Pippa Mann’s racing career has been as fascinating to watch as it has been history-making.

Born in London, she grew up a motorsport fan who loved the fearlessness and bravery of Nigel Mansell and Gilles Villeneuve, before she decided to follow in their footsteps when she entered the racing world in 2003.

After three seasons in the junior Formula Renault categories, in 2007 she was launched into the Formula Renault 3.5 Series, the feeder category for Formula 1. She became the championship’s first ever female racer, and also its first pole-sitter.

But disillusioned with the European racing scene and struggling to find a decent budget, Pippa headed across the Atlantic, and in 2009 she found herself competing in the Firestone Indy Lights championship.

Settling quickly into oval racing and the more casual racing environment in North America, she blossomed. In 2010, she became the first female racer to qualify on pole for any race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and won her first race at Kentucky Speedway later in the season.

In 2011, Pippa Mann made history by becoming the first female British racing driver to qualify for the famous Indianapolis 500, and that year was the only debutante to make the grid, outqualifying several more-fancied runners.

She had deals for three more race outings in 2011, but injured her back next time out at New Hampshire, and then suffered serious burns to her right hand when she was one of fifteen drivers caught up in the fatal Dan Wheldon crash at Las Vegas at the end of the year.

Last year was about recovery from the physical and emotional scars of Las Vegas, but she returned to the open-wheel cockpit with a one-off Auto GP outing at Sonoma, proving she’d lost none of her speed.

With extra motivation at hand and with the IndyCar Series remaining unfinished business, Pippa is working furiously to raise enough funds to get back into America’s premier open-wheel racing championship, and she took time out of her schedule to speak with our IndyCar correspondent Matt Lennon…

Full Name: Pippa Mann
Nationality: British
Born: 11 August 1983, London (GBR)

Entries: 3 Races: 2 Non-starts: 1
Wins: 0 Best Finish: 20th Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0 Points: 32 Retirements: 0

2004 British Formula Renault 2.0, Team JVA, 17 races, 34th overall
2005 French Formula Renault 2.0, Comtec Racing, 12 races, 21st overall
2006 Formula Renault 2.0 EuroCup, Comtec Racing, 14 races, Not Classified
British Formula Renault 2.0, Comtec Racing, 16 races, 19th overall
2007 Formula Renault 3.5 Series, Cram Competition, 16 races, 27th overall
2008 Formula Renault 3.5 Series, P1 Motorsport, 17 races, 25th overall
Porsche Carrera Cup Great Britain, Team Eurotech, 6 races, 17th overall
2009 Firestone Indy Lights, Panther Racing, 15 races, 14th overall
2010 Firestone Indy Lights, Sam Schmidt Motorsports, 12 races, 1 win, 5th overall
2011 IndyCar Series, Conquest Racing / Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 2 races, 38th overall
2012 AutoGP World Series, Campos Racing, 2 races, 20th overall

Who were your motorsport idols growing up in England?

I remember growing up watching Nigel Mansell as a child. There weren’t any prominent female drivers, but he was the best known, most competitive British driver at the time. As I grew older and started paying more attention to older Formula one races, I discovered the inimitable style of Gilles Villeneuve, so as I got older, he was someone who I looked up to too.

For many motor racers, there is usually some sort of experience as a child that hooks them on the drug that is racing, whether it be their first time karting, or meeting a legendary racer in their prime, for example. Do you have a story on how you fell in love with the sport?

I grew up a race fan in a house where no one was involved with racing in any way – except for my father being a fan. I was going to Silverstone with him to watch the Formula One British Grand Prix by the time I was 11, then one day, I had the chance to drive an indoor go kart at the local track near our house. That was it. I was no longer interested in being just a spectator. I was hooked!

What kind of differences do you see between the UK/European style of racing compared to the predominantly oval, high-speed spectacles that is the US?

One of the big things I love about racing in the US is that in general the paddock is a friendlier environment, and that the racing tends to be cleaner as a result.

In Europe, so many times drivers seem to think nothing of forcing another driver onto the grass or into the pit wall, and you occasionally get that everywhere, but it is much rarer here.

As for racing on ovals, it’s become one of my favourite parts of racing in America, and one of the things that would be the hardest to give up. The Indianapolis 500 is the greatest race in the world to me now, and I am incredibly proud and lucky to have had the opportunity to compete in it.

