IWD2021: in time of crisis, Let's keep dreams alive
We look back at one of the biggest stories of the year for women in motorsport, as we asked Tatiana Calderon, Beitske Visser and Sophia Floersch to recall their Le Mans adventure. Three trailblazers whose achievements are paving the way to the dreams of tomorrow.
As an organization aimed at raising awareness on gender equality within our beloved motorsport industry, we know that there's simply too much talent and too many stories to be told to fit into one single day – that's why, after all, we had decided to celebrate women every single day. One year today, we wrote that "appreciating women should be a priority, not an option", as we hoped that the inspiring female figures celebrated on March 8th would still remain under the spotlight on March 9th.
One year after, a lot has changed in our daily lives and unfortunately the pandemic has taken its toll on the efforts to fight for a more gender equal world: the crisis has exacerbated existing inequalities in almost all areas of life, rolling back on the hard-won achievements of the past. Women are in fact estimated to be over-represented in the worst affected work sectors, they account for around 70% of frontline workers and have been massively under-represented in the decision-making bodies created in response to the pandemic.
It is thus more important than ever to make gender equality a top priority in every area of society – and we know how sport can play a crucial role in inspiring the younger generations and ultimately shape the society of tomorrow.
Luckily, women in motorsport continued the slow but steady rise that our industry has witnessed in the past couple of years. More passionate ladies are climbing the ladder of motor racing, either in the driving seat and in engineering roles. An increasing number of female drivers have taken to the racetracks and claimed race victories, pole positions, remarkable results and are progressing through the ranks of the most competitive single seaters, sportscar, GT, stockcar and touring cars championships, just as a generation of very talented young karting drivers are getting ready to be the hopefuls of tomorrow.
We feel that it's part of our responsibility – even more so in time of crisis – to keep the spark of passions alive and to feed the youngsters' dreams.
We do believe that a young girl's dream has the power to challenge stereotypes and to make a small step towards a better world. And those seemingly small steps are often ignited by the success stories of our boundary-breaking heroes.
This is why we have chosen to return to one of motorsport's biggest stories of 2020 to prove that women belong to the highest spheres of motor racing.
When, on Sunday 20 September 2020, the #50 red Oreca LMP2 prototype crossed the finish line at the most legendary endurance race in the world, Tatiana Calderon, Sophia Floersch and Beitske Visser wrote a chapter of their sport's history and, by becoming Le Mans finishers, they turned every racing driver's dream into reality.
For the first time, an all-female crew in the prototype class finished the most challenging race in the top-ten. A ninth place that tasted like victory.
It wasn't all plain sailing for the young team, that was supposed to rely on the experience of 40-year old motor racing ace Katherine Legge. The British driver had in fact suffered a serious leg injury in a pre-season testing accident at Le Castellet, in the South of France, leaving her rookie colleagues Floersch and Calderon without the team's captain.
Both 20-year old Sophia Floersch and 27-year old Colombian Tatiana Calderon were to make their sportscar debut and were in fact still busy in their respective single seater championship: Floersch had to miss the inaugural rounds of the European Le Mans Series at Le Castellet and Spa Francorchamps due to her clashing commitments with the FIA Formula 3 championship, while Calderon was travelling back and forth from Europe to Japan due to her recent switch to SuperFormula, Japan's premier single seater championship.
This resulted in Le Mans – often the biggest race in a driver's career – being the first official competition together for the three racers, who were joined by 25-year old Beitske Visser.
When Visser got the call from Signatech – the experienced French squad that ran the Richard Mille Racing operation – she was on route to win the W Series Esports League, the iRacing-based simracing championship created in place of the W Series season, once the management of the first ever all-female championship were forced to cancel what would have been their sophomore season.
"I think nobody would have expected that anything like this could happen." – told us the Dutchwoman, who had finished runner up in the women-only F3 championship in 2019.
"It was not a very normal situation but I was very happy to be racing again."
"When W Series got cancelled I was obviously very disappointed, but it was a situation that was out of their hands", she recalls.
"With Covid it was always going to be difficult and we all had that feeling, as drivers were coming from all over the world. It was a very difficult situation."
During the lockdown, Beitske spent several hours training at her home simulator and fully committed to the online championship, not letting her disappointment take over.
She won the Esports League in commanding style one round in advance, before joining the Richard Mille crew on track. It was the opportunity that would change her season.
"I've sent her a message [to Katherine Legge], wishing her to get well soon. It was a shame as of course you never want to see anyone injured".
