we made the Channel 4 announcement, that was fantastic for us because we're the only live motorsport event in the UK on the front four channels, which is extraordinary,” says Muir.
“That felt like climbing a mountain, but you climb that mountain, and then you realise there's a whole mountain range in front of you. There's just so much that you need to achieve, so, for me, it’s about really engaging lots of parts of the world, and making it well known all over the world.
“Fantastically this year, we've got our 20 drivers coming from 15 different countries, so that helps enormously.
“Liechtenstein has taken Fabienne [Wohlwend] to their heart. South Africa has really engaged with Tasmin [Pepper], Emma Kimalainen is now a celebrity in Finland, so the W Series has really raised their profile.
“There's story after story about how individual countries are engaging with W series via [our drivers].
“This is exactly what motorsport needed. It needs to show greater diversity, and it is slightly odd now that it hasn't happened before.”
Thanks to Catherine and the W Series for being generous with their time.
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