Pernilla Solberg: Why motorsport is my life

In this exclusive column, Pernilla Solberg shares her motorsport journey and explains what it is that motivates her

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When I was really young, I had one photograph in my bedroom that I looked to everyday. I guess it was my inspiration. This was a picture of me and Michèle Mouton and Fabrizia Pons. Michéle was my idol.

It was 1984 and the Swedish Rally was running. Every February, for a week around my family home close to Torsby, everything stopped and all of the kids were given time off school to go and watch or to help work with the local motor club.

Michèle was competing with Audi and I got my picture.

At the time I didn’t think anything about Michèle being a women or a role model or anything like that. She was just a cool driver in a very cool car.

Anniversary magazine Motorsports

In Scandinavia and really in Sweden, we’re very fortunate in that there’s very, very little inequality between women and men. Throughout my life growing up, I never once heard: “You can’t do that… you’re a girl!”

It was just never a thing in my life.

My whole family had always been involved in motorsport, it was a really big thing for us. But my sister and I didn’t go straight into it. For us, it was horses first. I competed in show jumping and just loved it. It was only when I was 16 and my father got a Volvo Amazon from his brothers and sisters for his 40th birthday – he wanted to use it in a historic category – that I took my first look. He needed a co-driver, so I asked if I could have a go.

I loved it. But I looked at what dad was doing and thought that looked even more fun. When I got my go behind the wheel I absolutely loved it. I was hooked.

My parents didn’t really know how committed I would be, so they helped get me a Volvo 240 Original, but they didn’t come to any rallies to watch. I drove the car to the rally, competed, then drove home.

It was like this for two years, but after that my parents said: “Oh, OK, we can see she is committed to rallying and it looks like she’s enjoying it and doing quite well… maybe we need to buy a trailer for the car now!”

I got another Volvo 240, but this time a national category car which was quicker. This was really something special.

I loved the adrenalin, there’s still nothing like it – especially in the fast roads and over the jumps. There was definitely a similarity between jumping in a rally car and jumping a horse, it’s all about setting them up for the corner or the fence and then understanding the balance needed from the horse or the car to do it efficiently.

And I loved the mechanical side. I studied and qualified as a mechanical engineer and I was the only girl in my class. That never bothered me, it didn’t bother anybody. Like I said, girls in Scandinavia are treated the same as the boys and the men. It’s how we’ve grown up.

It’s only when I started to travel the world a bit more that I began to have my eyes opened and I could see that this wasn’t the attitude everywhere. Now I realize how fortunate I’ve been to grow up in an environment and society where equality is natural.

1999 Catalunyai Rallyworld wide copyright: McKlein

It’s for this reason that I understand and really appreciate the work the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission does. It would be easy to sit back and say: “Why do women need their own commission?” It’s only when you’ve seen the world outside of Scandinavia and Europe that you can really understand that women needed much more encouragement to join in this incredible sport.

What Michèle has achieved with the commission is just incredible.

When I met Petter [Solberg] we were both competing. I’d progressed to compete in a Group N Mitsubishi on some WRC rounds, but I never managed to get the full budget to go to a full WRC effort or to driver a Group A car.

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Petter and I had always talked about having a child, but my feeling was that I would always want to come back to driving. Oliver spent some time in hospital when he was born and, I have to be honest, it changed everything for me.

I wanted to take care of Oliver, to be there and to look after him.

But I wasn’t really much of a stay-at-home mom. Pretty much from the start, we traveled and we went to the rallies with Petter. Oliver had been to the earth’s four corners very, very quickly – the travel, the long flights, none of that fazed me at all.

I started my own business organizing trips to the events for Petter’s fans and sponsors and I was starting to get a real taste for the, sort of, management side of things.

It’s so important that we have strong governance to make sure those opportunities are available to women all around the world Pernilla Solberg

When Subaru pulled out of the WRC at the end of 2008, we decided to set up our own team. I loved that, Petter and I worked so hard together to pull it altogether.

This was one of the only times I my life I’ve been quite frustrated – we had worked to make the team, but because Oliver was at school I couldn’t go to the events. Don’t misunderstand me, not for one minute do I regret any decision I have ever taken. Some small advice here, don’t waste your time on regretting things, it’s a waste of energy; look forwards and look for the next challenge.

My next challenge came when I had the chance to run our own rallycross team and then the PSRX Volkswagen Motorsport team. That was something I absolutely loved.

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I was team manager and I had the chance to make a real difference. When we won the world championships (six with Pernilla in charge), I didn’t think: “Oh, I’m a woman and I’ve done this…” I just thought: “We’ve done this as a team.”

I know it’s rare and there aren’t so many women running teams and that’s something I really want to see change. Like I’ve said, we’re fortunate in Sweden, but it’s so important that we have strong governance to make sure those opportunities are available to women all around the world. That’s why Women in Motorsport and programs like DirtFish’s Women’s Month are so important.

What’s next for me? I feel a little bit like I’m between projects right now. It’s fantastic to be with Oliver, but that’s his adventure. I’m ready for another adventure of my own. I’m ready for another big project, whether that’s to run a team or to work somewhere else in the sport, I don’t know.

But I’m ready. I feel like I was born ready for this. I chased my dream and I caught it. But that doesn’t stop you dreaming more dreams – it’s so important never to give up.

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