A taste of the wheel thing

Doing her bit for womankind, Jojo Moyes tackles Ladies' Day at Silverstone
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The smell of burnt rubber and diesel hangs heavy in the air. On the track, a white single-seater racing car skids around a corner at 90mph, narrowly missing the car in front. "Go on Mum!" comes a voice from the stands. "Take her!"

As a steward frantically waves a blue flag, the car roars past me in a squeal of tyres. "Bitch," I mutter, and slam my foot down on the accelerator so hard that my visor steams up. Amazing what happens to nice girls when you give them a bit of horsepower.

I doubt this was the reaction the organisers of Silverstone's first ever "Ladies' Day" originally had in mind. But after eight hours behind the wheels of Formula Four racers, rally cars and 4 x 4 Land Rovers, most of the 27 women there surprised even themselves.

"My husband bought me the ticket for my birthday. Last night I was telling myself I didn't have to come if I didn't want to," said Karen Henshall, a 36-year-old housewife from Liverpool, making a confession that was almost universal. "But once I started, what with the adrenalin and everything..."

I knew how she felt. An hour earlier I had nervously levered myself into a car that resembled a turbo-charged winklepicker, smiled weakly while the instructors packed me in foam so that I could reach the pedals, and wished I had volunteered for doily-making or advanced crochet instead.

Once on the track, however, a curious metamorphosis took place. Women who had politely offered each other coffee and commiserated over child- care arrangements were suddenly hurling themselves around the track like Hill after Schumacher, while their husbands and boyfriends stood on the sidelines, clutching small children and wielding their video cameras with pride.

The day, according to its organisers, was something of an experiment. Silverstone Driving Centre already offers corporate days on the track, but realised that many women found the idea of driving against men off- putting.

"Women often feel intimidated by motor sports," said John Watson, ex- Grand Prix driver, who was helping oversee the event. "Yet they are often extremely good at them. I feel that it's very important for women to know that facilities like this exist. You think how much driving women are involved in, particularly the school runs." Perhaps conscious of this, the male instructors were scrupulous in not saying anything that could be construed as patronising or sexist. Barbara, our team leader and an ex-rally driver herself, was somewhat different.

"Don't slam your foot down like these men do," she said, as she wielded a Dinky car around a map of the rally circuit. "And don't rev the plums off the cars. But you'll need some strength. On your turns, yank the gearstick like it belongs to your ex-boyfriend or your ex-husband... you know what I mean, girls."

This may have motivated us a little too effectively. All that could be heard half an hour later was the grind and squeal of protesting gearboxes as drivers yanked and span their way gleefully around the course.

"The boys are actually much worse at rallying," said Barbara afterwards. "You can point them in a straight line and they'll do 100mph no problem. But they don't listen enough to do the rallying properly."

"Girls are definitely better, especially in the learning stage," agreed Iain Freestone, my instructor for the 4 x 4 Land Rover "assault" course. He possibly had to say this, as I was driving along a riverbank at a 45 degree angle at the time, and removing my hand from the wheel to hit him would have meant us keeling over.

"It's a macho thing," he added, as we hurtled bonnet-first down a small cliff. "They don't listen. Too busy trying to impress their girlfriends." By now we were almost ignoring the men on the sidelines. We were trying to impress each other.

Throwing a car around a rally track and through the rivers and tracks of the 4 x 4 assault course was curiously liberating for traditionally "safe" drivers. None of the normal rules applied, and once this was understood, the women in my group threw themselves into their varied driving roles with grit, determination and in some cases, suicidal lunacy. "Complete nutter," said my driving report. "Doesn't listen and needs to learn left from right. But a good sport." And I was proud.

"I don't normally do stuff like this. But it was brilliant. And it's not as daunting as I'd thought," said Sarah Hollywood, a film editor from London, afterwards. "I'm glad it was just women driving. I thought the instructors might be a bit patronising but they were great. And the overalls are nice."

"There is this great sense of achievement, especially with the four-wheel drives," said Karen Henshall, leaving to pick up her two children. "I pushed myself, went faster than I thought I would. I felt competitive. I'd definitely do it again," she added. "And next time I'll bring my husband... to watch."

Silverstone Driving Centre's Ladies' Day costs pounds 250 plus VAT. Another Ladies' Day is planned for next year. Further info from Zoe Copas, Event Co-ordinator (01327 320424)