A new women-only motorsport series has been launched in an attempt to find potential female Formula 1 stars.
W Series will start in 2019 and is backed by a number of major F1 names, including 13-time grand prix winner David Coulthard and Red Bull design chief Adrian Newey.
Coulthard said he believed men and women could compete on equal terms in motorsport.
He said the existing structure had “not worked” in finding a top woman driver.
The last woman to start an F1 grand prix was Italy’s Lella Lombardi in 1976.
Coulthard said: “If you want a fundamental change in the outcome, you need a fundamental change in the process. W is a fundamental change in creating an opportunity to bring through female talent to the highest possible level.”
Brute strength ‘not required’
Newey, designer of cars that have won 20 F1 drivers’ and constructors’ titles with Williams, McLaren and Red Bull, added: “I have a reasonable understanding of the constituents of a top-class driver’s necessary skill set. And brute strength isn’t on that list.
“That being the case, I believe the reason why so few women have so far raced successfully at the highest levels against men is a lack of opportunity rather than a lack of capability.”
W Series aims to attract up to 20 of the world’s leading female racing drivers to compete for a $1.5m (£1.14m) prize fund across six races in Europe, and will include a round in the UK. The cars will be identical and be provided and run by the championship.
The championship is free to enter, and competitors will be selected through a programme that assesses their abilities. The winner will receive $500,000 (£381,000) to help further her career, as well as support and advice from the experts employed by the series.
Coulthard said he “absolutely” believed women could succeed in F1.
“Can they be as good as Lewis Hamilton? I don’t know,” the 47-year-old said. “But I do know there are an awful lot of men in F1 who are not as good as Lewis.
“So if we don’t create a platform that may give an opportunity to accelerate that access, then nothing is going to change.”
What do official women’s bodies say?
Michele Mouton, a world rally winner in the 1980s and president of the Women in Motorsport Commission for governing body the FIA, said: “One of the objectives of the commission is to help ensure females have equal opportunities to compete at the highest level of the sport.
“We know from our recent driver-assessment programme that there is a pool of very talented women drivers who deserve the chance to do this.
“As competitors, they want to be the best and the only way for them to benchmark their performance is to compete in a mixed environment, which they are already doing.
“While this new series is obviously giving an opportunity for women to showcase their talent in a female-only environment, our objective is to have more of them competing alongside men and demonstrating they have the same ability and potential to succeed in top-level FIA championships.”
Former Williams test driver Susie Wolff, who is a member of Mouton’s organisation and has launched a programme to promote female participation in grassroots motorsport, said: “I respect anything that sets out to inspire and promote women in motorsport.
“My view on this, and I know that this is the shared position of the organisations I work with, is that we should continue to encourage and create opportunities for women to compete on the same level as men.
“We fundamentally believe that the best opportunity to identify top female talent is by facilitating a dynamic where more women can compete and rise to the top in a mixed competition on equal terms.”
Why a women-only series?
Coulthard argued that W Series would identify the leading existing female talent and help them progress their careers.
He said finding talented young women and bringing them through the existing feeder categories, as the FIA proposes, would take “a generation”.
He added: “Our view is we don’t want to wait a generation. We welcome that generation of young women racers coming through, but this is providing a solution right now.”
Catherine Bond Muir, the chief executive of W Series, said: “We aim to bring the sport up to date and show the world just what women are really capable of.
“Of all the many thousands of people involved in the technical side of our sport across the globe, only a handful are women. Our mission is to change all of that.”
‘If I could, I would race 365 days a year’
Jamie Chadwick, who made history in August as the first woman to win a British Formula 3 race, said that W Series is an opportunity for female drivers.
She said: “It’s no secret that motorsport is an incredibly tough industry often dictated by financial factors.
“As a funded championship, W Series not only offers a fantastic opportunity for top female talent to race but will also encourage many more young females to enter the sport.
“I’m a racing driver and, if I could, I would race 365 days of the year.
“I will still race against men in other championships but W Series is the perfect supplement to help me develop and progress further through the junior motorsport ranks. I’m excited about what’s to come.”
Former F3 and GP3 racer Alice Powell, sportscar driver Stephane Kox and British racer Vicky Piria backed the series as a “positive” development for women in motorsport.
Powell added: “It’s also an important means to an end – a stepping stone for female drivers on their journeys from the lower formulae to more senior single-seater series, taking the skills they’ve learned in W Series on the way.”