Jamie Chadwick, Alice Powell, Esmee Hawkey, Jessica Hawkins and Sarah Moore have all been included in the final 18 following this week’s W Series selection process in Almeria, Spain.
The judging team, led by former McLaren sporting director Dave Ryan, trimmed the drivers down from 28, with those selected now vying to contest a £1.15 million prize pot in the six-race championship.
David Coulthard, a 13-time Formula One race winner and chairman on the W Series advisory board, said: “This has been a more difficult selection process than we ever could have dreamt of in terms of how close it has been across the field.
“The emotion attached to it has got nothing whatsoever to do with whether they’re male or female.
“I sincerely want all of them who have gone through this process to have professional racing careers at whatever level their talent will allow them to go to.
“This represents one big step closer to them realising that dream, and I think everyone at W Series can be proud of their contribution to putting these racers on track, who just happen to be women.”
Italian Lella Lombardi is the last female driver to contest an F1 race 43 years ago.
Last year, 20-year-old Chadwick became the first female British driver to win a Formula Three race, while Powell, 26, impressed in the junior categories before running out of funds.
The W Series, however, is free to enter with drivers using identical machinery. The opening race takes place in Hockenheim, Germany on 3-4 May, with Brands Hatch hosting the season finale on the second weekend of August.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International has become the latest human rights group to highlight “the more sinister side” to Bahrain ahead of Sunday’s Formula One race in the Gulf State. Bahrain has been a controversial grand prix host ever since it joined the F1 calendar in 2004 and the 2011 edition of the race was cancelled following a violent crackdown on anti-government protests.
There were calls from inside and outside the sport to quit Bahrain permanently but F1 returned in 2012 and the sport has largely ignored criticism of the country’s human rights record ever since.
That, however, appears to be changing, as F1 has been forced to issue a statement this week that it is investigating the 2017 imprisonment of Bahraini activist Najah Yusuf.
It is alleged that Yusuf was sentenced to three years in prison for simply criticising the government and objecting to the Bahrain Grand Prix in a series of social media posts.
That case, and several others, have been highlighted by the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy and global body Human Rights Watch, and now Amnesty has added its voice to the criticism.
In a statement, Amnesty’s Middle East director of campaigns Samah Hadid said: “Beneath the glamour of F1, there is a far more sinister side to Bahrain, revealing the country as a deeply repressive state where anyone critical of the government can be jailed merely for posting a tweet.
“Instead of just ‘sportswashing’ its image and glossing over its dismal human rights record through high-speed sport, the Bahraini government should immediately repeal laws that criminalise freedom of expression and fast-track the release of all prisoners of conscience.”
For its part, the Bahrain government has stated it is acting to protect the country against terrorists.
An F1 statement read: “We continue to remind all our promoters, including Bahrain, that peaceful protests at all our events is a democratic right, and we continue to raise our concerns in regard to Ms Yusuf with the Bahraini authorities.”