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 the 2024 season.
From May 27 to 29, South Africa hosted the third Continental Final of the FIA Rally Star – the African Final. 20-year-old South African driver Kristie Ellis will be joining Farah Zakaria (Jordan), Maja Hallén Fellenius (Sweden), and Katie Milner (United Kingdom) in the Women’s Final later this year in North America. We had the chance to hear from Kristie about her story, here is what she has to say.
Photos © Kristie Ellis
For Kristie Ellis, the Rally Star selection is her first real experience with racing. But she has always been familiar with motorsport. Her love for motorsport was developed when she was a kid through her family. “Loving motorsport has always been a part of our family. My dad grew up in a small town in South Africa where it was part of their culture to love fast cars. So my first exposure to motorsport came from my dad. I watched car and racing programmes with him. I also dabbled in motorcycling for a year or two when I was much younger. I rode motorbikes in the dirt for fun back then. I think wanting to go fast has been embedded in me since a young age.”
My dad told me that he never really wanted to send the Rally Star to me and my 3 siblings, but luckily he did. So he sent it to us and I was like, ‘Why not enter?’ and so I did.
The lack of experience didn’t stop Kristie when she found out about the FIA Rally Star selection. She jumped into this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity head first. But before any real action in the different stages of selection, some preparation first. “The extent of the preparation only spans across two sim practices. My dad organised a session with Ian Riddle at his home rig and I ended up practicing for about two and a half hours. I believed this helped me a lot as I really got to understand the concept of over- and understeering that day. My second session was the day before the African Final in Charl Smalberger’s sim. He gave me a lot of advice as well since he has experience in racing in the Polo Cup. I started practicing that night and I easily practiced for three to four hours. My heels were numb and so was my bum but I didn’t want to get up…I loved it!”
Kristie’s quest to the Women’s Final started with Slalom Challenges in South Africa. Not thinking too much about the outcome, she went for it and secured herself a ticket to the African Final. At the Zwartkops Raceway, as perhaps one of the drivers with the least experience, Kristie’s Final unsurprisingly did not come to a good start. “Many of my competitors had more experience in the motorsport world. Paige teaches go-karting to kids in Qatar and Robyn Isaacs was a co-driver, whereas I had very little experience. After the first day, I was very slow. About 20 seconds slower than the fastest girl. So you could imagine the disappointment I faced when I got the results back.”
But the beauty of a three-day selection is that you can show your progression, and in the end, this is what counted for Kristie. The “underdog” triumphed on Sunday. “I think the first day actually set me on track to win the whole event. I went in with the mindset to only improve my time and not worry about the other girls’ performance. I think my lack of experience was my biggest strength. Because even though that was a factor, I showed speed at the end of the weekend. Most importantly, I showed a significant improvement.”
“This is my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enter the racing world, and I am going to give it my all.”
Winning a chance to go into the Women’s Final is sweet, but that’s not the only important outcome of the African Final. The competitive yet supportive atmosphere is a great opportunity for like-minded people to make long-lasting friendships. “It was such a fun weekend. The professionalism of the FIA team was astounding. Everything was very well organized and everything ran smoothly. But the most memorable part of the whole experience was the amazing time I had with the other contestants. It was a healthy but competitive atmosphere where everyone supported each other even though we all wanted to win. And it was awesome to make so many new friends from all over Africa.”
In the Women’s Final, Kristie will be up against seasoned drivers like Katie Milner who is a McLaren development driver. Again, the “underdog” prepares to strike. “I am focusing on everything I can control. My first priority is my studies and my fitness. My dad is also helping me where he can with opportunities for racing. Tom Hugo is a friend of my dad’s and he owns the Algoa Grand Prix Indoor Track in Port Elizabeth. He is helping a lot in the process of my preparation as he is allowing me to use his kart and his track to improve my driving style.”
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.