Ahead of the curve

22.12.2020 | Author: Anne Waak | Photos: Fritz Beck

Sophia Flörsch in a red dress stands in front of a turquoise curtain, looking into the camera.
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Sophia Flörsch wants to be the first female Formula 1 champion. En route, she doesn’t cut herself any slack.

Diversity is an increasingly hot topic in the world of motorsport. This year, Sophia Flörsch will be part of an all-woman team starting at Le Mans. The German racing driver has high ambitions. We talk to her about her visions and her way to the top.

The sky over Munich is deep blue without a cloud in sight. Down on the track, two young drivers hurtle noisily around the curves in their go-karts. There are few places Sophia Flörsch has spent more time at. Between the ages of seven and 13, she participated in countless training sessions and races here. Today, at just 19, she is Germany’s most successful female racing driver.

Sophia Flörsch is walking in front of a big white garage door with two Formula 1 finishing flags and letterings painted on it.

Flörsch is on a roll. In 2016, the Munich native became the first woman to score points in a German Formula 4 championship, and in the following year, the first woman to make it onto the podium. Her goal is clear: “I want to make it straight to the top,” she says. Sophia Flörsch wants to become the first woman ever to win a Formula 1 or Formula E Championship (depending on which competition is considered the pinnacle of racing at the time). So far, only five women have ever driven in Formula 1. The first of these was the Italian Maria Teresa de Filippis, who competed in 1958. She was followed by her compatriot Lella Lombardi, who scored half a championship point in 1975 but whose race had to ultimately be abandoned due to a series of unfortunate accidents. The last woman to compete in Formula 1 was Giovanna Amati back in 1992. Most of these female racing drivers only took up racing at the age of 19. Sophia Flörsch, however, has been racing for as long as she can remember. And in that time, she has suffered dramatic accidents, ones that would have caused others to consider putting an end to their racing careers. But Flörsch has always battled her way back. Her approach to career planning is highly professional, and supported by her father, who has assumed the role of her manager. Sophia Flörsch is on a mission. And, in this regard, she doesn’t go easy on herself.

Sophia Flörsch in a long black dress standing on barrier of tyres on a race track.

Her career is a family matter.

But let’s return to her childhood. It all began with a motocross bike, a gift given to her by her parents. Sophia’s father, who back then raced go-karts as a hobby, was keen for her to try out four wheels as well as two. But the go-karting centre was too loud for the four-year-old. It wouldn’t be until later, when an older friend of hers took up racing, that Sophia felt the lure of the track. By the age of 14, she knew: racing was what she wanted to dedicate herself to.

What is it about the sport that fascinates her? “You have to be able to take the car to its limits and can’t shy away from risky manoeuvres,” she explains. “To drive the fastest lap, you have to – in each curve – brake as late as possible, achieve the perfect turn-in point, drive the ideal line, step on the gas as soon as possible, enter the curve with enough speed. And there are anywhere from nine to 20 curves per lap. It comes down to tenths and hundredths of seconds.” And she knows to get these out of her car.

Flörsch was still at school when she entered Formula 4 in 2016. Since then, racing has been not only her hobby, but also her job. And since graduating from secondary school two years ago, she has been able to focus fully on driving as a profession.

And it is a profession that requires exceptional commitment on a daily basis, be it during strength, endurance and reaction training, when driving in a simulator, during race training, or on race weekends. Her career is a family matter. Sophia’s father, Alexander, who together with her mother used to run a real estate agency for commercial properties, now dedicates himself to managing his daughter’s sponsors and travel arrangements. He is sometimes also in charge of driving to the supermarket to get gummy bears for everyone, like on the day of our photoshoot at the go-karting track. At some point, Sophia’s younger sister may also assume a role in the family’s “World Champion” enterprise.

Sophia Flörsch in a long white dress is standing on a race track.

Sophia Flörsch is still one of just a few women in the world of motorsports. Getting funding, investors and sponsors is more difficult for her than it is for her male colleagues, but of key importance if you want to be among the front runners. Racing in Formula 3, which Sophia has been doing since 2018, costs around 1.2 million euros per season. Flörsch has a clear opinion about her special status: “I can drive as well as any man,” she says, adding, “Success on the track is all about talent and courage.” Opinions to the contrary, she feels, stem from prejudices against women and against women in cars. “No sport can afford to exclude half of the world’s population.” Which is why she is against giving women a special status. She doesn’t want to be seen as a token woman racing driver. So, in order to champion up-and-coming female talents, she serves as an ambassador for the Dare to be Different foundation, founded by her former fellow racing driver, British-born Susie Wolff. The organisation’s mission is to take away girls’ fear of pursuing less conventional paths. Flörsch’s greatest role model, Lewis Hamilton, also advocates more diversity in motor racing. This was the case at the Laureus World Sports Awards in February, where she received the prize for the comeback of the year.

Sophia Flörsch in a long white dress is running on a race track with her back to the camera.

The seconds after the crash.

For a brief moment just one year ago, it looked like the worst had happened. At the Macau (China) Grand Prix, Flörsch collided at high speed with another racing car, losing control of her own. Watching the footage today, it is hard to believe that Sophia Flörsch and the others involved made it out alive. Her memory of the first few seconds after the crash is still clear. She remembers the bitter taste in her mouth, the firefighting foam that immediately filled the cockpit. “I was in pain but I could feel my body,” she says as she describes her first thoughts. “So I knew that it couldn’t be that bad.” In fact, Sophia had suffered multiple vertebral fractures and, in an eleven-hour operation, had to have a piece of her hip bone inserted into a fractured cervical vertebra. Soon after, she announced her imminent return to the race track. She has never needed to drum up any courage to get behind the wheel, she says. “I am and always have been aware of how dangerous this sport can be, and of the role luck plays.” Her carefree attitude is another distinguishing feature. In 2019, for example, she ran the Berlin Marathon having hardly done any training. She ended up damaging her cartilage and tearing her meniscus. No, she really doesn’t go easy on herself.

Sohpia Flörsch is sitting in front of a red fence looking directly into the camera.

An all-female team at Le Mans.

Her next big challenge is set to be the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans in north-western France. “It’s every racing driver’s dream,” says Flörsch. She will be participating with her fellow racing drivers, Formula 1 test driver Tatiana Calderón and former DTM driver Katherine Legge, and is looking forward to competing as a team rather than solo. The project is also a call on her part for more diversity on the race track. Her team is being sponsored by a Swiss watch manufacturer with many years of sponsorship history in racing. For the time being, Sophia Flörsch has prescribed herself patience. In five years’ time, at the latest, she wants to have achieved her dream of becoming the world’s fastest racing driver.

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