MISSION STATEMENT: W Series has been created to prepare a woman racing driver to compete in Formula One
When the clock struck 2019, about months ago now, very few people had heard the name Bianca Andreescu, an 18-year-old tennis player from Mississauga. In fact, when both TSN and Sportsnet were offered television packages for this year’s WTA Tour, they passed.
Then as we all know, Andreescu made it to the finals of the year’s first tournament in New Zealand, defeating Venus Williams and Caroline Wozniacki in the process. Then she won the Indian Wells (California) Tournament in March and her name was suddenly in lights.
The newspapers were chasing her for interviews and she was on sports radio show. The suits at the TV networks were passing the buck as to who was the dunce who said no to the WTA when a Canadian girl was toast of the town.
I am here today to suggest this is going to happen again if everybody above doesn’t start paying attention. The female in question is Megan Gilkes, also 18 and from Richmond Hill and she is one of 18 young women from around the world selected from among more than 100 who initially applied to race in the inaugural season of the W Series Championship, an all-women racing series designed to eventually get a female into a full-time Formula One ride.
The mission statement of the W Series pretty much sums it up: “Successful racing drivers have to be skilled, determined, physically fit, brave and competitive. But they don’t have to be men.”
Said CEO Catherine Bond Muir, when the series – which has the backing of retired F1 driver David Coulthard and legendary F1 race engineer Adrian Newey – was launched: “Until now, motor racing has been the only sport in which there were no separate series for women. Of all the thousands of people involved in the technical side of our sport across the globe, only a handful are women. The last woman to start a Formula One Grand Prix was Lella Lombardi more than 40 years ago and there has never been a female Formula One Grand Prix race winner, let alone a world champion. Our mission is to change all of that.”
This story originally was published in Toronto Star Wheels on April 13, 2019
As mentioned, well over a hundred applied and were required to send in their racing resumes and to articulate their ambitions. Of those, 60 were selected to be examined at a circuit in Austria, owned and operated by former F1 driver Alexander Wurz, where they were tested on physical fitness, their ability to interact with reporters and sponsors, and their quickness in a racing car. The 60 were then cut down to 28 and the next test came at the Circuito de Almeria in Spain, where the final 18 who will race this feirst season were chosen. As you can imagine, Gilkes was over the moon when she became one of only three North Americans – two from the United States and her – to make the final cut.
The first race in an open-wheel, open-cockpit Formula 3-type racing car will be held in early May at the Hockenheimring in Germany. Megan Gilkes says she hasn’t come this far for it all to end there. “I want to win the championship,” she said.
We had a long chat a week or so ago about how this all came about and two things stuck in my mind: first, she is one of the most articulate 18-year-olds you would ever want to talk to; second, she has no fear. She broke her wrist in a go-kart crash when she was 10 and when she woke up in the hospital, the first thing she wanted to know was when she could get back out on the track. (That accident, by the way, might not have spooked Megan but her parents were a different story. It took her two years to convince them to let her start kart racing again.)
Here is a transcript of our conversation.
Norris McDonald: I know you are 18 and from Richmond Hill, but where are you now?
Megan Gilkes: I am living in the U.K. because of university studies. I’m in London and I’m studying aeronautical engineering at Imperial College.
NM: Take me through your career to this point.
MG: I started karting in 2010 when I was 9. The first time I went karting, I was living in Barbados and we were there because my dad was working there. A friend of my dad’s from work had a son who was go-karting and offered me a chance to have a one-off in his kart. From the moment that I first drove, I realized how I absolutely loved driving and from then on, that passion continued to grow. Once I actually started racing, I realized motorsport was where I wanted to go in my future.
NM. You progressed pretty quickly . . .
MG. A year later, I was racing in the world finals and I had a heavy crash and I broke my wrist. I had to take a few years off at that time just to recover from that and also to convince my parents (Brent and Pam Gilkes) to let me race again. I managed to do that in Canada and that would have been in 2014-2015.
NM. Tell me about your education.
MG. The majority of my education was in Canada. I did primary school in Barbados but I did middle school and high school at Holy Trinity School in Richmond Hill. I’m in my first year of school in England and I’m really enjoying it. It’s great to see the parralels between motorsport and what I‘m learning in the classroom; it’s nice to see what I want to do coming alive through learning.
NM. Did the crash do anything to your confidence?
