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Sunday, April 29, 2012

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Fearless: Formula 3 driver Keiko Ihara has not let being female hold her back from competing in the male-dominated sport of auto racing. SATOSHI HINO

Ihara living out her dream as endurance racer

Staff writer

Despite being a top-level female racer and entering the sport at a late age, Keiko Ihara wanted to advance to mainstream motor racing.

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Determined: Keiko Ihara speaks to The Japan Times at a recent interview in Tokyo. YOSHIAKI MIURA

Well, actually, when she started racing, where she wanted to get to was British Formula Three. That is perhaps because Ihara, who was already 25 years old when she sat behind the wheel of a race car, knew it was realistically the furthest she could possibly reach.

But once she made it there, Ihara's ambitions increased.

"I wanted to compete ultimately in a world championships like the F1," Ihara said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

This year, her goal was fulfilled at age 38. Ihara earned a seat for the Gulf Racing Middle East team to drive in the inaugural World Endurance Championships.

Even if you haven't heard of the endurance race, you're probably familiar with 24 Hours of Le Mans, which is considered one of the world's three biggest races along with Formula One's Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500. Le Mans, which is held in June, is now part of the eight-race WEC series. Japan is in the series and will host the Mount Fuji 6 Hours at Fuji Speedway in mid-October.

In the WEC, there are four different categories and championships — Le Mans Prototype 1 (LMP1), LMP2, Le Mans Grand Touring Endurance (LM GTE Pro) and LM GTE Amateur — and they all take the track simultaneously. The Gulf Racing Middle East, depicted by actor Steve McQueen's driving in the 1971 movie "Le Mans," is in the LMP2 class.

Before being acquired by Gulf to race in the WEC, Ihara had mainly driven open-wheel formula cars, such as F3 and Asian Formula 2000. For her, it was a big adjustment, including the shape of the head-covered car and the length of each race (at least six hours).

With a smile Iihara said she was thrilled to take the next challenge at the highest level.

The Tokyo native said it's an incredible feeling to have reached the peak of one of the FIA-sanctioned world championship series.

"I didn't have an opportunity to race in F1, but I'm extremely excited to have gotten this chance to compete in another world championship," she said, "and I feel fortunate that I got there by having come to the mainstream of the sport."

Ihara, a former race queen for the Benetton Formula One team in the late 1990s, competed in the prestigious British Formula Three International Series in 2005 and '06. (The British F3 has produced numerous future F1 champions: the late Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet, Mika Hakkinen, Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, among others, and is widely considered the road to get into F1.)

"I've always liked to drive formula cars," Ihara said. "But in terms of the prototype cars in Le Mans and WEC, they're made only for the race, which means they are formula machines, too."

Ihara said that competing in an endurance race requires completely different skills and techniques than the ones she used in sprint races in the past.

"Formula races are sprint races, so people may think it's not so demanding physically because it's a shorter race," Ihara said. "But it does require physical strength. You've got to go 100 percent all the time."

She said endurance race drivers face different challenges in completing races, which are longer competitions, while sharing a car and driving time with your teammates (three pilots share a car in the WEC).

"In the endurance race, you can't go 100 percent all the time because otherwise your car wouldn't tolerate until the end," she said. "And you may not think it's demanding physically, either. But it's a long race, you make substitutions with your teammates, and you've got to take naps and eat in between. So there are certainly some different difficulties in it."

Ihara, who has had success in every international stage in which she has competed, drives Gulf Racing's No. 29, a Nissan engine-powered Lola B12/80 car.

Not just in the WEC, where she's the only female pilot, Ihara is and has always been an exceptional kind because of her gender.

While Danica Patrick is the world's most famous female racer, Ihara's career has overlapped with hers, though they were in different categories.

"When I was in Britain, she (Patrick) was there, driving in a lower category, when I was in the Formula Renault in 2001," recalled Ihara, who didn't have a regular driver's license until she decided to become a pro racer.

Patrick, who moved to NASCAR from the IndyCar series this year, is now a superstar in the United States. Ihara said, however, that Patrick's current stardom doesn't particularly motivate her.

"(It's) because I've always wanted to be in the mainstream of auto racing," Ihara said, referring to British Formula Ford and British F3 as the motor sport's legitimate route to F1.

"If Danica had been successful in any world championships, such as F1 or F3, it would light some fire in me."

Some skeptics may say females will get overexposure in a male-dominated sport. Ihara, on the other hand, views publicity as a good thing.

"I don't have any problems and am happy about it (getting media attention)," she said. "But think about it, even if you were a man, if you are a lightweight boxer and knock out a heavyweight boxer, you would get exposure. So whether I'm a woman or a man, I think if you have an astonishing result, your story will appear in the papers. So my gender doesn't really matter any more."

In March, at the 12 Hours of Sebring in Florida, the first race of the WEC series this year, Ihara's No. 29 car didn't complete enough laps in the practice sessions and failed to advance to the final race.

Ihara's next race will be the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium on May 5.

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