Racing drivers Ellen Lohr and Sophia Flörsch are reforming motorsports.
One was born in 1965, has held her own as a woman in the world of motorsports and has no plans to put down the racing suit. The other was born in 2000, is considered the most talented young female racer in Germany and has set herself the goal of driving in the premiere tier – the Formula One – in just four years. Ellen Lohr and Sophia Flörsch may come from two different generations, but they share an unwavering ambition and passion for a sport in which women are very much still a minority. While Ellen Lohr helped pave the way for female racers, Sophia Flörsch is stepping up to inspire more girls for her passion and change society’s perception of the sport.
Did you have any role models when you started in motorsports – perhaps even female role models?
Ellen Lohr: No, I didn’t have any female role models. Firstly, because motorsport was simply a hobby for me for a long time and I didn’t really think about the top classes in my younger years. My interest in professional motorsports came much later. And secondly, because there weren’t any female role models to speak of. When I started, there were no women driving in Formula One or any other professional class. But I knew of Desiré Wilson and I had heard the name Lella Lombardi.
Sophia Flörsch: I had the typical role models for the sport: Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel. But the older I became, the more I also considered the issue of women in motorsports. I was 13 or 14 when I met Ellen. I tried to learn a few things from her. Today, she still gives me tips. But my clear goal has always been to reach the premium class. Currently, that’s still Formula One. In a few years, it could perhaps be Formula E. Unfortunately, in Formula One no woman has yet managed to earn a major title.
What prejudices and difficulties have you had to face in your career? And do these cliches and prejudices still exist today?
Ellen Lohr: I was the first woman to win Formula Ford, the first to achieve a top place in Formula Three, and the first to win a DTM race. And I was one of the first women to compete in truck racing. But at the same time, the rally raid driver Jutta Kleinschmidt was the first woman to win the Dakar. It was part of our normal motorsports experience to be the only woman. So, it was nothing special for us in that respect, although it was for the new opponents we had.
Of course, I did occasionally come across team managers who held grudges against me, who would tell off their drivers because they’d let me overtake them. And no matter how successful I was – instead of being encouraged, I was always told I wasn’t good enough to take the next step. Eventually the time had come when I had proved myself often enough to be taken seriously. But until then, I had to learn to fight back when duelling on the race track if I was tackled too harshly. Whenever I retaliated, I had it easier in the next race. But I think it’s different today. For many young men, it no longer makes a difference if they compete against a man or woman.
Sophia Flörsch: I can say the same. As a racing driver, you always have to stand your ground – regardless of whether you’re a man or woman. The guys have to assert themselves as well. The atmosphere becomes easier and more professional, the higher the class you drive in. This might have something to do with the fact that equality has become so important, in sports as well as in normal professional fields. Personally, it was in carting where I tended to hear dumb remarks as a girl.
Did you both enter the world of automotive sports through carting? As women, were you always in the minority from the very beginning?
Ellen Lohr: My parents had a car body shop. All over the place there were go-carts being tinkered with or worked on. So, it was more or less my family that led me to this sport. Also, because my brother had no interest in it all – that ended up working out well for me. Back then, people started the sport much later generally. Today, aspiring racing drivers already get behind the wheel at age 15. We were only allowed to drive once we had a driving licence – at age 18. In the mid ’80s, I entered the entry-level class of formula racing sports, Formula Ford. Of the 35 participants, six of us were young women. That wasn’t bad at all for the time.
Sophia Flörsch: I started carting in 2004 – when I was four years old. You could always count us girls on one hand. Unlike all the boys.
Why has so little changed? Isn’t it easier these days for a woman to come into contact with motorsports and even to aim at higher categories as a racing driver?
Ellen Lohr: Yes and no. On the one hand, the sport has a completely different visibility now, which means that more girls become aware of it. On the other, you need a very big budget in order to even get started in this sport. Even if you drive in the lower categories, you will be sitting in a simulator for several hours, you undergo the relevant fitness training and you have coaches. We didn’t have any of that. That’s why it was generally easier to enter motorsports in my day, regardless of your gender. It was all reasonably affordable.