Have you ever competed in Australia before? What racing series or circuits do you see as goals to compete on in your career?

The closest I got to racing in Australia was actually Japan! I spent three years living in Italy, racing karts professionally, and we came across each year for the World Cup. I have recently visited Australia, but I haven’t ever raced there!

As far as my career goes in the future, trying to raise the sponsorship to be back in IndyCar on a regular basis and become a consistent fixture over the coming years at the Indy 500 is a very big thing for me. However I am always open to trying new things, and I know there seems to be a recent tradition of IndyCar drivers coming to Australia to take part in the race on the Gold Coast each year… Given the opportunity I’d definitely be up for trying that out!

What spurred the decision to move your career to the US rather than continue up the rungs into higher categories in Europe?

By the time I made the move to the US, I was disillusioned with the European single-seater ladder, and also, as with most drivers, the funding was drying up. In 2008 I ran a couple of races in a Porsche while competing full-time in Formula Renault 3.5 and enjoyed that immensely.

I was thinking of a permanent move to sports cars where I would be able to keep racing when the phone call came. I was invited to Sonoma with a US team to learn about the Indy Lights series, and I knew they were interested in running me for the 2009 season.

All the traveling back and forth made the the end of 2008 extremely hectic – I was barely home between August and Christmas, but I never thought twice about packing a bag and getting on a plane, and moving my life again. Opportunities don’t come along all that often in this business – you have to seize them with both hands.

Do you think all female racers in the US are automatically compared against Danica Patrick?

Danica is the most famous female driver the US has seen, and she has also been one of the most successful female drivers the US, and in open-wheel racing worldwide. So, yes, I think it’s natural that people compare other female drivers to Danica. Drivers of the same nationality often get compared to the most famous driver of their nationality, and it’s the same with female drivers. It genuinely doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

Having made the move Stateside and into the fold with John Barnes and Panther Racing, your results took off pretty much straightaway, with several Top-10 results. The decision to close the Indy Lights team must have come as a shock?

I enjoyed my time at Panther Racing, but we knew mid-season that the team was going to close down the Indy Lights operation at the end of the year. If anything it just made all of us even more motivated to try and go out there and get the results.

After impressing many in her maiden Indy Lights season, Pippa’s career was dealt a blow when Panther Racing opted to close its junior team and focus on its IndyCar Series operation instead…

Despite the setback, Sam Schmidt came to the rescue, and 2010 saw you start from pole in the Freedom 100 at Indianapolis as well as take your first win at Kentucky. Was this the point you believed some of the bigger teams would start to take some notice of your ability?

In Indy Lights terms (at the time Sam didn’t really have an IndyCar team other than one off entries at the Indy 500) SSM was the big Indy Lights team on the grid. Sam took notice of me while I was at Panther due to the results I had there – especially on the ovals, and we wanted to guide SSM back to the front of everything in Indy Lights. As the sophomore driver on the team, and the one who knew a bit about the ovals after my rookie season, helping the guys really tune on their already great set-ups to get that absolute last thousandth of a second became something of a speciality of my engineer and mine in qualifying!

The races were always much tougher, but by the end of the year, SSM had won another championship, I was an Indy Lights pole and race winner, and they were the team that everyone wanted to join again. As far as IndyCar teams go, yes, by the end of 2010, we were talking to some of the smaller teams who sometimes give rookies like me their first chance.

In her second season of Indy Lights competition, Mann broke through to claim her first career pole and win. Something of an oval racing specialist, she earned plaudits for her qualifying speed.

What were your options looking like at the beginning of the 2011 season? Did you want to remain in Indy Lights or make the step up to the IndyCar series, even without a full-time ride?

For 2011, I was determined to make the move up to IndyCar. My first ever test in an IndyCar was at Texas Motor Speedway with Conquest Racing, and it went extremely well. The drive was then on to find a way to get me into that car somehow, both from my end and the team’s end.

I nearly ended up splitting a season with another driver – sharing the races – but neither of us could raise enough funding and that opportunity passed. But I was tenacious, and Eric Bachelart, the owner of Conquest, agreed to enter a car for me for the 2011 Indy 500. The next time I sat in an IndyCar after that one test was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself during rookie orientation! I was the only one-off rookie trying to make their first IndyCar start who qualified for the race in 2011.

