Thursday 23 January 2020

Life in the slow lane for speed queen Sarah Kavanagh

Former speed queen Sarah Kavanagh relishes the quiet life in her hilltop hideaway in the South of France, light years away from screaming engines, pit lanes and boy racers. Words and photography by Barbara McCarthy

Sarah Kavanagh and her son Finley.
Sarah Kavanagh and her son Finley.
Sarah Kavanagh and son Finley in the Cote D'Azur residence.
Sarah Kavanagh in her car racing days. Photo: Ray Cullen.
Sarah Kavanagh in south of France.

It's over ten years since Irish motor racing star Sarah Kavanagh finally hung up her racing overeralls. She raced her way up the ranks from go- karting to securing a drive with Jaguar Formula 1 for the 2004 season. Kavanagh was to join the elite of the elite and become the first Irish woman to do so. The deal could have propelled her to F1 glory, but Jaguar never made the grid that year and Kavanagh and her husband Mike retreated to their idyllic home on the Cote d'Azur to pursue the good life.

These days, they live in the peaceful paradise of a 300-year-old restored country house high up in the mountains between Monaco and Nice.

"When we first bought this house 11 years ago it was completely derelict," she explained when she picked me up at the bottom of a steep and extremely potholed hill in her 4x4. "We had no electricity and used to walk up the 2km rocky drive with sleeping bags, torches and other must-haves. It was February too and we had only been here in the summertime so we got a huge shock. We've come a long way, but the house is still not finished. It's a labour of love."

She says they used to divide their time between Ireland and France, but in recent years the restored villa has become their full-time home. "It's great up here. You get left alone. You can listen to music or leave the front door unlocked. No one comes up here by chance. We're in no hurry to finish it."

The perfect southern French dream home is tucked away amongst old olive trees, some of which are over 300 years old. "We pick olives and then bring them to the olive mill down the road to make olive oil. The mill has a great reputation around here, even the monks from a nearby monastery use it," she adds. "Since moving here, we have come to love the trees. There's a Roman well on the property too. When you are surrounded by such history, it makes you wonder what the walls would say if they could talk. We are merely a small part of time passing. It's really humbling."

A million miles from Formula 1, Kavanagh and her husband both work from the quiet idyll of their home. "I do a lot of writing, putting together reviews of the local area for online publications. It's great because we can spend time with my two-year-old son, Finley." When Finley arrives home from a trip out with his dad, he runs into the garden to play with his mother against a magnificent French sunset.

"It's like that most evenings. We spend most of our time outdoors. It's hard to beat," says Kavanagh, who doesn't appear to have aged a day since she quit racing.

"At weekends we go to the markets in Italy or go to the beaches near here. We're 20 minutes from Monaco and Nice so we can go for dinner in either without having to live there. Rents in Monaco are the highest in the world. You can't get a place where you could swing a cat in for less than a couple of million or more. We'd rather be up here and not get caught up in the politics of the place," she adds.

"When my motor racing career ended, I went though a grieving process. I was standing in the front yard when I got the phonecall and my world just fell apart. I was so close to driving Formula 1 after years trying that I felt like I had failed. It was devastating. Looking back now though, ten years later, I realise how far I actually got," she reasons. "But it took me a long time to appreciate it."

By racing driver standards, Kavanagh started her career very late. Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna were three-years-old when they were first strapped into a go-kart. Kavanagh was 18.

"After I finished school, I moved to Brighton in the UK to attend art college. My parents weren't too impressed at the time. They wanted me to do something more practical, something where I could make a few quid, so you can imagine what they said when I decided I was going to be a motor racing driver." A random trip to a motor racing event with friends provided a turning point for Kavanagh and she decided to ditch college and follow her new dream.

She started off by buying herself a second hand go-kart and entering competitive races. Commendable results and a drive in a single-seater racing car followed. Despite financial restrictions, Kavanagh secured drives in Ireland and the UK in Formula Ford, Formula Vauxhall and British Formula 2. After impressive lap times and performances, Kavanagh was able to race in the prestigious Formula Nippon series in Japan, where she raced at the world-famous Suzuka track in front of 60,000 spectators.

"Driving racing cars is extremely expensive if you don't have sponsors right away, which nobody does. I got a €10,000 bank loan for my first drive. Mad when you think about it. I can't imagine a bank manager dishing out that kind of money now if you went to tell him you were going motor racing."

It turned out to be a drop in the ocean anyway. Such small sums are a pittance in motor racing and could barely buy you a single component for your car. Parts, start fees and mechanics cost a fortune. "When I was driving during the 1990s to drive a Formula 3000 car for the year cost well over €1 million." To drive a Formula 1 car for the season would have cost up to €10 million. Nonetheless, potential sponsors took note of her talents and deals came in with Dublin Bus amongst others.

