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When the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission and the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation (QMMF) launched the inaugural Women’s Cross Country Selection in 2015, the clear intention was to support and promote the participation of women in motor sport, and especially the discipline of cross country rallying. 

FIA, Motorsport, Mobility, Road Safety, F1, WRC, WEC, WTCC, World RX

The initial project, which ultimately gave three all-female crews the opportunity to contest the 2016 Sealine Cross Country Rally, has progressed way beyond the expectations of Michèle Mouton, President of the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission, and has left the most promising driver and co-driver - Emma Gilmour and Sandra Labuscagne - addicted to cross country rallying and dreaming of taking part in the legendary Dakar Rally.

“With the support of QMMF we were able to provide an incredible opportunity for women to experience the world of cross country rallying,” said Michèle Mouton. “Our project then caught the attention of Nasser Al Attiyah, multiple rally and cross country champion who also won the Dakar twice. He was really keen to support the development of women in motor sport and offered to help fund a drive for Emma and Sandra in this year’s Italian Baja, with the organiser helping with the entry too. We have all pushed hard to keep the momentum going, and with the help of the Automóvel Club de Portugal and its President Carlos Barbosa, as well as Jutta [Kleinschmidt) and her great contacts, the girls were able to compete in last month’s Baja Portalegre 500. I am delighted with the way the project has developed and that we have found two young women who not only have good potential, but have also become addicted to cross country! It’s one of our toughest disciplines because a lot of the time the crew has to fend for themselves and be resourceful, but we have shown that given opportunities we can help women progress in our sport.”

Emma and Sandra’s latest challenge in Portugal was in the light and agile Polaris Buggy, their third different vehicle in as many events. Despite losing out on second position in the T3 class due to a broken driveshaft on the final stage, the cross country rookies have made great progress since their first outing in Qatar in April. The Kiwi driver and South African navigator had never even met before the Women’s Cross Country Selection took place last November but have forged a great relationship in the car, drawing on each other’s strengths to try and master new skills, strategies and navigational techniques. Not only that, they have become passionate about this spectacular form of motor sport.

“The challenge of cross country rallying is very addictive because it’s so different to what I’m used to with sprint rallying, where every single corner counts and you’re maximum attack the whole time,” said Emma. “There’s a certain amount of satisfaction and buzz when you’re doing that, but this is a different buzz; the sense of achievement you get with cross country is the fact that it’s such an endurance event and when you’re up against what seem to be very tough situations and you overcome them, there’s an amazing feeling and I think that’s what I really love about it. 

“I’ve always dreamed about doing a Dakar type event, so Jutta has been a real role model to me and what she achieved was amazing. To be able to go where we could learn about cross country was a once in a lifetime opportunity and that’s how I felt at the end of the selection week; that I was already a winner. I feel really really lucky; Jutta is so generous with her experience and information and she’s an amazing lady, so I feel very fortunate to have that relationship with her.

“I also really enjoy competing with Sandra, we didn’t know each other a year ago and we got along well at the camp. We work really well in the car, we both have a good sense of humour and attitude and I think there’s a certain maturity we both have that when things don’t go smoothly we just get on with it – there’s no drama, no emotion. We’re both passionate and competitive, but we’re very much ‘let’s deal with the situation and do what we can’. Sandra’s mechanical ability is also really good and she’s got a real ‘can do’ attitude and we’ve had a few experiences - like in Italy when I rolled it over - where she was so calm, she never gets flustered, so she’s a great person to have in the car with you. We have a lot of fun and I hope we can do more events together, and I really have to thank the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission and everyone who has helped us so much already.”

Receiving help and support from Nasser Al Attiyah’s co-driver Matthieu Baumel during the Italian Baja was one of the highpoints for Sandra, who has now fallen in love with the challenge of the longer endurance events. “Matthieu is a role model for me with loads of experience and I learned a lot from both him and Fabrizia Pons during our training,” said the South African. “Emma and I make a great team and work really well together. She displayed just how talented she is by climbing up the order to 13th on the last leg in Portugal, but the broken driveshaft dropped us right back. I think my strong mechanical background and knowledge allowed Emma and me to fix the problem and persevere. We have a ‘never give up' attitude and there was no choice but to finish the race and win the highest-placed female team trophy. This year has been a big learning curve for us and we have learned a lot from our mentor Jutta Kleinschmidt. To succeed in cross country rallying we have to be physically and mentally tough. Emma and I look forward to more adventures and hopefully to realise our dream of completing the toughest race of them all, the Dakar.”