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We caught up with Fabienne Wohlwend, the Vodafone-sponsored guest racer for Porsche’s virtual racing series

07 Apr 2020Inclusion

What is your earliest memory of driving?

The first time I started racing a car was a go-kart, just before I turned seven. My big brother got the go-kart and I joined him and my father to go and test it on a karting track in Switzerland. I was just there looking as I thought “this is not for girls”. However, my brother and my dad got me to try it. I did a couple of laps, opened my visor and said “Daddy, I want a kart for my seventh birthday”.

So on my birthday I got my first go-kart and everything started. It was racing my brother, our dad standing in as our mechanic and mum taking care of food. We were a sporting family from there on.

Who championed you and encouraged you the most in your career?

My father and big brother always challenged each other on the track. My brother stopped when he was a teenager but my dad was there the entire time and hasn’t missed a single race in my career; always on track with me, offering support and helping me out.

How did you get into the W series for female drivers?

I was racing the European Karting Challenge in 2018 when they announced the Protech W series and I was interested. Then it was the world’s final race of the karting challenge. They took place in Europe, South America and Asia and so at the end of the year, they have all of the drivers together. I was the first female winner of that race which took place in Monza. As you can imagine winning a race for Octane126 in Monza is just massive!

I posted the news on Instagram and W Series reposted it and said, “You go girl!” So I sent a text to say thank you and they asked me if I wanted to apply and so I did exactly that. They then invited me and other top women racers to Austria for a driving test, and had an interview where we also had to do a fitness test. Then out of the 50 girls, they took the best 30 to Spain to test the actual F3 car. I did well so was driving single seaters - a great challenge and good fun!

Was it tough entering a profession that in the past has been dominated by men? Was this ever an issue? Did this make you more determined?

I started when I was seven years old so I had a lot of boys driving against me. Coming into different car championships, the other drivers already knew me from karting so it was never an issue on that side. They knew I was a girl but they also knew that I was fast. Of course, there are always male drivers who don’t like girls to be faster but it’s never a big deal for me.

Did you ever consider doing anything else? If so, what?

I did alpine skiing when I was a kid; I had three operations on my knee so I had to decide to which other sport I wanted to move. When I was seven, I always told my parents that I wanted to be the first female Formula 1 champion. The one condition they always brought up was that you had to have a plan B as you can’t be certain that you are going to be professional and earn money with it.

My ‘plan B’ was a banking apprenticeship. After that, I worked at a bank for three years. Eventually, I had to quit. I was simply too busy competing in two racing series.

Do you feel that any of your academic lessons prepared you for the world of motor racing? Do you think girls get more opportunities to learn about science, technology, engineering and maths nowadays to help them discover and pursue interests like motor racing?

I think it was the other way around. Racing prepared me more for academic lessons. I had to work so hard to allow me to skip school and race!  My grades had to be good, so racing was always the thing that pushed me to do well at school.

Girls are less into engineering but I think that is just the lack of not having role models. I think W series is really changing that; we have female engineers and a couple of female mechanics. So they really want to change the face of motorsport, not just in the case of drivers but also in terms of having female engineers and mechanics. I hope I too, can be a role model for those girls!

How do people usually react when you tell them your profession?

First, they look at me and laugh because they don’t believe me. But when they go away and google me or check my Instagram, they come back and ask for pictures.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions of racing car drivers?

The biggest misconception is that people don’t think it is an actual sport or that we are actual athletes. I work out twice a day and do a lot of weights, especially as in Formula cars the G-forces are so high that end up really having to work on your shoulder, upper body and neck muscles.

The heat in the car is also a big problem; it’s so hot inside there, so you have to really train your stamina to be able to get through the race. People think it is just like driving a normal road car on the track but the steering and brake aids are very different to normal road cars, so we really need those muscles.

What’s been the most thrilling thing to happen in your career?

I think there have been some amazing moments. I think the one when the Octane126 team were looking for a fast female and it was the first time I was racing for free. In all the other championships I’d raced in, I had to bring sponsor money or personal money to be able to drive. That was the first time someone let me drive for free.

What’s your next goal? 

Short term, the goal of course is W series. My goal is to finish in the top three and I think this is possible as last year I finished 6th. Hopefully the virus situation ends soon so we can all get back to racing and doing what we love.

If you could share the track with any driver, who would you pick, and why?

I would really lovely to do a test with all the Formula 1 drivers just to see and measure myself against the best drivers worldwide.

Do you have any advice for anyone who has ambitions of becoming a driver or mechanic in the future? What skills or traits are important for becoming so successful in this field?

Dedication, working hard and perseverance. Don’t give up, and accept the journey to the top is long. It’s never easy in racing, but being ambitious really helps.

What technology could you not live or travel without?

I would say my phone, I’m a little phone addict. For travel, it’s always my phone and headphones, that’s the two things I can’t travel without. Nothing crazy, nothing super special.

What opportunities and challenges do you think the virtual racing will bring?

I think there is a great opportunity especially in times like these, because otherwise I would just be sitting around at home doing nothing. Now I have the opportunity to race again, through the online series against people I was always looking up to, so I think it is a great opportunity to learn something new for me, as I have never done this before.

So that was a big personal challenge: figuring it out and trying to improve.

Is there much of a difference between simulation (sim) racing and being in a real car?

I think sim racing is very realistic. Of course what’s missing is the adrenaline and the G-force. The sim is so much physically easier to drive. It’s hard as you don’t have the respect of the sim as if in real life. By this, I mean that if you crash, both you and the car get’s damaged, and you may end up hurt. So the respect is missing in sim racing, because if you go into the wall, you just reset and try again. Either way, I think I’m going to be learning a lot.

Do you play any other games other than sim racing?

No, I used to play Super Mario as a kid but no not really.

What trophy do you most want to win? What is your biggest goal in racing?

Short term, I would like to win the W series. Long term I would like to win a 24-hour race. Nurburgring, Spa would be amazing. My biggest goal is to earn money from doing the thing I love the most, which is racing. Right now, I am on a level where I don’t have to pay for anything anymore. My goal is to call it my job, earning regular money.

What are your top three driving tracks?

Imola in Italy is the track where I won my first Octane126 challenge race. I really like Spa and am really excited to have the second race there with the sim. I was there once for the Dubai challenge in real life, so will be good to virtually drive there soon! My third favourite is the Nurburgring Nordschleife; the biggest permanent track in the world. It’s very challenging, but I like these physical tracks; a lot of fast corners, that’s what I prefer.

What are your goals in the upcoming Porsche sim car race?

My goal is to improve as much as I can. It’s really hard to drive 25 minutes without any incident so I expect the race to be quite chaotic. My goal is to finish in the midfield.

Have you improved as a sim driver through practice?

I started one week ago and did a couple of laps. At the start I couldn’t even keep the car on the track for an entire lap, so I watched loads of YouTube videos and blogs. Now, I am improving lap by lap. Even though there’s more work to be done, I am really happy with the progress.

I drove so much so I think this is going to help me when I go back racing in real life. I am excited about seeing my progress through the seasons. I will come back even stronger so I am excited for that.

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