“When they first came up with the idea of a female-only championship, I was 100% against it, to be perfectly honest. I’m of the opinion that we must fight against the boys because that’s what helps us progress and I didn’t really want to only fight with girls.”
Despite harboring some fairly serious reservations ahead of the inaugural Coupe Féminine, French Rallycross’s entry level championship reserved for female drivers, Camille Barbe is now a firm believer in the initiative brought in by the president of the Association Française des Organisateurs Rallycross, Jean-Jacques Bénézet, last season.
Having previously been a class of the mixed gender French Junior Rallycross Championship until 2021, the Coupe Féminine attracted a mere seven drivers, of which only one – Alizée Pottier – contested the full eight rounds of the 2019 campaign.
It was a female category in name only: such were the poor entry numbers that sometimes anyone who turned up was all but guaranteed a place in the final. The organizing body, the FFSA, realized that it needed to do something to address the perceived lack of female interest in rallycross.
But introducing the Coupe Féminine – initially for 2020 – last season, it proved that, rather than a lack of interest, rallycross among French women had never been more popular.
“In 2018, I did three races in the Junior Championship against the boys, and I thought my journey would finish after that to be honest,” Barbe tells DirtFish.
“In terms of competition in the female championship, there is a bit of everything. Compared to previous years, the girls used to race alongside the boys but there were only around four or five girls in the class.
“So, you’d finish on the podium but maybe you were only third out of four cars in the races, so it wasn’t really that much of a competition.”
Fellow competitor Chloé Danveau, who finished ninth in the 2021 standings but also competed against her male counterparts in the Junior championship, experienced the same bittersweet feelings across the season.
“The regular Junior championship would follow the same format as everyone else: practice sessions, qualifying heats, semifinal and final, and in the female class there would be just one final,” Danveau adds.
“And quite often, we would qualify directly for the final because there wouldn’t be more than about five of us at each round. Now with the Coupe Féminine, we’ve got a lot more visibility and a bigger grid as well.”
Barbe, although not the least experienced driver in the field, had only started racing in 2017, when her friends decided to give her a rallycross race for her birthday. A present which ultimately produced a title triumph following a year-long battle with Alizée Pottier last season.
“To win the title in my first full season was incredible, I couldn’t believe it,” admits the 27-year-old from the small commune of Moustoir-Ac in the French rallycross heartland of Brittany. “A lot of the girls I was fighting with had four or five years of experience, like Alizée for example, she raced in the Junior championship against the men and had a lot more experience than I did, even though she is a lot younger than me.
“Alizée and I kind of had our own little championship all year as it was mainly us fighting for the victories and the great thing about this fight was that we never once hit each other, we were pushing each other so much so it was really good fun.
“I was also discovering almost all the circuits for the first time each weekend, so it was a big learning curve. Of the seven circuits during the season, I had only raced at one before so for the other six, I was learning as I arrived. So, that was another challenge for me, perhaps the biggest challenge: learning the tracks, learning how to get up to speed quickly and then being competitive.”
A spec-championship open to all female drivers aged 16 or above, the Coupe Féminine caters for anyone and everyone. From novices to experienced hands, hobbyists to ambitious career competitors.
For an entry level championship such as the Coupe Féminine, the machinery is as you would expect. Identical Renault Twingo R1s with the same engine and transmission as its regular road going counterpart mean that power is limited and handling tricky at best.
In fact, being fast in one of these cars requires far more precision and concentration than in the vastly more powerful Clio used in the Junior category. Therefore, according to Barbe, the championship is the ideal learning curve for those cutting their teeth in the discipline.
“It’s a really basic car but perfect for the first step into rallycross,” says Barbe. “We’re not allowed a lot of modifications to the car, it’s still a Renault so we as drivers are left to concentrate purely on the driving which is the main thing.
“If we have a bad time on the track, it’s not the car’s fault, it’s our fault. In terms of driving, it’s a great car to learn with because it’s quite unforgiving. It rolls quite easily, if you push too much you spin as well. It’s no coincidence that the drivers who have started out in a Twingo say that once you’ve driven a Twingo, everything else becomes a lot easier. Because it’s easy to drive the car, but to be fast in it, you really have to look for the small margins and because it doesn’t forgive much.”
A pure racer at heart, Barbe admitted that the idea of segmenting male and female competition did not sit well with her before committing to the championship. But after seeing the impact of an enhanced grid and the level of talent throughout the season, the inaugural champion is one of the category’s biggest supporters.
“It’s allowed us to bring plenty of young girls into the sport, which is fantastic,” Barbe explains. “There were some who said that they had initially been hesitant to join but when they realized that it was girls against girls, they decided to go for it. And these are girls who I am sure will continue in the category and will eventually race against the boys in the future.”
Past karting champion Amélie Moliexe is one such driver re-entering motorsport via the Coupe Féminine with the aim of progressing up the rallycross ladder.
Having begun racing at the age of nine, Moliexe had been a prolific cadet karter in her youth, winning the Normandy championship three times before being forced to quit the sport due to budget issues in 2015.
With motorsport firmly in the family lineage courtesy of her father and brother who competed in motocross, Moliexe jumped at the chance of contesting the female-only championship last season.
She finished third in the final standings behind Pottier and Barbe but believes the ethos of the Coupe Féminine has given drivers like herself the motivation to enter the sport at a grassroots level.
