Tue, Mar 19, 2019 - Page 16 News List

Via farm field and volcano, Munnings primed for debut

Reuters, LONDON

British rally driver Catie Munnings sits on her car in an interview in Saint-Etienne, France, on March 5.

Photo: Reuters

Self-confessed adrenaline junkie Catie Munnings likes to live out of her comfort zone, which is why this week the British rally driver is to accelerate her Peugeot 208 to more than 100kph along the rim of an Azores volcano.

The 21-year-old is set for her fourth season in the European Rally Championship, for the French-based Sainteloc team, and she cannot wait to put her foot down.

Munnings is not just making up the numbers in a male-dominated sport, either.

In her rookie ERC season in 2016, the year she passed her driving test on the second attempt and three A levels, she won the Ladies Trophy, the first European rallying title for a British driver in 49 years.

Last year, she scored points in six of the eight ERC3 rounds, finishing fourth overall, and this season is setting her sights on making her World Rally Championship debut.

The starting point is this week’s Azores Rally and the daunting Sete Cidades stage, a precipitous car-width stretch of gravel flanked by a dizzying drop into a volcanic lake.

Next to her is to-be codriver Veronica Engen, who once worked for world champion Petter Solberg.

“There’s no guard rails and when you’re at the top of the volcano, there’s nothing below you but the lake. It’s insane,” Munnings, Red Bull’s first woman motorsports driver, said close to the family farm in Kent where she would roar around muddy fields on quad bikes.

“It’s a rally of survival. The amount of people that go off is ridiculous. Fifty percent don’t finish, but I love the fact it’s out of your comfort zone. It’s a bit like being on a roller coaster,” she said.

Two years ago there, Munnings hit a tree and retired, the sort of crash that would make normal drivers nervous wrecks, but which she shrugs off.

Her first “big one” was before her first-ever international rally in Ypres, Belgium, in 2016.

“I got a wheel on the grass, nudged a bridge and rolled it,” she said. “The car was wrecked and had to be rebuilt overnight.”

Remarkably, she dashed home on the Eurostar, took her biology A-level in the morning, then returned to qualify for the rally.

Not only did she qualify, she was the only woman to finish and went on to seal the Ladies Trophy — a feat that enabled her to join forces with former F1 driver Susie Wolff, whose “Dare to be Different” scheme helps girls pursue their motorsports dreams.

Going fast on four wheels has always been appealing to Munnings, whose father was a rally driver.

At 13, she could execute a perfect handbrake turn on a circuit that her dad cut into a field. On one occasion, she literally scorched the earth when the red-hot brakes of her old Peugeot 107 set the grass ablaze.

She said it was initially for practical reasons.

“The lanes near us were never getting gritted in winter, so my dad always wanted my sister and I to have good car-handling skills,” she said. “But once I started doing grass auto-testing at a local club when I was 14 or so, I was hooked.”

Munnings had mapped a career as a vet and said her teachers thought she was having a “teen crisis” when she shunned university to pursue rallying. Now she gets invited back to give motivational talks.

She admits to hearing tired old jibes about “nail varnish and hair dryers,” but can look after herself, in and out of the car, whether it is changing broken wheels in oven-like heat in Cyprus, pitching to company CEOs or bagging second-hand tires from better-funded drivers.

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