Rallying: Full throttle with a gentle touch

Norman Fox finds what makes Gilly Handley such a fast lady
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SELF-PRESERVATION is not the most obvious priority for the drivers who hurtle through the forests and drive on after crashes that would give most of us recurring nightmares, but at least one competitor in the Network Q Rally Great Britain, which starts in Cheltenham this morning, will see it as a priority. Gilly Handley, one of only four British women in the event, has strong views on taking care of No 132.

Although this 5ft 4in, 28-year-old was almost born into motor sport, and is intimately involved with it through her job as secretary to the Benetton Formula One team, she feels that women are still not fully accepted in rallying and racing. She is just as sure that they have a distinct advantage in temperament. "Men are a lot more hot-headed," she said. "They feel that they have so much more to prove, but women were put on this earth to reproduce, so when they are put in a dangerous situation they don't always want to take the risk.

"Women are much more careful drivers because they think more. Once they get to a certain level in competitive driving they can push themselves on by going step by step, whereas a young male driver will push himself over the edge before he knows what his skill levels are."

Over the past three years, driving a 1600cc red Vauxhall Corsa bought in kit form, she has risen quickly to become one of Britain's leading rally drivers, winning the national women's section twice. However, this will be her first appearance in a World Championship event.

Motor sport has always played a big part in her life. Her father, John, was the 1968 European Touring Car champion and successfully raced Mini- Coopers. "All of my childhood memories are of race circuits and going to race meetings," she said. "I grew up thinking that it was exciting, but there was no way a woman could be involved. Then, in 1993, my father did some historic-car rallying. I did one with him in a Mini-Cooper, and we won. I loved it. So then I began to take it seriously and went to Silverstone for the rally school challenge and won the Most Improved Driver of the Year award. After winning the ladies' prize in the BTRDA championship for the past two years we decided I should have a go in the Network Q."

In the meantime she has continued her full-time job with Benetton. "It means making all the arrangements for the team's travel and accommodation and giving them their tickets without going anywhere myself. But it gives me time for rallying."

Her car, sponsored by her father's company (RESB Bearings and Flexon Chains) is prepared by Matt Clark, the son of the former double RAC Rally winner, the late Roger Clark, and her co-driver is Richard Pashley. She says her ambition this week is "to take advantage of being in the spotlight and drive well but carefully".

The British Rally is by no means an easy learning road. With its ever changing surfaces and unpredictable weather, it has defied some of the finest drivers in the world, not least Tommi Makinen, four times world champion yet never a winner of this particularly demanding event.

"I know that having never done the event before I've got to get through today being as competitive as I can without making too many silly mistakes," Handley explained. "Then you have the big, long stages in Wales which are very, very fast and flowing, so you have to be in the right frame of mind. It's very tiring having to concentrate for so long. It's hard work physically as well. I do a lot of work in the gym to help prepare for the long stages in which there are a lot of gear changes for a little arm. I've got no idea exactly what to expect. I just know I have to prove I can do it."

If she should have mechanical problems along the way during the next three days, the best place to break down ought to be within sight of the Benetton mechanics, but they have offered only moral support. She is convinced that they would not take kindly to changing a wheel in some muddy ditch.

With the possibility of snow, she knows that even Makinen and the two favourites, Richard Burns and Colin McRae, of Britain, will be treating the event with respect since it is so different to most of the other World Championship rounds.

Yet all of them say that this could be the most exciting British rally for years, since none of the top drivers needs to think about challenging for the world title, or protecting it. The season's results have been unpredictable, but Makinen has been the quickest throughout, with 54 fastest stage times compared to Burns' 41 and McRae's 25.