It doesn’t take much digging to appreciate that W Series is without question the most meritocratic racing series in existence. From the initial application process where over 100 drivers applied for a place on the grid. To the rigorous and multi-faceted selection camp that whittled the grid down to the final 18 drivers and 2 reserves. Then there is the rotation of the cars and the engineers each race to ensure that any inequalities in equipment do not compromise the entire season for a driver.
With the success of the 2019 season, more drivers than ever wanted to race in the 2020 (delayed to 2021) season. That includes previous series sceptics like Abbie Eaton. But how to fit the best the new applicants onto an already full grid? Well, now we come to the negative (for the individual driver) aspect of a meritocratic race series. Fail to perform for whatever reason throughout the season and you risk losing your seat. Thus making way for the new cream of the crop to take your place on the grid.
Of course, we mustn’t forget that W Series did include a provision that the drivers could re-apply and compete in the selection process once again. This could be a handy but stressful lifeline.
Let’s take a look then at the eight drivers from the 2019 season that for one reason or another finished outside of the top 12 and didn’t automatically qualify for 2020/21.
In such a short season of 6 races, a single accident or technical failure can be devastating for your chances. Spare a thought then for Caitlin Wood. The season started well with a points finish on debut. This was swiftly followed by a catastrophic run of races. An off-track excursion at Zolder saw her drop out of the points. A second mistake at Misano in qualifying sent her to the back of the grid. And then clutch issues hampered her at Norisring! So that’s 50% of the races gone.
Wood produced a fantastic drive to 5th at Assen, her best result of the season so far. At the season finale at Brands Hatch, Wood had a fantastic battle with Sarah Moore who finished just half a second ahead. Unfortunately for her, Jess Hawkins had a great drive to P7, elevating her above Wood in the final standings, stealing the final automatic spot for 2020.
Wood did return to race in the 2020 E-Sports league finishing an impressive 6th overall but is yet to announce her plans for 2021.
Gosia Rdest’s career closely mirrors Caitlin Wood’s in that both did enough to impress in karts to progress to F4. Both struggled in a single season of F4 and then spent the intervening years before W Series competing in GT and Touring Car style championships. Rdest also scored points at Hockenheim and had a season-best result at Assen, just like Wood.
Unfortunately, Esmee Hawkey wiped Rdest out at Zolder with an ill-timed move into the Bolderberghaarspeldbocht hairpin. A collision with Fabienne Wohlwend ruined a promising 4th on the grid at Norisring. And she finished Misano and Brands Hatch out of the points.
Rdest returned to GT racing in the Alpine Europa Cup for 2020, finishing the year 8th overall. She also took a class victory at the Dubai 24 Hours. A second season of Alpine Europa Cup seems likely for this year, but no W Series return for the Polish driver.
It was always going to be a challenging year for Esmee Hawkey, whose career path prior to W Series had taken her from karts to the Porsche Carrera Cup via Ginetta Juniors and GT4. Hawkey had to adapt the wildly different characteristics of an F3 car rather than a GT car and with only testing and the 6 races to do it. Getting that 12th place or higher was a tough ask for the then 20-year-old Londoner. Blotting her copybook was Zolder when she out-braked herself attempting to pass Rdest. Hawkey survived a brutal Norisring round to take home 2 points for 9th. Either side of the Norisring, Hawkey managed to finish P11 at Misano and Assen.
Then came her home race at Brands Hatch and an astonishing qualifying lap saw her put the #2 car P3 on the grid. Hawkey’s podium dreams were shattered though when she stalled on the grid. She eventually limped home P16 and never got silverware as a W Series driver.
Esmee’s story does have a happy ending though as she was able to win the Pro-Am class in the Porsche Carrera Cup in 2020 and also tested for BTCC team MB Motorsport. It would appear that Hawkey has a bright future of Porsches and Touring Cars ahead of her.
For many fans who sat down to watch the first W Series race in 2019, it was an introduction to many drivers that we had not met before. Others such as Beitske Visser and Alice Powell would be more familiar.
Viewers on Channel 4 in the UK first met Naomi Schiff as she took us on a tour of the W Series motor home. Smiling, confident and charming, Schiff was a great choice of brand ambassador to help welcome the fans into the new world of W Series.
Schiff was firmly rooted in the very competitive midfield in 2019. Tenth at Zolder and Norisring her only points finishes.
Schiff was announced as being the W Series Diversity and Inclusion Ambassador for 2020. Hopefully, we will also see Schiff fitting in some racing as well; her GT credentials are extremely good.
Vivien Kesztheyli from Hungary was one of the two official reserve drivers for 2019. Following Emma Kimilainen’s neck injury, Kesztheyli was pressed into action from Zolder onwards. Promoted to full-time W Series driver ahead of Megan Gilkes for Round 4 at the Norisring. She was then demoted to reserve once again following Kimilainen’s return for Assen.
All 20 drivers took part in the reverse championship order, non-points race with Kesztheyli starting 4th but finishing down in 17th place. 10th place at Misano would be Kesztheyli’s only point in the season.
Remaining as an Audi Development Driver, Kestheyli has yet to announce her plans for 2021.
Shea Holbrook endured a difficult season in 2019. Being a W Series driver in 2019 was her first season of international competition. Outpaced and seemingly utterly dejected by the whole experience by the end of the season. Holbrook was the only driver to race all six rounds and not score points.
Now racing retired, Holbrook is a successful businesswoman and remains connected to motorsports. Holbrook can still look back on previous successes such as her 2011 win at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Pirelli World Challenge Touring Car race. As well as being a superhero with doing all her current work as well as being a mother, according to Sabre Cook!
Sarah Bovy started the 2019 season as the second reserve driver. Bovy’s home race at Zolder was an agonising nightmare. As the field finished their warm-up lap, her engine failed. She went on to finish out of the points at Misano and Brands Hatch.
These were her only two races in the season. In the non-Championship Assen race, Bovy started 2nd on the grid but fell back to 11th at the flag.
There has been no announcement as yet on Bovy’s 2021 schedule.
And so we come to the curious case of Megan Gilkes. Gilkes clearly has pace, her pre-W Series driver record proves that. So to does her fantastic win at the non-Championship Assen race. Gilkes controlled the entire race from pole position. She withstood multiple safety car restarts and a late-race assault from a marauding Alice Powell.
Regrettably, that high water mark was so much higher than any other moment in the season. Outbraking herself on a wet patch to T-bone Kimilainen in Hockenheim, Gilkes eliminated Kimilainen from the next two races with the injury. Fourteenth would be Gilkes’s best championship race finish which she accomplished twice. Gilkes was made the reserve driver at the Norisring round and did not start the race.
During the W Series season, Gilkes was studying aeronautical engineering at Imperial College London. Gilkes returned to Canada to compete in Formula 1600 in 2020.