By Ann Bradshaw, England
Autosport-Atlas Special Columnist
In this week's column, Ann Bradshaw considers the concept of bravery - in a world that is used to confirming courageousness on track rather than in the personal lives of those in the paddock, a recent meeting has made her reconsider her ideas about what it means to be brave...
Bravery is a word often used in motor racing. It is usually associated to daring deeds on the track. Overtaking manoeuvres are often talked about in hushed terms as brave. We all have our memories of audacious moves and some have gone down in motorsport history.
There have also been amazing laps that even make other drivers wish they could do the same. I remember a Nigel Mansell qualifying lap where he literally slung his Williams around Silverstone and, after claiming pole, sauntered nonchalantly into the drivers' debrief room. There waiting for him was his team mate, Riccardo Patrese, and Nigel sat down but was instantly told to stand up by the Italian.
A look of concern came over Nigel's face as he had no idea what this was all about and he was not used to seeing Riccardo so agitated. He didn't have to wait long as Riccardo shouted excitedly: "Stand up - I want to see how big your balls are." That was a real complement from a fellow competitor.
I was in Imola at the weekend for the latest World Touring Car Championship races, and most people reckoned that BMW Team UK's Andy Priaulx was brave. He had been 14th and 23rd in the two free practice sessions, and nothing seemed to make his BMW 320i work. The team had to take some calculated guesses that were quite drastic, so when he went out on the track he had no idea how the car was going to react. The Guernsey driver wanted a good grid position, so he just hurled the car round and hoped it would stay on the track. It did, and his team were ecstatic with what he had achieved. That was brave.
While waiting for the touring cars to qualify I sat watching qualifying for the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, and saw BMW WilliamsF1 driver Nick Heidfeld snatch pole from the McLaren Mercedes team; his pole was amazing and he was brave, as the pressure he was under must have been immense.
However, I am now coming to the point of my story about bravery. At Imola I witnessed a form of bravery that I consider equal in its way to anything I have ever seen on a racing track. This was from a man called Carly Pellinkhof. For those of you not familiar with what has happened over the past few years in the European Touring Car Championship let me explain first who Carly is: he is the owner of Carly Motors, a Dutch team that has successfully entered BMW touring cars in the Championship.
When I first met him he was running the BMW GB cars for Dutch heroes Tom Coronel and Duncan Huisman; when RBM took this over Carly continued running the BMW 320i cars, but as a privateer. In fact his team won the Independents' Trophy for two years running, with Duncan in 2003 and then Tom in 2004.
I often used to visit Carly in his garage, where he was always glued to his computer. He was a warm, friendly man who had a devoted team round him. He was also helped by his glamorous girlfriend Fem, who acted as team manager. I used to laugh with him about the computer, as the only times he took his fingers off the keypad was to light another cigarette. I also used to joke with Fem that Carly had another woman in his life - his computer.
It is strange how these words have come back to me in Imola, as I was right about him having another woman in his life. The woman was inside him. Carly was leading a double life, as he knew inside that his true feelings were those of a female and not a male.
The last time I saw Carly before this weekend in Imola was in Macau. We were partying after the race, and he was his usual fun to be with self. It was just six months ago, but the Carly I met in Imola was the woman who had at last been released. Coming into that Paddock as a woman was to me an act of bravery. He was tall, slim and blonde. His nails were long and red and, while Carly was not short, he literally towered above me in his six inch heels.
I can't deny the first time I saw him was a shock. Tom Coronel had told me he was in the paddock so I went to find him. Luckily my shock was momentary as once I exchanged the obligatory three kisses that the Dutch always give their friends, I felt totally at ease with him. My only problem now is what do I call him - him or her? Carly would want me to say her, so from now on I shall.
It was amazing to hear from her the story. After Macau a long road began, that will not finish until May 2006. She had to get rid of all her male clothes and become a female. However, she explained to my friend Heike Bartsch, who looks after BMW communications in the WTCC, that when she was invited to the BMW Motorsport Party in Austria in December she realised there was nothing appropriate for this in the new wardrobe. She had to go out and buy a new suit. Hopefully this will be the last time she has to do that.
It would be wrong to pretend everyone in the paddock felt as easy with her as Heike and myself. I think there was genuine fear with others who did not know what to say. Do you still pretend you are talking to the old Carly, or accept the new one and talk accordingly? Schnitzer's Charly Lamm had no such problem. He sat down with Carly and talked to the new person. Carly was smiling and happy as this was something he had surely dreamed would happen, but feared would not.
She also visited every garage in the WTCC paddock and met the same response - welcome back. A top German journalist sat down and had an interview with Carly and his words as he walked away were "I take my hat of to Carly."
She has made no secret of what is happening in her life in her native Holland, and the press there has been supportive. She let one journalist read her autobiography, and the resulting article was one she is proud of. Happily now she has put another demon to rest in the WTCC paddock, and she said she was pleased she came. The really good news is she will be back with her team in the WTCC if all goes according to plan. Fem has stayed with her for help and support, the boys at Carly Motors have remained faithful and the plan she had once to disappear to Thailand to find a new life with a new identity is now no longer an option.
We hear a lot of talk about people in motorsport having no compassion and thinking only of themselves, but I was proud to be in a paddock at the weekend that welcomed back one of its regulars with open arms rather than turned backs and snide comments.
I shall be back with the series I enjoy working in at Spa to look after my 'charge' Andy Priaulx - another lovely person. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to be able to walk into the Carly Motors garage and joke with Carly again about that computer. This time I shall be saying he has a man in his life, and I hope one of these days it will not just be the computer, but someone who sees her for what she is - a decent, honest person.