She also got picked up by the media and a successful TV career followed. "I was offered a job hosting a TV show on RTE called 'Drive'. It was great, despite the fact that I had absolutely no presenting experience. I was also invited to audition for 'Top Gear', but Jeremy Clarkson and myself never really hit it off. I was glad I didn't get the show in the end."

Meanwhile, Kavanagh took Eddie Jordan's advice when he said: "If you want to drive Formula 1, you need a Formula 1 car", and so she got Rubens Barrichello's 1993 Jordan in 2001 and raced in the Euroboss series, a European-based championship where older Formula 1 cars race each other. "It's a great learning ground and a great way to get experience driving an F1 car."

Though she could only start a few races, Kavanagh achieved lap records in Brands Hatch Indy circuit and Mondello Park. "This was around the time when Bernie Ecclestone, the head of Formula 1, said he did not believe women will make it in Formula One."

Kavanagh encountered no shortage of sexism, smugness and snide comments throughout her career. "I remember meeting a certain motor racing legend and he just looked at my chest the whole time, even though I was in my overalls," she recalls.

"I had to come to grips with the delicate male ego a lot. It's very frustrating. When I started in cars you gathered points by gathering signatures from the marshals on your racing licence. After each race you get a signature. A lot of the time, the clerks didn't want to give me their signatures because they didn't believe I deserved them. Women shouldn't be on the track it was widely thought."

Though not all racing drivers were like that, she adds. "I remember Juan Pablo Montoya, the Colombian Formula 1 driver as being extremely friendly. He is a great driver, so he didn't have to feel insecure. We didn't all hang out together or anything. Socially it was no craic. Everyone took racing very seriously. You had to watch everything you ate, train really hard and not drink or party during the season, so everyone was quite boring."

Kavanagh says she would love to see a woman do well in Formula 1. "It would be fantastic. It's such a male-dominated environment. There have been women in the past, but they are few and far between. When you think about it, there are only 22 people in the world driving Formula 1 and people only know the top four or five. It's insane. Each year there might be a few drives available, but getting the foot in is impossible. It's tougher than any other sport in that sense."

Despite her lack of experience on the track compared to some of the other drivers, she attracted the attention of the McLaren F1 team. The British outfit, which had Finnish world champion Mika Häkkinen as its number one driver that year (2001), invited Sarah for a performance assessment. She was judged to be fit enough and fast enough to test-drive the car the following season.

Though nothing came of the drive, it was a huge coup and one which makes her ponder what she would have been like as a driver. "In order to be champion from 22 incredible drivers, you need to be borderline psychotic. You have to have a killer instinct. There has to be a part of you that's not human where emotions and things like that are concerned," she laughs. "I admire the people who are extra special like that."

I look around the kitchen and see Kavanagh's famous orange, green and white racing helmet sitting by the rustic stove on a beautiful table. I remember it so well from those days. "You know, my son only found that a few weeks ago. It's been 
hidden away for years." So there's no chance she would want him to get into motor racing then? "God no, hopefully not. I don't know how my parents did it. They must have been beside themselves. It was madness," she says.

'They were so against it at first, but in the end my mother was my biggest fan. I was so proud to see her in the crowd cheering me on.

"It's funny, I don't even watch Formula 1 any more. It used to be great seeing Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost race each other. I remember being in Monaco at the Grand Prix in the early 1990s and waiting around outside the pit for hours to get a photograph of Senna. It was so worthwhile. He was such an amazing person.

"I still go to the Monaco Grand Prix every year. It's really good fun. For all the wealth and the pomp, it is extremely inclusive and everyone can be part of it. No one closes a door in your face here. People are very welcoming of guests and it's a great day out. Last year, we even brought Finley to the free practice with safety ear muffs. He loved it."

So does she not miss the feeling of ferocious fear followed by unbridled euphoria? "I haven't been in a racing car in 10 years. But I'll never forget that feeling. Every time I was about to get into a 500 bhp car I was terrified thinking 'what the hell am I doing?' There could be a thousand people or just a man and his dog taking a track-side walk, but the feeling is the same.

"Nothing, absolutely nothing else matters than what's going on in the race. You live in the moment. It's almost Buddhist like. It was amazing. It's a feeling you can never compare to anything else. Flying down a start-finish straight in a Formula 1 car with the engine roaring…"

She looks back with a huge smile on her face. "Those were great days and I'm so glad I did it all."

Irish Independent

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