Following Nielsen and Taittinger's showing last weekend, we have a guest post from Rachel Harris-Gardiner, historian and curator of the speedqueens blog (check it out! It's a great resource, and she works really hard on it). She is fantastically knowledgeable about the history of women in motorsport, which is why we asked her to write a review of past runnings of the Great French Race.
The 2016 running of the Le Mans 24 Hours marked the first time for three years that more than one female driver has made the start. For those unacquainted with the long and venerable history of the race, it could look as if their presence was a new development, but this is far from the truth.
For the first seven years of its existence, Le Mans was a boys-only club, but that all changed in 1930, when Frenchwomen Odette Siko and Marguerite Mareuse entered, in Marguerite’s own Bugatti T40. Neither was a particularly experienced racing motorists, but they got to the end of a tough race in seventh place, second in class, behind the more famous Bentley team and the Talbot works cars.
The intrepid pair returned the following year in the same car, and were initially classified ninth. They were disqualified shortly after the race, due to apparently refuelling too early. Odette Siko avenged this disappointment in grand style in 1932, when she shared an Alfa Romeo 6C with Jean Sabipa, and finished an undisputed fourth. This remains the best-ever finish for a female driver at the Le Mans 24 Hours.
Social and technological changes following the Great War, and the experimental years of the 1920s, meant that it had become almost fashionable for women, of a certain class and position, to take an interest in matters mechanical. Motoring and flying were modish pursuits for daring girls who had the money and support to participate. Sometimes this support came from families or husbands, or even a lover or employer.
Odette and Marguerite opened the floodgates for a whole string of women drivers at the Sarthe classic in the 1930s. Most of the great British and French racing ladies of the time made the trip to compete, temporarily abandoning Brooklands and Montlhéry. Dorothy Champney and Kay Petre, representing the UK, drove a Riley Ulster 9 in 1934, and finished in thirteenth. Anne-Cécile Rose-Itier, the diminutive French Grand Prix driver, drove a variety of cars, including a Fiat, and MG, and in 1937, a German Adler Trumpf “Rennlimousine”, the first prototype GT car of its kind. She did not finish.
1935 was truly the year of the lady driver. Ten women made the start, including four all-female teams. Three of these teams were driving MG Midgets, supplied by the MG factory and managed by George Eyston. The Anglo-Australian group of six drivers became known as the “Dancing Daughters”, perhaps after a radio programme of the time. Joan Richmond and Eveline Gordon-Simpson were 24th, Doreen Evans and Barbara Skinner 25th, and Colleen Eaton and Margaret Allan, 26th.
In 1937 and 1938, women came close to the top ten again. Suzanne Largeot was twelfth in 1937, driving a Simca-Fiat with Just-Emile Vernet. The following year, Anne-Cécile Rose-Itier was also twelfth, in an MG. Her co-driver was Claude Bonneau.
Motorsport ground to a halt for WWII in 1939. The 24 Hours was revived in 1949, with a different set of faces and some new cars, as well as some pre-war models. Some of the leading 1930s drivers, such as Jean-Pierre Wimille, were killed in action and thus absent. The female contingent was less likely to have suffered this fate, but still, times had moved on, and most of the grandes dames, like Kay Petre and Elsie Wisdom, had moved on to rallying or retirement. The only female driver that year was Viviane Elder, a French film actress who entered in her own Simca Huit, driving alongside René Camerano. They did not finish.
The 1950s were a lean period for women drivers at Le Mans. Only a handful managed to have their entries accepted before 1956, after which they were actually banned from competing. Annie Bousquet, an Austrian-born French driver, was killed in a nasty accident at that year’s 12 Hours of Reims, after losing control of her Porsche 550 on a bend. The negative publicity and public shock of this caused the French motorsport authorities to prohibit women from entering major races until 1971. Irish rally driver, Rosemary Smith, was among those whose entry was turned down.
The lifting of the ban on female participation in 1971 led to another boom in lady racers at Le Mans. Spurred on by the momentum of feminism’s second wave, and a general increase in motorsporting opportunities, they made their return.
The first of these was Marie-Claude Beaumont, a skilled French all-rounder who usually drove with Henri Greder. She raced in the 24 Hours six times, between 1971 and 1976. Her best result came in 1973, when she was twelfth overall, with a class win, driving a Chevrolet Corvette for Greder’s team.
By 1975, numbers had recovered almost to 1930s levels: two all-female teams were present. The Porsche Carrera of Anny-Charlotte Verney, Corinne Tarnaud and Yvette Fontaine was twelfth, and the Moynet-Simca of Michele Mouton, Christine Dacremont and Marianne Hoepfner won the two-litre class. Marie-Claude Beaumont and Formula One driver Lella Lombardi did not finish, in their Alpine-Renault.
Anny-Charlotte Verney was born in La Sarthe itself, and is perhaps the queen of Le Mans. She raced there ten times, between 1974 and 1983. In 1981, she became the first woman driver of the modern era to breach the 24 Hours’ top ten, finishing sixth in a Porsche 935, with Ralph Kent-Cooke and Bob Garretson.