Despite qualifying well and finishing well at the Indy 500, a problem with your onboard water system left you considerably dehydrated by the end of the race. How hard was it to continue through this setback? Were you worried you could pass out and/or maybe even crash your car?

“A problem” is probably slightly understating things! To be blunt, it didn’t work! I went for a sip on the parade laps, but nothing happened, and that was it for the entire race! It had been working fine on carb day, but the system had gotten gummed up with drink mix somehow, and nothing was getting through!

At first I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I had never driven in any series before where I needed a water bottle. To quote Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear: “How hard could it be?” But about half way into the race I was starting to work out that actually it was going to be very hard indeed.

Pippa battled with a failed drinks bottle on her Indianapolis 500 debutThe day was hot, humid, and I probably hadn’t hydrated well enough before the start of the race as I had no experience of anything so long. I started to get cramps in my right side, through my right shoulder, and I would find myself praying for a yellow to get some relief from the pain, but then praying for it to go green again because the pain was so much worse without the adrenaline running round under yellow!

The hardest stint was from about lap 100 – 150. The team managed to get me a squeeze bottle in at the last stop that I was able to get a glug from before I had to throw it out. But in that middle stint I was just absolutely determined that I was not going to lose concentration due to dehydration and make a mistake that ended my race. Forcing yourself to focus at those speeds when you’re that short of water is not an easy task, but there was no way I was going to let something like a lack of fluid come between me and bringing the car home. I knew that I was going to make it, and that I was going to get a result out of it. Failure was not an option.

After the Indianapolis 500, Mann was scheduled for more outings over the course of the 2011 season. A practice crash at New Hampshire put her out of the action, and she raced once more at Kentucky, finishing 22nd. Next time out was the ill-fated race at Las Vegas in which fellow Brit Dan Wheldon was killed – Pippa was caught up in the smash and sustained burned hands.

Your next appearance wasn’t much better in terms of your own personal fortunes, as you injured your back in a testing crash at New Hampshire. What was the recovery process like, and were you working with the goal of ensuring you could compete again that year, which you did at Kentucky?

I didn’t injure my back much in the testing crash. When you hear the words “cracked vertebra” it sounds scary, but I only had a hairline fracture. I was back in a car the day after the doctor cleared me, and racing again six weeks later!

Was it a lack of opportunity in the US, an unwillingness to try your hand at Nascar, or a desire to return to Europe the reasoning behind your move back to an European series, even though your only open-wheel appearance in 2012 was in an AutoGP round at Sonoma?

Mann landed a one-off Auto GP outing in 2012, and was on the pace with two top-ten finishes at SonomaSo much in motorsport is about momentum, and with everything that happened at the end of 2011, all the momentum I had built up through the previous three years seemed to evaporate. I spent the year chasing money and opportunities that never quite seemed to come to fruition, and then started working on 2013 as early as half way through 2012. However, being a racing driver I always wanted to get back in a car, any car, should I get the chance.

Auto GP has a history of putting fast drivers into their cars, and since they expanded beyond Europe, they have been putting local drivers into their cars for the events to try and attract some interest from the local media. While I am not American, as someone who has lived and raced in the US for the past four years, I fitted their bill as someone who they approached for the Sonoma round. I had never met the team before, never driven the car before, never run on their tyres before, and I would get no testing other than two 30-minute sessions along with all the regular drivers. But as soon as they asked I said yes!

The Auto GP car itself far surpassed my expectations! It was the fastest car I have ever driven in a straight line, as slippery as heck in the corners, and it stopped on a sixpence. I would have loved to have had time to actually get up to speed in one before racing, but I suppose coming home with a pair of top 10 finishes on my debut was fairly okay. And, I had a LOT of fun!

Where is Pippa Mann heading for 2013 and beyond? Is IndyCar still an untamed beast in your own eyes, or are you looking for pastures elsewhere?

Right now 2013 is still a work in progress! I genuinely hoped to be in a different position and have things tied up by now, but things never work out that way do they? I am still working flat out on IndyCar and the Indy500 right now, but I am open to whatever opportunities I can take. That includes venturing into sports cars again, maybe jumping into another Auto GP race if Enzo would like me to, doing as much radio commentary work as I can get whenever I’m not driving, and continuing to work with other young female drivers through Glass Hammer Racing. That being said, I can’t imagine any scenario where being part of the Indy 500 again ends up not being at the top of my priority list.

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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.