Previously seen in Frank Magazine August Edition

I first met Maria Costello MBE about fifteen years ago at Goodwood Revival, in the holding paddock alongside the classic motorbike she was about to race in the Barry Sheene Memorial Trophy, we briefly discussed if there were any other women racing on the grid that weekend. To this very day Maria and I discuss the same question but with such a difference. So much has changed and it is a very exciting horizon for women in the motor race industry at the moment.

With the new W Series launched this year, dedicated to women driving the same format & cylinder of car on the same circuits as the usual mixed mainstream races, of which 20% of the women that made it onto that racing grid this year are from the United Kingdom. The British Women Racing Drivers Club goes from strength to strength and many of the female stunt riders and drivers in the current blockbuster films are from these Isles. Yes, once again, women are being seen behind the wheel more and more.

Classic motor racing is also at an all-time high such as the Vintage & the Historic Sports Car Clubs running races, sprints, hill climbs and trials at various locations all over the UK and Europe, along with specific major annual events such as Goodwood Revival, Donington Historic and Silverstone Classic creating a showcase for a variety of races of different eras and race cars including motorcycles too of course. Historic racing is a very accessible way of getting into motor racing as cars are often handed down through the family, reaching their way to grandchildren – men and women, so the historic scene has plenty of women at the wheel. With these women racing in the clubs, their friends join in, many of which could be women and so once again, after a long silence from women at the wheel, you will find a good number on the grid racing, not holding a starting grid number!

Below is the culmination of two interviews with Maria, firstly at one of these classic race meetings a couple of years ago, Silverstone Classic, where I caught up with Maria again as she was just about to race a 1960’s Austin A35 in the Silverstone Classic Celebrity Race, a race notorious for a lot of incidents due to the pure nature that half the drivers only recently obtained their Motor racing licence specifically for that race and secondly a meeting just recently at Festival of Speed where, she had just completed racing her motorbike and her Sidecar at the Isle of Man TT, the first woman ever to do so.

How does this little Austin compare to a motorbike

You can’t compare a motorbike to it. One has got 2 wheels, the other 4, it’s a completely different animal to a bike and I have had 20 years on a motorcycle so the motorcycle is just what I do and the car thing is going to be brand new to me. Also they simplified these Austin A35’s, so everything is super basic a bit top heavy no slip diffs, there is nothing special in them, nothing new, it’s about you and the machine. I kind of like that, as it’s a bit like riding a classic bike with all its characteristics intact, very different to something that is modern and super slick.

You have just passed your ARDS motor racing exam to allow you to race in the UK on motor racing circuits. I also took my racing exam a couple of years ago and it was such fun learning all the flags, the corners and racing lines, but have you had much practice to get ready for this race

No! We did just a few laps in an Aston Martin, a few in a Mazda MX5, then a few in the Austin A35 before the actual day of racing, today on four wheels not my usual two.

Have you got used to the 4 wheel car racing line

I know the motorcycle racing line which is completely different to the racing line of a car with 4 wheels. I was being told off a lot when I was being coached for using a different line, the line I know, taking motorcycle lines and even with my sidecar racing it is a different line to a motorcycle racing line. So I am on this massive learning curve adding in three wheels and four to my usual two.

Now I once said to you. Omg you are mad doing side car racing and what about the passenger of the side car and you said, “No it’s precision” can you explain just a little bit about that.

I think it’s because I read John McGuinness’ book (with 23 wins of the IOMTT along with 47 podiums) and everyone says to him constantly “oh you must be mad riding at that Isle of Man place.”

And I get that said to me constantly, I understand where he’s coming from but actually, we are definitely not mad – we have to be dedicated, focused on so many things it’s a game of being so precise, he knows that circuit so well, he knows where to put his wheels, when to life on or off, it’s about being precise not being mad.

So it is your first time out on the circuit really then with this little A35, have you ridden on this Silverstone Circuit before

Actually I have done one of my women only track days here on the Grand Prix Circuit. It is a much faster chicane here at the wing so when we get qualifying today, we’ll get to see the chicane.

Well, you know about different racing lines and speed and the precision, do you think you might get a bit of a bug for racing this car

I love trying everything. This is what so fantastic to have had the opportunity to take my ARDS race license and do this charity race, now that I have my race license I will be able to race other cars what other things could I do with it. Other things are already being talking about. Meanwhile, I am really looking forward to going out and going round the circuit

Just as I did all that time ago when we met at Goodwood before you went out for the Barry Sheen Memorial Trophy, I ask about women racing today. I can see a lot of women racing at this classic meeting, it’s how I wanted to start racing and where I race a car, how is the scene with women in motorbikes? There are 10 women racing this weekend I think and there’s a lot more women in historic than contemporary

Probably more accessible for women in the historic scene to go racing and also with sidecars there are more women, but we just have to shout about the women who are doing it and doing it well and say listen you can do it too. Let’s all have a go. Do it!

I get back to talking motorbikes with Maria before her race on four wheels as I had recently passed my motorcycle license at that time and she told me about the all women track days she has organised.

