The start of August marked the conclusion of a new racing series that caused a bit of a stir in the motorsport world.
The female-only W Series launched this year, aimed at increasing opportunities for women in racing. And some of the series’ most vocal opponents were female.
But two American racers took up the opportunity, and for one – Shea Holbrook – it also meant a first foray into European racing.
“So European racing is unbelievably difficult to match,” Holbrook told RACER. “The drivers in Europe are hugely talented. I think it’s because racing, football – soccer – are on the same playing field. People love Formula 1 here; they love their sports car racing here. So I think because it’s a popular sport, it is something that has more eyeballs on it.
“There is no such thing as track limits in Europe. We have plenty of track limits in the U.S. It’s a little bit also in the U.S. they are able to build what they can because of the land that we have. Whereas in Europe there is less of that, and because there is less land to build, these mega circuits it makes it harder and more technical.
“There’s no room for error, and those three things on a circuit is what really builds these championship-winning European drivers. It’s not just one guy or girl; it’s, like, 20. The entire [grid] is championship-caliber.”
With a best race finish of 12th at Zolder, Holbrook failed to finish in the top 12 of this year’s W Series, and so missed out on an automatic invitation into next year’s championship. Sabre Cook, by contrast, secured 12th spot with her third top-10 result in six point-scoring races at the final round at Brands Hatch, but still wanted more despite the challenge of racing outside the U.S.
“First expectations I really didn’t know where I was going to sit,” Cook says. “So I had good speed in the qualifier, I was in the top five at times and I felt positive, but I knew going to all these tracks where these girls had so much more experience than I have was going to be tough. Especially because jumping into an F3 car was just faster than what I had been driving previously. So I knew there was going to be a big learning curve, but I went in and… I am happy I finished where I did, of course, but I would have loved to have finished in the top 10.”
For Cook, the plan was always to race in Europe, where she’d done a handful of karting finals in the past. The 25-year-old was moving across the Atlantic this year regardless in order to take up an opportunity at the Renault-affiliated Infiniti Engineering Academy.
“Beforehand, if I didn’t get the W Series, I was going to consider trying to race British F3 races here, or maybe GT4, just to keep me in racing shape,” she says. “But I didn’t have any solid plans of what to do. So W Series was a saving grace and it turned out to be a really great year, and Infiniti and Renault have been super supportive of it. So it was a great combination.
“The way that it helped me is maybe the culture over here [in Europe] is different and obviously I didn’t have to deal with the jet lag as bad. That, for me, was probably a good thing, because it would have been hard to adjust that way, but just being in the environment I think helps.
“Racing over here is part of their culture; it’s not just like in U.S. where some people are like, ‘what’s IndyCar?’ Over here, it’s like everyone knows, and it’s a big family activity to be involved. There’s always a race going on, and there are so many tracks that you can drive to within two hours of me. So it does help, and I have been able to go to a really great simulator that is just an hour away from where I live now and be able to drive on that after work.”
While she’s now more prepared for the European racing scene, Cook believes herself and Holbrook also benefitted from a more accepting view of their racing in the U.S. than they may have traditionally received in Europe prior to the W Series.
“I kind of knew a bit more of a mindset of what it was like over here,” Cook says. “Obviously being in W Series you are a little bit more protected from that misogynistic view in some way, because I remember karting in Italy, I did get a bit more… Like, they didn’t want to let me into the driver’s meeting at first. They were like ‘drivers only; you can’t come in here’, and I was like ‘No, I’m a driver!’
“I think maybe it was a bit worse there, but they are really nice people, it’s just their cultural differences. We are really lucky in the U.S. because obviously I think we are a bit more open, we are a bit more like the working class woman, I think.
“So Europe sometimes has a bit more of an old-fashioned view. I think we’re just lucky to have that growing up where it’s like, I can go and do whatever this boy wants to do for his job. Growing up, there were never any problems because I’m a girl.”
On a similar theme, Holbrook noted “anti-Americanism” racing in Europe for the first time. “If I’m not doing quite as well I think they are kind of like, ‘well, that’s what we expected,’” she says. But far from being put off by the experience, the 29-year-old says it has shown her that racing in Europe is something more American drivers should be trying to get onto their resumes, as well as her European counterparts going the other way.
“I think here it’s more a professional sport, whereas in the U.S. it’s professional, it’s semi-professional, it’s gentleman or gentlewoman driver; it is kind of a global scope, and I’m not hitting on any of that because we’re invested,” she says. “There is never a lack of money, we need the resources to keep this going and it can be a profitable business plan.
“The competitiveness that comes out of Europe is just, it’s gnarly, and I think Americans should experience Europe, and I think that Europeans should experience American culture and racing, because they are quite different.
“It just makes you a more cultural racer, and getting those experiences to be able to data-collect, and it will advise every brake zone, every corner entry, or it will apply to your download sections with your engineer… I mean, it’s just quite cool to have the opportunity to go back and forth. It’s going to make me a better driver. 100%.”
And that’s essentially all W Series is attempting to do. The fully-funded series provides opportunities for women to showcase their skills, with the likes of Alice Powell only entering five races in five years prior to this season, and then picking up an IMSA appearance off the back of her third-place championship finish that earned her $125,000.
While it is clear the series would like to see a woman graduate to Formula 1 in future, Holbrook – who picked up $7,500 for finishing 18th overall – is eyeing a U.S. return.
“Formula 1 is not my goal,” Holbrook says. “I’m too old; I’m too inexperienced in single-seaters. It’s just not a part of my scope, and that’s fine. If I was to stay in single-seaters I think it would be really cool to run in IndyCar. That would be my pinnacle in single-seaters.”
The same is true of Cook, who sees an F1 test as her likely limit from a driving perspective, but is using the Infiniti work to try and reach the category from another avenue.
“I am looking at two paths,” Cook admits. “I would love to be an F1 race engineer – that would be great – but driving is kind of time-sensitive. So I would love to be able to pursue both of them 110% in conjunction, but I know maybe within the next couple of years if one of them continues to progress, I might have to put one above the other, and I am fully aware of that.
“I’ll see what it ends up being, but obviously I would love to be an IndyCar driver – that’s kind of my end goal, driving-wise. Or maybe being driving some of the World Endurance Championship races would be a great experience as well. I have the rest of my life to be an engineer, because you can’t drive race cars forever.”
Despite the challenges of racing in Europe, or the skepticism of some towards W Series, Cook believes both she and Holbrook will have a better chance of achieving those goals thanks to the category, and are even being encouraged to showcase different paths within motorsport.
“They are really supportive of any direction that we want to go,” she says. “They are purely about just empowering women and developing them. A lot of people say this is the women’s F1, but it’s not, it’s just it’s a driver development program to put women in the top levels and be able to be competitive in the titles.”