Pippa Mann: 'The big thing in a crash is to relax'

The Suffolk-born racer's IndyCar career almost ended in the pile-up that killed Dan Wheldon. Fit again, she can't wait to get back on track

In the fraction of a second before she became embroiled in the 15-car pile-up that was to end with the death of her fellow Briton Dan Wheldon, Pippa Mann shut her eyes. "I said to myself 'This is probably going to hurt'," she says. "I made a conscious decision. I knew it was going to be a big one and what I was going to see was not going to be helpful to any future recovery. So I closed my eyes."

Throughout the accident on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway oval three months ago that ended Wheldon's life and led to Mann and two other drivers being taken to hospital, her mind remained remarkably clear. Her car collided with another which sent Mann's hurtling into the air, where it spun over and caught fire. She landed upside down, eyes still clamped shut because of the amount of dirt and dust inside her helmet.

"The big thing when you're involved in a crash, as hard as it is, is to persuade your body to relax. If you tense up, you are going to break something. As I took off, I took my hands off the wheel so that I didn't break my wrists from the wheel hitting anything. I just sat there and tried to relax. Just waited for the medical team to come and get me. I was upside down. I couldn't get out and I couldn't get my [seat] belt off because of my hand."

Her pinkie and ring finger on her right hand were badly burnt and required five hours of surgery. She tugs the dressing off her fingers to show the completed repairs. "It's healed up well. Everything this side of those two scars is new. There's a new nerve in there, new blood vessels – they took a nerve from another finger. They stole a tendon from here [she shows a scar on her wrist] and there's skin from there [she points to the bottom of her palm]."

Next week the 28-year-old hopes to be given the all-clear by doctors to resume a driving career that has taken her a long way from a childhood watching Formula One with her father on TV at home in Suffolk. She has no qualms about getting back behind the wheel. "You couldn't do it if you were scared of crashing. There are the bare facts, it's racing and you are going to come together with other cars and sometimes it's going to go wrong. It's a part of it.

"Dan was a really, really good person. He will be missed. It affected everyone. I was 11 or 12 when I watched Senna crash. I remember that vividly. Most of us are not under the impression that we are infallible and motor racing is not dangerous. It is dangerous and things can go wrong. Occasionally fate is – excuse my language – a bitch. But it's the same as life, you can get knocked down stepping into the street. You have to pull yourself together."

We are sitting in the welcome warmth of the cafe in the Museum of Childhood in London. Mann is at the tail-end of a Christmas trip to see her parents. Tomorrow she flies back to Indianapolis to resume her campaign to raise $4m (£2.5m) – "We're close!" – to fund a place in the next season of IndyCar, which begins in March in St Petersburg, Florida.

Mann's childhood was, as she puts it, a mix of Barbie dolls, climbing trees and playing with model cars. Her father, a motorsport enthusiast, once a year took her to nearby Snetterton track to watch Touring Car races, and later came the annual pilgrimage to Silverstone and the British Grand Prix.

It was not until she was 12 that she first drove a kart, at a friend's birthday party. She joined a kids' club on an industrial estate on the edge of Ipswich. One day the instructor pulled her father aside and suggested they had something special on their hands. "From the moment I started driving karts I knew I didn't want to do anything else," says Mann.

At 17, she left school and Suffolk for Italy, the home of karting – picking up the language as she went and working as a waitress in a pizza restaurant to make ends meet. In between races, she also did odd jobs around her team's factory to make sure she was noticed. But European motorsport is firmly a man's world and Mann already had an eye on IndyCar where female drivers have been involved since Janet Guthrie first raced the Indy 500 in 1977.

Women are still not a common sight, though. Last year Mann became only the eighth, and the first female Briton, to take part in the Indy 500, but there she found open minds that do not exist in Europe. In 2009 she crossed the Atlantic to join Panther Racing, Wheldon's team, and compete in the Indy Light series. Two years on she is settled in Indianapolis – she's engaged to a local, Robert – and, funding allowing, has every chance of driving a full debut season in IndyCar. She feels at home and, in a telling comparison with her time in Europe, where she took part in junior formulas and became the first woman in the Renault World Series, gender is not an issue.

"You've had these other women who have been trailblazers, been successful," says Mann. "Lyn St James, Janet Guthrie, Sarah Fisher and Danica Patrick. Danica was a bit of a glamorous female driver and for a while she was a novelty – but she stayed because she could drive. That makes things easier because people realise it's not about whether you're a man or a woman, it's about what you do when you get in the car.

"That's been great to experience because the best it ever got in Europe was that you feel fairly accepted, whereas in Indy the question of whether I'm accepted or not has nothing to do with my gender, it's to do with me as a driver. That's a great feeling."

Bernie Ecclestone has been famously dismissive of suggestions of a female presence in Formula One. Mann, unsurprisingly, begs to differ. Not that she has any desire to enter the F1 paddock, which she labels a "piranha club" in comparison with the "camaraderie" of IndyCar. "There is no reason why a woman can't race in Formula One," she says. "You have to be incredibly fit but you have to be very fit to race IndyCars. In Formula One, because they have power steering, the steering weight, in terms of sheer brute strength, is actually fairly light. The IndyCar steering weight is pretty heavy because there is no power steering. When I drove a Formula One simulator I was shocked at how light the wheel felt.

"You still have the breaking G-force, the acceleration G-force, the high heart rate and all the other things but that's fitness. It's not strength and you can get fit – you need to be fit for Indycar. The races are often longer, the cars heavier. If we can cope with that then the physical thing holds no water – it's like a bucket with a hole cut in the bottom."

Will it happen? "I've no idea. It's going to take somebody extremely determined. I'm pretty determined myself," she says and laughs, "but I couldn't be bothered to deal with that level of prejudice in Europe. The media perception is more extreme in Europe. I have one good race and I'm the walking re-incarnation of Ayrton Senna. I have one bad race and I should never have been allowed out of the kitchen. It's not like that in the States."

But not everything is the way she likes it in her new home. As we leave, Mann's eye is caught by the food counter. "Now that's a proper macaroni and cheese," she says. "Not like the orange stuff we get in the States. See, there are some things I miss."

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