Home Featured Ellen Lohr: Times “never so positive as they are now” for women racers

Ellen Lohr: Times “never so positive as they are now” for women racers

by Roger Gascoigne

Photo: Ellen Lohr

Opportunities for women racing in junior single-seaters are more plentiful than ever. Back in the 1980s and ’90s things were very different, as one of the most successful female racers of all time, Ellen Lohr, explains

While Ellen Lohr is best remembered for being the first, and still only, woman to win a race in the DTM back in 1992, she also spent six years on the junior single-seater scene.

After winning the German Formula Ford 1600 title in 1987, the bespectacled chemistry student stepped up to German Formula 3 and by 1989 she was a Volkswagen works driver in a strong field where her opposition included Michael Schumacher, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Karl Wendlinger.

The highlight of her time in single-seaters came in 1990, when she was runner-up in the Monaco Grand Prix’s F3 support race which attracted category stars from across Europe’s various championships.

Her first visit to the Principality in 1989 “was not so successful; I had a crash, in front of the Tip Top bar, which still exists,” she remembers.

One year later, everything clicked. “I was really good already in practice,” and then she qualified fifth, impressive enough around the demanding streets of Monaco where nine drivers would not even qualify for the race.

“And then in the race, it started to rain.” As those ahead succumbed to mechanical issues or struggled in the difficult conditions, she “was one of the front drivers throughout the whole race”, eventually splashing through to take the flag in second behind future touring car star Laurent Aiello.

To this day some 34 years later, Lohr’s second place remains arguably the best result by a woman at this level.

Photo: VW / BSR

Someone in that position in a race today could expect to be inundated with offers of tests and junior academy roles. But in Lohr’s case, nothing happened.

“That was actually the very, very first time where I thought: okay, now Formula 1 did see what I did here. They’re going to call me and give me a chance for a test or at least invite me but absolutely nothing happened. Potentially it was raining so hard at the end that nobody watched the finish!” she laughs, ruefully.

“That was disappointing. If that would happen nowadays, can you imagine a woman, I would say Macau is the most important F3 race, would finish second. I mean, we do not have to discuss further now. We both know what would happen differently. Well, for me, it didn’t happen.

“Normally the factory teams had an eye on you after being good at F3 because that was really a very international race, something like a European final. And no reaction.”

Odd chats over post-race drinks in the Loews [now Fairmont] hotel led nowhere and with “no contact to anyone in F1” and no manager, she was overlooked.

“There were actually many girls driving when I raced in FFord, like five or six girls, but [there was] no trust at all.”

Back then, she says, managers “were looking for a female driver who would be happy to open up their race suits very, very far for the autograph cards,” she adds sadly.

“When you’re an enthusiastic young girl who follows her dreams to just drive and be successful, then you do not really realise that your dreams don’t match with [the] possibilities in reality.”

Photo: Ford

Lohr began her career in the traditional way, in karting. But, as she explains, “times were very, very different when I started karting” at the beginning of the 1980s. While some of her contemporaries managed to find a way to start at a younger age, “for the normal person” 15 was the youngest aspiring drivers could get on track.

Of course there were exceptions, with both Schumacher and future DTM rival Bernd Schneider able to “sit in a car very early, because their fathers were involved, either in race tracks or in building race tracks for their kids,” she says.

Furthermore, she adds that “we could not race cars before the age of 18 because it was compulsory that we got a driving licence first”. There were exceptions such as the young Frentzen, a near neighbour in Moenchengladbach, who “had his driving licence half a year before because his father organised this for him by telling the government that he needs him in the company to drive”.

Karting, at least at the national level in Germany, was still predominantly for family-run teams. “Of course at the time you had factory teams etc., but more or less it was family time. My father was a karting driver, and he put me in a kart. I crashed after one lap because I couldn’t even reach the pedals correctly and he asked me if I wanted to continue. Yes, I wanted to continue, then I got my own kart and that’s how it all started.”

She stayed with the family team for the step up to single-seaters in FF1600. “In Germany we had 30 starters minimum at the time in all the races. And that’s where I landed with an old used car which my father drove first. And then I took over the car, and in my championship season, I had a wonderful Van Diemen RF87 which was the first time I drove a car which was really from that year.

“We bought a 7.5-tonne truck without any windows, nothing, an old thing,” coincidentally from the Frentzens. It was a “very old cheap thing but for us it was just fantastic to have a truck, a real truck” instead of their rusty Ford Transit van.

