How classic car collector and rally driver Katarina Kyvalova is inspiring female racers to the podium
The founder of the all-female Bentley Belles rally team shares her racing dream
With a passion for pre-war cars that had unleashed her competitive streak even before she founded the Bentley Belles racing team in 2014, Katarina Kyvalova’s racing success seems now inevitable. The Slovakian-born, Hamburg-based business manager (left) – who had worked extensively with car brands such as BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and Audi throughout Asia – discovered a love of classic cars upon joining Germany’s oldest classic car club, the Allgemeiner Schnauferl-Club eV (ASC) and purchasing her first car – an Austin-Healy 3000.
But it was a late-night bet after the Flying Scotsman Rally – which takes drivers from Chester to the Scottish Highlands – that fuelled Kyvalova’s decision to go from car owner to racing driver. She founded the all-female rally team the Bentley Belles in 2014. The crew – which includes Gillan Carr, Georgina Riley and Georgia Brewster – first met just a day before they made their debut at Benjafields Portimao 24hrs race in Portugal, where they made history as the first women’s team to run a Bentley in a 24-hour endurance race. Since then, the shared passion and skills of the self-described petrolheads saw them repeat the accolade in their first Spa Six Hour Race.
A talented driver in both circuit and endurance races, Kyvalova has also competed in the Flying Scotsman, Mille Miglia, Goodwood Revival, Le Mans Classic, and Monaco Historique. She has achieved third podium places at both Goodwood Revival and the Spa Six Hour Race in 2015. Currently racing a currently racing a 1954 Cooper-Jaguar T33, a 1928 Bentley 4.5 ltr, a 1928 Bentley Speed Six and a 1965 Jaguar E-type, Kyvalova hopes to complete her ‘hat-trick’ by completing the Monaco Grand Prix Historique, 1000 Miglia and Le Mans Classic in one season. Here, Kyvalova tells us what it takes to keep such a historic collection in racing form…
Katarina, how did you begin collecting and racing classic cars?
Everything started in Hamburg, where many friends of mine owned and drove classic cars. At some point I started to join them for different classic car events and rallies; I even become member of the German ASC classic car club and Goodwood Road Racing Club. I bought my very first classic car, which was an ice blue Austin-Healey 3000. My first drive in that car, which I still own, was definitely the ultimate kick-off moment of my classic car passion.
Do you have any favourite vehicles within your collection?
That is such a difficult question because I love all of my cars, but I think my favourite is the 1928 Bentley 4.5 ltr. Ettore Bugatti once described W.O. Bentley’s cars as the ‘world’s fastest lorries’, and it’s true that they’re not the easiest cars to drive and race, but over the years I’ve done thousands of miles in this Bentley. I’ve developed a strong relationship to pre-war cars in general. I don’t restore cars myself, but I was part of a special restoration project that took many years of research and work before seeing the final result. It was a resurrection of one-off 1931 Bentley 8-litre; a wonderful Vanden Plas two-seater drophead coupe car that had originally been commissioned by an 18-year old Lord Brougham and Vaux. It was my biggest and most exciting project so far. >>
How would you compare endurance, rally and circuit racing?
Both rallying and racing require high level of driving skills, though they are very different. When racing, you are constantly trying to find and follow the right line, the right speed and braking, all at the same time. It is a never-ending challenge of trying do everything perfectly while also dealing with the race traffic around you. However, in my personal opinion, rallying is far more demanding than circuit racing. You have to accommodate for unpredictable road surfaces, which vary with the weather, and long driving distances where there can be unpredictable spectators along the way. Rallies require an extremely high concentration, perfect driving skills and unconditional trust in your navigator. The navigator plays a very important role in the team, as they have to find the right route and give instructions about the speed, distance and different signs along the way. It’s safe to say they are the boss in the car. When I started attending my first rallies, we did lots of driving on remote parking lots to train for the timed sessions.
Tell us about how you founded the Bentley Belles?
The beginning of Bentley Belles started with an entry for the Benjafield’s 24 hours race in Portimao, which I desperately wanted to complete with an all-female team. Looking back, I think it was a pretty crazy idea of mine as I had never raced before, nor even had a racing license. Actually, it really came into being in the late hours after the Flying Scotsman rally, when I made a bet with my classic car fellow that I would make it happen: that was the start of my racing and of the Bentley Belles. The Vintage Sports-Car Club and some friends helped me to find another three female petrolheads who had some previous experience with pre-war cars. But actually, it was pretty much last minute and so Gillian, Georgia, Georgina and I only finally met the night before our first race in Portugal.
The Belles made history by becoming the first all-female team to complete a 24-hour race in a pre-war Bentley…
At that time, we had no idea that we would be the first women to achieve this, so that was kind of icing on the cake after we completed the race. In 2015 we entered the Spa Six Hours race where we were the first all-female team ever; to top it off we finished with a podium place – third in class – so that trophy felt very special to us. Then, in 2016, I raced at the Le Mans Classic as the first ever woman behind a Bentley wheel at the historic circuit.
Currently there’s a lot happening for women in motorsport, which is fantastic to see. The W Series is running its second season, and it’s a great platform for all female racing drivers who wants the opportunity to show their capability in this traditionally male domain. In the meantime, there are some more all-women teams, such as the Iron Dames and Gear Racing Team, who are competing in different international GT championships. I’m hopeful that we will also see a female driver in Formula 1 – I think it’s overdue. >>
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What have been your biggest milestones?
The first and most memorable was Benjafield’s 24-hours challenge with the Bentley Belles. That race had a big impact on everything what happened afterwards, the Bentley Belles continued competing as a team and I personally got hooked with racing from that day on. The second milestone in terms of team driving was in 2019 at the Dubai 24 hours race, where I competed in a Mercedes-AMG GT4 in a team of four drivers. We had been leading the class for more than 20 hours but, due to technical issues, we had to retire just 60 minutes before the finish. After all that work it was very hard for us to accept this defeat, but it showed me how important it is to have a great team with you, to go through all the highs and lows.
Did your experience working with luxury car marques make you want to get behind the wheel?
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I’m sure working closely with car manufacturers had a significant impact on me. I met with car designers and got to see car prototypes way before they appeared in the public, and found this highly fascinating. Racing is now a huge part of my life and keeps me pretty busy – not least from the amount of travel! Recently, I was invited to join Bentley Motors’ centenary celebrations and drive the legendary 1929 Bentley Birkin Blower Team race car No 2, at the Goodwood Festival of Speed – that was definitely a chance to get behind the wheel of a dream car. Outside the circuits, I run my own business in Germany as well as a small events agency that organises classic car rallies all over Europe.
What are your future plans, and what’s next for the Bentley Belles?
I had entries for the Monaco Grand Prix Historique, 1000 Miglia 2020 and Le Mans Classic this year, so had been very excited about completing this hat-trick and cannot wait to complete it in the future. I also hope to race at the annual Goodwood Revival again, and for sure will do some endurance races in the Mercedes-AMG GT4. It isn’t always easy to find suitable race events for teams like Bentley Belles, because there aren’t many endurance races in historic racing, but we’re working towards doing more pre-war rallies together, or the 2022 Peking to Paris Challenge – watch this space.