It’s been announced that for the first time since 1998, an all-female wild card entry will be part of the Bathurst 1000 line-up. Utilizing a Ford Falcon prepared and run out of the Prodrive Racing Australia stable, the entry will be piloted by Dunlop Development Series driver Renee Gracie and Swiss international IndyCar and Formula E racer Simona De Silvestro. Both will be making their Bathurst 1000 debut — De Silvestro simultaneously making her debut behind the wheel of a touring car.
Motorsport remains one of the few forms of mainstream sport where both professional male and female athletes compete on the same plane, in the same championships, to challenge each other for the same trophies. There will, as always, be naysayers, quick to point out that there are many other young racers who would produce a stronger result than either Gracie or De Silvestro. And in that sense, they may well be right. But they’re missing the point.
At just 17 years of age, Gracie made the quantum leap from karting to the Australian Porsche Carrera Cup, where she would be pitted against others in the competitive elite class. After two seasons of growth — punctuated by a podium finish at Phillip Island in 2014 — she made the next step to the V8 Dunlop Development Series for 2015. After a tough season thus far, she clings onto 19th in the standings.
While Gracie’s still fighting among the young up-and-comers, De Silvestro has already experienced racing at the world’s top level through her experience in IndyCar and Formula E competition. Her big break came in 2008 while racing in the Atlantic Championship. Success in the class, which included a win at the 2008 Grand Prix of Long Beach and an overall podium finish in 2009, helped grant her a test in an IndyCar in 2009, and by 2010 she had secured a full-time IndyCar drive.
In 2013, she became only the third-ever female to get a podium finish in IndyCar competition, finishing second at the Grand Prix of Houston. It’s worth noting at this point that these results weren’t achieved with the helpful hand of an IndyCar superpower like Chip Ganassi or Penske to guide her to big results — these results were achieved with smaller teams with less budget behind them. She’s even had miles in a Formula 1 car, after being recruited by Sauber as a driver in their testing program, though this ceased in October 2014 after reported contractual issues.
Gracie and De Silvestro are not the first females to compete at The Great Race — far from it. More than 30 women have driven in the Bathurst 1000, from Diane Leighton, Anne Bennett, and Pam Murison’s group effort in 1962, to Christine Gibson’s three starts across 1981, 1983, and 198, which included her cameo in the massive crash that cut the 1981 event short. In more recent times Leanne Tander has been the leading Australian female representative, racing in the 2009 Bathurst 1000 alongside David Wall in a Paul Cruickshank–run Ford BF Falcon.
So why shower this particular car in attention and glory? Especially when Gracie is an unproven quantity in a V8 Supercar, and De Silvestro even more so. Because they’re both fantastic role models in their own way, both pitted together at an optimal time in international motor racing.
I was lucky enough to meet Gracie earlier this year when she was testing an NZ SuperTourer at Hampton Downs Motorsport Park. In a sea of race drivers, she stands out as one of the most mature and straight-talking in the bunch. A critical element of motorsport is the frequent pursuit of sponsorship, and, after meeting Gracie, it made sense that her title-backer Fujitsu have been associated with her for five years — an eternity in motorsport-years. Meanwhile, De Silvestro is, to put it bluntly, the real deal. She’s gone through the American motorsport framework, and emerged out the other side in good company. She’s now racing for one of the top names in American motorsport — Andretti — representing them in the forthcoming Formula E series, where she will be racing against stars that have seen success in Formula 1, among other big classes. In short, both of them are equipped to potentially inspire the next wave of female race drivers. And who knows, a product from that wave may become the next Schumacher, Earnhardt, or Hunt.
Twelve months ago, the Prodrive squad revealed their plans to field an extra car for a team called Super Black Racing, with the car driven by a pair of New Zealand Bathurst rookies — Andre Heimgartner and Ant Pedersen. After humble expectations and a few furrowed brows leading up to the race, they ultimately came within only a few cups of fuel from an unbelievable finish in the top six.
Let’s just see if history can repeat itself in 2015.