“It’s clear to me that this championship has been a huge success,” says Moliexe. “It’s allowed a lot of female drivers to enter rallycross. We’ve seen that, although rallycross is not so well known, it is loved by everyone who watches it and the more accessible it is to people, the more people it will attract.
“In terms of attracting more women to rallycross, it’s very important and the challenge has been more than met because so many – 20 in total and 15 full-season entries – joined the grid this year. In rallycross, there is no real complex, no difficulty in being a woman. It’s the same for the guys as well, money makes the biggest difference.
“Several women have already proven that they can fight with the boys at the top level, like Adeline Sangnier back in the day, or even Alizée who drove against them over a few years and was competitive.”
Something of a trailblazer in the Supercar category of French Rallycross, Sangnier finished fifth in the overall standings in 2015 and has been an inspiration for future female drivers ever since.
Particularly for 20-year-old Danveau who, like Barbe and Pottier, competed alongside men in the Junior championship two years ago before taking part in her first full season in 2021, finishing ninth in the standings.
“Adeline was a big reason for me wanting to race in rallycross, when she was taking it to the men in the Supercar category,” Danveau tells DirtFish.
“She was a woman, more than a driver, but someone who was very good behind the wheel and who showed just how good women can be in rallycross.
“Now she’s a mother and probably has so many different things happening at the moment, but she is a strong idol for a lot of us.”
It was only later that I sort of plunged into it, when my cousin started in 2017Chloé Danveau
Hailing from Mayenne in Normandy and with the rallycross circuit within walking distance, Danveau was naturally introduced to the discipline at a very young age; her father competed in Fol’car – a play on words with the Scandinavian concept folkrace – while in subsequent years her cousin Emmanuel and elder sister Marine made their first forays into the category.
“I wasn’t so interested in rallycross when I was a child because it was just something we did from time to time, going to events with my dad, so it was only later that I sort of plunged into it, when my cousin started in 2017.
“He was fighting for the Junior title in 2018, and that’s what made me want to try and do the same in 2019,” Danveau recounts.
The Coupe Féminine may be segregated at the entry level stage of the rallycross ladder in France, but the FFSA and the AFOR have ensured that convergence is the end goal.
Winning the Coupe Féminine title offers a monetary prize which funds a full season of the Junior championship for the following year.
“The plan is to move into the Junior championship for next year,” says Barbe. “The prize for winning the female championship is a season with the Clio but we still need to bring an entry fee ourselves so it’s looking good, but we’ll see.
“As a team, we really want to do it because we need to do this title honor and it’s also a nice evolution to move up the ladder as well.
“Moving from the Twingo, which is still a production car, to the Clio which is a real racing car with a turbo and a sequential box and then of course, the boys and another level of competition, which is interesting.”
Barbe will experience the expertise of a professional team in the Junior championship, having run the entire 2021 on a shoestring budget of just €10,000 and a skeleton team composed of her two best mates, her partner and his brother, all operating out of a bog-standard transporter van.
But while the opportunities to develop together as a collective of women in an all-female rallycross category are evident, there remains a small frustration from some that they aren’t able to take the fight to the boys on track.
That is, until they have prevailed in the Coupe Féminine.
“It is still a bit frustrating that we can’t race against them,” says Danveau, “because their level kind of brings our own level and speed up as well, which is good for everyone.”
For Moliexe, the panel-bashing aggressiveness of the male dominated Junior championship will add an extra bow to the string of the female drivers.
“I think that driving alongside the boys will help us improve a lot in the future and give us another mentality when racing,” Moliexe says.
“The boys are quite often more aggressive on track and there’s a lot more fighting than with the girls.”
Despite the more hardened approach from their male rivals, Danveau, Moliexe and Barbe all reckon the ambiance among the Coupe Féminine paddock is a vital aspect which will continue to attract more and more young girls into the sport.
“The 100% female championship is a real force for good in the rallycross world and I think it will give some other European countries an idea for the future,” predicts Moliexe.
“The atmosphere is really excellent, friendly and professional. There is every type of level in the paddock, the evenings are always pleasant, and you meet a lot of people and have a good time with each other.
“Among us girls, we’re always laughing and joking. We share a lot of fights on the track but off track there’s always a level of respect.”
“You obviously get the experience of racing against people but there’s also a cool ambiance among the girls in the paddock,” Barbe adds.
“Essentially we’re just a group of friends racing against each other which offers a really nice experience for everyone involved. On track it’s everyone for themselves of course, but it remains respectful, clean and that’s the most important thing.”
Above all else, it’s clear that the Coupe Féminine, while not without its detractors early on, has succeeded in its first aim of getting more women into the rallycross paddock competing.
And while the second album is always the hardest to sell to the masses, the early signs from Rallycross France – in a country which unquestionably loves its rallycross – are pointing to a new and exciting future for women in motorsport.
2022 Rallycross France calendar
1 – Lessay (April 30 – May 1)
2 – Faleyras (May 28 – 29)
3 – Châteauroux (June 25-26)
4 – Pont de Ruan (July 9-10)
5 – Kerlabo (July 30-31)
6 – Lohéac (September 3-4)
7 – Mayenne (September 17-18)
8 – Dreux (October 15-16)