The all-women racing team gunning to make history at Le Mans
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This Saturday sees the history-making all-women’s 24 Hours of Le Mans team of Tatiana Calderon, Beitske Visser and Sophia Flörsh back racing for a podium place for the second time (last year they finished ninth in their class). Here, in a piece first published ahead of last year’s race, they tell the story of how the team came together
If you watch Le Mans, Steve McQueen’s seminal – if pretty much plot-free – 1971 film about the 24-hour motor race, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the only role women had played in it's by then 48-year history was to sit on the sidelines and look longingly at men in racing overalls. You would, of course, be wrong. By then 29 women had taken part in the race – a number that by last year had risen to 61. None, however, has yet won or had a podium finish, but Amanda Mille, daughter of watchmaker Richard, believes that is about to change.
For this weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, rescheduled from June because of Covid-19, she and her father have put together the first all-women’s team to compete in a Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2) car. To put the machine in context, apart from a Formula One car, LMP cars are the fastest used in track racing. The technical team behind their Oreca 07-Gibson is Philippe Sinault’s Signatech, which won the LMP2 class last year, and Amanda Mille is confident the package he’s put together is the real deal. “If you have a goal, it may take a bit of time,” she says. “But when we at Richard Mille do something we do it the right way. I really do believe we have everything to end up on the podium.”
There’s no doubt that the drivers – who are also competing together in the European Le Mans Series (ELMS) of four-hour races that kicked off in July – are the real thing. After the first three races, they are placed sixth in the series, despite their British captain, Katherine Legge, having to hand over her driver’s baton because of an accident in testing in July that left her with a broken lower left leg and bone in her right foot (her seat is taken by the acclaimed W Series racer Beitske Visser). Legge, one of the most experienced figures in motorsport (“You mean old,” she laughs when we speak), remains captain of, and strategist for, the team. Tatiana Calderón is a Formula Two driver from Colombia, who test-drives Formula One cars for Alfa Romeo. Meanwhile Grünwald-born Sophia Flörsh, the youngest at 19, is already racing in Formula Three and earlier this year received the World Comeback of the Year award at the Laureus World Sports Awards, having recovered from a horror crash at a race in Macau in 2018 that left her with a fractured spine after her car took off and hit the photographers’ bunker backwards at 170mph.
According to Mille, the idea of putting an all-female team together had been brewing in her father’s mind for “quite some time”. The Mille brand has worked with (and strapped its watches on – the drivers wear the RM-007, the first ladies’ watch that Mille made) a roster of the world’s leading sporting figures for many years – among them Rafael Nadal and Fernando Alonso; and increasingly female stars such as double Winter Olympic gold-medal winner Ester Ledecká and golfer Cristie Kerr. It has also had a strong relationship with motorsport, sponsoring the Le Mans Classic since 2002 and partnerships with a series of Formula One and Formula E teams. Richard Mille himself races as a gentleman driver and Amanda was due to race E-Type Jaguars this year before Covid-19 intervened. Since 2018, Richard has been president of the FIA (the governing body of motorsport) Endurance Commission and has worked with Michèle Mouton, president of the Women in Motorsports Commission and runner-up in the World Rally Championship 1982, to make his all-women LMP2 team a reality. “Our common goal was to bring women to the podium at Le Mans,” says Mouton.
“I’ve been racing a long time but there was never an opportunity in a car that could win at this level,” says Legge of the Richard Mille car. “Signatech has really embraced us all with open arms. We’re not the ‘girl’ team to them. We are a team going for podiums and wins. We are being taken seriously and that is a huge step in the right direction. It’s been a long time coming.” The sense of relief after years of pushing at the door is palpable in her voice and is echoed by Calderón: “I’m glad to finally have the tools we’ve been fighting for.”
At the start of our conversation, Amanda Mille is keen to dial down any sense that the team is on a feminist crusade. “It’s not a feminist combat that we want, it’s not a war that we are starting.” Yet, she continues, “they’ve been fighting against all these guys, and the people around them thinking, ‘Yeah, you’re good-looking girls,’ or, ‘Please do your nails and then jump on the car.’ So I’m sure they will deal with this pressure,” says Amanda Mille. “But, I know that they’ve dealt with technicians on other teams who would not listen to them. They were like, ‘You don’t even know how an engine works.’ Come on, please!”
The drivers are all too aware of the responsibility on their shoulders to change minds. “Not many people will say to your face, ‘Well, we don’t think you can do it because you’re female.’ But it’s like a deep-seated belief that women can’t do it. We have to just prove them wrong,” says Legge.
“When I had my crash in Macau,” says Flörsh, “there were people saying it happened because I was a girl. If I’d decided to not race again I think I would not just have hurt myself but women in general. I didn’t want to ruin the picture of girls being hard and trying to fight.”
If we imagined such sexism had gone away, after Legge’s training crash in July there came social media saying, “Sorry to say it, but these cars are way too fast for women.” To which Flörsh hit back: “I guess you have no idea about what you’re talking about. The crash had nothing to do with Katherine’s abilities. Something on the car broke. I guess it’s more important to send positive vibes in those moments than talking bullshit.”
Calderón had her first 24-hour experience racing on the same team as Legge in the Daytona in January this year, while Flörsh is an endurance rookie. When I ask Legge and Calderón how they coped differently with the demands of racing shifts through the night at Daytona, they both start to cackle. Very differently, it turns out. “Tatiana’s a nutcase,” says Legge. “So there’s me, I’ve done a few of these races, I’m tired, I just want to eat and go to sleep and she’s energised, like a bunny…”
“With all the adrenaline of driving in the night with the traffic I couldn’t really sleep during the whole thing, so the next two days were really, really difficult,” says Calderón.
The drivers are lined up for another season in 2021. If they succeed here, is a woman in a Formula One seat a possibility?
“My dream has always been to become a full-time Formula One driver,” says Calderón, “and now that I have tested Formula One cars I feel that we are capable of being at the highest level. Most people there think that it would be, let’s say, a risk to put a woman in a Formula One car to race. But I don’t like to call it a risk.”
The 24 Hours of Le Mans will be streamed live at 24-lemans.com
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