Previously published in the March edition of Frank Magazine about my fearless friend Katarina Kyvalova.
I have known Katarina for a few years, we first met at Goodwood Revival where, I was delighted to meet another female racer – and also to see her in the big show stopper races of the Tourist Trophy, with cars averaging £100,000 each, the yearly race is seen amongst avid race car drivers as one to win on their bucket list.
I caught up with Katarina at Henry Poole and Co. on London’s Savile Row where, she is having a bespoke driving suit made. Whilst Gentleman Drivers have their suits made here, Katarina, a Lady Driver, decided she too wanted a suit to wear whilst at events with her Pre-War Bentley.
Katarina, after planning a series of questions, I immediately got bamboozled into skipping straight to the middle because I have just learnt that your first ever race was with the Bentley Belles in Portmeo, Portugal, a 24hour race in your Pre War Bentley. Not only that, you got your race licence so you could race that race.
It all starts in year 2014 in April at the Flying Scotsman, a lovely rally where, I drove my Bentley 4.5 litre up to Glenn Eagles and in the early hours of the final evening, I heard about this Benjafield 24 Hour race – a celebration of the Bentley Boys winning Le Mans 24 Hours. These rally fellows said ‘why don’t you come and race at Le Mans with us, Katarina just do It’. Well, I never raced on a circuit before, never knew what the apex was, I had never been racing before. So I said ‘yeh ok I’ll do it, why not, sounds like fun’. Then I learn I need to have a race license and co drivers. So I made a bet and said I am going to do it and I am going to do it with all girls on my team. I am going to make this happen so I build a whole female team to race the 24 hours in the Bentley and it was my first ever race in my life. An absolutely crazy plan. But I was indeed the first contemporary all female team to race a 24 hours in the Bentley and of course my first ever race in my life. I agree now, when I see back, I wonder what was I thinking.
But what happened was, you got the girls and you raced it. But let’s go back a little bit. How did you get your race license and in what and how did you acquire a Pre – War Bentley?
I needed a race license and I went back to Germany, rented a rental car and took all the insurance that ever existed. I rented a VW golf and because I took all the insurance they offered me an upgrade, a wonderful Mercedes automatic. I said ‘no no it needs to be manual’ and took my license near to the rental location. Very suspicious, however nothing happened except I wrecked the tyres. I had to do a practical and written test and past. Luckily we don’t need 6 signatures in Germany like you do in the UK.
Yes here in the UK we need to acquire 6 signatures from UK races, every time we bring the car home we get a signature, then after this we can race internationally.
So I took my race license and almost immediately afterwards, I raced the 24 hours. I had not met the girls until the night before. I asked the Vintage Sports Car Club in the UK if they had some ladies who could race with me for my team. I live in Hamburg in Germany where there is not much vintage racing going on, so I did not know many women racing drivers at all. I found Two Georgina’s and one Gillian all being keen to race with me. We raced.
So let’s go back a bit further how did you acquire a Bentley?
My passion came through my partner he used to drive a Speed 6 and I got a chance to drive them. I realised I needed a smaller car, a 3 or 4.5 litre would be good start with and found a lovely car with matching numbers, no particular history – it didn’t have any famous races, but it was a really sweet car.
Let’s really go back now to the start of the interview! Had you woken up one day to say you wanted to go racing?
My partner had some cars but he never raced, my passion about racing came from Goodwood from seeing the Revival many times and being a member of the classic car club in Hamburg.
Ok but where did that come from, where did the seed for classic cars come from?
I actually don’t know where it comes from, I do have an unbelievable passion for four wheels and cars, even my mother doesn’t have a road license no one in my family races so I don’t really know. My brother who is twelve years older than me, I always played with his cars rather than my dolls. I moved to Vienna for my studies then to Hamburg, my passion was always driving around the countryside in classic cars.
So you did this race with the Bentley Belles, how did it go, how did you find all the corners, the paddock the driver changes, the controls of racing a car? Gosh! Everything!
We finished 11th overall and there about 30 cars. Funny half of the story is that three girls had never raced in Bentley, although they raced in other pre-war cars, we have to brake on the right side as the accelerator is in the middle. Proper pioneering!
Wait let’s take stock of that, with a modern car the accelerator is on the right hand side with the brake is in the middle, so you are swapping round your brake and acceleration?
Yes, you do get used to it. But the normal reaction at the beginning is to do it the wrong way, however we all got used to it, it was more the size of the Bentley 4.5ltr. As Ettiore Buggati said, it is the fastest tractor in the world. And it is true. So that was more the point how do we keep the beast on the tarmac was huge. Demanding, but all part of the fun and when you get it right, that feeling is just like nothing else.
Now this feeling which starts the addiction, was it at that race? Or at the Flying Scotsman or before?
My addiction to Bentley was straight away when I had driven it and I made a couple of gear changes and it was like a dream. And that was that. For racing pretty much after that 24 hour race, because when you see the sunrise on a race circuit during a 24hour race, and with a team is something else. And you finish and you realise this is hopeless, this is it. I was hooked.