Photo: Ford

So thanks to the loan of a contemporary chassis from Germany’s Van Diemen importer – “we had to give it back at the end of the season, which was a huge kind of sponsorship for us” – and a second-hand truck, the Lohr family, father, mother, brother and Ellen could go racing.

“And I finished as the champion, actually the first female champion in the formula class, European-wide, I think, at the time.”

Alongside her title-winning FFord season, Lohr had been drafted into the Alpina BMW team in the DTM.

“I was first contacted by Mr Bovensiepen, the head of BMW Alpina. They had a beautiful little team, and I was totally scared to death by Mr Bovensiepen, because everybody told me how strict he was. I didn’t have a manager. I wasn’t connected in motorsport. I got a call from him, and I was deeply impressed and kind of shocked.”

After a technical problem sidelined her on her debut, she then stunned the DTM regulars with fifth at Wunstorf and then a second place at the Salzburgring on only her third appearance, “beating all the BMW factory drivers at the time”. Nothing short of sensational for a 22-year-old FFord driver, irrespective of gender.

“Many people who I raced with during the time tell me with this talent [and] these results nowadays, I would have had a really good chance to move up the ladder in the formulas. At the time, it was completely different. It seems like it was yesterday but it’s many centuries ago. The world was very different at the time when it came to female careers in a male’s world,” she reflects.

Nevertheless, Lohr joined the Walter Lechner Racing team for her graduation to German F3 for 1988, with Franz Tost (who recently retired from his long-time role as AlphaTauri’s team principal) as the team manager.

Tost was, she recalls, “very strict with me because I loved sweets”.

Photo: Mercedes

“I still do, chocolate and everything. He would completely forbid me any sweet on the race weekend. Only if I’ve done a good race, I got a little toffee thing from him.”

The then-32-year-old Tost was just starting his lengthy career in team management and was freshly graduated from Innsbruck University,

“He gave me his Master’s thesis, and I had to read it. I do not remember a word. But I kept it for a long while,” Lohr laughs.

Her F3 debut season was a struggle, as “we only had money for half a season” but she again combined her single-seater campaign with touring cars, this time as “a BMW factory driver, driving the European Championship with Emanuele Pirro, Roberto Ravaglia, those guys but I wanted to do formula [cars]”.

“BMW offered me a drive in DTM. But I absolutely refused because I wanted to do a career in formula [cars] not knowing, a bit naive, how difficult that would be.”

However, Lohr had attracted the attention of another major manufacturer, Volkswagen. At the time theirs was “the engine you needed to have” in German F3, and the brand placed her with its F3 works team Bertram Schafer Racing.

“Volkswagen did the sponsoring and gave the engines but normal engines, no special engines, and some money and cared for the sponsorships. But that was of course a huge chance for me.”

That “first year was a bit disappointing because Bertram Schafer decided to build his own Formula 3 car”, the BSR 389. At that time, F3 was an open category for chassis and engines. While the rest of the field was split between the major chassis manufacturers of the day – Ralt, Reynard and Dallara – BSR went its own way.

Photo: VW / BSR

The car was “enormously quick on the straights and really bad to drive in corners,” Lohr remembers, adding apologetically: “Bertram, if you hear that, sorry.”

The first round was at the old full-length Hockenheim circuit with its long blasts through the forest, exactly the type of circuit which suited the BSR perfectly.

And “let’s say unfortunately, we made a one-two, and my team colleague [Frank Kramer] won the race [and] I was second,” Lohr says, omitting to mention that a certain Michael Schumacher came home third on his F3 debut.

“It was a bit bad that we won the first race on the Hockenheimring because everybody thought ‘Oh my god! This car’s performance… but it wasn’t [so great].” That second place would remain her best result of the season, coming seventh in the standings in what was with hindsight a very strong field: future F1 stars Wendlinger, Frentzen and Schumacher were the top three.

“In the second year Bertram decided to buy a Ralt chassis, which was aluminium still, the last aluminium chassis, and that was really, really successful and it was a strong championship,” she says.

Wendlinger and Frentzen had moved on, but Schumacher stayed, for what would be the F3 season which propelled him to Mercedes and then F1. Even Mika Hakkinen made a winning cameo appearance at the end of the season.

“When we raced them, it was like ‘ah, why are they so quick?’. But I was fighting actually with Schumacher for a win once in Berlin Avus and also I did not finish so bad.”

Lohr, armed with a Ralt-VW, was often challenging for wins. The race at the ultra fast, and long-since abandoned Avus circuit in Berlin, required wings being angled to an absolute minimum for the two flatout blasts up and down the dual carriageway.