However, it is modern motorcycle racing that Costello is known for along for her work with getting more women on the race track and in to motorcycling in general. Whilst more recently her side car racing has taken off, we fast forward 2 years and here we meet Maria again when I recently chatted with her just after she completed the Isle of Man TT with both her motorcycle and her side car with passenger Julie Canipa.

Firstly congratulations on making History Maria, two and three wheels at the same Isle of Man TT, how was that experience.

I am the first woman to race a side car and race solo at the same TT and with all the disruption in the weather we did 5 races in one day, so I actually raced both races in one day. Both races were reduced to only 2 lap races, so it was very doable physically and I came back feeling very proud of myself. It was one of my best TT’s ever.

There is another female driver, a very fast lady round the TT at the moment, Estelle Le Blond, she had a male passenger whilst I had a Manx lady, Julie Canipa so we were the only all-female crew this year

You once told me that you had to get used to all the different racing lines, how are you doing now with keeping them separate? It reminds me of a Royal Ballet Dancer having to learn 3 pieces at once and remember them all whilst they perform one, and understudy for another. How are all your racing lines and how does it work with a passenger on board

With the sidecar, it really is a skill, determination a partnership, a synergy between passenger and driver. We don’t have intercoms, no communication, but a few set signals for example if there are fast riders coming up behind you, you would get a squeeze on the leg – they’re doing their job and I am doing my job, so it works. There are similarities with the racing lines in all forms of racing actually, if I am driving my side car on the best lines that I can do, that’s where the passenger can do their best job. But when you get involved with other traffic, you naturally have to take a different line, or slow down. That is quite fascinating as they have to keep an eye on what’s going on or they may have to braise themselves to an early braking or get ready for an overtake.

Maria, I am going to find a lady passenger to interview and ask her everything as to what it is like being a passenger

There are plenty to ask as more often than not there are females as the passenger, as you don’t have to buy the sidecar, you are joining a team that already exists. The sidecar is also a really good advertising board, so it can be fairly economical to go racing when sponsors are on board.

Well seeing as I have blown the chance to be your passenger this weekend at Festival of Speed, I would like to be the first in the queue please as your passenger somewhere else.

After watching you race round the Isle of Man TT circuit on both on the motorbike and the sidecar I can see that precision is indeed precision and not madness at all. If at all possible can you describe what it is like to race a sidecar, I mean I know you are a thoroughbred with your motorbike and you have a different set of genes to me – as I love riding a motorbike, but off road on trails and I love racing a car, but I would only do that at club level as time and money prevails and probably too does my lack of race horse in me, but tell me what IS the feeling is it possible to put into words

Well for one they are completely different riding positions, you are higher on a motorbike as you have a greater perspective, whereas my sidecar I am leaning over my bike inches from the ground with my legs behind me, I am leaning right over my handlebars, you have a much lower, a very different perspective of the circuit.

Because I know the TT course already, I really enjoyed being in this new low position and learning the course from being on the ground, a lot lower. Your toes are scraping the ground sometimes, hitting 160mph top speeds at times.

I obviously love 2 wheels, as I have been racing motorbikes for over 22 years and that’s through and through what I do and love but getting to take the side car to the TT was so special and so enjoyable and I loved every second of learning this new sport at the TT and I wouldn’t want to put them up against each other.

I was asked if I could take one to the TT what it would be. It would have been the sidecar. Because this was the new challenge for me.

I would think that some people imagine the sidecar to be a sort of ‘Wallis and Gromit’ kind of thing. Can you explain a little about the framework

A racing sidecar is beautiful and well worth seeing when they have got their fairings off. My sidecar is an F2 LCR short bike with a 600 cc engine. There are long bikes too but I run a short chassis. LCR is probably the most common sidecar, very cleverly engineered. This one has all the brakes joined together on a bias system used by the right foot and the other foot is where the gears are along with a normal clutch lever. It is close and compact but so is a motorbike. I have foam where my belly goes for comfort and to get a better position for racing.

What encouragement can you give to ladies to try side car racing and in fact motorcycle racing, and is it possible for us ladies who are perhaps mid-career, or who have not tried something that seems, on the surface – a little risky

Is it possible? Why not?

I would like have a day on a circuit and do taxi rides all day with my sidecar and raise some money for charity, men and women, to get more people in to sidecar racing. I just need to find a circuit or facility and take people on my sidecar. I am the first woman to be the President of the TT Riders Association, so it will be great to create a day like this. There are loads of classes and experiences with different motorcycles you could choose from, flat track, off road, trialling, circuit training; so many disciplines. All motorcycle manufacturers are connected to a ‘get on a bike’ sort of scheme.

Maria, I am your first side car passenger remember, on our day out

Let’s do it.

I peal myself off of the platform that is the passenger seat of the sidecar, where I have been poised chatting to Maria and leave her to get through scrutineering ready for the hill climbs at Goodwood on both the motorbike and the sidecar. I am literally inches from the ground and begin to ask myself what have I invited myself to do? Being a Sidecar passenger is certainly going to be an exciting challenge?


You can find Lara at  Photofeature

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