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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 March 2005, 12:04 GMT
Ex-model aims to be racing success
Keiko Ihara
Keiko Ihara has been racing since 1999

Britain's Formula Three championship has become renowned as a training ground for future Formula One stars - but this year it will play host to an intriguing new hopeful.

Japanese former model Keiko Ihara will race in F3 as the latest woman to try to crack the male-dominated world of motorsport.

The list of women who have made a career in international motorsport is short enough - but Ihara joins an even more exclusive club in Japan.

She is only the second Japanese woman to race outside her home country, following on from Tomiko Yasikawa, who raced at the famous Le Mans 24 Hours sportscar race in 1992.

Ihara is taking only the first tentative steps in her quest, but her presence in the British championship - traditionally the best F3 series in the world - lends her credence, as does the fact that she is racing for the Carlin team.

One driver stopped asking me out to dinner when I raced against him - he said I was too determined
Keiko Ihara
The list of names who have used British F3 as a springboard to major success is long and impressive, with Ayrton Senna, Mika Hakkinen, Rubens Barrichello and David Coulthard among them.

Add to that those who have raced with Carlin - Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen and most recently India's first F1 driver Narain Karthikeyan - and it is clear Ihara is joining a team with a solid pedigree.

But for 31-year-old Ihara, it was the input of BAR F1 driver Takuma Sato, British F3 champion for Carlin in 2001, that made her aim for where she is now.

No Japanese driver has made it to F1 via the domestic F3 or Formula Nippon series, and it was her friend Sato who told her to head for England and join Formula Renault in 2000.

1999 National Ferrari 355 Championship
2000 British Formula Renault
2001 French Formula Three
2002 Asian Formula 2000 Series
2003 Formula BMW Asian Series
2005 British Formula Three

There have been two high points of her career so far.

The first was being the first woman to win a race sanctioned by the motorsport's governing body, the FIA, when she won two races in the Asian Formula-2000 series.

And when she finished third in the AF-2000 category at the 2002 Macau Grand Prix she became the first women on the podium in the event's 50-year history.

So how is it for a woman in the men's world of motor racing?

"When I first started racing in French Formula Three, another Japanese driver kept asking me out to dinner.

"But I raced against him and he stopped hitting on me," she said.

"He said I was too determined."

Ihara modelled to finance her career as a competitive freestyle skier while still at university, and it was at a modelling assignment - standing in an leotard on the grid - that she first got a taste for motor racing.

She was captivated by the atmosphere and was determined to become a racing driver.

But she is not the first to have a go and the number of women who have broken into F1 are few.

They include Maria Teresa de Filippis, who came 10th at the 1958 Belgian Grand Prix, and fellow Italian Lella Lombardi, who became the only woman to score an F1 point when she finished sixth in Spain in 1975.

There is no physical reason why a woman could not compete with men on the track - while F1 requires extremely high levels of fitness, it is more about strength and stamina than bulk.

We like breaking new ground, and one day there will be a successful female driver in F1
Trevor Carlin
F3 team boss

But Ihara knows that her physical condition is something she has to work on.

"I'm building up my overall muscles, particularly in the neck and shoulder and around the backbone, to battle the rising g-force," she said.

If it's not the physical demands holding women back, then it's quite possibly an attitude problem.

But with the first woman to crack the world of F1, would come unlimited publicity and sponsorship potential.

Something Carlin team boss Trevor Carlin is well aware of.

"We like breaking new ground, and one day there will be a successful female driver in F1," he said.

Of working in a man's world, although having struggled with the concept mentally to start, Ihara says on a practical level, it is not really a problem.

"I don't feel any handicap in the team, being a woman or a Japanese.

"On test days, my team-mates go outside the transporter which we share when I change my clothes. They are all kind enough," she said.

This season is as much about geography as anything else for Ihara: "In Britain, I feel close to F1 and have chances to see F1 tests, as well.

"What I aim for now is to become the best F3 rookie of the year.

"If I strictly do what I should do this year, I will have a chance to test for F1," she said.

Women's driving ambition to join F1
14 Aug 03 |  Formula One
Women's series gets green light
09 Jan 03 |  Motorsport

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