The visionaries promoting female talent at Le Mans

The Le Mans 24 Hours featured its first all-female LMP2 crew in 2020, the result of an initiative to back female talent from watchmaker Richard Mille supported by the FIA's Women in Motorsport Commission.

The visionaries promoting female talent at Le Mans
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When it comes to starting an endurance racing team, there could be few better allies to have in your corner than Philippe Sinault and Michele Mouton. That was the reality for watch entrepreneur and motorsport enthusiast Richard Mille, who took over from Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones as the president of the FIA Endurance Commission in December 2017.

His company is involved in motorsport in many different arenas through its Young Talent Academy, which offers a fully-paid season in French F4 to its most impressive talent, and as a sponsor to the Alfa Romeo Formula 1 team and F2/F3 outfit ART Grand Prix among others. But it has never previously had its own race team, although as Amanda Mille – Richard’s daughter – explains, this has not been through a lack of interest.

“It’s something that has been on our minds for quite some time, we just needed to find the right people to make it happen,” she says. “It’s not just the fact of putting our name on a team. It’s something that dad was really believing on, but he didn’t find the right people so far to create the right story.”

Amanda Mille

Amanda Mille

Photo by: Robert Jaso

That changed when, through his role with the FIA, Mille Sr met with multiple Le Mans class-winning team boss Sinault and FIA Women in Motorsport Commission president Mouton, who gave their backing to the idea of an all-female LMP2 team and helped to bring his vision to life in 2020.

“From that point then we actually decided it was the right time to do it,” says Amanda Mille, the project manager for the Richard Mille Racing team, operated by Sinault’s Signatech outfit. “And with what the FIA WIMC has been doing, we managed to find the right drivers. Sometimes you need to take the right time to create the right team and I think that’s what we’ve done.”

The 2020 season wasn’t a completely trouble-free year for the project. Thanks to the pandemic, testing was limited, and a pre-season test crash at Paul Ricard ruled out team ‘captain’ Katherine Legge, the most experienced of its three drivers. But with replacement Beitske Visser joining Tatiana Calderon and Sophia Floersh, the rookie trio finished a creditable ninth in the LMP2 class at the Le Mans 24 Hours.

For Mille and top ally Mouton, it went some way to vindicating their view that female drivers, if given the same opportunities and platform as men, can be just as competitive.

“When dad asked me to follow up on this amazing story of the Richard Mille Racing team, I was really pleased to do it,” Mille says. “I knew it wasn’t easy, however I had the right people next to me with the right background as Michele has, as Phillipe Sinault has and all the team in Signatech. 

“We all have the same dream which is showing to the world that everything is possible if you have the right people and you give the right materials in their hands.”

Mille believes endurance racing provides the ideal platform for female drivers to compete on an even keel with their male counterparts and to inspire future generations of female drivers to follow suit. No female has attempted to qualify for a Grand Prix since 1992, but as Mille points out, because of the limited opportunities to get a drive in Formula 1, it shouldn’t be used as the barometer of success. By contrast, the Le Mans 24 Hours featured two all-female lineups this year, although Richard Mille Racing was the first in the prototype ranks since Cathy Muller, Lynn St James and Desire Wilson raced a Spice in 1991.

“If there is one part in motorsport that they can really show their capacity, it’s in endurance,” Mille says. “People think that the only way is to be in Formula 1 and that’s already a huge problem because not everyone is made to do F1.

“It’s like in horse-riding, some are doing polo, some are doing dressage. People don’t understand that each part of motorsport, you can be the best of it. We have always been looking to F1 as the best thing to do and forgetting about all the others. I think that’s up to all of us to explain that there are so many other disciplines where you can be the best.”

#50 Richard Mille Racing Team Oreca 07 - Gibson: Sophia Flörsch, Katherine Legge

#50 Richard Mille Racing Team Oreca 07 - Gibson: Sophia Flörsch, Katherine Legge

Photo by: DPPI

Mouton agrees - “the best discipline for women is endurance, I am completely convinced” - and adds that programmes such as Richard Mille Racing prove that the prospects for female participation in motorsport is heading “on the right way”.

“To continue this programme with a professional team, it’s exactly what we need so I am really thankful to Amanda and Richard because it’s really a huge opportunity,” says the 1982 World Rally Championship runner-up. 

To give them this possibility of being in a professional team, it’s huge. When you have the same possibility and you are in a team where you have the complete professional condition, you have no more excuse and it pushes you out of your limit.”

Mille says the aim of the programme “is not to be a feminist combat”, but rather to provide the opportunity for talented females to show what they can do in equal conditions.

“We’re not looking at having the same number of girls as boys on track,” she says. “We’re just saying that ‘the ones that want to do it, we need to give them the chance to do it’, because girls have been thinking that they don’t have a chance so they’re not even trying.

“It’s always good if you can show to the world that girls can do it, if they want to. But, they need to have the right tools in their hands to make it happen.”

“We just want to let the right people who want to do it manage to do it,” agrees Mouton. “I’m sure we are on the right way to increase our base and help teenagers to continue competition. We have noticed that they start karting very easily but suddenly when they are 15 or 16, they quit because either they don’t see any future. So it’s really important to have the participation of women at such a high level because they become role models.”

#50 Richard Mille Racing Team Oreca 07 - Gibson:  Tatiana Calderon

#50 Richard Mille Racing Team Oreca 07 - Gibson: Tatiana Calderon

Photo by: DPPI

The Richard Mille Racing drivers, selected with data collated at an FIWMC-organised assessment at Navarra in 2018, surpassed expectations and have earned a move up from the European Le Mans Series to the World Endurance Championship next year. Mille believes that they have “showed us that they are ready” for the world stage, despite the disruptions to their planned season.  

“When you put all of that together, and you see what they’ve been able to do, I think we can just tell them chapeau because they’ve done an amazing job coming from single-seaters which is a completely different mindset,” she says. “They also proved to themselves that they were ready, because they had a lot of pressure on them.

“Next year will be amazing. Again, we have to remember that this is only the beginning...”

For more about Richard Mille, click here.

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