Seven women involved in the 2006 Dakar challenge
When the Volkswagen works team starts the 28th Dakar Rally on 31 December in Lisbon, the works driver Jutta Kleinschmidt and her Italian co-driver Fabrizia Pons take centre stage. In 2005, the duo took third place in the world's
hardest off-road rally with a Volkswagen Race Touareg and scored the first ever podium position for a diesel powered vehicle. In 2001 Jutta Kleinschmidt became the first woman ever to win this desert classic. However, the German and ‘Co' Fabrizia Pons and the Swedish co-driver Tina Thörner are not the only ladies in the Volkswagen works team: From doctors via caterers, logistic personnel to engineers - women are represented in many areas. As a result, Volkswagen plays a pioneering role in the predominantly male dominated cross country rallying.
"The Volkswagen works team for the Dakar Rally is a very young project,” explains Motorsport Director Kris Nissen. "When we strengthened our team for the cross country rallies, we searched for suitable employees for the specific tasks – and it was of no importance whatsoever whether they were male of female.”
At the 2006 Dakar Rally there are seven women at Volkswagen in positions of responsibility.
Jutta Kleinschmidt: Most successful woman at the Dakar Rally
Volkswagen works driver Jutta Kleinschmidt writes Dakar Rally history time and again: In 1997 she was the first women to win a stage in the hardest off-road rally. In 1999 she was the first driver to claim a podium position. She became the first women to celebrate overall victory in 2001. Since has driven for Volkswagen Motorsport since the project started. "I always want to be racing at the sharp end. This is exactly what the entire team and my co-driver Fabrizia Pons expect from me,” says the most successful female "Dakar” driver in its history. "The percentage of women shows that Volkswagen is a very modern, forward thinking team, and that women have a chance with us to prove that they can do a job just as well as the men. My experience with women in the team has shown that they are accepted as genuine team members and concentrate one-hundred percent on the task in hand. For me, the qualities that somebody brings are more important than the gender question. For example, I searched for a co-driver who suited me the best, with Fabrizia Pons it just happened to be a women.”
Co-drivers: Organisational talents in rally cars
Fabrizia Pons is the most successful women in rally history. The Italian celebrated four World Rally Championship victories alongside the French lady Michèle Mouton and was Vice-World Champion in the nineteen-eighties, afterwards she was successful with Ari Vatanen and won the tradition steeped Rally Monte Carlo with Piero Liatti. "Actually there is no difference between man and woman in this profession,” says the graceful lady. "I'm just as familiar with the technology used in rally cars as my male colleagues are. Women only have one disadvantage: With their muscle power. I'm sometimes pushed to my limits when changing wheels – particularly as a wheel for our Race Touareg weighs more than 30 kilos.”
"Women are better organisers,” argues Tina Thörner, co-driver for the South African Giniel de Villiers in a Volkswagen Race Touareg 2 at the Dakar Rally. And, as co-driver, this is why she feels completely in her element. "Basically I do a secretaries job, I have to keep the correct information at my finger tips at all times, keep on top of the paperwork in the cockpit. My office just happens to be very fast and very small," explains the Swede jokingly. As co-driver in the World Rally Championship and later in cross country rallying, she pointed the way for former World Champions Colin McRae and Ari Vatanen. "Women have an advantage: They are more understanding, have a calming influence in the car and approach the limits more cautiously. Men tend to sound out their limits from the other side of the line and take more risks,” says her experience from the right-hand side of the cockpit. In her homeland, the 2003 Moroccan Rally winner regularly gives lectures to women, recounts incidents from her 20 years in a mans world and encourages young women to pursue unusual careers. "As a woman you create a lot of attention in motorsport." knows Tina Thörner. "At the beginning you are often not taken seriously. You need patience to make the breakthrough.”
Desert action means tough conditions for men and women
Whoever is in action at a marathon rally must be able to cope with pressure, whether male or female. Because, on-the-road the same rules apply when driving and in the accompanying vehicle armada. Camping in the desert, sandstorms, daily stages of up to 1,000 kilometres, and no showers or other sanitary facilities: The conditions encountered in the desert marathon from Lisbon to Senegal are just as hard for every team member, irrespective of whether mechanic or works driver, man or woman.
The 30-year old anaesthesiologist and paramedic Bettina Kärcher cheered when she was chosen for the 2004 "Dakar”. "They were looking for somebody who not only fulfilled the medical requirements, but also spoke good French. And there I was," she remembers. Washing hair with a bottle of mineral water, putting up tents in the middle of a sandstorm – irrelevant details, because during the rally the medic is mainly occupied with the works drivers' problems and the remaining team members: She tends to the injured, cures headaches and diarrhoea and explains how people should behave in the desert. "My target during the marathon rally is to give the best possible safety. That's why I research at the Institute of Tropical Medicine about the risks, contact hospitals beforehand, find out about the local situation and check contacts there," says the doctor who could operate on location in an emergency. She felt accepted immediately in the team: "I have such a good relationship with many of the team members that they often ask me for advice privately.” The medic, who usually works at the University Clinic Giessen and part-time for the Sport Clinic Bad Nauheim, was a competitive skier in her youth and later gave medical support to the Hesse Ski team. Her luxury article on the way to Dakar? A book for those calm moments and photographs of friends and family at home saved on her mobile phone.
Women in positions of responsibility on the desert adventure
Claudia Palmer, Assistant to the Team Manager for Logistic and Personnel at Volkswagen Motorsport, has completed the Dakar Rally eight times for different teams. "The majority of the women who I've met on desert rallies are tough cookies,” she explains. And Claudia Palmer admits to a common advantage – that women do indeed always have too much luggage. "I have reduced the size of my baggage every year, and in the meantime I really do travel light," explains the 36-year old woman from the Allgäu, who jumped from a woman's trade into a man's world at end of the nineteen-nineties. "I'm a trained textile saleswoman, and sold knee breeches and chequered shirts. Afterwards I went to a foreign language school, became a foreign language correspondent and arrived through pure coincidence at a motorbike team where I started to organise its "Dakar” rallies in 1997.”
When she heads for "Dakar” on 31 December, she will have only two luxury items in her baggage: "An MP3 player and a second toothbrush. The music is to relax in the tent in the evenings and the spare toothbrush because I lost one once in the desert. Being days away from the nearest supermarket turned the episode into a terrible catastrophe.” The logistics expert has no interest to return to the textile business: "For me the Dakar Rally is an excellent way of keeping both feet firmly on the ground. You are constantly pushed, you have to adapt to your current surroundings and learn not to take the luxury in Europe for granted.”
For the 2006 Dakar Rally Volkswagen relies on several other women in the "Dakar” team. They look after the team catering, television articles and press support in the accompanying vehicle armada. However, many tasks are also in female hands during the Dakar Rally preparation at Volkswagen Motorsport in Germany: Engineer Gerlinde Czerwinski is, for example, involved in the Race Touareg 2 development and in action at tests. Other women and busy, for example, in Quality Control, Team Organisation and in area of Marketing and Communication at Volkswagen Motorsport and therefore occupy important functions supporting the huge involvement at the 2006 Dakar Rally.
Press Release Volkswagen Motorsport