Sophia Floersh: the 19-year-old making Le Mans history with all-female LMP2 crew

Le Mans

Part of the first all-female LMP2 crew at this weekend's Le Mans 24 Hours, Sophia Floersch says that female drivers are now getting opportunities in racing that they never would before — but doesn't think W Series has all the answers

Sophia Floersch of Campos Racing in Hungary for the 2020 Formula 3 championship

Floersch raced in this season's F3 championship

Joe Portlock - Formula 1 via Getty Images

Women behind the wheel may be a novelty in other branches of motor racing, but it’s nothing new for Le Mans.

The first were Odette Siko and Marguerite Mareuse, who raced in 1930 to finish seventh in a Bugatti Type 40, and since then, more than 60 women have raced in the sport.

So having two all-female crews competing in this weekend’s race isn’t extraordinary, even if one is the first to race in LMP2 category.

What is unusual, however, is that the Signatech Alpine LMP2 car has the pace to run at the front of the category.

This opportunity has catapulted 19-year-old Sophia Floersch from the back of the FIA F3 grid into what she describes as a “beast”, the 600HP Oreca 07 (badged as an Alpine), which is backed by Richard Mille in conjunction with the FIA’s pioneering Women in Motorsport Commission,

As the delighted German told Motor Sport, “They saw that women need help and support, but they also put us in one of the best teams. That’s something to be proud of.”

Richard Mille Women in Motorsport LMP2 car competing at the 2020 Le Mans 24 Hours

Floersch has front-running machinery with the LMP2 Alpine

James Moy Photography/Getty Images

Previous female competitors such as Lella Lombardi and Desire Wilson have shown strong potential in various categories, but often found themselves behind the wheel of inferior machinery once in the upper echelons of motor sport.

Women now have opportunities in motor sport “that we would never have had before” believes Floersch, a junior driver making her way up the tricky racing ladder. In 2018, she inadvertently transcended her sport by having one of the most horrifying crashes ever seen in racing at that year’s Macau F3 meeting.

The crash made headlines the world over, but despite breaking two vertebrae, Floersch came back stronger, winning a shootout organised by the FIA to be selected for the WiM Richard Mille team, having already beaten twenty other hopefuls at an earlier test in 2018.

As if racing in an all-new team and car at Le Mans for the first time wasn’t tough enough, the Richard Mille squad then suffered a severe setback when its lead driver, racing veteran Katherine Legge, suffered a huge crash at the first test in Paul Ricard, breaking her leg and foot. She was out of Le Mans.

“Companies say ‘prove you can succeed and we’ll sponsor you’ and you’re like, ‘I can prove it if we get the money!’”

“Katherine was kind of our captain and the experienced one with endurance racing,” Floersch says, “I think that was one of her biggest strengths, that she kind of knew how to manage those key elements (of the discipline). Now she’s not able to race, it’s kind of switched things around in the team.”

With Legge now conducting things from the pitwall, W-Series runner-up Beitske Visser has stepped into her place in the driving line-up, in addition to third driver Tatiana Caldéron.

“We just have to take the best out of it, and I think with Bietske we have a strong driver line-up,” Floesrch says. “It’s not about the perfect lap like in other formulas, it’s more about the end strategy and being clever in the races.

“The first goal is to finish and to not have any crashes or technical issues or whatever, which I think is most important.

“Because Signatech is having a second Alpine, because we are sharing data and everything, we’re kind of team-mates. They are our biggest rival and we want to finish ahead of them, even if they’ve done Le Mans already and they have very experienced drivers.

“We want to be first, you know?”

Sophia Floersch in her Women in Motorsport LMP2 car racing at Le Mans

Floersch in the driving seat

Xavi Bonilla / DPPI

When Legge had her shunt, social media criticism came in describing LMP2 cars as “too fast for women.” Floersch received similar negativity after her Macau crash, but only used it as motivation to push herself on further.

She believes a result of this prejudice is the lack of support shown by potential financial backers — the biggest barrier to women making their way in motor sport.

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“The most important thing [to progression] is money,” she says, “And if you don’t have it from your family, then you need sponsors or investors or partners, and that can be difficult to get as a woman.

“There was never really a successful woman in motor sport so you cannot really say like ‘she did it, I can do it as well.’

“So it’s difficult to find a company believing in the story you know, they always want to say they always say like ‘okay, prove it and we’ll sponsor you’ and you’re like, ‘I can prove it if we get the money!’

“We never really had a really successful woman in F1 or like the highest level, so it’s difficult to find a woman [you take inspiration from]. I have been in close contact with [DTM race winner] Ellen Lohr. She gave me many tips, especially my first year of F3.”

Sophia Floersch racing in the European F3 championship

Floersch comes to Le Mans after this year’s compressed F3 season

Dan Istitene - Formula 1 via Getty Images

The Munich-native also herself galvanised by a recent Wiliams Racing documentary.

“It suddenly completely changed my mind [about Williams],” Floersch says. I saw them in a different way, and respected [Claire], her dad and especially her mum a lot more, because I just got to know the family through the film.”

“I think [Claire] is one of the toughest women in motor sport. Her family have a lot to do with female empowerment and females in racing, actually.”

Amongst various efforts in other parts of the motor sport community to give more support to women, one of the notable is the all-female W-Series.

“From W-Series to F1, it’s still a long way, with so much money needed.”

Although the new championship has been praised by some, a number of established female pros haven’t been so kind. IndyCar driver Pippa Mann called its establishment “a historic step backwards” whilst British GT champion Charlie Martin described it as “founded on segregation”. Floersch is another sceptic.

“What the W-Series is doing might be a little bit wrong,” she opines, “I mean, they’re giving some women opportunities to race, which is good. Of course if you don’t have anything [currently] or if you already stopped racing – and then through W-Series come back, it’s a great thing.

“But then the W-Series should never ever say that they are bringing the next woman to F1. Because to be honest, that’s complete bullshit.”

Floersch says that the burgeoning category is a step down from the championships she currently competes in and feels that it offers little real progression for a professional racing driver.

“Jamie Chadwick was winning W-Series, last year she did a good job on everything. She got £0.5million, but now she wants to do [the championship] again.”

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“Okay, now she’s doing Formula Regional, but in the end she didn’t really step-up. And I think that’s just the wrong approach from the series saying that they want to bring the next woman to have F1, because from W-Series to F1, it’s still a long way, with so much money needed.”

In addition to aiming for a strong Le Mans, Floersch strongly believes in the Women in Motorsport project, hoping to carry on with the Richard Mille team in the European Le Mans Series next year.

WRC rally winner Michele Mouton, who is also a class winner at Le Mans, described its aim as “to open the door so women can have an equal opportunity to show they have the talent to compete at the highest levels.”

Floersch says: “You can see it now, we have opportunities that we would never have before, so I think there are (positives) changes and they are doing a great job.

“I think Michele Mouton knows what she has to do and what has to change. She went through [prejudice] as well and I think in her times I think it was even harder because it was longer ago.

“Of course, it takes time, you can’t change something like this from one day to the other.

“That’s for sure, but having an opportunity like this as a double year program, as well as the other female lineup that fought last year in GT, it’s incredible.”

As well hoping to make it to the second year of the Richard Mille project, Floersch also aims to make it as high as she can in single-seaters, wherever that may be.

“I don’t really know what’s gonna change in these formulas at some point, [whether] Formula E is gonna be [the new] Formula One or whatever.

“But yeah, my goal is to be in the highest form of Formula racing, right now it’s still F1.

“Of course, I’m aiming to tick off many things on my bucket list in the next coming years and one of them will be Le Mans this weekend!”