Female speedsters take on Australia's 'Great Race'


Bathurst (Australia) (AFP)

When Swiss ace Simona de Silvestro and co-driver Australian Renee Gracie competed in the Bathurst 1000 "Great Race" last year as a rare all-female duo, they were labelled "pussy wagon" by a male competitor.

But they weren't daunted.

This year the pair are back at the 161-lap 1,000-kilometre (620-mile) endurance contest at Mount Panorama northwest of Sydney -- widely regarded as the pinnacle of Australian motorsport -- in their second one-off race.

The difference this time is that De Silvestro is wielding a three-year full-time contract starting next year from organisers V8 Supercars.

Supercars' chief executive James Warburton said signing the "Iron Maiden", who has raced in IndyCar, Formula E and as an F1 test driver, in the male-dominated sport was no gimmick.

He has a clear goal in mind -- to have at least three full-time female drivers on the grid by 2025, an exciting prospect for up-and-coming talents like Gracie.

"I have no doubt Simona will be the first but she won't be the last," Gracie told AFP ahead of the race on Sunday.

"I've never had advice from a female (driver) before because obviously there are none," added the 21-year-old, who usually competes in the touring car championship's second tier.

"For the first time ever, I have someone to look up to... so it's great for me and I'm sure other women in motorsport will feel the same."

Last year's Bathurst 1000 winner Steven Richards, co-driver to veteran Craig Lowndes, believes the 28-year-old's arrival will encourage more women to take up the sport.

"Motorsport is one of the few sports where gender doesn't make any difference," Richards told AFP.

"They can look at Simona and go, 'She's at the top of her tree, there's no reason why we can't do the same', so I think it's fantastic."

For life-long fan and local Sonia Boga, the signing could not come soon enough.

"Go girl power... We're just as good as the males, so bring it on," she said as she lined the main street of Bathurst with thousands of fans to cheer on the drivers in a parade.

- Tough road ahead -

Driver David Reynolds, who was hit with a Aus$25,000 (US$19,000) fine for his "pussy wagon" comments, this week praised the Swiss as a "well-credentialed driver" but told AFP it could take her some years to "get up to speed... because this category of racing is phenomenally very, very tough".

"I think being the only woman in the field, everybody's going to look for where the girl finished," De Silvestro admitted.

"I think the first year is going to be quite challenging because I'll be driving against people who have been driving these cars for like the last 10 years.

"So I have a lot of learn, a lot to work on but I think if I grow like I've grown in my career all the time, I think I can be pretty successful here as well too."

De Silvestro stands out for another reason. She is a foreigner in a series overwhelming contested by Australians and New Zealanders.

As such, there are question marks over the deal -- reportedly supported by a Aus$2.0 million sponsorship -- for Supercar fan Angelo Magro, who travelled from Melbourne to watch the race.

"It's great for the championship... I don't agree with how V8 Supercars are throwing the money supporting her, but there's a lot of young talent in Australia that they could jump behind also," said Magro, naming Gracie and another local driver Chelsea Angelo.

Angelo is tackling the famous circuit, branded "one of the greatest racetracks in the world" by Formula One driver Jenson Button, in the second-tier Supercar series for the first time.

The 20-year-old, who is drawn to the sport's high speeds, is touted as hot property and at the Sandown 500 last month finished in the top 10 in one race and recorded the third-fastest lap in another.

She dreams of competing in the top tier and is not intimidated by critics of female drivers.

"It doesn't stop me from doing what I love. I just kind of let it go past me and just keep doing what I'm doing," Angelo said.