When motorsport gets tough, the women get going

Past female participation in gruelling events bodes well for new series' 50-50 gender split

2000 Paris Dakar Cairoworld wide copyright: McKlein

Extreme E (and Formula E) mastermind Alejandro Agag announced on Thursday that driver line-ups for his upcoming off-road championship will be split 50-50 between men and women.

This sounds like a modern idea inspired by W Series and the current buzz around female sports in general, but it’s part of a surprising trend. The crazier, more dangerous and more extreme a motorsport endeavor, the more likely you are to find women in it.

Lying somewhere between rallycross and a Dakar stage, Extreme E will feature two-driver teams taking on a two-lap trip around a wilderness track in locations as exotic and potentially hazardous as Senegal’s Lac Rose, the Greenland ice and the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal. Plenty of opportunity for peril miles from the service paddock. Surely a first for female drivers?


When Jutta Kleinschmidt won the Dakar in 2001, she covered 6600 miles of desert in her Mitsubishi Pajero, through the furious heat and blinding sandstorms and sharing the same sweaty bivouacs as any other driver. She must have enjoyed the luxury of a metal roof over her head, having competed several times previously, initially on a motorcycle. She has spoken of coming off her bike on a sand dune and narrowly avoiding being crushed by a truck.


Shiv Gohil, Spacesuit Media, Extreme E

Talking of trucks, there’s also Elisabete Jacinto. Another ex-biker, she has pushed it that bit further, becoming one of the best drivers in the Truck class in 2010 and 2011. She never won the Dakar but she has piloted the fastest full-size HGV in six international rally raids.

These feats could be put down to the increasing body of research that suggests women are physiologically highly suited to endurance events but that’s not the full story. While we’re still talking trucks, Stephanie Halm has won eight FIA European Truck Racing Championship races in the past five years, throwing a big rig around racing circuits. These were all sprint events, but the heavy truck suited her.

If rally raids and truck racing are a little too niche to convince you, then cast your mind to Group B rallying in the 1980s. Four-wheel drive came in and rally cars became faster and more powerful than ever before. The first rally winner in a Group B-spec car was Michèle Mouton in 1981, a driver once described by Colin McRae as “not knowing the meaning of the word fear”.

Steffi Halm

Credit: FIA ETRC

Group B became increasingly dangerous as well as ever faster and the FIA called a halt in 1986 after the fiery demise of Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto in Corsica in 1986. That was not before a string of female drivers had turned a blind eye to fragile cars prone to tipping over and exploding in order to make their mark. Mouton’s fellow Frenchwoman Carole Vergnaud won the 1986 Mille Pistes Rally in a Citroën Visa. Using the same car, Sylvie Seignobeaux scored top-ten finishes in French rallies the year before. In Germany, Rena Blome was a regular top-10 visitor on national events, driving a Talbot Samba. She missed out on a works drive in a fearsome Peugeot 205 T16 in 1986, but only because Mouton was contesting the German championship and was chosen instead.

Away from Group B proper, Yugoslav driver Romana Zrnec won four national rallies outright in a Renault 11 Turbo between 1985 and 1987. This unlikely car became Renault’s preferred homologation model for the Group A era that followed the forbidden Group N.

1981 Sanremo RallyeCopyright:McKlein

Credit: McKlein

Rally cars have a roof and a roll cage and in the great scheme of things, they don’t actually go that fast, right? Well, what about drag racing?

A Top Fuel dragster is not much more than a highly-calibrated explosion on wheels, yet drag racing is perhaps the field where female drivers have stamped their authority the most. The legendary Shirley Muldowney won four NHRA Top Fuel titles between 1976 and 1982, yet she also survived a terrifying crash in 1984 in which she broke multiple bones in her hands, legs and pelvis. This slowed her down for some years but did not stop her; she came back several years later and continued to race until 2003, when she was 63.

Anita Mäkelä

Her European counterpart is the Finn Anita Makela, a three-time FIA European Top Fuel champion with many sub-four second runs under her belt, achieved around career breaks to have her two children. Makela and Muldowney are not alone either.

Wherever there’s danger in motorsport, that’s where the women will be, even at the highest level.

Formula 1 in the 1970s was not all swashbuckling playboys in some of the most iconic cars motor racing has offered. It was a landscape of twisted metal, ominous smoke and racers dressed in stained Nomex and St Christopher medallions, but women were not afraid to enter. The only time that two women have attempted to enter the same grand prix was in Britain in 1976, when Italy’s Lella Lombardi and the UK’s Divina Galica valiantly tried to make the grid. Galica, a former Olympic skier who was no stranger to physical peril, never did qualify for any races, but Lombardi did. She famously scored half a point for her sixth-placed finish in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix, a race that was shortened due to a nasty accident, hence the half points.


Credit: IndyCar

Lombardi had spent the season battling against a wayward car with a cracked chassis, which was discovered the following season when March mechanics actually listened to Ronnie Peterson’s complaints about the same car.

Oh, and in 1978, not long after, Janet Guthrie finished the Indianapolis 500 in ninth place with a broken wrist on her gear-changing arm.

Contemporary initiatives to get women into high-level motorsport have often concentrated on making things simpler with centrally-maintained spec cars, coaching and targeted fitness training, but Extreme E is on the right track; make everything difficult and watch the girls get going.