The example ERC champion Fernández has set

By winning last year's European title, Sara Fernández is already inpsiring the next generation to start co-driving

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Role models. They’re what get millions of children around the world interested in sports. Aspiring sprinters look up to Usain Bolt as a reference, soccer stars of the future to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

But what if you were a motorsport fan growing up in the late 1990s? Where would you have turned for inspiration if you wanted to sit in the cockpit of a rally car?

Luckily, there was Fabrizia Pons: a five-time World Rally Championship event winner who scored the first of those in 1981 and the last in 1997. Right as Sara Fernández was discovering the wonders of rallying.

Four decades on from that famous Michèle Mouton and Pons Rally Sanremo win, Fernández broke new ground by becoming European Rally champion in the co-driver’s seat – reaching the high point of a journey that set out to emulate Pons.

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“I had many co-driver models to follow: Jordi Barrabes, Carlos del Barrio, Luis Moya and Fabrizia Pons – they are my great role models,” Fernández told DirtFish.

“Especially Fabrizia; I love how she reads the pacenotes and her entire career. She inspired me and has paved the way for women of my generation. She made herself respected and that is why I value her so much.”

Fernández, 36, is the experienced one in her pairing, sat alongside 26-year-old Efrén Llarena. While it’s been a rapid ascent towards the top for Llarena – going from regional level to the ERC in the space of five years – Fernández’s career has taken a longer path to reach the heights of becoming ERC champion.

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There is no physical barrier to compete in rallying, it's more a sport of mentality and bravery Sara Fernández

“In my family I was the only girl and I didn’t start competing until I was 18 years old, while my brothers did it when they were 12 years old.

“I believe that this is changing very quickly and more and more girls are seen in karting, which is the base of motorsport. Fortunately, things are changing and now women are respected.

“The Spanish federation is promoting karting a lot so that girls and boys have opportunities. There have also been several women’s courses and training to encourage the participation of women in motorsport; not only women drivers, but also co-drivers, engineers, mechanics, officers, stewards…”

There’s no doubt the profile of women in motorsport is improving year by year, and Fernández’s status as a European champion can only boost that further.

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In French rallycross, female participation at the grassroots level has been greatly enhanced with the introduction of Coupe Féminine. Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky recently won an all-female Rally Jameel last week. And single-seaters has W Series that – while it’s not been able to provide a platform for its champion to step up a level to Formula 3 as of yet – has certainly raised the profile of its competitors.

“There is no physical barrier to compete in rallying,” Fernández explained. “I think it’s more a sport of mentality and bravery. And the same in karting; I see races in which the girls are at the same level as the boys. It shouldn’t be divided between boys and girls in the lower categories, I think.”

That is, after all, what made Pons an icon. She carved out a fine reputation as one of the world’s best co-drivers – not one of the world’s best female co-drivers.

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Now it’s the turn of Fernández. Pons inspired her to go rallying – and now she’s planning to repay the favor down the line to someone else. She’s not just trying to win for herself, she’s taking responsibility to try and repeat what Pons did for her for today’s young motorsport fans.

“Now many girls who are just starting out see my reference. That makes me very happy because it means that I am doing my job well.”

Perhaps when you log on to DirtFish a few years from now, we’ll be interviewing the first female World Rally champion co-driver. And perhaps they’ll cite Fernández as their role model.

That would be a job done very well indeed.

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