Ana Carrasco, First Female World Champion - A New Era Dawns?

History was made at Magny-Cours this weekend. Strictly speaking, history is made every time motorcycles go racing, but Magny-Cours will feature prominently in the history books. Jonathan Rea confirmed his status as arguably the best World Superbike rider of all time, taking his fourth title in succession with a win in Race 1 on Saturday, and matching Carl Fogarty's tally of four WorldSBK titles.

Impressive as Rea's achievement is – and it should not be underestimated, despite those who say that Fogarty faced tougher competition – what Magny-Cours will be remembered for above all is Ana Carrasco becoming the first woman rider to win an FIM-sanctioned world championship. For the first time ever, we have what the Spanish call a "campeona", rather than a "campeon".

It was a fitting end to the 2018 WorldSSP300 championship, and illustrative of just how fierce the series can be. Carrasco came into the final round of WorldSSP300 with a 10 point advantage, and hot favorite to lift the title. But two tough sessions of practice meant she missed out on Q2, and ended up starting from 25th on the grid.

Close, tense, tough

Carrasco fought her way through the field in the race, taking her Kawasaki Ninja 400 to within 2.5 seconds of the eventual winner, Dani Valle. But so close is the WorldSSP300 class that 2.5 seconds meant that she crossed the line in 13th position.

For a long time, it looked like Carrasco would see the title slip out of her hands. Her main title rival, Dutch rider Scott Deroue, led the race for a while, and was battling in the front group. Deroue needed to make good 10 points on Carrasco, but the Spaniard was still well outside the points in the early stages, and Deroue believed he was closing in on the championship. Until disaster struck on lap 5, that is, with a problem with the gear linkage ending the Dutchman's race.

Carrasco was still not out of the woods, however. Mika Perez¸third in the championship and trailing Carrasco by 18 points coming into Magny-Cours, was in among the leaders. As long as Carrasco was outside the points, Perez needed a win, or a second place to take the title. The Spaniard was engaged in a fierce battle in a big pack of riders, including, ironically, Maria Herrera, the other woman racing in WorldSSP300. (There was a third woman rider on the grid at Magny-Cours: French wildcard Steffie Naud.)

The championship was still wide open with three laps to go. Carrasco had fought her way into the points, and was in the midst of a huge group battling basically for the lead. Perez, meanwhile, was caught up in the fight at the front, swapping freely among the top five or six places, Magny-Cours' layout offering plenty of chances to overtake. Perez snuck into the lead with a brave pass with just a few corners to go, but Dani Valle had the measure of Perez into the final chicane. Valle won, edging out Perez, while Carrasco held on to 13th position to take 3 vital points, 1 more than Perez.

Balancing bikes

The race was archetypal for the WorldSSP300 class. Underpowered bikes subject to a strict monitoring regime is almost a cast-iron guarantee of close racing. Half of the series eight races were decided by fractions of a second, with large groups fighting for victory. In the other half, the margin of victory might have been larger, but the battle for the other podium places was just as close, and just as busy. WorldSSP300 has been an exciting series.

It has also been a tough series to manage. The idea behind the WorldSSP300 class is excellent. Manufacturers are selling more and more small capacity sports bikes, both in the East and in the West, so racing them is an obvious choice. But the approach of each manufacturer has been different, from Yamaha's 321cc twin, to KTM's 373cc single, to Kawasaki's 399cc twin, and Honda's 471cc twin. Each engine is in a very different state of tune, and weights vary enormously.

Balancing the performance of the various bikes has been hard. The Kawasaki, for example, has had 14kg of ballast added through the season, to slow the bike down. But the fact that three manufacturers – KTM, Kawasaki, and Yamaha – have won races shows that it can be done, and that doing so has provided close and entertaining racing.

That close and entertaining racing has meant that margins of victory have been slim. The fact that the championship was decided by a single point seems fitting. It reflects just how tough this class has been.

Team, bike, rider

But it is also fitting that Ana Carrasco should emerge victorious. The DS Junior Team Kawasaki rider won two of the eight WorldSSP300 races, and did so convincingly both times. She was competitive in the first half of the season, suffering the handicap of extra weight in the second half, but still finding the fortitude to do what was needed in the final race to carry the title.

