Jessica Hawkins: “fantastic” F1 Academy can bridge gap between karting and W Series
Racer, stunt driver and Aston ambassador Jessica Hawkins chats to TG about F1’s new female-only series and her S15 project car
Speaking exclusively to TopGear.com in the build-up to last weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Hawkins reckons the championship - which plans to field a grid of 15 Formula 4-spec cars - can act as a stepping stone between karting and W Series, which runs Formula 3-grade machines.
“It’s quite a big jump to go from karting to essentially a Formula Regional car,” she explains. “That’s the perfect bridge gap, and whether they then go on and do W Series or straight into F3, they could have a couple of different options.
“I think it’s fantastic, and it will use more women as well. Obviously with Bruno Michel [CEO of the firm behind F2 and F3] behind it; he comes with a wealth of experience and knowledge. So yeah, it’s brilliant.”
TG quizzed Hawkins on a range of subjects in the (sweltering) paddock in Abu Dhabi, including the impact of W Series, the issue of funding in junior categories, the growth of women’s sport as a whole and the new project car that’ll “keep me busy over the winter".
Let’s dive straight in. Are F1’s big players doing enough to get more female drivers into motorsport?
“Obviously W Series was the first to really do something, and maybe that gave others a kickstart that they needed,” says Hawkins. “Because I feel like we spoke about it for a very long time but W Series was the first to do it.
“Maybe they’ve realised that they do need to do more, realised that there’s a severe lack of females within motorsport. And this is them doing more.
“Not only did W Series give opportunities to people like myself, but it created opportunities for engineers, for mechanics. And it’s also created a platform for the next generation of females. It’s not an exclusive men’s club that women aren’t allowed to enter into. We can race, and we’re just as good.”
W Series divided opinion when it was announced in 2018, with critics arguing it was the wrong approach to segregate women from men. But Hawkins is adamant that the series - which faces an uncertain future having cut short its 2022 season due to funding problems - has a vital role to play, at least for now.
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“It’s so important,” she says. “It would just be such a shame [for] the first groundbreaking women’s series to not continue. I can’t get my head around that. We can’t let it fail. There’s been too much hard work and determination behind it.”
The challenge of financing a racing career is nothing new to any young driver, male or female. A place on the F1 Academy grid will be subsidised to the tune of €150k, though that still leaves another €150k for each entrant to find.
Hawkins thinks they’ll fill those seats, but recalls how her own path as a junior changed when she couldn’t gather the sponsorship “to move forward into cars”, in spite of a great karting CV. “You can’t get to the top without funding, can you? I think had I had that funding in the next step, I would’ve been able to develop my skills so much earlier.”
And that’s the other problem: getting more girls into the talent pool early enough so more continue up the ladder into F3, F2 and eventually F1.
“It’s inevitable that people fall off on the way,” she continues. “It’s just the trouble is because we’re starting with so many fewer females, by law of averages there aren't going to be any women left at the top. That’s why it’s men that arrive at the end goal.
“W Series has undoubtedly given young drivers a platform to aspire to, this new championship will probably do the same. And I think that will encourage the younger generation into karting. Then we start with more, which is what I think we need. But you can’t just do that overnight. It takes time.”
Could times be changing? Mercedes signed 12-year-old Luna Fluxa to its junior programme (“She’s exceptional,” says Hawkins) in February; Alpine announced its own push to find the next female F1 driver back in July; ex-F1 driver David Coulthard co-founded the More Than Equal initiative around the same time, with much the same goal in mind.
“It’s a growing thing,” Hawkins agrees. “I liken it to the Lionesses. We are reaping the reward of work that was done years ago. When the ladies were told that they weren’t allowed to play football, when they were fighting for their sport… I feel like we are in the same position now.
“The Lionesses were absolutely incredible. But if they’d won the Euros 20 years ago, would anybody know about it? I’m not sure. It [the final] was the most attended Euros match ever. That’s incredible.”
And does she wish this cultural shift had happened earlier? “Of course, yes,” she concedes. “Look, I would’ve loved for this to have been around when I was young. But genuinely, I want to help. I’m passionate about helping female drivers, I’m passionate about helping females in motorsport.
“If I can look back in 20 years or however long it may be, and see a female - or several females - at the pinnacle of motorsport racing in Formula 1 and other top levels of motorsport, then I’ll be very pleased.”
So what’s next for Hawkins in 2023? Much depends on the revival of W Series (“It’s sounding positive,” she says), though more touring car racing is definitely on the cards. And stunt driving: “It’s just difficult to fit it in at the moment! I enjoy that. It’s great, it’s great fun. It’s the same skills used in a different way.”
Speaking of which, she says it’s “so strange” what you pick up in the world of motorsport, which is why she’s now getting her hands dirty - quite literally - on a recently acquired Nissan Silvia.
Work has begun on my Nissan S15!! pic.twitter.com/8QCKX5NPIN— Jessica Hawkins (@1JessicaHawkins) November 11, 2022
“It’s amazing, I’m thoroughly enjoying myself,” she says. “I’ve actually got a 350Z as well, and I worked on Fast & Furious [Live] so I’ve got the S15 from Tokyo Drift. Well, not the S15…
“It’s just something I get to enjoy a couple of times of the year when it’s not raining. And it’s in such good condition underneath, normally they’re full of rust. It’s hard to find a good one, but I got really lucky because there’s just zero around.”