24 HOURS CENTENARY – THE LE MANS EXCEPTION ⎮ After the surge of female participation in the race during the 1970s (13 over the course of the decade), their involvement fell to five in the 1980s and six in the 1990s. But that didn't stop three remarkable women, from three different continents, from making a name for themselves during that time.
Désiré Wilson, Lyn St. James and Lilian Bryner figure among the most recognisable female drivers of the 1980s and 1990s.
Désiré Wilson | Formula 1 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans
Originally from South Africa, Désiré Wilson is the only woman in motorsort history to win a Formula 1 race. In 1980, she claimed the top step on the podium with Williams at the Brands Hatch circuit in the Aurora AFX Formula One Series, contested with single-seaters prior to the current F1 season.
The following year, she took the start in her home country's Grand Prix, but the race was subsequently deemed illegitimate by the FISA (International Motor Sport Federation, predecessor to the FIA) as it was organised by the FOCA (Association of Formula 1 Constructors), at that time in conflict with the federal government.
In addition to F1, Wilson tried her hand at endurance racing, competing in the 24 Hours in 1982, 1983 and 1991. For her rookie start, she drove a Grid Plaza S1, but was forced to retire. Her second attempt was more successful, finishing seventh at the wheel of the #18 Porsche 956 along with Axel Plankenhorn and Jürgen Lässig. For her final participation in 1991, she teamed up with two other well-known female drivers: Lyn St. James (U.S.) and Cathy Muller (France). The trio shared a Spice FE 90C, but was forced to retire after their car left the track.
That was Muller's only appearance in the 24 Hours (her career took her to Formula 3000 then to the U.S. in the 1980s) and St James' second.
Lyn St. James | From the 24 Hours of Le Mans to Indianapolis
In 1989 and 1991, both of St. James' participations ended in retirements. Her rookie start made her the first American female driver ever at Le Mans and the second woman to have competed at both the 24 Hours and the Indianapolis 500, the two oldest circuit races in terms of runnings.
St. James created a name for herself primarily in the U.S. in CART, Champ Car and IndyCar. In 1992, she made history at the Indianapolis 500 by becoming the second female driver ever to take the start after Janet Guthrie in 1977 and the first to be given the honourary title of Rookie of the Year.
She did the Indy 500 six more times and competed in American endurance races regularly, with two class wins at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and one at the 12 Hours of Sebring. She also set several speed records at various circuits.
St. James' accomplishments earned her invitations to the White House by three American presidents: Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton. She currently dedicates her time promoting women's involvement in motorsport, namely as co-founder of Women In Motorsport North America.
Lilian Bryner | 24 Hours at Le Mans and Francorchamps
Swiss driver Lilian Bryner first launched her sporting career in horse riding and was a member of the national eventing and jumping team. She then took up skydiving and scuba diving before developing a passion for motorsport.
Bryner took the start in the 24 Hours in 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1997. She secured her best result in 1994 with second place in the GT2 class and an overall top 10 finish (9th) at the wheel of a Porsche Carrera RSR shared with Renato Federico Mastropietro and Enzo Calderari.
In 2004, Bryner made endurance racing history by becoming the first woman to win the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, at the wheel of a Ferrari 550 Maranello. Her track record in 24-hour races includes three consecutive class victories at the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
From rally to circuit racing, women have proven in many ways that motorsport is not about gender, and continue to find their place by working even harder. Lyn St. James: "When you start out in any profession, you have to redouble your efforts for the veterans so they will accept you. And if you're a woman, you are surrounded by more doubt and suspicion. That's still the case today, maybe slightly less but still."
Five women will take the start in the 24 Hours of Le Mans Centenary: Lilou Wadoux, Doriane Pin, Rahel Frey, Michelle Gatting and Sarah Bovy, and many more will serve behind the scenes as engineers, mechanics, team managers, photographers and more in the paddock. A total of 65 female drivers have taken part in the race since its creation in 1923 with 46 making it to the chequered flag at least once.
PHOTOS (Copyright - ACO/Archives): LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), CIRCUIT DES 24 HEURES, 1983-1994 24 HOURS OF LE MANS. From top to bottom: at the wheel of the #40 Spice prototype, Lyn St. James, Cathy Muller and Désiré Wilson formed the only all-female driver line-up at the start in 1991; Lyn St. James took her rookie start in 1989 in a Spice as well; Désiré Wilson and Lilian Bryner earned their best results with Porsche, in the #18 956 and the #54 911 prototypes, respectively.