In 2021, the FIA launched Rally Star, a global talent detection program aiming to find the next Rally champions. The program starts with local selections, then six Continental Finals will each contribute one driver to join the FIA Rally Star team. Besides the winning driver from each continent, the six best female drivers will compete in an additional Women’s Final for one to come out on top and join the FIA Rally Star team. The FIA Rally Star team will conduct a training program in 2023, with the opportunity to compete in Junior WRC in 2024 season.
From May 27 to 29, South Africa hosted the third Continental Final of the FIA Rally Star – the African Final. We talked to one of the fianlists, South African driver Paige de Jager after the African Final, here is what she has to say about her racing career as well as experience at the African Final.
© All photos provided by Paige de Jager
Born in Amanzimtoti, South Africa, Paige de Jager was first introduced to motorsport through Formula 1. Even though there were no karting tracks around town, little Paige still managed to enjoy some ‘racing’ at home. “I used to watch Formula 1 with my family, with Michael Schumacher being my favourite driver at the time. Other than that, I used to play with remote-controlled cars and draw my own tracks with chalk on our driveway at home to ride my bicycle around.”
After moving with her family from South Africa to Qatar, Paige finally had some real track action at the age of 14. The passion for motorsport was enlightened right away, but it wasn’t really realistic to pursue a career in motorsport at the time. “When my family and I moved to Qatar in the early 2000s, I was then exposed to go-karting at the age of 14 years old. I went down to the local track with my brother and his friends. In the first session I drove, I beat them all, that was when the motorsport bug bit me hard. It was always my dream straight out of high school to eventually join a motorsport federation. But I never really thought a full-time job in motorsport was achievable for me. My priority was to first get a bachelor’s degree to fall back on, and I worked a number of different corporate jobs after university up until COVID-19 hit.”
My passion has been undeniable since that first moment.
At the most unlikely moment, the opportunity for Paige to do motorsport full-time presented itself. The Qatar Motor & Motorcycle Federation (QMMF) came knocking on the door, and Paige became a coach at their karting academy. “The Qatar karting community started online go-kart racing through the FIA-approved game “Gran Turismo Sport”. It was a fun activity to do while all of the karting tracks were closed. After I had been racing with them online for a few months, I was contacted by the QMMF. They were looking for a female assistant coach for their karting academy which was set to open in 2021, that was when I jumped at the opportunity and made the career switch with no hesitation.”
Having taken this opportunity of a lifetime, Paige still has more potential to fulfill in her pursuit of motorsport. When hearing about FIA Rally Star, Paige decided to seize the opportunity of a path towards WRC. “It is an amazing program and a huge opportunity for any driver to pursue if they want to be part of a top-tier racing team. I just fit within the maximum age range so I decided to commit fully to the program. I prepared by playing the WRC game with my at-home simulator and I also started running to try to get my fitness level up, as well as changing my diet to healthier options.”
Determined to participate in the selection, besides physical training and driving skills training, Paige also started following the program to figure out a way into the continental final. The road to the Zwartkops Raceway was not without obstacles, but all of Paige’s hard work paid off and she found herself in the continental final at the end of May. “I came across a digital challenge in Capetown held on 27th February. I was confident with the digital challenge given my prior digital motorsport experience, however, there were some talented girls competing that day. In addition, the simulators were set up at a motorshow, it was very loud and there was a large crowd. I still managed to set a competitive time which I ended up winning with. I was not able to compete in the South African National Final due to work obligations. Therefore, instead, I managed to attend a slalom challenge in Johannesburg at Nasrec on May 8th, where I also ended up winning in the women’s category, the conditions were horrible that day with rain, thunder, and cold weather but I managed to put in a good enough time. Honestly, I enjoyed driving the Toyota MR2, it was a lot of fun.”
Without much experience in off-road driving or the sequential gearbox and motorcycle engine on the cross-kart used at the continental final, Paige was still able to leverage her overall racing abilities to impress the jury and get to the final stage of the selection. “My strengths consist of my ability to tackle the track head-on given my overall knowledge of racing lines, braking point markers, and apexes. I was nervous on the first day because there were so many unknowns about the cross-karts and how they would handle on track. However, after my first practice lap and first timed lap, by the second timed lap, I was familiar with the handling of the cross-kart so my confidence started to build. The second day was a lot calmer because I was comfortable with the cross-kart. However, on day two, they added an additional downhill section with a tight chicane at the bottom. I was a bit nervous about the addition to the track in terms of judging the correct braking point. But once I did my laps I would say that became the most enjoyable part of the track for me, it was pure fun. By the end of day two, myself, Kristie (Ellis), and 12 men qualified for the final day – stage 3. Stage 3 was tough, we started with a running test, then they reversed the track where we had one practice run and one timed run, followed by a reflex test and jury interview.”
Even though Paige wasn’t selected for the Women’s Final, she still considers the experience in the continental final a very educational one, where she gets to test her own abilities and meet like-minded people from the motorsport family. “I learned a lot during the African Final weekend. The most memorable thing for me will of course be the thrill of driving a TN5 Lifelive cross-kart. Throughout the weekend I got to test myself not only physically but also mentally. Being thrown into a new vehicle with minimal track time was such an amazing opportunity, it really pushed me as a driver to make quick decisions and understand the limits of the vehicle and myself on the track. Going forward if I end up in similar situations I will be a lot more mentally prepared. I also met so many awesome people. Everyone involved was so supportive of each other like one big family!”
In a way, we all won because we ended the experience with these amazing new friendships from all over the world!
This year, Paige will continue with her coaching at the karting academy, with training planning, class structuring, scheduling, communication with parents, preparation of go-karts and racing equipment, and overseeing the operations all being part of her job. Besides her coaching work which directly provides mentorship to the younger generation, Paige has also taken on a role to inspire more people to follow her – being the representative for Women in Motorsport Qatar (WIMQ). “I will be implementing certain projects revolving around the launch of WIMQ under the QMMF. My aim for this year is to increase diversity in motorsport here in Qatar and go on to support young women in achieving their dreams in programs such as the FIA Rally Star. I will be less focused on my own racing and more focused on building a solid foundation for WIMQ this year.”
In early September, the Asian-Pacific Final will take place at Madras International Circuit in India. Stay tuned for further installments in our Rally Star Drivers’ Series.