The global pandemic also made things harder for the ladies of the Richard Mille Racing team once at the Circuit de la Sarthe: with the race being moved from its usual June date to mid-September, the event schedule underwent significant changes that meant less practice time and a longer night.
A scary combination for any Le Mans rookie, thrown in the deep end in the toughest endurance race on the planet.
We asked Sophia, Tatiana and Beitske to recollect their memories of their historic achievement.
"It was a really special moment", told us Tatiana Calderon. "As it's a 24-hour race, anything can happen – especially with three rookies in the car. It's also a very hard work for the mechanics and for the whole team, so to really finish the race and in the top ten was one of the best moments of my career I have to say, and a very special Le Mans for me" – remarked the Colombian racer, who is also a Development Driver at Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team.
Calderon was also new to endurance racing, despite having entered in January another iconic race, the Daytona 24 Hours, at the wheel of the Lamborghini Huracan GT3 Evo and again in an all-female crew. Unfortunately, they would retire half-way through the race with mechanical issues.
"Daytona is also a really nice race, just as the atmosphere and the track." – she said.
"It was my first 24-hour race and with a great team as well. Of course it was a GT car. But Le Mans, the track is just on another level. It's a really challenging track, low downforce, in the night...I mean, I enjoyed Daytona a lot, but I think Le Mans is something special."
"Le Mans is I think on the list of every single driver in the world" – echoed Visser.
"It's the biggest race there is. It has always been a race that I wanted to do".
Speaking of childhood heroes, her first entry at the French classic also had another special meaning to Calderon, as she got the opportunity to race alongside fellow countryman Juan Pablo Montoya.
"I also got to race against my long-time hero. To race and fight against Montoya, an ex F1 driver, it added even more."
"I spoke with him before testing and before the start of the race", she explained.
"He's always been very helpful, anything that I ask he always replies. To be honest he gave me some great tips about the track and racing in the night and in traffic, and I put that into practice."
"We crossed at some point during the race and then he came after the race and said 'you were quite good here, quite good there, but maybe you can improve there', so it was very nice from him and I think you can only learn from people like him, someone who has won in so many categories and has so much experience in endurance now. I was really pleased about what he said."
Three very different personalities – but blending remarkably well together – Sophia, Tatiana and Beitske qualified their Richard Mille LMP2 car in 20th class position, P25 overall, without a single mistake throughout their weekend.
The three racers learned to work together to find the best compromise for the car – a fundamentally different approach compared to their single-seaters backgrounds.
"Le Mans was the first time that the three of us worked together" – explained Visser.
"It's a bit different in endurance racing; we never raced against each other, but we need to win the race together. You always need to make compromises because nobody has the same driving style, so it's difficult."
"We just tried to work together as a team and make sure that all three of us were fast because that's what you need at the end to win."
"I think we've been very good at knowing that our best chances are if we work together" – agrees Calderon. "There's no point in having one quick driver and the others struggling because these are long races and we all need to be at similar pace. Of course you always want to be the quickest, but I think we've been helping each other and we do drive quite similarly. The car has been a good compromise for all of us and the atmosphere in the team was always very nice."
"Our driving style is a little bit different, but not too much", added Visser. "I mean, it's impossible to have exactly the same feelings, but it's something we managed well."
During the most difficult hours through the fiery night, managing traffic proved to be extra challenging. But, as Floersch, Visser and Calderon alternated behind the wheel of the #50 Oreca, the clock ticked down and the Richard Mille team kept moving up the order.
"Traffic is the most difficult part I have to say." – recalled Calderon.
"Like everything you do, with some experience it feels better and you feel more comfortable and understand where you can take a bit more risks or when you rather not. Of course we were quite cautious at the beginning because the goal was always to finish the race, but every time we went on track we were improving."
"I have to say that it was difficult, especially during the night, because of the lights you don't see really well and you never know if they saw you or not. We still have room for improvement, but when you finish your first Le Mans I think you can start to push a bit more with traffic the next time."
After 24 intense hours, Calderon crossed the finish line in ninth position, while her teammates hugged in the pitlane.
"It's crazy, it's hard to describe" – said Visser, as she tried to put into words the emotions that went through her head in these final minutes.
"You work not just 24 hours, but for a very long time to complete the race, and also everyone in the team works super hard; the engineers don't sleep and we as drivers couldn't sleep either. To cross the line in P9... It's a top ten for three rookies, I think we did an amazing job and the day after I was already thinking that I wanted to go again".
"I was emotional!" – added Sophia Floersch, the youngest member of the trio.
