Reflections with Richard Williams

Where have all the women gone?

The man in the Aston Martin hospitality unit, attending his first 24 Hours of Le Mans, put down the glass of wine and asked: “Are there any women in this race?” To my shame, this was not something I had considered before setting out for the Circuit de la Sarthe. His query sent me leafing through the official liste des engagés. The answer, it turned out, was yes. Just the one. Alone of all her sex, Christina Nielsen, a 25-year-old from Hørsholm in Denmark, was sharing the wheel of a Ferrari 488 GTE in the GT-Am class with Bret Curtis from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania and Alessandro Balzan from Rovigo in north-eastern Italy. Nielsen and Curtis had both raced once before at Le Mans. Their Italian team-mate was a rookie. They would be 44th of the 48 finishers, 53 laps behind the overall winner and 14th in their class.

Nielsen’s dad, Lars-Erik, raced at Le Mans in GT Porsches and Ferraris between 2004-08. His daughter tried karting at 15, switched to cars, raced in Formula Ford, the Porsche Carrera Cup and IMSA sports cars before joining Scuderia Corsa, based in Van Nuys, California. Last year she and Balzan became champions after winning their class in the 12 Hours of Sebring and the Six Hours of Watkins Glen. Without a mid-race puncture and late repairs to accident damage, they and Curtis would have finished much higher at Le Mans.

Given such minimal female representation, my dinner companion might have been surprised to learn that women drivers have a long and interesting history at the Sarthe. The first were Odette Siko and Marguerite Mareuse, who raced there in 1930 in the latter’s Bugatti Type 40, finishing seventh. They were back the following year, but a ninth-place finish was annulled when they were disqualified for refuelling too early (Siko had misunderstood a pit signal). She returned in 1932 with her own Alfa Romeo 6C 1750, paired with Louis Charaval, who raced under the pseudonym “Jean Sabipa”, finishing fourth overall and first in class – still the best result achieved by a woman driver in the race – but they were thwarted a year later by an accident in which Siko was thrown out and the car caught fire.

She was followed in the inter-war years by six fellow Frenchwomen, one Canadian, one Australian and no fewer than 14 Britons, starting with Joan Chetwynd, the wife of Viscount Chetwynd, who shared her 746cc MG Midget with Mrs HH Stisted in 1931; their run lasted only 30 laps. The English competitors also included Gwenda Hawkes, a former WWI ambulance driver on the Russian and Romanian fronts who had held the women’s lap record at Brooklands, the latter distinction also held by Elsie ‘Bill’ Wisdom, who raced at Le Mans three times. The Bedales-educated Margaret Allan, the sister of a suffragette, was a member of MG’s three-car all-female team in 1935; after the war she became Vogue’s motoring correspondent. The French competitors included Germaine Rouault, the only woman to race at Le Mans on either side of WW2. Betty Haig’s prolific racing career also spanned the wars but although her only Le Mans appearance came in 1951, aged 45, at least it was with a two-litre Ferrari 166 MM coupé in which she and Yvonne Simon of France finished 15th in a very strong field. 

In 1956 the Automobile Club de l’Ouest reacted to the death of the Austrian-born driver Annie Bousquet during the Reims 12 Hours by banning women participants from its events, which included Le Mans.

They were not permitted to return for 15 years, but the surge in the 1970s resembled that of the 1930s, with eight female drivers taking part in 1975 alone, including Anne-Charlotte Vernay, who was on a run of 10 straight appearances (with a best finish of sixth in 1981 in a Porsche 935), and rally ace Michèle Mouton, who shared a 2-litre class win with Christine Dacremont and Marianne Hoepfner in a Moynet LM75. In 1982 Desiré Wilson finished seventh overall, sharing a Porsche 956, matched in 2011 by Vanina Ickx, daughter of Jacky, in a Lola-Aston Martin.

Christina Nielsen is thus the 59th woman to have competed at Le Mans, and it seems strange in the modern world that she should be ploughing a lonely furrow. Women are no longer optional extras in the work and play of the human race. Nor are they creatures who should be dressed in white “like other domestic appliances”, in the notorious assessment of Bernie Ecclestone. No one likes the imposition of quotas, but increasing the representation of women entails making an effort to shift the mind into a position where their absence makes life feel unbalanced. If all-female shortlists are the only way to get more women MPs into Parliament, then that’s what has to happen. Not everyone reading this will agree, I imagine. But perhaps it’s time for the ACO, which always welcomes innovation, to regulate, say, the GT-Am class by requiring at least one female driver in each car. The crews could even compete for a special trophy. The Odette Siko Cup, perhaps.