Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be a journalist.
I’d pretend my stuffed animals were celebrities and athletes, each with their own unique story to tell. I remember having a Barbie Glam Convertible car which I’d squish my favourite pig stuffy into and race him around my bedroom. Just like I had seen every Sunday morning when that shiny red Ferrari would zip around a race car track.
Sports were a crucial part of my childhood. Coming from a big Italian family, Formula 1 was a staple in our household.
At a young age, though, I noticed there weren’t any female drivers.
And when I’d question people close to me about the reason why, some would instil a phrase inside of my head that I haven’t been able to shake my entire life.
Women don’t belong in sports.
It’s a phrase I’d hear during my tenure in journalism school whenever I would tell someone I wanted to be a sportswriter. While working at bars and restaurants to help supplement the cost of my degree, a lot of men I’d wait on would laugh at me when I told them my dream of being an NFL journalist someday.
And despite accomplishing that very goal, a sliver of doubt constantly hangs over me. Many women, like myself, have been conditioned to feel like we aren’t enough. As if we truly don’t belong in sports.
I’ve struggled with that feeling a lot lately. But every now and then, the universe gifts us with genuine moments of clarity.
This week, I wrapped up a string of interviews with four inspirational ladies who are part of the W Series, an all-female, free-to-enter championship that strives to create equal opportunities for women and eradicate the financial walls that sometimes may hold them back.
Of the interviewees, two race professionally alongside Formula 1 at a variety of Grand Prix circuits; the other two are professional sim racers. All four will be competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual, happening this weekend.
“I think it’s just a great experience. I must say, I think I’m more nervous than going into an actual race… it’s a whole new challenge,” laughed Fabienne Wohlwend, a professional driver from Liechtenstein. “Those sim racers are really quick.”
This isn’t her first rodeo when it comes to a 24-Hour event. The 24-year-old recently participated in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring this year in a BMW 330. She’s hoping her endurance experience will bode well at Le Mans.
And honestly, Wohlwend has this presence about her that makes you feel like anything is possible.
At the age of seven, her father took her karting, and she instantly had a dream to become a racing driver. Fast forward to 2018, Wohlwend became the first female to win a race outright at the Ferrari World Finals in Monza.
Her biggest dream is to make it into an F1 car.
A huge goal, yet thanks to W Series, a very achievable one.
“You see more and more female racing drivers around the world. Of course, W Series is playing a main part in that. Now, as we’re racing alongside Formula 1, we’ve got a lot of fans, a lot of people following us and just realizing that there is female talent out there.”
She also points to 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual for being a crucial part of raising awareness for females in the sport, too.
“Hopefully little girls are watching us on Saturday and Sunday and telling their dads that they want a simulator for their birthday,” she smiled.
Sim rigs are a great alternative to go-karting. Not only is sim racing a cheaper option, but it’s also becoming more popular worldwide. This is no surprise, considering the entry list for the 2022 24 Hours of LMV features a star-studded cast of drivers, including 2021 F1 World Champion Max Verstappen and 2021 IndyCar Champion Álex Palou, as well as a plethora of other professional sim and real-world drivers.
Emily Jones, an Australian sim racer with around five years of competitive experience under her belt, says she’s extremely excited to go racing this weekend in what will be her second appearance at the 24 Hours.
“Last year I drove with Katherine Legge, Sophia Floersch and Tatiana Calderon. They’re drivers I looked up to, and [I’d] watch on TV, and then all of a sudden, I’m teammates with them. They were all so lovely,” said Jones. “The one thing I remember, I passed Charles Leclerc around the outside and I just felt like the coolest person.”
Jones is grateful to represent sim racing and admires the fact that each year, more sim drivers are joining the hype. Especially because everybody can do it.
Though females are still quite underrepresented in motorsport, the Melbourne native says that breaking the stereotype of racing being strictly for males can help bring about a balance in equality.
Sim racer Lyubov Ozeretskovskaya echoes Jones and adds that the all-female series is aiding in breaking down those barriers, too.
“We don’t have a lot of examples of girls who are racing – sim racing and in racing, as well – and that’s why W Series is really important. And also [24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual] is really important, too. We can show that girls can take part in sim racing… and they don’t have to be afraid they will be the only girl on the track.”
Ozeretskovskaya, originally from Kazakhstan and now living in Moscow, was inspired by her husband to hop in the rig about two years ago. Ever since she’s been proud to be part of W Series and is elated for the 24-Hour race this weekend.
“This is an opportunity for me to show my driving skills,” said the 25-year-old. “Also, to connect with the team and connect with W Series and the racing world to show that girls can participate on a good level in the motorsport area.”
When Ayla Agren was just six, she had her own moment of clarity within the realm of motorsport while alongside her uncle and cousin at the karting track.
“We’re walking around, and I see all these guys. And it wasn’t until I saw a female go-kart [driver] that a light switch went on like, ‘Oh, I could also do this!’ The following fall, we got our karting licenses.”
Agren says the past 2021 season with W Series has been spectacular. Originally from Norway, the 28-year-old appreciates the comradery within the group of females. She admires Jamie Chadwick, the two-time champion, but points to W Series for shaping her into the confident driver you see today.
Though representation is growing, Agren believes parents play an integral role in gender inclusiveness.
“A lot of these drivers start at such a young age. I don’t think there are many parents who are like, ‘Oh, let’s take my daughter to a karting track.’ That’s not a natural way of going, good and bad,” she said. “But the more we get out there, the more of us who get represented and get media time and get shown that we are here. We are capable of driving or mechanics or engineering or PR.
“Whatever it is, I think it’s huge to show that there are females in motorsport. And if you want to do it, you are more than welcome to join the pack.”
Thanks to drivers like Danica Patrick, and every woman who drives in the W Series – on track and in the sim rig – little girls everywhere have a sense of belonging to a community that used to feel like an all-boys club.
Well, that club is opening its doors to the sensational women who are proving to the world that females belong in sports.
And to every single girl who, at times, may feel like they aren’t good enough to compete in a typically male-dominated profession, let these women be your clarity.
Fabienne Wohlwend’s father has never missed one of her races. I resonated a lot with her for that reason, actually. For two years, I was a hockey host on Tuesday nights on live television. And every single time I’d walk into that rink to prepare myself for the evening show, my dad was right beside me to cheer me on in the stands.
Without his support, I probably wouldn’t be writing this article.
“To all the girls out there, ask your dad to take you to the racetrack. Be persistent,” urged Wohlwend.
“Anything is possible if you put the work in.”
Catch all four drivers for W Series at 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual, happening live on Traxion.GG, 15th-16th January 2022.
Images: Motorsport Images