Circuit training

WHEN 23-YEAR-OLD Emily Fletcher drives down the motorway for one of her weekly training sessions in England she makes sure never, ever to creep over the speed limit.

Nobody wants points on their licence, but Edinburgh-based Fletcher - recently named the top qualifier for the Formula Woman novice racing championship - is especially keen to keep a clean sheet. Her official ARDS (Association of Racing Driver Schools) racing licence dropped through her letterbox last week; the last thing she wants is to lose her civilian one.

The female-only racing series Formula Woman, officially known as the Privilege Insurance Formula Woman Championship, started in 2004 in the UK. Open to any woman aged between 17 and 70, it was created to give women an opportunity to be trained to world-class level and to boost the female audience for a sport in which the customary role for women is to be eye candy - "brolly dollies", employed to shield drivers from the sun, or Formula Unas, glamorous women picked to hang around Formula One grids.

In addition to managing the race series and generating interest and sponsorship, Formula Woman also trains selected women in performance driving and race craft, and helps them with fitness, diet and media relations.

Last month, Fletcher - who gave up work to focus on her dream of being a racing driver - took part in a two-day elimination camp to narrow down the women selected from thousands of applicants for the novice championships. "There were 100 of us competing at Pembrey race track in Wales and at the end of that day they picked 32 of us," she explains. "Then at the end of the second day they cut us down to 16."

Fletcher not only made it into the final group of 16 that goes through to the championships, but came first overall and won a sponsorship place. "It felt fantastic to have made it best overall. It was kind of unexpected and amazing," she says. "I can't judge my own driving, so it's difficult to say how I managed it. We were given three laps and I apparently had the quickest time and highest points overall in all the other assessments."

The women were racing in Caterham 7 cars, an open two-seater kit car which can reach speeds of up to 130mph. "These vehicles are fantastically low to the ground, so they corner much tighter and quicker than ordinary cars. They're not necessarily the fastest but they make up any time they've lost on corners."

Now that she has made it to pole position, Fletcher's schedule is packed with trips to sponsored track days where she'll have her driving technique honed by professionals. The next few months will see her taking part in novice races at top tracks - today and tomorrow she's at Snetterton, and the final race is at the iconic Brands Hatch circuit on 3 and 4 November.

If she wins overall, the prize will be a fully funded drive in a national race series worth 25,000.

Inconveniently for Fletcher, the only well-known UK track that the women won't be whizzing around is the local Knockhill circuit in Dunfermline. So, until the end of the year it'll be up and down the motorway to England for training and races. The extra petrol will be well worth it if Fletcher wins her races, and if Formula Woman manages to raise the profile of female racing by getting these races on terrestrial television.

"They're working on TV coverage. It will definitely be covered by Sky/Motors TV, but Formula Woman are also trying to get a deal with Channel 4 or Five," she says. "It's quite difficult to get a station interested, as we have no idea what kind of audience we'd get."

And why wouldn't there be an audience for female motor sports, or even a future where Formula One is mixed sex? What are Lewis Hamilton and David Coulthard scared of? Fletcher is certain that the glass ceiling in motorsport will soon be smashed. Indeed, the first Formula Woman winner, Natasha Firman, is now a paid driver racing in a mixed team for Mazda.

"I spoke to two guys in the bookies the other day," Fletcher says. "They were betting 100 that there would be a woman racing in Formula One in the next decade. It is happening for us, slowly but surely."

• For further details about Formula Women, visit www.formulawoman.com