Rallying: Sabrina in gear for drive of her life

The Network Q Rally of Great Britain provides an opportunity for the likes of 17-year-old Sabrina Shaw and 61-year-old veteran Bob Bean to lock wheels with the sport's world champions.
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The Independent Online
LINDA SHAW was petrified enough when her daughter Sabrina gave her an in-car demonstration of the latest trick she had learned from dad. Sabrina threw the car into a snarling reverse pirouette which had mum screaming in terror.

Mrs Shaw had to endure more anguish when Sabrina embarked upon her first rally and rolled 40 feet down a mountainside. Although she suffered only minor bruising and whiplash, her mother could not face four subsequent events.

And yet, on Sunday, Linda will brace herself to join her husband Lindsey as part of the back-up team for Sabrina when the catering student from North Wales competes in the final round of the world championship, the Network Q Rally of Great Britain, which starts in Cheltenham.

At the same time and on the same course, Finland's Tommi Makinen and Spain's Carlos Sainz will be fighting a winner-takes-all battle for the crown.

At the age of 17 years and three months, Sabrina is the youngest driver in this year's field and the youngest ever female driver in the history of this daunting challenge. She passed her driving test on 16 September and four days later confronted the first of the six rallies she had to negotiate to secure her international licence, the passport to the former RAC Classic. That maiden outing was to prove a harrowing yet sobering experience. A suspension component on the borrowed Daihatsu broke, and Sabrina lost control. The car was a write-off but Sabrina, undeterred, borrowed another a week later.

"It didn't put me off at all," she said. "Mum was shaken by it and she wouldn't come to the next four events, but she's coming to this one. Ever since I can remember I've dreamed of doing the RAC, but I never imagined I would be doing it at such a young age. It's just such a shock to realise I'll be taking part with Colin [McRae] and Carlos [Sainz], and people like that.

"I went to rallies with my father when I was very young and have always enjoyed rallying. My ambition is to be a professional rally driver. I love catering but that's really a fallback. Rallying is the top priority. I'm not too nervous. I felt much more pressure taking my driving test. I'm determined to enjoy this."

Sabrina passed her test first time on the back of 13 conventional lessons and childhood years playing with cars on private tracks and in the orchard of the family home near Ruthin.

An only child, Sabrina was taught how to manipulate a car by her father, who worked with Ford Motorsports and now has his own workshop. She drove her first car, a Peugeot 209, when she was nine.

"From an early age she did what most kiddies do, she sat on her dad's knee and steered the car," her father said. "But she could steer at 50 and 60mph, and go round corners. Then she drove cars on her own. She just took to it. I've had the opportunity to sit with a lot of talented drivers and there's something there with Sabrina for sure. People are surprised when they see her. We never pushed her into it, this is something she wants to do.

"I'm not worried about her because that accident in the first rally wasn't her fault. She's level-headed enough to make the best of the opportunity and not go and crash straight away trying to prove her speed. The idea is that she finishes the event."

More recently Sabrina has had instruction from her compatriot, Gwyndaf Evans, the 1996 British Formula Two Champion, and her co-driver Mike Panes, another experienced competitor. Seat have provided her with a Cupra Sport and Pirelli the tyres, but her father is still left with a bill approaching pounds 10,000.

Sabrina said: "I learned a lot from Gwyndaf, about understeer and over- steer and stuff like that. Everyone's been very supportive. I even got a signed photograph and good luck message from Colin."

Now she's taking time off from college - and playing hockey with Ruthin Ladies - to turn her fantasy into reality. This week she goes over the stages on the recce, and for three days next week hopes to retrace her steps at rallying speeds.

"My friends can't believe I'm doing it and say they'll be watching for me," she says. "I'm going out there to try but I want to finish the rally so I'm not going to do anything silly. I'll hopefully build up my confidence over the three days."

If all goes to plan, she will compete in next year's British Championship and take another step to a full-time career.

"I'd like first of all to win the ladies championship. After that, who knows?"