Why the successes of the two all-female Le Mans teams are so important
In the weekend of 19 and 20 September, three 24 Hours of Le Mans rookies exceeded all expectations by finishing 9th in their LMP2 class and 13th overall. The drivers for the #50 Richard Mille team, the first all-female LMP2 team, drove a very steady race. Super Formula and ex-F2 driver Tatiana Calderon, F3 driver Sophia Floersch, and W Series and BMW factory driver Beitske Visser drove the most important race of their careers, one of the biggest races on earth. Calderon had done only one 24 hour race before, but for both Floersch and Visser this was their first (of hopefully many). The team, racing in the European Le Mans Series, had to replace injured driver Katherine Legge with Visser after the season had just begun. Beitske had done little to no testing in the #50 LMP2 and Floersch had done just one race with the car before Le Mans, which makes the achievement even more impressive.
There was another all-female driver lineup in Le Mans this year; the #85 Iron Lynx car, driven by Rahel Frey, Michelle Gatting and Manuela Gostner, finished 9th in the GTE Pro-Am class. This was their second time at Le Mans and their second time finishing 9th in their class.
The six drivers mentioned above were all backed by the Women in Motorsport Commission from the FIA. This commission has been set into place to promote women in motorsport and instill a passion for the sport in young girls. Tatiana Calderon is one of the ambassadors for the commission. It must make anyone who wants to see more women in motorsport feel a sense of pride when the Richard Mille team finished the prestigious Le Mans race in 13th overall. It is important that these six drivers are so visible to the world, because it inspires young girls who want to get into motorsport. Let’s turn to the science behind the concept of role models.
Psychologist Albert Bandura1 stresses the importance of role models in the formation and confidence of children. He says that a child may watch a model to determine if an activity is appropriate and if success in that activity is attainable for them. They feel that if their role model can succeed, they can too. In finding role models, children often look for people who are similar to themselves. If people similar to them can do it, they can as well. To bring this back to sports, and motorsport specifically; a young girl wanting to make it as a racing driver may look at successful female racing drivers as role models. Seeing the likes of Calderon, Floersch and Visser succeed in a race that is so prestigious, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, might make the young girls currently in karting feel like they, too, can succeed in the male dominated world that is motorsport.
Like Bandura presumed, young girls often pick a woman as their sports idol. In a study done in Sydney high schools by Vescio et al2, the researchers found that of the girls that picked a sports person as an idol, 73% picked a female athlete. Looking through the answers to the question “Who is your racing idol?” of current female racing drivers, we can see many respond with a woman’s name. W Series champion Jamie Chadwick names Le Mans winning engineer Leena Gade as one of her idols, while Dutch karting superstar Esmee Kosterman is a huge fan of Jamie’s W Series rival Beitske Visser. Thai Tachapan Vijittranon admires Abbie Eaton, and American Ashley Freiburg was very excited to become a part of the FIA Women in Motorsport commission, lead by her biggest idol Michèle Mouton. Richard Mille star Tatiana Calderon is already a big example for many. British driver Ellen Donnelly names Calderon as one of her idols.
More and more girls seem to get into motorsport, either as a fan, or a prospective worker in the industry. Looking back at the W Series autograph line in Assen, which I’ve visited, the queue was full of young girls with their parents excited to meet the women they look up to. Maybe one day they could be the ones handing out autographs in the W Series paddock.
It’s been 44 years since a woman raced in F1. Lella Lombardi, the only woman to score points in the series, drove her last race in 1976. Championships like Formula E, Indycar and Endurance racing have seen more women at the top. Whether the current batch of junior female drivers will arrive in what is still described as the ‘pinnacle of motorsport’ remains to be seen, but the presence of great female drivers in series like ELMS and the most prestigious race of all, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, can lower the threshold for girls wanting to get into the sport. Girls are getting more and more female role model options in motorsport, which might give them the confidence to continue what they’re doing. It may inspire girls to pursue their dreams, to not let anyone tell them racing is just for boys, “because Sophia, Tatiana and Beitske can do it too!”
1 Bandura, A. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Upper Saddle river: Prentice Hall.
2 Vescio, J., Wilde, K., & Crosswhite, J. J. (2005). Profiling sport role models to enhance initiative for adolescent girls in physical education and sport. European Physical Education Review, 11(2), 153-170.
– Irene van der Sanden