Sophia Flörsch: I see this development too. The sport has always been expensive, but the costs have risen massively in the last few years. I even think that, for this reason, it is almost more difficult now for women to enter motorsports. Many female talents simply don’t receive the same opportunities as their male colleagues. I have the feeling that sponsors think it riskier to invest in a woman: simply because no woman has ever proven that a female racing driver can achieve lasting success in the highest category. The only thing that makes it a bit easier today is that the image of women has changed. Women who practise this sport are more respected and less ridiculed. Of course, there is still a lot of room for improvement, but in comparison with Ellen’s era, some things have changed for the better.
What is there in the way of sponsorship for young girls? And what would have to change in order to make motorsports more diverse?
Ellen Lohr: There are a few clubs and initiatives, such as Dare to be Different, which try to make the sport and associated professions more interesting to young women. In my day, I didn’t know a single female mechanic. Today, there are female engineers, team coordinators and team leaders. A great deal has changed. A kind of pride in being a woman in motorsports has also developed over the years. Social media has made a great contribution to this. I think this gives today’s generation an enormous advantage in general, because such digital platforms introduce female motorsport racers to a wider public all over the world. Still, the money question remains.
Sophia Flörsch: It still has to be far better and more clearly communicated that this is a sport for women too. And, accordingly, women should receive the same opportunities as men, the further they get and the more expensive it becomes. In a race, everyone just looks at the result, without knowing how much and what type of training was available to the individual drivers.
So you think that motorsports should also become more transparent?
Sophia Flörsch: Yes. For example, if a woman were to come in twelfth place in a race, that would be directly commented on by the media and society and basically rated worse than if a man were to take twelfth place. People would think: of course, we knew she wouldn’t be up at the front. But nobody knows the background, the conditions under which this driver achieved this place, what financial resources were available to her or him. I think that should change. It should also be made clear to young girls that they don’t have to choose: just because you are a racing driver doesn’t mean you can’t also wear nail varnish or have long hair. I always say that I have three personalities: one for my private life, one for the paddock and one when I am in the racing car. The last one is the worst (laughs), because I have only one goal: to get as far ahead as possible. No matter what.
This year saw the start of the W series, an international racing series just for women. What do you think of this?
Ellen Lohr: Initially, I wasn’t keen at all. As women, we were always happy not to have our own motorsport championships, because if you look at many other sports, such as football, you see that women are paid less and their championships in the respective sporting field are often regarded as secondary. Not with regard to their sporting achievement, of course, but with regard to the media coverage. But I have since changed my mind about the W series.
Why was this?
Ellen Lohr: I had a long conversation with David Coulthard, the initiator of the series, and watched a race. 18 young, talented women receive important contacts and the chance to prove themselves in motorsports – a chance that they would never have had, financially, without this series. I think this approach is great, because it brings female talents into motorsports.
How do you encounter other women on the race track? Do you experience more solidarity with them than with men?
Ellen Lohr: Basically, every competitor is a competitor, whether female or male. But whenever another woman is in a race, I try to arrange things so that we might be even stronger together in the end. For example, in 2016, I was in a truck race with my colleague Steffi Halm. She came in first, I was second. This is the only double victory to date for two women in an FIA series, that is, in one of the large series recognised by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile. And we only managed this because we respected each other greatly during the race and showed solidarity with each other. That can make you stronger. Sophia Flörsch: That’s true, I’m sure. Nevertheless, I never distinguish between men and women in a race; I am completely neutral. I just want to overtake my competitors, regardless of their gender. Off the race track, however, I get on very well with the other women in the paddock; we do stick together.
This article was created with the support of the Mercedes-Benz Museum and the Mille Miglia team.