As Auto Racing Season Begins, Get to Know These Top Female Drivers

On Saturday, Jan. 30,49 teams will undertake the oldest 24-hour endurance car race held in the U.S.

First run in 1962, the24 Hours of Daytona covers a full day and night of driving laps on a 3.5-mile-long track composed like a Nascar oval combined with an infield road. Officials this year will allow a small amount of fans to buy tickets and watch the race from the infield; the limited attendance complies with coronavirus guidelines mandated by state and local governmental officials. NBC and will air the race, along with other TV and online streamers. 

Defending Nascar Cup Series champion Chase Elliott will lead the No. 31 team from the pole position after a victory last weekend, and he’ll be sharing driving duties with Felipe Nasr, Mike Conway, and Pipo Derani.

Among those who’ll be trying to overtake him are two women: Christina Nielsen and Katherine Legge will co-drive for Team Hardpoint EBM’s No. 88 car, a Porsche 911 GT3 R sponsored by VB Enviro Care and Richard Mille.

They’re nothing new. Women have participated in competitive driving since the invention of, well, driving itself. Mary Bruce finished sixth in the 1926 Monte Carlo Rally, covering the race’s 1,700 miles without sleep in 72 hours. She placed second in 1928. That same year, Elizabeth Junek led the Targa Florio until her car broke down; she ultimately finished fifth. In 1949, Sara Christian drove in the first-ever official Nascar race. Maria Teresa de Filippis raced Maseratis in Formula One Grand Prix races throughout the 1950s. By the ’70s, Lella Lombardi competed in 12 F1 World Championships. And Desiré Wilson won the British F1 Championship in 1980. 

Other than these dazzling outliers, however, women scarcely appear in motor sports. No F1 teams currently employ a female starting driver, nor have any Nascar Cup Series teams since Danica Patrick retired in 2018. (Hailie Deegan will start the Nascar Camping World Truck Series in 2021 for DGR-Crosley Racing.) Only one woman, Monisha Kaltenborn, has ever been team principal for an F1 team—she ran Sauber from 2010 to 2017. Through a century ofIndianapolis 500 races, just 10 of the more than 800 drivers who started it were women. In 2020, none did.

Recent efforts by racing officials to alter the disparity have centered largely on much-hyped “all women” teams with saccharine names and lackluster results. They’re not without controversy—in 2017 a disagreement between the president of the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission, champion driver Michèle Mouton, and commission member Carmen Jorda, a former development driver for the Lotus and Renault Sport F1 teams, spilled into the public when Jorda lobbied in the press for a women-only F1 racing series. Mouton, the winningest female rally racer in history, said she believed women should be allowed to compete with the men on their own merit, not “politics.”

In the meantime, a fresh crop of drivers has emerged, grabbing wins and much-coveted seats in races both domestic and abroad. Here are the most prominent and promising names that racing fans should know.

Simona de Silvestro

Backstory: A former development driver for Formula One, de Silvestro, 33, has competed in races across several series including Australian Supercars, Formula E, and IMSA SportsCars. She’s started five Indianapolis 500s and in 2010 was crowned Indy Rookie of the Year. De Silvestro has been a factory driver for Porsche since 2019.  

Next: The Swiss driver will participate in the 105th running of the Indy 500 on May 30 this year withParetta Autosport. It will mark her first Indy start since finishing 19th in 2015. 

Katherine Legge

Backstory: A longtime racer,Legge, 40, has competed in Formula E, Nascar, IMSA, IndyCar, and endurance racing such as the 24 Hours of Daytona and European Le Mans. In the 2019 Daytona event she raced with teammates de Silvestro, Christina Nielsen, and Ana Beatriz.

Next: The British driver currently competes in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, behind the wheel of the Acura NSX with Michael Shank Racing. Legge will begin at the 2021 Rolex 24 at Daytona on Saturday.

Christina Nielsen

Backstory: Nielsen, guided by her father, professional endurance driver Lars Erik Nielsen, started karting in 2007. By 2010 she’d switched to formula racing, and in 2016 she and her team won the 12 Hours of Sebring. With another win at 6 Hours of Watkins Glen and four additional podiums throughout the season, Nielsen’s team won the 2016 IMSA SportsCar series Championship, making her the first woman to win a major full-season professional sports car championship in North America.

Next: The 29-year-old Danish driver will be back in the field for the Rolex 24 at Daytona on Jan. 30. Along with Legge, she’ll supplement full-season drivers and team co-owners Rob Ferriol and Earl Bamber in the No. 88 Team Hardpoint EBM Porsche 911 GT3 R.

Rahel Frey

Backstory: An Audi factory driver,Frey, 34, has raced in the Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0, the International Formula Master series, and the German Formula Three Championship. In 2019 she joined Manuela Gostner and Michelle Gatting in driving the European Le Mans Series for Kessel racing. They were the first all-women team to finish since 1977, placing ninth in their class.

