March 23, 2019

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Rallying: Via farm field and volcano, Munnings primed for WRC debut

Mar 15, 2019 | ,

(This version of the story clarifies speed in intro)

By Martyn Herman

LONDON (Reuters) - Self-confessed adrenaline junkie Catie Munnings likes to live out of her comfort zone, which is why next week the British rally driver will accelerate her Peugeot 208 to over 100kph along the rim of an Azores volcano.

The 21-year-old livewire is set for her fourth season in the European Rally Championship (ERC), for the French-based Sainteloc team, and she cannot wait to put her foot down.

Munnings is not just making up the numbers in a male-dominated sport either.

In her rookie ERC season in 2016, the year she passed her driving test at the second attempt and three A levels, she won the Ladies Trophy, the first European rallying title for a British driver in 49 years.

Last year she scored points in six of the eight ERC3 rounds, finishing fourth overall, and this season is setting her sights on making her World Rally Championship (WRC) debut in Wales -- following in the tracks of her idol Michele Mouton who blazed a trail for female drivers by finishing runner-up in the sport's elite division in 1982.

The starting-point is next week's Azores Rally and the daunting Sete Cidades stage, a precipitous car-width stretch of gravel flanked by a dizzying drop into a volcanic lake.

Next to her will be co-driver Veronica Engen who once worked for world champion Petter Solberg.

"There's no guard rails and when you're at the top of the volcano there's nothing below you but the lake. It's insane," Munnings, Red Bull's first female motorsport driver, told Reuters close to the family farm in Kent where, as a young girl, she would roar around muddy fields on quad bikes.

"It's a rally of survival. The amount of people that go off is ridiculous. Fifty percent don't finish. But I love the fact it's out of your comfort zone. I love the thrill. It's a bit like being on a rollercoaster."

Two years ago there Munnings hit a tree and retired, the sort of crash that would make normal drivers nervous wrecks, but which she shrugs off. Her first "big one" was before her first-ever international rally in Ypres, Belgium in 2016.

"I got a wheel on the grass, nudged a bridge and rolled it," she said. "The car was wrecked and had to be rebuilt overnight."

Remarkably, she dashed home on the Eurostar, sat her biology A-level in the morning, then returned to qualify for the rally.

Not only did she qualify, she was the only female to finish and went on to seal the Ladies Trophy -- a feat that enabled her to join forces with ex F1 driver Susie Wolff whose "Dare to be Different" scheme helps girls pursue their motorsport dreams.

Going fast on four wheels has always been appealing to Munnings, whose father Chris was a rally driver and now runs Wacky Sports, an events firm using off-road vehicles.

HANDBRAKE TURN

At 13, she could execute a perfect handbrake turn on the circuit her dad cut into a field. On one occasion she literally scorched the earth when the red-hot brakes of her old Peugeot 107 set the grass ablaze.

She insists it was initially for practical reasons.

"The lanes near us were never get gritted in winter so my dad always wanted my sister and I to have good car-handling skills," she said.

"But once I started doing grass auto-testing at a local club when I was 14 or so, I was hooked.

"I just love the competitive part of rallying."

Munnings had mapped a career as a vet and admits her schoolteachers thought she was having a "teen crisis" when she shunned university to pursue rallying. Now she gets invited back to give motivational talks.

The bubbly Munnings admits to hearing tired old jibes about "nail varnish and hair dryers" but can look after herself, in and out of the car, whether it is changing broken wheels in oven-like heat in Cyprus, pitching to company CEOs or bagging second-hand tires from better-funded drivers.

After a day wrestling the 200BHP car around corners, sister Hannah, a yoga teacher, is often on hand to loosen the back while mum Tracey keeps her calm with the aid of Reiki.

"She's known as Rally Mum in the service area, all the drivers go to her when they have a problem," she said.

Life is full-tilt for Munnings who spends part of her winter testing tires on frozen Arctic lakes, is an ambassador for road safety charity IAM RoadSmart and presents "Catie's Amazing Machines" a TV show in which she takes control of fighter jets, monster trucks, piste bashers and even submarines.

But there is nothing quite like sliding around on gravel.

"It's like dancing with a car," she said.

(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond)

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