When Jamie Chadwick first sat behind the wheel of a Formula One car, the moment highlighted both the promise of progress and the historical stagnation of women in one of motorsports' most famous categories.
Chadwick, the two-time champion of the all-female W Series circuit, is a development driver for Williams Racing's Formula One team. In August 2021, the 23-year-old Chadwick drove the single-seater former Formula One driver Keke Rosberg used during the 1982 season. That was already six years after Italy's Lella Lombardi featured as Formula One's last female driver.
"It's really special [to get my debut] even if it's not in a modern car; it's very special for any young driver," said Chadwick shortly before taking the track for her drive last summer.
While Chadwick keeps her focus on making a Formula One team on a permanent basis, the W Series is trying out 15 prospective female drivers through Friday at Inde Motorsports Ranch in southeastern Arizona before its 2022 season begins in its continuing efforts to diversify its field of entrants.
According to the FIA, the governing body for motorsports, only 1.5% of all competitive drivers are women. Over the past decade, efforts to develop talent and bridge the gap have resulted in a few noteworthy stories. From 2012 to 2015, Susie Wolff served as a development driver for Williams. In 2018, Colombia's Tatiana Calderon became the first Latin American woman to drive a Formula One car, testing a Sauber model on Mexico City's Autodromo Rodriguez track for 23 laps. Calderon, who drives for AJ Foyt Racing, will be IndyCar's first female driver to compete regularly in the circuit since 2013.
The W Series, created in 2018, aims to build on those modest successes and work toward landing a female driver in the upper echelon of the sport. During the 2021 season, 20 drivers from 13 nations squared off for the title. Chadwick and Alice Powell, both from Great Britain, dominated the field, winning seven of eight races between them. The 2022 season runs from May to October.
For many who participate, the tryout is the biggest opportunity to crystallize the dream of joining a pro racing circuit after years of toiling.
"I get goosebumps [thinking about] one day racing in Formula One," said Maite Caceres, a 19-year-old driver from Uruguay. "It means so much to me to have this chance, this is such a big dream and all I've ever wanted since I started racing was to be in a circuit like W Series."
Caceres is aiming to become just the second driver representing Latin America in the W Series, after Brazil's Bruna Tomaselli. Caceres' father, Fernando, is a former racing pro and currently works as the chief promoter of the Formula E's Punta del Este Grand Prix in Uruguay. Her brother, Juan Ignacio, auditioned for a spot with the Minardi Formula One team in 2005.
Despite her lineage, Caceres said starting her own racing career was a tough sell.
"My family didn't want me to race," Caceres said. "I begged [my parents] for years. When they finally said yes, I was beyond excited."
After a string of early successes in karting, Caceres was scouted to try out for the W Series, joining a global field of drivers from four continents and with ages ranging from 15 to 27. Ultimately, the stated goal for the W Series is to unearth talent from regions that have been historically underrepresented.
"The purpose of this test is to get to know a new group of drivers and understand what they are capable of as we finalize our 2022 driver lineup and look to the future," W Series racing director Dave Ryan said in a statement. "While some may be a year or two away from racing in W Series, this is an opportunity for them to showcase their skills."
Early returns have proved fruitful. After the 2020 W Series season was wiped out because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a silver lining emerged as the competition officially partnered with Formula One. For the 2021 season, all eight races on the W Series calendar were held on tracks used by Formula One. With Chadwick leading the way as a contender to become the first female Formula One driver since 1976, the hope is other drivers will emerge as well to take their shot in the sport's most prestigious circuit sooner rather than later.
"I think it's a great opportunity to launch us toward that not-so-crazy dream of joining Formula One," Caceres said.