This, perhaps, is why Carrasco's championship is so important. The fact that she became the first woman to win a world championship is significant. But more important is that she proved that on equal terms, in the right team, on the right bike, and with the right support, it is talent, not gender, which counts.

It seems obvious that talent is the most important factor in racing. But the gender debate had been skewed by the fact that both Ana Carrasco and Maria Herrera had raced in the Moto3 world championship. There they had been in the lower half of the championship, regularly scoring points, but outside the top ten. When they were in good teams, they were the second riders, clearly at a disadvantage to their teammates. When they were in mediocre teams, they were on a par with their teammates.

Women, it was said, would never be successful in motorcycle racing. It was a man's sport.

In Magny-Cours, Ana Carrasco proved that to be a shibboleth. Carrasco found herself in the DS Junior team, run by David Salom. A well-oiled team with the resources to be competitive, racing the Kawasaki Ninja 400, a bike which had proved its mettle. With all the elements in place, Carrasco took on all comers, and emerged triumphant.

The WorldSSP300 class is not the cream of the crop, nor is it meant to be. It is a developmental class, for rider on their way up, and those looking for a second chance. But the level is good, and the competition is fierce. Ana Carrasco was given a good chance in a good team on a good bike, and she capitalized on it. This title counts for something, not because of Carrasco's gender, but because of the level of competition she faced to win it.

Changing the face of racing?

Does Ana Carrasco becoming the first ever woman to win a motorcycle road racing world championship change the face of racing? The answer to that is complicated. The fact that three years ago, there were two woman racing in Moto3 was already a major step forward. Carrasco's WorldSSP300 title will not revolutionize racing, but it will give it another push in a more gender-equal direction. We won't suddenly see a spate of female champions in the next five years. But the long-term effects could be very significant indeed.

Success for any group, in any sport, is basically a numbers game. In the case of motorcycle racing, the more racers from a particular country, or a particular region, or of a particular gender, the greater the chance that one of them will eventually become successful at the highest level of racing.

Why are there so many successful Spanish and Italian racers in Grand Prix racing? Because tens of thousands of Spanish and Italian youngsters go racing on minibikes each weekend. And thousands of thousands of Spanish and Italian youngsters go racing on small wheel racing bikes each weekend. And hundreds of Spanish and Italian youngsters go racing on big wheel bikes each weekend. And eventually, a handful of them end up in the Grand Prix or WorldSBK paddocks.

Visit those minibike races, and you might see a couple of girls race at each meeting. If there is statistically a 1 in 10,000 chance of making it through to a world championship from the lowest level of racing, then you need 10,000 girls racing to be almost certain that one young woman will succeed at the highest level. If Ana Carrasco can encourage more young girls to go racing, and perhaps more importantly, persuade the parents of young girls that going motorcycle racing is a perfectly valid thing for a young girl to want to do, then eventually, more girls will make their way through the system to the top. It may take longer than five years, but in fifteen years, we may start to feel the real impact of Carrasco's achievement.

Ana Carrasco makes for a pretty good role model, too. The 21 year old from Murcia, in Eastern Spain, is studying for her law degree while she races. She works incredibly hard, as her social media profiles show. She trains hard, and she prepares thoroughly, all the while keeping a smile on her face and a professional demeanor. She is an intelligent interview partner, and presents herself well wherever she appears. Carrasco is someone who young riders, male and female, can look up to, and be inspired by.

On the shoulders of giants

Carrasco is the latest in a long line of female pioneers in motorcycle racing. Many women have preceded her, opening doors which the Spaniard has been able to pass through on her way to a world championship. Maria Herrera won a race in the FIM CEV Moto3 championship. Elena Myers won an AMA Supersport race, and became the highest-placed woman at Daytona. Melissa Paris became the first woman to qualify for a World Supersport race. Taru Rinne was the first woman to score points in Grand Prix racing, Katja Poensgen competed for two seasons in 250s, scoring points in 2001. Jenny Tinmouth took the record for the fastest lap of the Isle of Man TT circuit from Maria Costello, while Carolynn Sells was the first woman to win a race on the Mountain Course at the Isle of Man, winning the lightweight class at the Manx GP.

