The all-female W Series will take its place on the Formula 1 support bill for the very first time at this weekend’s Styrian Grand Prix.
It’s firing back into life for its first race weekend in almost two years, after the series chose to delay its second season to 2021 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The top 12 drivers in the inaugural season automatically booked their place in this season, and they’ll be joined by six debutants.
There are also six additional reserve drivers who not only can stand in for drivers when required, but sometimes join the grid in an additional car during any of the eight rounds – all supporting F1 races for the very first time.
We pick out the drivers to watch this year, based on a mixture of their performance in W Series’ maiden season, and what they’ve achieved outside of the championship.
Jamie Chadwick – A champion with a point to prove
The defending champion and Williams Formula 1 development driver has had a mixed bag of results since claiming the first ever W Series crown.
Jamie Chadwick put together a measured title-winning campaign in 2019, earning three of the six pole positions, becoming the only driver to win more than one race, and finishing on the podium in all but one of the rounds.
After winning the title, she went to race in the Asian Formula 3 series over the winter, finishing fourth behind the likes of current F1 driver Nikita Mazepin and Red Bull junior Jack Doohan.
Her main 2020 campaign was in the European Regional F3 series with junior single-seater behemoth Prema, but it was far from plain sailing. She stood on the podium in the first race, but that proved to be her only visit in a field that was usually no larger than 12 cars.
It will be tough for Chadwick to rebuild after a disappointing season, but she’s already started 2021 in a strong vein by finishing second alongside Veloce team-mate Stephane Sarrazin in Extreme E’s second round.
Jumping between the all-electric off-road machine and W Series’ Regional F3 car won’t be easy, but she’s got more experience than any other W Series driver in the machinery and that will set her title defence up strongly.
A convincing title victory on the F1 support bill alongside a continuing strong Extreme E campaign would get Chadwick’s career firmly back on track and deliver a healthy chunk of F1 superlicence points.
Ayla Agren – IndyCar safety crew driver gets long-awaited W Series shot
If at first, you don’t succeed, try again. That was Ayla Agren’s attitude when she failed to secure a place on the 2019 W Series grid following the driver evaluation process.
The Norwegian will join this year’s field and possess one of the strongest single-seater pedigrees in the field, with a Formula Ford 1600 Championship to her name and several years on the Road to Indy ladder.
She was a regular top 10 finisher during a part-time campaign in the 2017 USF2000 field, which was dominated by a title fight between current IndyCar drivers Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay. Agren also spotted for Indianapolis 500 regular Pippa Mann and did the same for Simona de Silvestro’s Indy 500 bid earlier this year.
W Series’ Red Bull Ring opener will mark Agren’s first professional single-seater weekend since then, having believed her career was over. She’ll be keen to prove W Series wrong for rejecting her two years ago, a decision that left her driving as part of IndyCar’s safety crew team.
She wasn’t the only Road to Indy driver rejected back then. Bruna Tomaselli, who finished eighth in USF2000 in 2019, booked her place on the W Series grid following an initial rejection and should regularly threaten the top 10.
Beitske Visser – Runner-up hoping to go one better
Beitske Visser was Chadwick’s closest championship rival in 2019, a title bid she set up by beating Chadwick by 8.451s to win the second race of the season at Zolder.
Visser secured three podiums from the next four races but ultimately fell short of the title by 10 points.
She first made a name for herself racing in Formula Renault 3.5 Series for three years. A best finish of fifth place doesn’t quite do justice to how competitive Visser was in the championship.
Visser was then signed as BMW junior driver and has made her Le Mans 24 Hours debut since W Series’ inaugural season.
The W Series esports champion is dovetailing a second real-world W Series campaign with an LMP2 programme that take her back to Le Mans in August.
Visser’s 2019 title pursuit was hurt by her inferior single-lap speed compared to Chadwick, who was on pole for half of the races. Visser’s best was limited to a single front row start, she’ll need better qualifying form if she’s to stop Chadwick defending her crown.
Marta Garcia – Ex-F1 junior needs to realise potential
The 20-year-old Spaniard didn’t let her ‘youngest driver in the field’ status hold her back during W Series’ maiden season. The ex-Renault F1 junior took a podium on debut at Hockenheim and then dominated the Norisring race to claim her first win.