Photo: Volkswagen

In a thrilling battle, Lohr and Schumacher swapped the lead before a small mistake on the final lap as she tried to repass Schumacher dropped Lohr to third.

“I was very unlucky with technical issues that year, but I finished very often fourth, fifth or was on the podium, so it was not a bad season. Especially when you see afterwards where they all ended. I mean fighting with Schumacher for the win of a race. Come on, he’s one of the top three drivers in the world forever. So, it’s not too bad. I think.”

Could she already see the signs of Schumacher’s greatness?

“He was another competitor and I needed to beat this guy but he did win everything he drove before, so it was clear that he was one of the very good ones. Once in a while, they were from another world. But all in all, it was always fighting, fighting, fighting like a normal competitor, of course.”

In normal circumstances, her two top-10 championship finishes should have opened the door to Formula 3000, the next step on the ladder. But it was not to be for a simple reason: “one word – budget”.

“I got some opportunities to test an Indy Lights [car] and F3000 before I went to DTM so I’m not unhappy,” Lohr says.

Still, F3000 is a case of ‘what might have been’. With regular driver Wendlinger committed to drive for Sauber-Mercedes in the World Sportscar Championship at Suzuka, Dr Helmut Marko needed to find a driver for his F3000 team, RSM Marko, for the penultimate round on the iconic Le Mans track’s Bugatti layout.

Marko offered Lohr a test at the Osterreichring, the dauntingly fast predecessor to the current Red Bull Ring, “and I was quicker than anybody who he tested in F3000 including Karl [Wendlinger] ever before on the track. And he said ‘okay, you can drive Le Mans’.

Photo: Volkswagen

“It was a bit tough, because I did not know Le Mans, which is very difficult. You can just arrive there two days in advance, walk the track, have a look when F3 is driving or whatever, what do they do. It is difficult. There were no simulators. There was nothing which you could prepare with.”

Despite this, Lohr was competitive in practice. Come the first qualifying session, it was raining and despite having never driven the car in the wet, she achieved “a good midfield position after the first qualifying which was really a success”.

In those days, F3000’s grids were set by the fastest times across two qualifying sessions. At Le Mans, the circuit “was drying up” by the time Q2 began.

“And due to a technical failure I could only do one lap. Then I was back in the pits, and I saw my name going down and then I was not qualified. So I never did a race in F3000 and that was it. That was my very short F3000 career. What a pity, really. Well, it is like that.”

With her single-seater career at an end, it was Mercedes chief Norbert Haug who brought her back to touring cars and the DTM.

By good fortune Haug had been chief editor of the magazine that sponsored Lohr back in her FFord days, Sport Auto, and “when he went to Mercedes, he, of course, remembered this girl and had an eye on me and then made this offer for DTM”.

But Lohr’s focus was still on making it in single-seaters. “Really, I did not want to drive DTM because I really was hoping to get the budget together for F3000. But it was a fight against windmills, no chance and then I said ‘okay Ellen, I can earn money as a factory driver’.”

So she gave up her studies and raced touring cars with the works AMG Mercedes team. Though it really established her as a professional racer, “there’s a bit of regret in it still,” she admits. “But it was, of course, a good decision at least for some years.”

Photo: Mercedes

After a learning year in 1991, she joined an all-star line-up [pictured above] with Schneider, Klaus Ludwig and Keke Rosberg for her sophomore season. At Hockenheim, she showed that she was prepared to give as good as she got, muscling her way past the 1982 F1 world champion to take her maiden DTM victory, the first and still only win by a woman in the championship.

In race two of the weekend, Rosberg took his revenge, unsubtly pushing polesitter Lohr out at the first corner. Her recovery drive was thwarted by a dramatic fire.

“It was an incredible feeling although I couldn’t really 100% enjoy it. I was angry about the second race because I needed these points, that’s the perfectionist in me,” she remembers.

“I think because of these activities in race one and two many DTM fans who have been there will always remember that race – first winning a race and then the dramatic fire in the pit, ending the second race.

“I learned a lot from Keke of course. He is great guy. I love him but of course not an easy team colleague because he was already F1 champion and it’s difficult that they put this girl into his team. I can understand it and I have to say Keke was a great team-mate, [but] there were others who were very realistically looking only for their own advantage.”

For Lohr, it was to prove the high point of her DTM career. Two more podiums followed over the next four-and-a-half seasons, as she found herself being shunted down the Mercedes order and away from the top equipment.