These modern racers probably owe a debt of gratitude to Beryl Swain, the original 'Girl Racer'. Swain finished 22nd in the 50cc class in the Isle of Man TT in 1962, and this caused such a panic that the organizers created a minimum weight limit to prevent women from competing. That ban would stand until 1978, when attitudes started slowly to change.

Ana Carrasco's world title is a logical stop on the way to equality in motorcycle racing. Weight and size are no limit to success, as Dani Pedrosa has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt. Gender is no limit to success, as Carrasco's championship proves. A talented rider, with a strong team around them, on a competitive bike, can succeed in motorcycle racing.

Ana Carrasco has already left a lasting legacy in motorcycle racing. Her achievements are beyond question, her title deserved beyond doubt. Yet it is her slogan which may yet have the greatest effect. "Ride like a girl" may once have been perceived as an insult in the chauvinist and misogynistic world of motorcycle racing. Now, "Ride like a girl" means ride so fast that you become world champion. Millions of men and boys will be wishing that they could ride like a girl. Because if you can ride like a girl like Ana Carrasco, then you too can become a world champion.


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Total votes: 43
Total votes: 23

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Comments

In the past couple of weeks motorcycle racing has only made it into mainstream news coverage twice. I think Ana Carrasco might just be able to make the public forget the black eye given the sport by the Fenati incident. Definitely a feel-good story that seems to be getting the coverage it deserves.

Total votes: 21

Unlike WSBK anyone can and almost always did win during 2018 WSSP300 series. Too bad I'd have to pay for the whole package just to watch one good class.

Congrats to Ana Carrasco on a great accomplishment for a young woman (or man)

Total votes: 31

the full season - seems a lot more hectic than Moto3, but always fun to watch.

I've tried to watch the 600 SuperSport races, but just can't get into them for some reason.

Total votes: 11

I brought up this subject somewhere else a year or two ago and got jumped on pretty quickly, but I’m a sucker for punishment so I’m going to do it again. But first I’ll say that I applaud any female, world champion or otherwise, in the sport of motorcycle racing because I’m sure it’s difficult to make it in an environment that’s dominated by the other gender.

I’ll also say that I’m extremely proud to ride beside my wife and don’t hesitate to say that she’s better at me in most things. We’ve also raced mountain bikes together, raced kayaks together, and enjoyed many other sports competing directly against one another.  There’s no one I’d rather do any of those things with, and I’d happily welcome any other women as well. In fact I’m often a bit uncomfortable making any gender distinction; I’d like to just welcome everyone and not really pay attention to whether they’re female or male but just accept them as fellow fans, competitors, partners, or whatever. But, I do understand that for now making that distinction and promoting the sport specifically to women can help reach a fairer parity that will make both genders feel comfortable together enjoying a recreation and sport I love.

With all of that said, I do wonder if there are some physical limitations for women who want to reach the top of motorcycle racing, and as such it’s more than just “a numbers game”. I’m thinking primarily of the physical strength required to race a motorcycle. I know we’re not talking about sheer strength as it relates to, say, how much weight someone can lift in a single rep, but certainly strength endurance is important. I’m thinking of how much muscular endurance is required to shift your body weight back and forth as you change the bike’s direction, the strength it requires to hold yourself back on the bike and not fly over the handlebars as you decelerate from 350km/h to 100km/h in just seconds before a corner, etc.

I have trained as a collegiate high performance track and field athlete, and I work with other athletes as a fitness trainer myself. It’s anecdotally and empirically evident to me through my training of others that there is a difference between the muscular endurance of a man and a woman of the same weight, who are doing the same training. My wife can bench press way more than the average man, but she’ll never be able to bench press more than me and I’m doing the same training right along side of her. More than that though her strength endurance (for example her grip strength while doing pull ups, which even accounts for her lighter body weight compared to mine) will always give out first. This is common comparing virtually every man and woman of relatively ‘equal’ fitness levels that I have encountered.