One of the other more interesting entries of this period came in 1976, when Leila Lombardi and Christine Dacremont drove a bright-pink Lancia Stratos for “Team Aseptogyl”, an all-female rally and racing stable sponsored by a brand of toothpaste.
Desiré Wilson, another woman with Formula One experience, came close to Anny-Charlotte Verney’s record in 1983, when she finished seventh in a Porsche 956, with Axel Planckenhorn and Jürgen Lassig. Sadly, this was the last time for many years that a woman would be really competitive at the French classic.
The 1980s and early 1990s saw some of the most spectacular, fast and brutal sports prototypes ever built. Group C made sportscar racing almost as popular as Formula One, with cars from Porsche, Mazda, Nissan and Jaguar capable of reaching more than 240mph. Sadly, women were largely excluded from driving these monster machines, as the huge budgets and even higher power outputs of the teams meant that only seasoned professionals, or extremely wealthy privateers, got to drive them.
A notable exception to this trend was the Spice team for 1991. An all-female driving squad of Indycar star Lyn St. James, French Formula 3 racewinner Cathy Muller and Desiré Wilson was assembled to drive a pink Spice SE90C Ford. Unfortunately, the car gave up early in the race. The Spice team did not repeat the experiment, although Japanese driver Tomiko Yoshikawa was a member of their squad in 1992.
The GT class was the most fertile hunting ground for female racers at Le Mans in the 1990s. Swiss former equestrian athlete and aircraft pilot, Lilian Bryner, entered the race four times, in different Porsche 911 models. Her ninth place in 1994, with her partner Enzo Calderari and Renato Mastropietro, was an early highlight of her career. She would go on to win the Spa 24 Hours in 2004.
Germany’s Claudia Hürtgen, a future VLN champion, would also try her luck in a series of Porsches, with a best finish of thirteenth, in 1997.
No women competed at Le Mans in 2000, but in 2001, female racers got into prototypes for the first time in many years. Claudia Hürtgen drove a fast but fragile Lola-Nissan LMP2, and Milka Duno, of Venezuela, a Reynard-Judd.
The foremost lady Le Mans driver of the 2000s was Vanina Ickx. Her father is Jacky Ickx, who is also known as “Mr Le Mans”, due to his seven wins, and Vanina, who only started racing as a student, can probably lay claim to the “Miss Le Mans” title.
In the course of her seven attempts, between 2001 and 2011, she drove a diverse range of cars, from a Porsche 996 to a Lola Aston Martin prototype. This last car, which she drove in 2011, with Bas Leinders and Maxime Martin, gave her her best result, a seventh overall. In 2005, driving a Dallara prototype for the British Rollcentre team, she ran as high as second, but did not finish.
Vanina’s main female rival at this time was Liz Halliday, a British-based American driver who had the distinction of competing professionally in both motorsport and equestrianism. Liz was an extremely capable driver in the likes of a FIA GT Lister Storm, but could not crack the 24 Hours, finishing once out of three attempts.
In 2010, the first all-girl team for almost twenty years graced the hallowed Sarthe tarmac. Cyndie Allemann, Rahel Frey and Natacha Gachnang piloted a smart Ford GT for the Matech team. Sadly, a fire meant that their race ended quite early on.
Natacha Gachnang went on to race a Morgan LMP2 in 2013, and was eleventh overall. She had the makings of a decent endurance driver, had her career not been seriously affected by injuries.
After 2010, the number of female entrants decreased again. This is a slightly perplexing development, as women racers have become more present, in single-seater racing particularly, in the past ten years. One notable exception was Keiko Ihara, an experienced Japanese driver who started her motorsport career as a grid girl. She was fourteenth in 2014, driving a Morgan-Judd LMP2 with Pierre Ragues and Ricky Taylor.
Danish driver Christina Nielsen finally made the start in 2016, after making the reserve list in 2015. She finished in 35th place, driving a Ferrari 458 and scoring a few class points, with Mikkel Mac and Johnny Laursen. The other woman driver, Inès Taittinger, drove a Nissan-engined Morgan for Pegasus Racing, with Rémy Striebig and Léo Roussel. They retired very late on and were not classified. Inès Taittinger is French, and has raced prototypes right from the beginning of her career, in the French VdeV championship.
The future for the ladies of Le Mans is an interesting question. It is likely that Christina Nielsen, a professional sportscar racer, who was a runner-up in the 2015 IMSA championship, will return in future, and probably Inès Taittinger too. There is a considerable number of aspiring female pro hopefuls coming through the single-seater ranks, in the UK, Europe and also Southeast Asia, and some of these may well find themselves carving out a place in the endurance arena, having hit their heads on the Formula One glass ceiling. This is no dishonour; many male drivers have come into sportscar racing in this way, and excelled.
One day soon, we may see Odette Siko’s ancient and venerable record falling at last.