Kevin M. Buckley
It is a fairy tale principality made up of Alpine valleys and ancient castles, yet tiny Liechtenstein is home to the world’s first ever female world champion racing driver: Fabienne Wohlwend. Ferrari’s top female 'pilota' slowed down for a day to show us around
During a sporty childhood that included Alpine skiing and time spent in the company of her big brother Raphael and various male cousins, it was Fabienne who usually took the lead in things. ‘I was always being the test pilot, even then,’ she laughs, recalling jumping her sled in wintertime when the group of boys wouldn’t volunteer to go first. ‘Even when we’d be in a restaurant, they’d push me to be the one who spoke to the waiter,’ recalls the 23-year-old. ‘I was always a brave little thing.’
Not being intimidated when surrounded by boys would stand her in good stead when she became a racing driver, a world dominated by men. She started off in karting. Originally there just to watch Raphael whizz around a track at an amusement park in Ticino, the Italian part of Switzerland, at the end of the afternoon she pleaded to have a go herself. Dad gave way. She was instantly smitten. Her love affair with racing began that very day, just before turning seven.
She was little but she was fast and fearless. The wins came, the enthusiasm increased. By the age of eleven she had already notched up two karting titles. By the time she was sixteen dad, Edwin, a keen Ferrari fan himself, was regularly accompanying her to weekend race meetings. On five-hour trips – almost always heading out of Liechtenstein – he drove, as she sat next to him doing her school homework.
But mum, Rita, insisted their support was conditional: a high school diploma and a job qualification were a must. ‘To fall back on,’ recalls Fabienne. ‘In case, y’know, I didn’t make it as a racing driver.’ She satisfied her part of the bargain, joining a professional training scheme at VP Bank, Liechtenstein’s third largest. By the time she was 19 she was juggling bank training courses with days off to compete in Formula 4 races. ‘The bank were wonderfully supportive,’ she says.
Then in October 2017, just shy of 20, Fabienne notched up a landmark win in an Audi TT race at Imola. ‘It’s still my favourite racetrack,’ enthuses Liechtenstein’s most famous sportswoman. Then: ‘Something incredible happened’, she recalls, excitement still in her voice. On the way back home from Imola she received a message from former Swiss racer Fabio Leimer, who was working with the Octane 126 Ferrari Challenge team and had seen her racing earlier in the day. He wrote, “Hi, d’you wanna race for Ferrari?”. ‘It was on social media’, laughs Fabienne. ‘I replied: “Are you kidding!”’
A visit to Monza led to three guest drives in that season’s Ferrari Challenge and soon afterward joining the Octane 126 team founded by Christian Bertschinger. ‘Christian has backed me all the way,’’ she says. ‘And for that I’m so grateful. He’s been fantastic.’
In 2018 she really stamped herself on the world of motorsport: after finishing second in the Ferrari Challenge Europe Trofeo Pirelli AM championship she then astonished the racing world by winning the Ferrari Challenge Finali Mondiali, becoming the first ever, FIA recognised, female world champion racing driver. The next step was to join the all-female W Series. She finished sixth in a table of 20 racers in the inaugural 2019 season, notching a podium finish at Misano, and she’ll compete again in 2021 after the 2020 season was interrupted by Covid-19.
That little go-karting girl now sits aboard her Ferrari with 650cv and eight cylinders that have seen ‘303kph on the straights at Monza’ but maybe her childhood self wouldn’t be surprised. There is a ten year-old school yearbook in Liechtenstein that lists classmates’ juvenile ambitions for their futures. Alongside a certain blonde-haired girl’s name there is an unusual entry: “Formula 1 champion!” Watch this space...