MG. At 10 years old, I woke up in a hospital bed and I immediately wanted to know when’s the race and when can I go back out. Even with a cast on my arm. I know that accidents are a part of racing, particularly when you’re trying to perform at a level that I’m looking to perform at. You are going to have crashes and you’re going to have spins and it’s something you have to accept and honestly, for me, I’m more concerned about not performing at my best than I am about hurting myself. It’s not something that concerns me at all when I’m driving. It’s something that, unfortunately, is a part of racing but it’s a part of the sport that I love and I have to accept that and move past it in order to perform,
NM. You are remarkably articulate for an 18-year-old, you know . . .
MG. I’m not really sure (where it came from). In motorsport, you have to be able to speak with sponsors and the media. It was something we were tested on at the first round of selection for the W Series. They tested us on our presentation skills, on how we interact with the media, so it’s something that as a driver I have to be able to do so it’s something that I’ve worked on. I was not coached; over the course of the past few years, as I’ve started to get more and more publicity for my racing, I’ve been advised by people that there are important things that you should try to get across but I’ve never really been coached.
NM. Okay, let’s move past karting. You raced in Formula Vee/Formula 1200, correct?
MG. I went into Formula Vee but I never actually competed in a full series in my two seasons in Formula Vee. Both in the U.S. and in Canadian F1200, there were always races I missed because, logistically, it was just impossible to get to them all. I ended up finishing third in my first year of F1200 and that would have been in 2017 and I was second in 2018 in that series, even though I didn’t do all of the rounds. And last year I was runner-up to Phil Wang, who is a very well-known driver in that series. I had some good competition to run with that season.
I did the Challenge Cup Series as well, which is a Canadian-American series for Formula Vee that held one race at Mosport (Canadian Tire Motorsport Park) and the rest down in the U.S. Unfortunately, because of my age, or lack thereof, I wasn’t able to run the final round at Watkins Glen (under New York State law, she had to have been 18 to compete in sanctioned, high speed motorsport events). I won all three rounds at Mosport and I was leading after the first weekend. I was second the next couple of weekends but, unfortunately, I then had a bad result and then I couldn’t race in the final round so I ended up fourth in that championship.
NM. You did some Formula 2000 races too, didn’t you?
MG. Yes, after a season and a half of Vees, I started to ease my way into F2000. I won two F2000 races, too.
NM. When did you find out about the W Series?
MG. I heard about it on the way back from a tennis match with my university. My younger brother Nicholas, who also races, told me, ‘Hey, there’s this new series for women-only that you might want to take a look at,’ and he sent me the link. I took a look and I thought, ‘Wow, what an amazing opportunity.’ I jumped on that train as soon as I could.
NM. How stiff was the competition?
MG. They got well over 100 applications. We had to send in a compilation of our racing results and explain what and where we’d been racing. From there, they picked the top 55 applications – in the end, they increased that to 60 – and we had to go through on- and -off track testing in Melk, Austria. The circuit was really small; it is not normally used for racing but is owned by former F1 driver Alexander Wurz, who does driver training there.
NM. Did you test in a formula car like the one you’ll race in the W Series?
MG. No, we took our driving tests in a front-wheel-drive Ford Focus and a rear-wheel-drive Porsche. For me, that was quite a challenge, given that I had only ever done single-seater racing. We took my mom’s MINI out to the road course at Cayuga (Toronto Motorsports Park) to prepare for that test in Austria. We took the MINI with her brand-new winter tires on and went to Cayuga and practiced until they were worn right down!
NM. How long were you at the track in Austria?
MG. It was a three-day test and not only did they test us on track but they tested us for fitness, presentation skills and so on and they did that to select the drivers to go on to the next round. They took us into a room and sat us at tables signifying who got through and who didn’t, so I was happily at one of the tables of the drivers who got through. I was really excited – there were hugs and tears – and there were 28 very happy women in that room.
NM. How experienced were your rivals?
MG. There was a wide range of drivers there. There were a few like me, but not many. I was on the low end for experience and the low end for age. At one time I was the third youngest. I’m not the youngest on the final grid. On the upper end there were drivers who had done professional racing, everything from F3 to GT3. There was one driver there who had done the 24 Hours of Le Mans, so the range was massive. I knew I was up against a lot of really good competition. The W Sderies organizers were looking at attracting some of the best female drivers in the world, so you knew there would be a lot of good drivers there. The age range at the original test went from 18 to the oldest who was 32. It was a big range.
NM. So now there are 28 of you. How did the number get down to 18?
MG. The next step was a test in Spain at a circuit near Almeria and that test was done in the W Series F3 cars. We were there for five days – four days on the track and a day with Hintsa Performance, which is a high performance coaching company. They talked to us about fitness and nutrition, that sort of thing.
NM. When you went out in the W Series car, was it a big surprise or did you have an idea of what it would be like?
