FUJI SPEEDWAY, Japan: Move over, Lewis Hamilton: an 18-year-old speed queen from Japan who is ruffling feathers in the male-dominated world of motor sports wants to take on the big boys in Formula One.
Once teased by fellow drivers and fans, Miki Koyama has silenced her critics by securing a full-time drive for the new Formula Four season, which kicks off its Japan Championship series in Okayama this weekend.
“I love speed,” Koyama told Agence France-Presse in an interview during testing at Fuji Speedway. “There’s no sport like it. I got hooked on the thrill of it when I was little and I knew there was nothing else I wanted to do.”
“My dream is to be a Formula One racer,” she added, sitting in the cockpit of her car as mechanics tinkered with the engine.
“I think it’s good to have big dreams. I’ll keep fighting until I get there,” Koyama further said.
Koyama, who began in karting as a five-year-old after dabbling with tennis and karate, made her Formula Four debut last season with a handful of top-30 finishes.
“People ask me if it isn’t dangerous but I’ve done nothing but race cars since I was little,” said Koyama after roaring down the home straight at 230 kilometers per hour against the backdrop of a snow-covered Mount Fuji. “That’s the best bit, it’s awesome!
Not ‘a girl’
“I was given a hard time when I first started but I’ve always thought gender was irrelevant. If I get results, people will just stop noticing I’m a girl. I hate being called a girl,” she said.
Koyama lines up alongside 21-year-old Ayaka Imahashi for the Minami Aoyama team.
“My parents were against me racing at first because they said it was too dangerous,” said Imahashi.
“But they agreed to come and watch me race last year and finally gave me their blessing. My mum was crying as she watched, she was so worried. She was just glad I finished in one piece,” she added.
Neither Koyama nor Imahashi look like your average petrol-head, even in racing overalls.
But neither gave an inch as they jostled with the men at Fuji.
“I don’t want to lose to the guys,” grinned Koyama, who used to clean racing cars just to be able to pick up tips.
“They are there to be beaten. But obviously it’s important to get results,” she added.
Japan has produced nine Formula One drivers to date, the most successful Kamui Kobayashi, who raced for Toyota, Sauber and Caterham from 2009-14.
Koyama and Imahashi are part of an exclusive club of female Japanese racers including Formula Three driver Ai Miura, Kumi Sato, who competed in last year’s 24-hour race at Nurburgring and Keiko Ihara, who finished on the podium at the 2002 Macau Grand Prix.
Italian Lella Lombardi was the last woman to race in Formula One, in 1976, though women have driven in other major motor racing championships, notably in the United States.
“I do think about the dangers,” said Imahashi, insisting nevertheless that the odd brush with disaster was not enough to dampen the adrenalin rush she gets from racing. “When you’re cornering at more than 100 kph and you spin and hit a wall yes, it’s dangerous, but I can’t get enough of the buzz you get.”
“I’ve crashed in practice,” she added with a sheepish grin. “But it didn’t hurt that much. You’re well protected and you don’t get shaken about too much.”
Imahashi and Koyama agree the physical battering their bodies take is the most challenging aspect of the sport.
“Physically women are built differently to men so we have to train twice as hard to develop the strength in our legs for braking and our arms for steering under stress for 30 minutes,” said Imahashi, who follows a punishing daily gym routine.
“Hopefully if more women drivers actually begin to compete, people’s attitudes will change,” said Imahashi. “But if we don’t get results, people will continue to think women are simply stealing the limelight or are just here for decoration.”
“Once we start winning, they will see we’re serious and the jokes will stop,” she added.
Unlike Imahashi – who claims she still does “girlie things like cook and make sweets” – Koyama spends most of her spare time with her car.
“I don’t have any heroes,” she said. “I just want to win. When I don’t, my mum and dad get angry at me and tell me to go faster,” she said.
“There’s nothing like that blur of the world outside flashing past your field of vision. There are no words to describe it,” Koyama added.