I think that’s where I got my bug too – at sunrise.
And I did my second race just two weeks later at the same circuit, because everyone said, ‘Ok Katarina you know the circuit now, so well you know every single corner and get more confident’. And in the mean time I bought a Healey 3000 race car to be able to enter more races.
Is it an easier car to race?
Ah no. What was I thinking? I bought a 3 litre Austin Healey a relatively large engine for a small car, very tale heavy.
Last year you raced the 24 hours of Dubai in a contemporary Mercedes GT4 AMG. How the heck did you find the confidence to do this, with flappy paddle gears and slick tyres, how did this come about and with who did you race?
Yes that was pretty much what I saw was going to happen, to race a modern car. My new historic racing friends were former modern racing car drivers so it was something that was going to happen. Whilst modern racing is very serious, historic racing is much more relaxed in the sense it is more a hobby for people, we all have fun and talk to each other it is passion for people, we are friends first of all and then we race. But modern racing is in the car with data, the computer and more serious. I am racing again this year with the same team, and we have started training already.
(After this interview was recorded Katarina returned to the Dubai but the race was red flagged due to heavy torrential rain. She completed one double stint with a race lasting only 7 hours. The team stranded in 6th in class. I think Katarina will be returning next year for unfinished business.
Contemporaneous racing has always been about the reliability of the car, since Henry Ford made his second car, he said ‘let’s go racing’ – it’s always been absolutely the development of the road car for the race track. Race on Sunday sell on Monday.
Yes we forget these, historic racing didn’t exist as it was just racing. And now we take all the nice looking cars and go back in time. The importance of modern racing has never changed. The best drivers and the most advanced cars in the world.
Is it important to stay fit?
Yes, racing is physically and mentally demanding. We have nutrition plan, all food is focused on protein for concentration and body fitness. Endurance racing is full on adrenaline with 60 degrees in the car and no air con, you need to keep very aware, a high level of concentration and that’s the tiring part. It is way better when you are physically fit. Train hard for sure.
How do you juggle it with your work and personal life?
All my break time goes to racing. There is so much work and preparation with testing. My partner enjoys doing rallies with me. It works out quite well. And he sees I get good results with my races. Anyway a happy girlfriend is a happy life.
The clash or rather, the juxtaposition of the modern and historic – you Katarina with Jamie Chadwick, the winner of the W Series Championship, she has raced with Aston Martin and is the development driver for Williams Formula One racing – she is a contemporary racer and I don’t believe that she has raced in historics before, and yet you both went racing at the Spa 6 Hour – an historic race that made me fall in love with endurance motorsport.
She is the only female driver that has won a Formula 3 race, not ever raced an historic race yet, we met on a cycling camp, yes we raced a Jaguar E Type Series1 at Spa. She really loved it, she loved how it was so relaxed, we could socialise and no data demands – as such, just pure enjoyment of racing. We did one test before at Silverstone and she had to get used to the brakes which are drum brakes not the modern disc brakes – which means – they are basically no brakes and of course there is a clutch and changing gears with a gear stick not flappy paddle on the steering wheel. She came from karting so she was great. We have some more plans for next season for some more racing together and she did an incredible job in the rain and in the night.
What was it like as two women – in Spa and with Bentley Belles, do people give a dam on the race track?
No, not really when you have your helmet on, we all want to win, doesn’t make a difference. I also like to team up with female drivers as we do get more attention and get more ability to race too
What is next for you?
I want to get my bike license and a plan of mine is to get a pilot’s license too. With a nod to Mary Petre Bruce
Well, let’s talk about this marvellous lady Mary Petre, as I have been so patient in starting a conversation about her, a lady who we have come together on a bit, as you are racing a Bentley and I have been researching her for years, the Honourable Mrs Mildred Bruce – Mary Petre her maiden name.
She is extraordinary I discovered her through Bentley. She has so many speed records in a boat in a plane and in a Bentley and found out that her speed record in a Bentley is still standing today, 98 miles an hour average at Brooklands. I would like make a trial, but there is no chance to beat her record as Brooklands is no longer. I do know one thing though I will make it happen somehow.
Mildred Bruce amongst her many achievements flew solo around the world in a fold-up Blackburn Bluebird after having only 26 hours of flying time, hence why you are taking flying lessons.
However, I would like suggest something to you, something that is very achievable – as Mildred was the first woman to win the Coupe de Dames, of the Monte Carlo Rally in 1927… I would like to suggest that we do the Monte Carlo Rally next year together. We’ll do exactly her route from John O’ Groats to Monte Carlo, I have her diary and we can do the same drive.
We’ll absolutely do it, we shall have malt tea as she did, it’s on my bucket list.
We shake hands on doing the Monte Carlo Historic Rally together for January 2021 and I walk away brimming with excitement. My work is done.
You can find out more about the amazing exploits of Katarina Kyvlova at:
Twitter/ Instagram @KKyvalova
And Lara Platman at: Twitter @photofeature Instagram @photo.feature