‘We don’t see ourselves as trailblazers – we just love rallying’
Michele Petrie and Jemma Taylor like to drive fast in their car. Very fast. Many a weekend, they can be found in a growly Peugeot 106 hurtling at up to 100mph round forest trails, burning across country estates or tearing up and down blocked-off lanes.
Like thousands of other Britons, they are unrepentant enthusiasts for rallying, the largely amateur pursuit that regularly propels revved-up saloons through the British countryside. But here is the thing about them: they are one of a vanishingly small number of all-female crews.
Indeed, the weekend Telegraph Sport followed them through their skids and slides at a mud-splattered rally in the grounds of a stately home near Telford in Shropshire, Team Hormones, as they are called in wry reference to Petrie’s age (she is 54), were the only all-female pair among a field of 80 cars.
And that day there were no other all-female teams in any of the half-dozen other races anywhere in the country.
“We’re not making a statement, we don’t see ourselves as pioneers or trailblazers,” Petrie says. “We just love rallying. We’re here to have a laugh.”
Petrie has been rallying for her entire adult life. She got into the sport when she met her husband, John, and participated in her first competitive event in 1988. She then moved into autograss racing, in which cars belt round a cordoned-off stretch of grass, and twice won the national championships, in 1990 and 1992.
Every weekend would be taken up with it, John and she heading off round the country in their motorhome, towing their car behind them. She took time out when she had their son, Dan, but ultimately could not keep away; 15 years ago, she was back in a car, either driving or navigating for John and others. Dan came along to the races, too; this was a family affair. He soon became rather good and is now the British Historic Rally champion, as well as helping his mechanic father prepare their shared motor.
Keeping it within the rallying family, Taylor is Dan’s girlfriend; they met on the circuit and have known each other for years. Even the name of the family cat reflects their collective obsession: Colin, after the late Colin McRae, Britain’s greatest rally driver.
“Rallying is our life,” Petrie says. “We can’t get enough of it.”
However, in all her three decades gunning the accelerator on the start line, she acknowledges that one thing has barely changed: the number of female drivers.
“I don’t know why,” she says. “There’s no physical reason for it. I know women who are mere slips of things and they can put their foot through the floor with the best men. The only thing I can think of – and I know it sounds really bad – is this: rallying is a family sport and the women have tended to be in the background, making the tea, looking after the kids, that sort of thing, while their husband does the competing.”
It is not that the sport is short of role models. Since Pat Moss-Carlsson drove in three World Rally Championship races in the early Seventies, there has been a steady trickle of British women. But, even as the W Series helped to change the face of circuit racing, even as the F1 Academy launches, even as Jamie Chadwick and her contemporaries tread an emerging pathway that insists Formula One will soon have more female drivers, women behind the wheel in rallying remain virtually invisible. And, as Petrie suggests, the reason may lie in one of the sport’s greatest strengths: its family nature.
“It’s the best hobby a family can have,” she says. “But it’s not cheap. You’d have to have pretty good disposable income to have two race cars in the family. Because if I want to do it at the same time as Dan or John, I’d have to have my own car and something to tow it with. We can’t afford that. So, what happens is, we share. Take it in turns. It means I tend to take a step back, do bits and bobs rather than enter the [British Rally] championship.”
She is right about its costs: before you even turn the key in the ignition, a regulation helmet costs £700, the safety overalls almost as much. Admission to the Telford race was £300, with the navigator course notes weighing in close to that. Then there is the car.
“There have been people who have sold their house to fund their rallying,” Petrie says. “But you have to be realistic about it. Our car is competitive because John and Dan have done so much work on it. We’ve never raced beyond our means.”
Petrie is an administrator for the health service; Taylor, 29, is a dental nurse. With sponsorship limited at their level, they will never have the resources to proceed up the ranks into the areas of the sport where a decent car can cost close to £500,000.
“You can have dreams, but that’s all they are,” Petrie says. “I’m not here to set the world alight, I’m here to enjoy my sport.”
Which is why she wants to race with Taylor: not to make a point about female potential, but because they get on. “Rallying is great for family bonding,” she says. “But you can also fall out. I only ever raced with my son once, we were arguing within the first 10 minutes. He was telling me what to do. I don’t want someone who will sit in the car with me and criticise me, I want someone who is going to be a bit of fun. Jemma’s that, we have a proper laugh.”
It is the enjoyment of the process, she feels, that should act as the biggest spur to draw more women to the sport. That, and the adrenalin rush of driving at ludicrous speed along narrow, tree-lined roads.
“The buzz is amazing,” she says. “From either side of the car, driving or navigating, you are flying. Going into work on a Monday, you do have a post-rally hangover. But that’s good also. I have a pretty stressful job and it is the best release I know. And I know most women get into it through their partner or family, but you don’t have to. Just come along to your local car club and try it out. They’d be more than willing to help.”
So it is that Petrie and Taylor are on the start line at Telford, ready to fly off round the 10-stage course. In the event, because of a nagging mechanical issue, they finish 56th out of 80 cars, a disappointment. But there is one good thing about it: they still beat 24 male teams.
“You do get the odd patronising comment, ‘Oh, women should be making the teas’ sort of thing,” says Taylor. “But we don’t listen to that, we just drive. Faster than them.”
“Yes,” Petrie adds. “I don’t sit on the start line thinking I’ve got to beat so-and-so. For me, it’s about having a giggle with the person sitting next door to you.”
She pauses for a moment, before adding with a broad grin: “With the added bonus that if you beat any of the boys, it feels really, really good.”