Next: The Swiss driver will compete in the 2021 FIA World Endurance Championship, which includes races in Le Mans, Monza, and Bahrain. Her team Iron Lynx will run a Ferrari 488 GTE Evos driven by Frey, Gostner, and Gatting. The first race is in Barcelona on April 18.

Tatiana Calderón

Backstory:Calderón, 27, is the test driver for the Alfa Romeo Formula One team. She also drives for the Drago Corse with ThreeBond squad in the Super Formula Championship and for Richard Mille Racing in the European Le Mans Series.

Next: In 2021 the Colombian racer will continue to drive for the single-car Drago Corse team in the Super Formula Championship. (This year’s racing calendar will startin Japan in April.) She’ll also compete in the FIA World Endurance Championship in the No. 1 Richard Mille Racing LMP2 car with Sophia Flörsch and Beitske Visser, starting with the 1000 Miles of Sebring race on March 19. 

Sophia Flörsch

Backstory: In 2020, Flörsch, Visser, and Calderón made history by becoming the first all-female team to debut in the LMP2 Category at the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race. The team finished ninth in their category and 13th overall out of a field of 59.

Next: Along with Visser and Calderón, German-born Flörsch, 21, will drive for the Richard Mille Racing team in the FIA World Endurance Championship series, starting with the 1000 Miles of Sebring race on March 19. 

Manuela Gostner

Backstory: Gostner, 36, comes from an Italian family well-known in Ferrari racing circles. In 2019 she was part of the Iron Dames team that raced at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Prior to her motor sports career, Gostner was a professional volleyball player.

Next: European Le Mans Series team Iron Lynx will run two Ferrari 488 GTE Evos in the global racing series this year, starting in Barcelona on April 18. Her No. 85 car will be co-driven by Frey and Gatting.

Michelle Gatting

Backstory:Gatting, 27, entered the Porsche Carrera Cup Germany, International GT Open, and the Danish-based Thundersport Championship, where she became the first woman to win a race. In 2019 she raced with the Iron Dames team at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Next: The Danish driver will join Iron Lynx teammates Frey and Gostner in the No. 85 Ferrari, racing in the European Le Mans Series.

Beitske Visser

Backstory:Visser, 25, has raced in kart, single-seater, and GT series races. She was a test and reserve driver for Andretti Autosport Formula E racing in the 2018-19 season. Visser made her prototype debut in the 2020 European Le Mans Series for Signature Team, replacing Legge after she was injured; Visser and the team finished sixth in the 4 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps 2020. Last year, Flörsch, Visser, and Calderón became the first all-female team to premiere in the LMP2 Category at Le Mans. They finished ninth in their category and 13th overall.

Next: Along with Flörsch and Calderón, the Dutch-born Visser is driving for the Richard Mille Racing team in the FIA World Endurance Championship series, starting with the 1000 Miles of Sebring race on March 19. 

Jamie Chadwick

Backstory: In 2019, Chadwick, 22, was part of the inaugural season of the W Series and participated in the opening three races of the 2019 F3 Asian Championship. She was announced in 2019 as an official junior driver for Aston Martin Racing. In the 2019 24 Hours of Nürburgring with Aston Martin, racing alongside Alex Brundle and Peter Cate in the Vantage AMR GT4, she finished first in the SP8 class and 27th overall.

Next: Chadwick will be driving for Veloce Racing in the inaugural series of Extreme E in 2021. The first race is in Saudi Arabia in April.

Pippa Mann

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Backstory:Mann, 37, moved to the U.S. in 2009 to race in Indy Lights, the feeder series to IndyCar. She drove an IndyCar for the first time in March 2011, then qualified for her first Indianapolis 500 in May of that year. She was the eighth woman in history, and the first British woman, to start the 500-mile race. Mann has started the race six times (2013-17 and 2019). She’s currently the fastest female driver in history at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as well as the first female driver over 230 mph, with a lap of 230.1 mph, a record she set in 2017.

Next: The British racer will join Carrie Schreiner (Germany) and Célia Martin (France) for the WS Racing Giti Tire “Girls Only” team for the 2021 season, including the ADAC Total 24-hour race at the Nürburgring Nordschleife track in Germany, on June 3-6. 

Sheena Monk

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Backstory:Monk, 31, clinched a podium finish in her Lamborghini Super Trofeo North American Series class at her first-ever race weekend, during the 2017 World Finals in Italy. In 2020 she raced the McLaren 570S GT4 with Corey Lewis and Motorsports in Action in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge series.

Next: Monk currently drives the No. 3 McLaren 570SGT4 in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge. Along with co-driver Lewis, she’ll start her season with a four-hour enduro race in Daytona on Jan. 29.

Broadcast coverage of the Rolex 24 at Daytona will begin at 3:30 p.m. ET on Jan. 30 on NBC, then move to NBCSN from 4:30 to 8 p.m. Coverage will move between the NBC Sports app and NBCSN during the night and morning of Jan. 31. The Jan. 31 conclusion of the race will air from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. ET on NBC.

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