In a sport and industry largely dominated by men, it takes courage, mental strength and talent for a woman to break into the male monopoly in motorsport and win the prestigious Dakar Rally.
In 2001, Jutta Kleinschmidt became the first woman to win Dakar Rally. No one has repeated the astonishing feat since then, earning the Cologne-born motor racer the unparalleled moniker of Miss Dakar.
A veteran of bike and car categories, Kleinschmidt has been part of Dakar Rally in different capacities over three decades and in three continents.
The former off-road racer explains how she was pleasantly surprised on visiting the kingdom, which stage of Dakar Saudi Arabia 2020 is most challenging and why she is excited to come back next year.
A) Academic background and career impact
1. You studied physics and worked at BMW. Did that help you in any way in your racing career?
It didn’t affect my decision [to pursue racing as a career] but it helped me for sure because, as a race driver, if you have a technical understanding it always helps, especially in two cases; first of all in cross country, sometimes you have to repair your car by yourself when you are out in the desert because there is no service. It also helps a lot during testing because you can work with other engineers and offer your input as a driver.
Technical knowledge also helped me a lot with acceptance because it is a bit more difficult for a woman to be accepted [in this sport] because some people at first might think that a woman does not have the technical knowledge or driving skills, so if you have the knowledge you are accepted in this field that is dominated by men, so it definitely helped me.
It is also good to understand the physics behind your driving style because sometimes it feels fast, but it is not as fast, like when you are drifting. And if you understand the physics, it will be easier to do it.
B) Early career
2. When and how did you start your racing career? Did anyone or anything influence your decision?
My starting point was my own dreams. No one in my family practiced motorsports. But I loved motorcycles and started riding since I was six and entered competitions, which motivated me to continue. I also love adventure, and this combination brought me to cross country racing.
3. You started racing as a biker and then switched from bikes to cars in 1994. Why did you make the switch? What is the difference between the two categories during the race time?
The first reason is that I wanted to have a new challenge. When you achieve something, you look for new goals and something else to motivate you, and I was looking for a new challenge. For me, the move to cars was a big challenge but it was a clever move. At a certain age, it is better to move to cars because cars are much safer than motorcycles. You start becoming more careful when you get older. When you are young, you don’t think about what happens when you fall down, but then you become more experienced and you think to yourself that it hurts. When you move from bike to cars, you feel incredibly safe in comparison.
4. Did you like bikes or cars more? (3)
Both were very challenging. The bike was physically harder, so if you are not trained you won’t make it. In cars, you must be physically fit as well but the key is to be concentrated all the time because the race is so long. When you race for several hours, your concentration goes down, and as soon as that happens you become slower in decision-making, and that is why you must be fit as well.”
C) Women in Dakar
5. Reflecting on your Dakar Rally win in 2001, what was the biggest challenge that you faced on your way to victory?
I think it is a combination of long stages and many days. The duration was even longer than this year [in Saudi Arabia]. It was close to three weeks of racing and the daily stages were longer. For me personally, the most difficult day was the last day because I was leading by a very small margin and I had to pass through the dunes. I was leading by less than three minutes and this can be easily
by one puncture or getting stuck. I was extremely afraid [to lose my lead] and the night before the last day was one of my most difficult nights. When I started the final day, it was ok, but the wait was [very difficult] because you don’t know what is coming ahead.
6. Being the first and only woman to win Dakar, what does it mean for women in motorsport in terms of equality and being able to do what they love?
It shows that women can achieve everything if you really believe in your skill and really want to do something. I loved this sport and wanted to compete, and I never thought about my gender in that process. So, I was a competitor against the others, and I wanted to win against them. I felt equal and, for me internally, there was no reason I could not achieve that. And this is important because of the [predominant belief] that women are not as good [as men] because of the difference in physical strength, but motorsport has many other skills and it is not as important to be muscular. This is one of the things I like about motorsport; it is one of the very few sports that are mixed.
D) Dakar legacy on Saudi girls
7. Do you have any plans to work with Saudi girls who might have a dream about making it in motorsports?
I spoke to [HRH Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al Abdullah Al Faisal], president of the Saudi Automotive and Motorcycle Federation (SAMF), and he told me that he wants to do something for women here, especially for racing in Dakar Rally.
I also know that Dakar is starting an academy here, and the prince and us are [looking into the possibility of having] a class for women to teach them racing in this kind of cars, and I’m very happy to be one of the instructors.
E) Dakar Saudi Arabia 2020
8. You’ve been part of Dakar Rally in Africa, South America and now in Saudi Arabia in different capacities. How different is Saudi Arabia from the other two continents in terms of terrain and landscape?
Saudi Arabia is quite similar to Africa. In Africa, we passed through a lot of countries and each of them was different… The beginning of Dakar Saudi Arabia was a bit like Morocco with a lot of rocks, the middle part is more open, and the final part has more dunes, so it is quite similar to Africa.
9. Which stage of Dakar Saudi Arabia 2020 do you think is the most challenging?
I think the second half of Dakar Saudi Arabia 2020 is more difficult than the first one because there are much more dunes. The first half didn’t have that much dunes. It was rockier and was more challenging in terms of navigation and rocky terrain, and we could see [the effect on the ground] in how the average speed was higher. In my experience, the most difficult part is always the dunes… as long as you can drive! I think the first half had more beautiful landscape, but the second part is more difficult.
10. Which stage were you looking forward to the most out of the 12 stages?
I think the third stage (Neom – Neom), which was a loop, was extremely beautiful in terms of landscape, and even the organizers said so. But I personally love the dunes, so I was looking forward to the Empty Quarter because it is the most challenging. As a pilot, you have to respect the dunes because you know you can lose everything if you make one mistake.
11. Several drivers have had flat tyres in Dakar Saudi Arabia 2020. If you were competing this year, what would be a strategy that you would use to overcome such an obstacle?
It is very difficult because the stones here are very sharp, and the problem here is that you don’t see why you have a puncture. You just drive over the stone and hit it at the wrong moment, and it cuts your tyre. It is a bit unlucky. Of course you can avoid that a little bit by trying not to drift too much in the corners where the sharp rocks usually exist, but sometimes it just happens because the rocks are as sharp as knives.
12. What do you think of the nature in Saudi desert? Was it anything like what you expected?
I was quite surprised [when I came to Saudi Arabia] because I had no idea and I was never here, and there aren’t many pictures around of this beautiful area. There are some in movies, but none are really from inside the desert, which we discovered when we went there, and I was positively surprised by the beautiful nature.
13. How has Saudi Arabia been as a Dakar host? How has your experience been like?
In the beginning, it was a bit difficult for everyone because we got a lot of mixed messages that Dakar went to Saudi Arabia. It was a change and people don’t like change. I didn’t know what to expect but I’m always open and interested in new things, and I was extremely surprised in a positive way, especially by two things; the first thing was that people here were very friendly and extremely helpful and open, which is important. I didn’t feel during the event that I have to behave in a different way. You always respect the culture of the country you are in, but I had no trouble whatsoever doing what I do anywhere else. This country has so many different landscapes. That it is possible to find everything in one country was very surprising.
14. Are you looking forward to coming back to Saudi Arabia for Dakar 2021? Definitely. There is no question about that.