At some level this doesn’t really matter. My wife and I can play squash together and even if I can hit the ball harder than her it’s not as though she loses grip strength on her racket before we’re done playing while I stay strong. So, even if my raw strength is more we can both make it to the end of the game. But what if that grip strength is more important to the game, or pushed further? She sometimes maxes out on pull ups because her hand strength gives out early. Mine doesn’t. This obvservation isn’t isolated to just the two of us, and I use this example in particular because I wonder if it directly translates to the type of strength required in top motorcycle racing.

Unfortunately I’m not a MotoGP rider, or anything even close to that, so I can’t speak first hand to the type of strength required to ride those bikes or even to race in any world or national motorcycle championship. So, I can’t say for certain that woman don’t or can’t have the type of strength in equal measure to a man that is required to race at that level. But, I wonder if women do have an inherent physical disadvantage that, no matter if they eventually have as much interest, incentive, and acceptance to race, will prevent them from winning to the same extent as men.  I try to say that without any bias or prejudice, and if anything in the case of someone like Ana it may make her victories all that much more impressive.  I do wonder though even if we had complete gender neutrality in Motorsport if female victories will always be fewer than men’s.

Total votes: 43

If Dani Pedrosa can win races in MotoGP then women are at no physiological disadvantage. Size and strength are not big requirements for success in motorcycle racing. It's a quasi-endurance sport.

Total votes: 21

The assumption that Dani’s success proves women are not at a disadvantage simply because Dani is ‘small’ is incorrect.  I’m comparing men and women of the same size when I say men generally have greater strength endurance. Men and women are simply physiologically different, even if they’re the same size and/or weight. So again, I don’t think that size is a factor, and I’m talking about muscular endurance.

Total votes: 18

I don't know of any man who has endured anything like childbirth. A motorcycle race is a light sprint by comparison. Women compete in all the same endurance sports as men as well.

Total votes: 11

... but unfortunately wasn’t able to win a top tier title. He did so in the lighter classes though, which maybe proves the point. Personally I think there will eventually be loads of women who are faster and better than loads of men, but at the very tip of the pyramid, if all else is equal, that extra 10% of muscle power will sometimes make a difference. Not always, not when it’s more about skill and grit, but possibly enough to disadvantage women. That’s just one of life’s realities, like being short or tall.

 

Total votes: 38

I agree Lilyvani. I think it’s good to point out, as you do, that many women can be better than many men at many physical things. My wife can outperform MANY men in the gym. Outside of the gym, compared to the general public, she can completely bury almost any man. But top tier motorcycle racing isn’t exactly the general public. Honestly, if I think about it for too long it bothers me that despite my wife’s best efforts there are areas where she’s simply at a physical disadvantage because of her gender, but that’s an unavoidable reality and I think it may apply to motorcycle racing. 

Total votes: 27

... I kind of wish I hadn’t responded off the cuff. Even though all three of us are at least trying to be ‘equalitarian’, aren’t we just slipping into that trap of judging based on gender.

So let me end with, well done Ana, it sounds like you earned it.

 

Total votes: 41

We may be judging based on gender, but I at least need to do that on a daily basis as a part of my job. I am accustomed to be required to place particular physical expectations based on gender, and for the record my expectations are high for both genders.  My point in response to this article is to say that even if some say women get every opportunity they deserve in Motorsports and don’t encounter any external barriers they may not be as successful at the top levels, and we shouldn’t use that less than equal success as a measure of whether or not they’re getting a fair shot, nor for that matter should we use that to say women aren’t working and trying just as hard (not that the article was implying that at all). I’m not saying they’re getting a fair shot at the moment btw, I’m just cautioning that we may never see equal results.

And yes, congrats Ana. From everything I’ve seen there isn’t a better or more deserving winner.

Total votes: 11

I am SUPER happy to see more women racing, and doing it well. The culture of the sport will benefit. I am REALLY proud of Ana.

The 2 stroke GP bikes used to grid up as a second wave behind middleweights. I was finishing 4th to 8th, and would still get passed by Elena Myers on her way by to challenge a win on a 2 stroke. On an inside line I never touch. Easily. She was hugely popular for everyone, regardless of chromosomes.

