Interview: From Catwalk to F3

Keiko Ihara used to pose by the track as a Japanese "race queen"

Now the 31-year-old has swapped her leotard for driver's overalls and is determined to make it in the male world of motor racing. After six years driving in Britain, France and Asia, Ihara is competing in the British Formula Three championship.

"When I first said I wanted to be a racing driver, everyone laughed at me because I was a model and no one took it seriously," Ihara told Reuters during testing at Snetterton circuit in eastern England.

"But when I won my first race, everyone started asking me what my targets were."

For now, those targets centre on performing well in Formula Three with Carlin Motorsport, the team with which her compatriot, F1 driver Takuma Sato, won the British F3 in 2001.

In her first race at Donington Park this season she came 16th. "Physically, it's very hard," she said, "I need to work out every day. Motor racing is a man's world."

Her age and experience are also barriers - she started at the age of 26 and did not learn to race in karts like many other drivers.

"It is very scary, very competitive and there are a lot of good drivers in this category from around the world," she said.

"It is quite hard for me because I have less experience and everyone started motor racing much earlier than I did. But it is not impossible so I will try. I do my best every day."

Racing Queen

It was on her first day on the circuit as a "race queen" that Ihara knew she had found what she wanted to do in life.

The Japanese student, who had taken up modelling to finance her love of skiing, fell for the noise and speed of the cars.

"I knew from then on that I didn't want to stand next to the car but I wanted to be in it," Ihara said.

First she had to take a driving test because she didn't have a licence. "I wasn't interested in driving a normal car."

It took her four years to save enough money and find sponsorship and she first raced in the Ferrari Challenge in 1999.

She competed in British Formula Renault in 2000 and French Formula Three in 2001. Since then, she has raced in the AF-2000, Formula BMW Asia, where she came third, and Formula Dream in Japan.

She has gone through several sponsors, many of whom pulled out because of Japan's economic recession. Japanese cosmetics maker, Ivy Cosmetics, backs her now.

"It is very difficult to get a sponsor as some think that as a woman you won't succeed. For men it's easy," she said.

There have been several women drivers in F1 but their success has been limited. Italian Lella Lombardi was the only one to post a top six finish, at the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix.

"It's very hard for women," Carlin team manager David Lowe said. "But Keiko is very determined and she's getting better."

It was on Sato's advice that Ihara headed to Britain.

"I thought of coming to England because there are a lot of good drivers here and this is where I can improve," she said.

"Sato also started quite late but he improved very quickly and I wanted to do that."

The question remains whether she has enough time to achieve her unlikely dream of driving in F1.

"Of course I want to race in Formula One. I can't say I will but of course I want to try to get there," she said.

"The target now is to be in the top six, stand on the podium and race world championships. If I can do that then I have a chance to race in Formula One.

"But I should hurry up because I am old."

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