“The first stage of W Series’ driver selection programme took place in Melk (Austria) at the end of January, says the series racing director, F1 veteran Dave Ryan, former sporting director with McLaren. “In Melk we put 54 of the series’ qualifier-drivers through three days of intensive tests, trials and appraisals – comprising on-track exercises, mental and physical fitness assessments, and media and presentational exams – and the 28 who successfully passed that programme will be in Almeria for the second and final stage of driver selection programme at the end of this month.
“It’ll be much more of a racing-focused programme than what we ran in Melk,” he reveals, “this time exclusively in W Series race cars whereas in Melk we used Ford Fiesta STs and Porsche Caymans, and it’ll consist of four days’ running spread over five days.
“All 28 drivers will get plenty of time in our cars – brand-new Tatuus T-318 Formula 3 cars powered by turbocharged 270bhp 1.8-litre Autotecnica Motori in-line four-cylinder engines, fitted with Hankook F200 slick tyres – or Z217 treaded tyres if it rains – and benefiting from a decent amount of aero-generated downforce.
“They’re good cars, quick and physical,” he adds, “but each driver will have a Hitech engineer on hand to guide her through the whole process.
“At the end of the test, we expect to be in a position to announce the final line-up of drivers who’ll take part in the first ever season of racing, commencing at Hockenheim in early May.”
Asked what organisers will be looking for, he replies: “Obviously we’ll be recording lap-times, and the drivers’ pace will be important, but we’ll also be looking for each driver’s rate of improvement throughout the test, the ability of each driver to work technically and productively with engineers and mechanics, and their stamina and consistency over longer runs.
“W Series races will be of just over half an hour’s duration, and physical and mental fitness will clearly therefore be important during the later stages of each race.”
The cars don’t have power steering.
“No, they don’t,” he confirms. “We spent a long time discussing what kind of race cars the series should run, and we only decided on the Tatuus T-318 after a great deal of research and deliberation.
“We wanted a race car whose performance envelope would be within the compass of our drivers, whose routes to the series have been many and varied, but that would also prepare them for the next stages of their racing careers, whatever they might be.
“Some of our drivers aspire one day to race in Formula 1,” he continues, “and why shouldn’t they, while others have set their sights on WEC, IndyCar or NASCAR for example. But, male or female, no-one can run before they can walk, and, just as male drivers have to spend a couple of years in Formula 3 before they graduate to Formula 2, so also our drivers will probably have to spend some time in W Series before they consider their next steps.
“For the very best of our drivers, that next step could perhaps be Formula 2, and Formula 2 cars don’t have power steering. So we want to prepare our drivers for all eventualities – hence there’s no power steering on W Series’ cars.
“But, to be clear,” he adds, “the heaviness of a race car’s steering is governed by a whole range of variables, not only the presence or absence of power steering, and we’ll make sure that our cars are physical, as I say, but also progressive and manageable in terms of handling.”
Asked why Almeria was chosen for the second part of the series’ driver selection programme, he responds: “Almeria is a 2.5-mile (4.1km) circuit constructed in 2001 with both MotoGP and Formula car testing in mind. It’s a highly technical track consisting of 14 corners, some of which have double and even triple apices, and a half-mile (0.97km) back-straight.
“A few of the turns are tight and twisty, demanding heavy braking applications, but others are fast and flowing. There’s plenty of elevation change, too. Overall, it’s a good circuit, well suited to Formula 3 cars.
“Also, it’s located in Andalusia, in the south-east corner of Spain, on the Mediterranean coast,” he continues, “and from a climatic point of view it’s consequently one of the very driest circuits in Europe. That’s important, bearing in mind the time of year we’ll be there. We’re expecting dry running therefore, with average temperatures during the daytime of 18-20deg C. But in the unlikely event that it rains, we’ll be ready and prepared, of course.”
Asked his impression of the drivers who contested the first part of the driver selection programme in Melk, ability-wise and attitude-wise, Ryan admits: “Overall, we were very impressed by their determination, their ambition and their focus.
“They varied quite markedly in terms of age and experience, and that disparity inevitably showed in some of the exercises we set them, but the team spirit among them was very strong indeed. In terms of physical fitness there were variances too, but the 28 who successfully progressed through the first stage of the driver selection programme all left Melk determined to train hard for the second stage in Almeria.
“W Series’ social media team tell me that many of our drivers have been regularly posting pics of their gym work-outs on Instagram and Twitter, and that’s good to hear. Equally, in terms of technical knowledge, some of them have a bit of room for improvement, but the sensible ones will be working on that, too. Good drivers never stop learning.”
Contrary to social media speculation, the all-women driver series doesn’t extend to mechanics and engineers.
“Hitech are hiring a group of excellent mechanics and engineers for us, so as to give all our drivers as level a playing field as possible, and some of them will be women,” he confirms. “In the future, we intend to operate programmes that will encourage more and more girls and young women to embrace STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects at schools, colleges and universities, with a view to becoming race mechanics and race engineers if they so wish.
“W Series exists to encourage all kinds of women to engage with and work in motorsport, not only drivers.”
Unfortunately however, the test will not be open to the media or fans.
“Like the Melk programme, our Almeria test will be a private event, so as to limit driver distraction to an absolute minimum,” he confirms. “There’s a lot at stake for these women, and the pressure will be on, so we decided not to invite journalists or fans. But, once we’ve announced our final driver line-up, we’ll test them all at Lausitzring in mid-April and that test will be open to journalists and fans. And of course all W Series races will be open to journalists and fans, too.”