Women have excellent flexibility, strong lower bodies, and cool heads. Of course there is also a continuum of gender and physicality, I know women that are twice the man that I will ever be in many traditional measures of masculinity. Perhaps a side topic, but it is generally accepted that humanity has been breeding towards favor of more masculinity in women and femininity in men. Gender aligned personality and temperament traits run 2/3rds to 3/4rs, so a solid quarter to third of us don't seem traditionally masculine/feminine. Sexual preference for the same biological gender is running at one in eight to ten of us. Anyhoo, it isn't so cut and dried. And I for one cind that really cool.

Ana just DID beat the snot out of male competitors, so I would hate to argue her limitations. No shortage of balls there!

Total votes: 20

Let me digress. But just slightly. not later than a month ago I had almost a fight with my tennis coach. He is a friend, and I started training with him about 20 years ago to improve my backhand and service. We play on a regular basis and still beats me most of the time... Serena Williams was having one of her tantrums at the US open and we started discussing whether a top seed female tennis player can beat a top seed male player. He explained to me something I would have never thought of: even if a woman has the muscular strength and speed ad power of a man she cannot beat him because on the long run her hips are a handicap. In other words larger hips - which women naturally have - will impede (only slightly and certainly not in a visible way) some movements and lessen their power...

So maybe it's not just about muscle power and endurance - which I'm certain that nowadays with a specific training can be achieved-- but something to do with the structure of the body itself. Which for now cannot be altered.

I'm no expert in this. And though in my youth I practiced a sport at national level - I well remember that at the time training was different for men and women. Precisely for that reason we could never really compare. 

As for the very specific field of motogp and what is needed physically to tame that kind of mechanical beast at such crazy speed I wonder... And don't have an answer. We know that in the whole world there are about 30 guys who can - plus a guy down under who still can but is in no mood to - so even if somewhere in the wild world  there is a woman who can compete in motogp I don't think we'll ever see her. Maybe we need a couple more generations before we witness that. 

In the meantime kudos to Ana. Like Kiara Fontanesi, she is a mighty inspirational model for young girls. 

 

Total votes: 34

You raise a good point mgm. I've read in more than one place that generally speaking women have an advantage in white water kayaking because of the way they can swivel their hips compared to a man (my wife and I only do flat water kayaking so I have no direct experience with this). The same disadvantage in tennis might actually be an advantage in another sport. So is it possible that women could, for instance, use a similar advantage to rock themselves back and forth on the motorcycle saddle more effeciently than a man? I have no idea, but I think it does indicate that this is a complex subject with no easy answers. 

Total votes: 8

Not to take anything away from Anas awesome acheivments but she is the first SOLO female world champion, The first world champion was in 2016 Kirsi Kainulainen became the first woman motorcycle world champion, as passenger to Pekka Päivärinta in the FIM Sidecar World Championship.

Total votes: 28

Thanks David. Good article. I was lucky enough to talk to Ana in the paddock at Donington. Nice person, presents very well & good to talk to.

I am very pleased to see Ana win the championship. And proud that motorcycle racing is the field in which she succeeded.

Great achievement by the DS junior team as well

In Oz Tayla Relph is doing well. I supported Tracey Davies this year racing a panigale & Tracey won the Hartwell club championship, very proud of her to.

Total votes: 15

was actually very antisocial - on the Sunday group ride she took off first and stayed away from all the other riders. ;)

As for being on the DS Junior Team, it was a nice moment in parc fermé when Ana dedicated her championship to the late LS39.

Total votes: 6

Correct me if I am wrong, but I am of the opinion that when the WSS 300 class was established it was conceived as a cheaper and more attainable way for young up and coming racers from all countries to enter the world stage of motorcycle racing,not as a venue for ex GP riders to continue their racing careers in.Please do not condemn me for this observation,all credit to Ana,but she and Maria have both experienced racing at a vastly more demanding level of competition.By allowing riders from world GP classes to come back to a lower level of competition opens up a can of worms.What happens if disgraced moto3/2 riders (no names mentioned) manage to get a ride in the WSS 300 class,will the FIM allow it to happen.

Total votes: 5

Huh boy 

Edit - Oops, this response was intended for a comment further up. You can guess which one :)

Total votes: 7

This is all very exciting, and though the gender affirmataion aspect doesn't speak so strongly to me, close racing on small bikes does! It's a shame so little official material ends up on YouTube.

Congratulations Ana!

Total votes: 8