Laia Sanz – the race driver: ‘We’ll have to be full gas from the beginning’

This is one of a series of interviews with women in key roles in Extreme E, the new electric off-road championship with a stated commitment to equality as well as the environment.

Laia Sanz Pla-Giribert, 35, is a champion motorcycle racer from Barcelona who has completed the arduous Dakar Rally 11 times – each time winning the women’s motorbike category, and in 2015 coming in ninth overall, the best ever female result. She will be switching to cars for Extreme E, partnering with veteran Spanish champion Carlos Sainz as the ACCIONA | Sainz XE team.

How did you come into motorbike racing?

I started riding at four years old and competing at six. I did trials for many years, won some championships, and then I dreamt of Dakar [the Dakar Rally off-road endurance event, formerly known as Paris-Dakar]. I did Dakar 11 times, and I did Enduro, and won some world championships. And now I’m here!

So you have now switched from bikes to cars?

Yes, I come from bikes to cars, which is completely new for me. My dream is to race Dakar in a car, and this is a nice opportunity to learn.

What about partnering with Carlos Sainz?

Carlos is a legend, and in Spain he’s one of the best sportsmen we have. I’ve always been a rally fan. You can imagine when he called me – I was so surprised and happy! It’s also a big pressure of course because I know how competitive he is, and how he pushes the people who work with him – but it’s a perfect way to learn.

So you have a double challenge – switching both to cars, and to electric?

I have a lot to learn, but luckily with the electric cars I think most of the drivers are in the same situation. For me it’s all new! But in the end, it’s a car, with four wheels, and it’s powerful, and I think the technique is more or less the same.

What about the challenges of the terrain – from rock to ice to water to sand?

I’m not scared about the terrain – I’m more scared about whether we’ll have dust, how important it will be to start in front. The terrain will be challenging but the same for everybody. We’ll arrive in a place we don’t know, and we’ll have to be full ‘gas’ from the beginning, without training there.

How do you feel about Extreme E as an idea?

I’m really excited. It’s something new and it’s a big project. It’s full of big names – legends of each motorsport category in a car. The locations, too, which have environmental problems, it’s nice that for one time motorsport can be helpful and show people the problems we have on this planet.

it’s nice that for one time motorsport can be helpful and show people the problems we have on this planet.

What do you think about the gender balance in Extreme E – is it a good thing or a bit artificial?

It’s a good thing – it’s 50% women and of course their performance in the team will be as important as the men. Yes, it’s “artificial” but for the future it will be good to show that we can be competitive.

What have been the challenges of being a woman in racing?

That’s a long story! It’s really hard in motorsports, even harder than the normal world. It’s a man’s world. I’ve always had to prove myself more than them – always to be super competitive, super professional. In the end, it worked, I have respect from the other guys, but it took so long and amazing results for me to be where I am.

How did you become involved in motor sports at such a young age?

I didn’t like to play with dolls. I was active, I loved football and basketball, to run and jump, and my older brother had a trial bike. My dad didn’t imagine that I would love bikes, but in the end I loved it more than my brother!

I was lucky that my dad gave me the chance to do it, because at that time it was not happening – I was always the only girl at races. Now I feel proud when I go to see a race and it’s full of girls, because I was the first one to prove it was possible.

And are your dad and mum proud of you now?

Yes. They don’t enjoy it when I’m at Dakar, because it’s dangerous. But for the rest they are super happy. They also know the way was difficult and hard, and they are proud and happy of what I’ve achieved.

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Photo credit:  Extreme E and The Crown Creators

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