"Le Mans was something special and already at the starting I had goosebumps everywhere, just cause it's such a special 24 hours."
"Looking back, it was just amazing and I think we were really really lucky and happy to be finishing in the top ten in our first Le Mans. The team did an amazing job, luck was on our side on that weekend and to finish Le Mans was indeed special. Hopefully it will be even better the next time", concluded the German racer.
Coming to terms with such an achievement is something that you don't realize until after the race, all of them told us.
"I think you realize afterwards, because you're so focused, everything was so intense this year - also because there was no public." – said Calderon.
"Actually for the drivers it was a bit more relaxing in terms of PR, but everything was compressed: same day of practice and qualifying, you could not do a mistake and there was not really time to get up to speed."
"So I think it was very stressful in that way, but it was a really great debut from everybody. After the race of course you realize that, 'wow, what we have just done?!' It's quite special, because not everyone get to finish it and it's even rarer to finish in the top ten with three rookies. It was a very nice story and a very special feeling."
Visser agreed: "When you're racing you just focus on that and on trying to get the best out of it, but obviously in between stints and after you realize how amazing of an opportunity it is and I think that all of us were really happy that we got to do it."
Surely an unconventional edition, the legendary race nonetheless maintained its charm, despite clearly missing its over three hundred thousand spectators camping around the 13.626 km track.
"Everyone told me - this is not Le Mans! you definitely have to do it with the public and the parade", laughed Calderon. "The paddock was empty. Hopefully next time we can do it properly, the whole week. It's gonna be more demanding of course in terms of PR and energy, but everyone told me that's even more special."
The historic result launched the trio into the top echelons of endurance racing, as they are expected to make their debut in the FIA World Endurance Championship in 2021. They will therefore also return to La Sarthe, to tackle the biggest 24-hour for their second time.
The Richard Mille program, supported by the FIA Women In Motorsport Commission and by Swiss luxury watchmaker and FIA President of the Endurance Commission Richard Mille, proved to be an industry game-changer. With top-quality support and equipment, Floersch, Calderon and Visser thrived and proved their point.
Amidst a global crisis that had paralyzed the world, some of them also had to fight their own demons. Calderon, coming from a very difficult season in the FIA Formula 2 championship, told us that the imposed-stop may have given her the chance to reset and start anew, more motivated and in a better mental shape.
"2020 was a rollercoaster: some days you were okay, but some others you panicked because you wanted to go back racing." – recalled Tatiana.
"But ultimately I think that time helped me to have that break. With all the travelling, you do lose energy. So I prioritized parts of my training."
"Of course it was difficult not to know what would happen, but I knew I wasn't the only one in that position. And I really thought 'I love this sport so much, I cannot imagine my life without racing', and I came back as a more motivated driver."
"After such a difficult year  on so many ways, there were things that I wanted to forget and move on – but you never really have the time to move on and have a fresh start, and I think I needed it."
"I got this with this amazing project with Richard Mille – people that really believe in us and want to give us the best possible equipment. And when you feel this, it gives you confidence. That's why I think I've been performing better and better, because you do lose confidence in a year like the one I had before. When I see that I can do the job here, for sure it has helped me a lot."
Tatiana, Sophia and Beitske are some of the highest ranked female drivers in the world and also carry the responsibility of being role models for the next generation.
"The FIA Women in Motorsport commission has been been working really hard to create this kind of opportunities for us, so to have an all-female line-up was a big message." – said Tatiana. "I hope we can keep inspiring more women to join motorsport, because it's one of the only sport where we can compete on equal terms and this is exactly what we are trying to prove."
"Of course the idea is not just to have females – if the project was to include also mixed line-ups it would also be nice. But at the beginning sometimes you have to force things to show what we can do. These kind of opportunities – also with Iron Dames – are creating a good atmosphere for women to join the sport."
Floersch, Calderon and Visser might work well together because they are complementary. What they do have in common is a clear talent, an unquestioned passion, a strong work ethic and an impressive attention to detail. They are very hard on themselves and always ready to learn from mistakes.
"A guy will often blame the car or blame the team." – joked Tatiana.
"As women, we tend to blame ourselves first. Sometimes we do lack a bit of self-confidence because of that, but I think in order to improve it's the best approach. We have strengths, we have weaknesses but I think not having your head too big is actually an advantage, because we judge ourselves very hardly."
If you can see it you can be it - she often quoted. And I couldn't help but think that whatever their future will hold, they will have represented that small yet vital step towards a more inclusive world.