“All in all, of course I will always remember that. It was great, absolutely fantastic. I was five times on the podium in DTM which is really not bad, especially the last two years you cannot even count because it was old car, old tyres, old material, old engines and in that decade it meant you are chanceless.”

Thanks to her Mercedes connections, she had been offered a test of the Sauber-Mercedes F1 car in 1994.

Photo: Mercedes

“I was planned with Sauber, it was a kind of present from Mercedes for a good season in DTM, to do an F1 test in Vallelunga” the week after the Monaco GP.

But fate intervened again. The team’s regular driver Wendlinger, whose absence had provided her single shot at F3000, “had a big crash in Monaco and was in a coma; it was really a question of life or death, and if alive in what state, so really tough”.

Relief that Wendlinger would make a full recovery was tempered by the knowledge that “for me, that meant also no chance ever to get a chance at F1 again and until today I’ve never sat in an F1 car because I always said if I sit in a car, I will drive it, and it never happened”.

Lohr would, however, continue driving an eclectic mix of cars, from Dakar to trucks to NASCAR in a long career. She is still involved in motorsport as a brand ambassador for Mercedes, a member of the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission and as director of motorsport at Austrian engineering company AVL.

Not surprisingly, she regrets that the opportunities available to young women now were only something she could dream of at the same stage of her career.

“I hope they are aware of what they’re getting. And I hope they are also aware that this cannot be the end of the of the line being in a development programme. They have to demand more.”

She has also been critical of some of the women who came after her: “So many not talented women who had the chance to have sponsor money because they were TV moderators [presenters] or something like that. And that I really felt was a backlash because you could see that there was love for motorsport maybe, but not real passion, not the talent to go further.”

But now she sees a generation of drivers like countrywoman Sophia Floersch who are prepared to put in the effort and hard work to make it.

Photo: Mercedes

“I really say chapeau to Sophia because she had a bad year in DTM which was clear because she for sure didn’t have the best material. I’ve experienced that also; I knew what was going on. But now she’s back in F3 and really makes a point [to] stay in formula racing. [She] could make a lot of money in GTs, but wants to do formula racing.”

“[In the past], the mindset was really not positive for women in motorsport, not one of the team managers would have taken a woman into a team. That will only come with pressure. And the pressure is rising now, but for me not quick enough.”

As a racer, she always refused to accept the garlands as the best-placed female. “I never did that. So at a point in FFord they stopped that, they didn’t ask again, because I was a competitor among competitors.”

Like many other top women racers, she was initially sceptical of the concept introduced by W Series and now used by F1 Academy in being a women-only championship. “I was totally against it in the beginning because this is like a two-class thing,” she explains.

After a promising start, W Series ended as a “disaster”, where “the social media activities were in the end more important than the racing on track”.

F1 Academy is different, she accepts, “because it’s on the focus of F1 or the F1 teams are obliged to have representation in this series”. But she still challenges the series’ status.

“What is the experience they get racing against each other? We cannot be sure if they’re on a good level or not. That is F1 clapping the hands up. ‘Well done. Now we do not have to think about it because marketing-wise we are doing something for women.’ But where are the compulsory tests they have to give to women?” she asks rhetorically.

“These girls really should try to get into F3 and fight there and show their talent and show if they’re able to achieve more.” If a woman is to get into F1 then they “have to fight against whoever is there”.

She acknowledges that F1 Academy “put a focus on the topic that there is not enough female representation and gave many girls motivation”, and remains optimistic for the future.

“It is now very soon possible that we see a woman [racing] in F1. In reality, it will take some extra while, but the times were never so positive as they are now.”

Reflecting on her own career, she concludes: “My biggest achievement was not F1 at the end obviously but staying in the sport as a professional and experiencing so many different classes for 31 years.

“And that is a career which is also fantastic. So, I’m happy about my [career] and I’m pretty sure many girls will have a career like that because the passion is definitely there. I’m a happy puppy.”

Best results by women in European F3 races*

Year Driver Series Event (circuit)
1973 Lella Lombardi [ITA} Italian F3 2nd in Coppa Elf (Casale)
1984 Cathy Muller [FRA] French F3 Albi Grand Prix winner
1989 Ellen Lohr [DEU] German F3 2nd in round one (Hockenheim)
1990 Ellen Lohr [DEU] 2nd in Monaco Grand Prix F3
1993 Claudia Hurtgen [DEU] German F3 2nd in round two (Hockenheim)

* Excludes reversed-grid races and races where female drivers’ cars ran with officially-sanctioned weight advantages