She was the only driver other than Chadwick and Visser to score points in every race, and Garcia finished the year in fourth place in the championship.
Garcia was also highly-rated in karting, and has one of the best pre-car racing records on the grid. It feels as if she’s still yet to fully realise that potential, but as with so many other drivers on the grid, W Series has given Garcia another chance to fully realise that potential.
Belen Garcia – A Formula 4 winner
Belen – no relation to Marta – Garcia’s CV reads Formula 4 winner on debut, but that’s a little misleading when you factor in the bizarre nature of the second Spanish F4 race of the 2019 season at Navarra in which the majority of the frontrunners were slapped with penalties.
However, there are plenty of other achievements that the 21-year-old W Series rookie can shout about. For example, she finished sixth in the Olympic Games-esque Motorsport Games tournament in 2019 and she had a handful of points finishes alongside that win in her rookie Spanish F4 season.
She also has experience of W Series’ car, having competed in three rounds of the Formula Regional European Championship this year. Her best finish has been limited to 22nd, but it’s invaluable experience that will help offset the experience level of the returning drivers.
Track time is precious in W Series, especially because the pre-season Anglesey test was disrupted by poor weather, so Garcia should have an advantage over her fellow rookies.
Also keep an eye out for fellow Spaniard Nerea Marti, who finished second to Garcia in the Spanish F4 race that she won, as the 19-year-old has tested privately in preparation for her debut and compared well to Garcia previously.
Alice Powell – Returns to the F1 support bill eight years later
Alice Powell is no stranger to racing on the F1 support bill, having competed last competed in GP3’s (now FIA Formula 3) season finale in 2013.
Powell is back eight years later and knows she had the pace in the inaugural season to take the title but was thwarted by bad luck.
She began her campaign with back-to-back podiums, but she was wiped out before she even got to Turn 1 in a dramatic opening lap crash at Misano.
This was followed by a nightmare weekend at the Norisring. Powell injured her wrist in a crash in practice, had to start from the back of the grid in qualifying following a gearbox issue and then retired in the race with another problem after charging back inside the top 10.
She bounced back in style to take second place at Assen, then charged from 17th to second in the experimental non-championship reverse-grid race on the following day (just 0.003s from victory), before claiming her first W Series win at the season-closer at Brands Hatch.
Powell is well regarded as the toughest racer by the rest of the W Series field, and her gutsy ability to comeback from difficult weekends places her among the favourites.
Coming off the back of that end of season form – albeit with a near-two year gap filled by commentary duties and racing in Formula E’s now-defunct Jaguar I-PACE eTrophy support series – demonstrates that Powell will be able to take the fight to Chadwick if she can avoid a repeat of the misfortune that curtailed her 2019 title assault.
Emma Kimilainen – No stranger to waiting
The oldest driver in the field was sidelined for the first half of the 2019 season by an opening lap collision with Megan Gilkes in W Series’ first-ever race at Hockenheim.
Having waited a decade for another single-seater shot Kimilainen was cruelly forced to wait even longer as she was ruled out of the Zolder and Misano because the crash flared up a pre-existing injury.
But she returned in style to take fifth place at the Norisring and then dominated the Assen weekend, becoming the first and so far only W Series driver to win from pole position and take the fastest lap in the same weekend.
Kimilainen finished just half a second adrift of race winner Powell in the Brands Hatch finale, ensuring she scored more points than any other driver across the final three races.
The 31-year-old, who was forced to quit racing single-seaters 10 years prior to W Series, has to be among the title favourites for the forthcoming season.
The Finn is tenacious, tough to pass on track and has waited longer than any other driver in the field for her big single-seater break.
Abbi Pulling – British F4 star could shock on debut
Pulling is currently only down to appear at the second Red Bull Ring round as a reserve driver, but she’s still one of the most exciting talents in W Series.
The 18-year-old earned four podiums in her maiden single-seater campaign in British F4 last year and she’s begun her second season in the series with a brace of top-five finishes.
Her current British F4 season will limit her involvement in W Series for this year, but don’t be surprised if she makes a couple of racing appearances this year and joins the field full-time in the future.
Coached by and highly-rated by W Series race-winner Powell, Pulling’s W Series race debut will be eagerly awaited by many.