By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - W Series founder Catherine Bond Muir admits there were times when she wondered whether she had wasted years of her life setting up the all-female single-seater championship, but not any more.
As the six race series prepares for its penultimate round at Assen in the Netherlands on Saturday, she feels fully vindicated.
Next year the top drivers in the series will get points towards a superlicence taking them that crucial step closer to the ultimate aim of Formula One.
The governing FIA, which announced the move in June, has yet to say how many but Bond Muir hopes it could be 12-18 points for the winner, with 40 needed over a three year period to race in Formula One and 25 to take part in Friday practice.
"If what we are about is getting drivers into the upper echelons of motorsport and especially into Formula One, this represents an absolute sea-change in the opportunities for women in motorsport," she told reporters.
"Being involved in W Series really is giving the drivers the real chance to get into Formula One because they need those points."
No woman has started a Formula One race since 1976 but the chief executive, who had tears in her eyes when she stood on the grid at Hockenheim in May for the first race, feels sure W Series will provide the next.
"There were a number of times where I thought 'it’s not going to happen' and you push and push. And then they (the cars) all came around the corner...suddenly it became a reality," she said.
The other key moment, against a backdrop of some women saying it was wrong to segregate the sexes, came when Alice Powell was on the podium.
Her career previously halted due to a lack of funding and opportunity, the British racer gave the founder a big hug of thanks.
"There was just a niggle wondering whether the critics had a point. And at the point Alice said to me 'thank you for making me feel like this again'. It wiped that away completely," said Bond Muir.
The races, in identical Formula Three cars, are all in Europe and staged alongside the German Touring Car (DTM) championship. Next year, the series could expand to the United States.
The 20 drivers have no costs and receive prize money at the end of the season, with the winner walking away with $500,000 and runner-up $250,000.
Even the lowest placed finisher and reserves will get $7,500 and the top 12 will get automatic re-entry to next year's championship.
Britain's Jamie Chadwick is leading the series with Dutch racer Beitske Visser second and Spanish teenager Marta Garcia in third place.
Liechtenstein's Fabienne Wohlwend is fourth, worth $100,000, and still chasing the title. A compliance officer with VP Bank in Vaduz, she planned to use her prize money to go fully professional.
"Coming from Liechtenstein it’s just difficult to find big sponsors. Unlike W Series, all the other series are about money," said the 21-year-old who raced against F1 drivers Max Verstappen, Lance Stroll and Lando Norris in karting.
"I believe there will be a girl in Formula One. It’s about getting the ball rolling," she told reporters.
"The car doesn't know if we are male or female."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ian Ransom)