David Wilkins reports on a competitive series that puts women racers in the hot seat

Women are rare in the top ranks of motor sport. That is not easy to explain; the performances of the few women who break through, such as Michèle Mouton, who made her name rallying in the Eighties, or Jutta Kleinschmidt, winner of the Paris-Dakar Rally in 2001, suggest women can be as successful as men.

Perhaps it is getting the chance that is the problem. That's the thinking behind Formula Woman, an all-female racing series set up by Graeme Glew, who used to run a motor-racing school. The idea is to give women the opportunity to build confidence as racers by receiving instruction and competing in an environment that is less threatening for them than a mixed set-up.

The first Formula Woman series, in 2004, demonstrated the huge demand for an initiative like this; more than 10,000 women applied and the race programme helped to launch the careers of its winner, Natasha Firman, and others who took part.

I first learnt of Formula Woman through our reader Nikki Welsby. You may remember her giving her opinion of the Colt CZC in a recent Verdict test. At that stage, Nikki was one of 100 women preparing for a tough three-day elimination camp designed to find the 16 who would form this year's Formula Woman grid.

Nikki's interest in racing was ignited when she took up a spare place on a corporate driving day but, without any relevant contacts, she would have found it difficult to break into the sport. That made her precisely the sort of candidate the Formula Woman programme was designed to help.

To get to this year's elimination camp, Nikki had to clear several hurdles. The most significant was an assessment at Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey - better known as the Top Gear circuit - at which the 100 elimination camp candidates were selected from 4,000 of the 10,000 who applied.

Nikki's determination to succeed was reflected in the time and money she had invested in her preparations, which included employing a personal trainer and undertaking hours of kart racing and driving instruction.

The elimination camp, held at another former airfield, Bruntingthorpe in Leicestershire, drew together women of all ages and occupations, all united by the ambition to race cars. The hopefuls were put through an enormous variety of tests. Most exercises involved driving skills but, reflecting the realities of modern motor sport, contestants' off-track skills were tested too.

Racers can no longer let their driving do the talking these days - their public speaking and media skills have to pass muster too. These are crucial for fund-raising, without which it is impossible to make progress in an expensive sport.

Since embarking on her Formula Woman campaign, Nikki has recruited large national sponsors such as Lloyds TSB Car Select, Lloyds TSB autolease and Scottish Life International, as well as two local Midlands companies - Rees Transport and the marketing agency Unsuitable.

Nikki's emerged from the elimination camp as one of 16 members of this year's Formula Woman grid. When I spoke to her just after she had received the news, Nikki was excited at opportunity but she was only able to pause briefly to savour her achievement before throwing herself once more into her preparations and publicity work.

Nikki suffered a setback at the first race of the season held at Pembrey, when a bout of gastroenteritis affected her preparations and she finished in ninth place. She recovered to finish fourth in the second round, leaving her in a strong position for the remainder of the championship.

Nikki hopes she can use Formula Woman as a stepping stone to her ultimate ambition of racing in a mixed grid in Touring Cars, or one of the one-make series such as the Seat Cupra Cup or the Clio Cup.

The remaining rounds of the 2006 competition are on 19 and 20 August at Brands Hatch, Kent, and 23 and 24 September at Snetterton, Norfolk.

Follow Nikki's progress at www.nikkiwelsby.com. For details about Formula Woman, plus how to enter in 2007, see www.formulawoman.com

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