MG. Prior to finding out that I had made it to the final 28, the fastest car I’d ever driven was the F2000. The Formula 3 car is on a completely different level. There is just more downforce, more power, it’s better handling – it’s a very different animal. I did everything I could in advance to get some experience in more powerful cars, like British Formula 3 cars. I tested a bit with the Hillspeed F3 team in the U.K. I did a few days in one of their British F3s in order to get some experience so that when I jumped into the W Series F3, I would have some idea as to what I would be up against. It’s still a different car but it clearly helped. The W Series F3 was more powerful. It makes 270 horsepower and it has a turbo. The British F3 is 230 hp and normally aspirated. When you put your foot down in that W car, it lets you know it.
NM. In retrospect, how fair do yuou think the competition was?
MG. The W Series was very good at making the competition as fair and equal as possible. We had access to everyone else’s data, we had access to timing, so we knew where we were. By the end of Day 3, I knew I was in or close to the top ten, so I knew I had a good chance and on Day 4 of driving, the person who was doing the judging and is a major stakeholder in the series, Dave Ryan, called all the drivers together for a meeting and said he felt comfortable with the top 12 drivers he had selected in advance of the fourth day of driving. Those 12, he said, would spend the following day with Hintsa while the remaining drivers would battle it out for the last six places.
I was really pleased to have been among the top 12 to be selected in that initial group. I was absolutely over the moon. When they called my name, it was one of the best feelings ever. Knowing that all of the hard work that goes into all this – not just mine but my parents and every one who‘s backed me throughout my career – and then to hear my name called and to know that it had all paid off meant so very much.
NM. You have had sponsors, haven’t you?
MG, I’ve had some great sponsors. Millers Oils, Roux Helmets, Artusiasm (a downtown Toronto art gallery) – they’ve been supporting me. But the major backing has come from my family – my parents’ money and effort. That’s why the W series is such an amazing opportunity. To be honest, about as far as I could have gone with my racing career would have been F2000. We couldn’t back me any further. Maybe a couple of races in Formula 4, something like that. Anything beyond that would not have been feasible.
But now to go into a Formula 3 series in Europe is a dream come true for me. The series is fully funded, so all 18 of us will become professional drivers. We will be paid to race; all expenses are covered. There is a $1.5-million prize fund and the payoff will depend on how we finish but the winner will get $500,000 American dollars.
I know that $500,000 is not a lot as you climb the motor racing ladder. I know that with the backing of the W Series, which has the goal of getting a female driver into Formula One, I’m sure there would be a lot of support beyond the money for the drivers looking to advance their career.
I think the W Series is meant as a platform for females to progress up the racing ladder in the way that they want to progress. The goal is F1 but it could also mean Indy cars or sports cars.
NM. Okay, Megan. How do you really think you’re going to do?
MG. My goal is to win the series. It’s the same goal that 17 other drivers have. I know the competition is going to be extremely high. Given my lack of experience, I know I’m going to be starting off a bit behind, initially. But I’m sure that I will learn quickly. With more time in the car, and more work and progression, I expect I will be able to get up to the front-running pace pretty quickly.
But it will also be fun. The championship will consist of six races in five countries, starting May 3-4 in Hockenheim, Germany and finishing in August at Brands Hatch in England. Each race weekend will be made up of two practices, a qualifying session and a 30-minute race. I am really looking forward to that.
NM. At end of day, what is your ambition in life?
MG. My goal has always been to work in Formula One. Ideally, that would be as a driver – that’s been the dream – but then the backup plan is to work in F1 as an engineer. That’s why I’m studying aeronautical engineering.
NM. Have you got a role model? Is there someone you look up to?
MG. Yes, a female racing driver named Divina Galica. She tried to race in F1 in the 1970s and actually was in cars but couldn’t qualify for the races. She struggled with the equipment. She was a three-time Olympic skier and was captain of the British downhill team. Everything that she has done in her career has been an inspiration to me. I’ve spent a lot of time working with her. She was instrumental in my preparation for the W Series. I met her when I did the Skip Barber racing school and that was in 2016 and since then I’ve kept in touch with her. She’s helped me with support, coaching and advice. I’m so lucky to have been able to work with her.
NM. You must be excited. . .
MG. I’m just so proud to be representing Canada on such a world stage. It means so much to me to have the Maple Leaf on the side of my car in what is the biggest series for females in motorsport. All the W Series drivers got new racing suits and our country’s flags are on them and I was so proud to see the Canadian flag on mine. It was a real moment of pride for me.
NM. All the good luck in the world, Megan. The country will be riding with you.
MG. Thank you so much. I will do my best.