What are your earliest memories of the 24 Hours of Le Mans?
Christina Nielsen: My father was a racing driver and I first came here with him. But my first memory is of a time I wasn’t actually here. I think it was 2006. I was sitting at a go-kart track. He had a comfortable lead in LMGT2. With two hours to go something broke and the team sent a mechanic to the track to take the tools to the driver, so he could get the car back to the pits. They got back out, but in the end they lost by 45 seconds. I remember watching the car stopped beside the track, screaming in frustration.
Anny-Charlotte Verney: I was born in Le Mans. My grandfather, Louis Verney, was one of the founders of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and I used to come every year. My father was vice-president of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest. Le Mans is in my genes.
When you drove here for the first time, was it as you expected?
ChristinaIt was even better than I’d hoped. It was crazy. When you enter the track, you’re just swept away. I remember the first few kilometres very clearly. It was just amazing. I also remember thinking that I had so much to learn. All those prototypes bearing down on the GT at crazy speeds. The parade was something else too - Le Mans is huge in Denmark, and there are so many Danish fans who make the trip. They were screaming out my name. It was incredible.
Anny-Charlotte Verney: The first lap, with the cars so close to each other, was exciting and very scary. There’s nothing like a first lap in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
You don’t share the same view of the Mulsanne Straight. Can you explain where you differ?
Anny-Charlotte Verney: We went down there at 360kph. There was that kink in the middle, the hump that sent the car off-balance. It was out of this world. I understand the reason for the chicanes, but it’s not the same any more.
Christina Nielsen: I’ve only every known it with the chicanes, so I can’t complain. It’s still incredible to drive here.
What’s the real challenge at Le Mans? Night racing, traffic...?
Anny-Charlotte Verney:Traffic! Especially in the first hour when everyone is jostling for position. At the end of the straight it was really hairy.
Christina Nielsen:Traffic at night I’m used to multi-class races and it’s never a problem in daylight. But at night, the prototypes come up so fast behind you, it’s difficult to judge the distance. In qualifying I was overtaken by eight LMPs in the same lap. It’s not easy to anticipate. The rear camera is helpful during the day, but doesn’t really do its job at night. The flash-light makes the screen too bright and you can’t tell if there are 1, 2 or 3 cars.
Does the darkness make it more exhilarating?
Christina Nielsen: It’s surprising. You’re alone. It’s just you.
Anny-Charlotte Verney: My favourite time was 4 a.m. The car was always at its best at that time. It was pure pleasure.
Physically, do you think the race is still as demanding?
Anny-Charlotte Verney: I used to lose 5 or 6kg.
Christina Nielsen: If I lose that this weekend, I’ll be happy! Joking aside, even with power steering, it’s still very physical - but I presume it was more difficult before, with the gear changes.
Anny-Charlotte Verney: The clutch was really hard. It was like pushing 100kg. That’s why I wasn’t particularly slim. And we didn’t have the downforce you have these days.
Christina Nielsen: You have to be resilient, but it’s such a pleasure!
Is Le Mans now a 24-hour sprint?
Christina Nielsen: Yes and no. Yes, because the pace is fast and no, because you can’t attack all the time. Last year, our suspension broke two hours before the end, probably because of the kerbs. The new ones are harsh and can damage the car, but lots of drivers still ride them.
Anny-Charlotte Verney: In my day, the first twelve hours were really fast and after that you had to hold off to make sure the car lasted the course. But, what was true then is true now: you can’t win Le Mans without good tyre, brake, fuel and mechanical management. That’s a constant.
Have things changed for women in the discipline?
Christina Nielsen: It all depends who’s representing us. Some girls are a bit embarrassing sometimes. Some have managed to build a career on assets other than sporting performance. It’s really sad because that’s the image people get of what we do. It’s a real problem. I’m only interested in competing.
Anny-Charlotte Verney: And winning! Like Cristina, I was the only woman in the line-up. Like Cristina, I was a GT driver. At first I was greeted with smiles. When I started clocking good times, there was less of that.
Do women have to prove more than men?
Christina Nielsen: We have to do fast laps more often than our male colleagues.
Anny-Charlotte Verney: And they’re just waiting for you to fail!
Do you get tired of all these questions about women in motorsport?
Anny-Charlotte Verney: They have never really bothered me. I raced to win, and I’ve kept that attitude to life.
Christina Nielsen: I think it’s important to be conscious that we represent something. I’m the only woman here and I know that means something. I hope that young girls will see me and see that they can be a racing driver if they want to. It’s important they know it’s not impossible. But then, I think it’s about setting limits for yourself. I can only do so much. While I’m really happy to play a role in making motorsport more accessible to women, first and foremost, I’m here to race.
When looking for sponsors, does it help to be a woman?
Christina Nielsen: I try to take advantage of the interest that a woman driver attracts, but it’s not easy. I work with a big agency in Denmark, that looks after swimmers, golfers and so on, but they couldn’t cover the whole budget. My father had to contribute.
Anny-Charlotte Verney: It was never really a problem for me.
Christina Nielsen: Maybe because it wasn’t so costly and there were no social networks at the time. They’ve become so important in racing and in everything.
Anny-Charlotte Verney, you are the last woman to have taken a class win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Will Cristina be the next one?
Anny-Charlotte Verney: I hope so. I won three times. The last time in 1982 [6th overall], which is a long time ago now.
Christina Nielsen: It would be fantastic but probably too much to hope for. I’d be happy with top 5. In any case it’s fantastic to be able to talk to someone who knows exactly how it feels to be in my shoes. And she won!