Under the Visor: Fabienne Wohlwend

For several years, Fabienne Wohlwend has juggled a conservative banking career with the adrenalin-fuelled risks of racing.

But now she is saying goodbye to her day job and taking to the track full time – a move she attributes to confidence gained in the inaugural W Series season, which ran from May to August last year. 

She says: “W Series has helped me live my dream and love every minute of it. It’s such a big chance for us to develop – not just as drivers but as ourselves. It’s given me the courage and confidence to leave my day job, so I guess that speaks for itself.”

The vivacious 22-year-old secured a very respectable sixth place in the 2019 W Series championship, taking an impressive pole position at Misano, where she went on to finish a fine third in the race, beaten only by championship winner Jamie Chadwick and championship runner-up Beitske Visser.

She traces the roots of her racing dream back to the age of seven, recalling:

“I grew up in Liechtenstein as part of a big family. I’m the only girl of my age within the family, so I played with cars because there was no-one to play Barbie with. I had a little red car with a Ferrari sticker on it by the time I was one.”

“Growing up, I really wanted a pony, but my dad was offered a kart by a family friend so he took my elder brother Raphael and me to try it out on a little track near our home. It was a family outing for all the boys, but they persuaded me to have a go too. I was only small but apparently I was flat-out straight away. After I’d been around the track a few times, I got out of the kart, lifted the visor and apparently said: ‘Dad, this is what I want to do in my life.’ I was only seven. From that moment on, the pony was forgotten as I developed a love of racing – and adrenalin. If something is fast and dangerous, I want to do it.”

What started as a one-off karting trial soon therefore became a way of life for the Wohlwends. “The karting became a family hobby. We bought a camper van and began travelling to different tracks. Dad was the mechanic and Raphael and I were the drivers. We started with small races and built up to bigger ones like the Swiss Championships and competitions in northern Italy. We drove to them all. At the same time I became a good ski racer too – adrenalin again – but, at 11, I was told I had to choose between the slopes and the racetrack. No contest.”

She smiles, warming to her reminiscences:

“In the beginning my elder brother and I were equally committed to racing, and we were always on the same level, but I was always the more competitive. What had started out as a hobby for me was fast becoming a life plan – and my parents supported it with two conditions attached. First, I had to finish school and, second, there had to be a Plan B.”

That’s how she got involved in banking, for her Plan B ended up being going to work for the VP Bank in Liechtenstein, which meant her juggling three days’ work every week, with two days’ schooling, plus racing on weekends. “Somehow I managed it,” she says, “and in 2016 I graduated from banking school and began specialising in compliance. Suddenly, my life was about two extremes – protection at the bank and risk in racing.”

Off the racetrack she was scrutinising other people’s balance sheets, but on the racetrack she was notching up a very impressive set of stats herself. In 2017 she won her first race in the Ferrari 488 Challenge, and the following year she won four races in the same series, finishing second in the Ferrari Challenge Europe Trofeo Pirelli Pro-Am and first in the Ferrari Challenge Finali Mondiali Trofeo Pirelli Pro. ‘Finali Mondiali’ means ‘World Finals’, by the way: impressive indeed.

The latter triumph was what made her decide to make racing her full-time career. She says: “Last summer I resigned after three really happy years in my banking job. W Series helped me take that leap. It was really hard handing in my notice, because I loved my job, but combining doing a banking job with racing in W Series was very intense. And on top of banking and racing I had to keep myself fit, of course, as all serious race drivers do. I was doing endurance training four days a week and strength training on the three other days. It was gruelling. When I left the bank, I told my co-workers: ‘It feels like I’m breaking up with you.’ But they were very supportive. They understood that I was following my dream and said I can go back any time.”

But it is unlikely that there will be any turning back for Fabienne, who is determined to do her utmost to win the 2020 W Series championship – “Why aim lower?” – and also has her sights firmly set on carving out a long and successful career as a professional racing driver.

Throughout, from the age of seven until now, her mentor has been her father, Edwin. She says: “My only role model is my dad. His support and love are everything to me. He’s never missed a single race I’ve done since I was seven. Not a single one. He’s always with me on the grid and he always knocks twice on my helmet and shakes my hand before the start.”

So what part does Fabienne’s mum Rita play in her family race support team? “My mum is always worried when I race. She can’t watch the start and is the only person who ever tells me to drive safely rather than fast. Once, my Ferrari boss overheard her and said,

“Is your mum kidding? Don’t listen to her. You need to drive flat-out.”

And what of her elder brother Raphael, now 23? “Ah, well, he likes having a fast little sister and he supports me at lots of races.”

With that level of family support, natural speed, fierce determination and now a bit of sponsorship all on her side, there is no doubt that Fabienne has the ingredients in place to become a racing force to be reckoned with in the future – but she admits there have been tough times as a woman fighting to be taken seriously in what is usually seen as a man’s sport. “When I first entered Formula 4 in Italy in 2016, and then the Audi Sport TT Cup in 2017, a lot of guys knew me from karting – and, yes, there were some issues. Let’s put it this way: there are boys who don’t like being beaten by girls and there are boys who absolutely hate being beaten by girls. In the end, I just had to put them out of my mind and stay focused on winning.” Which male drivers has she raced against? Max Verstappen is but one.

What does she do in her down-time, if she ever gets any? “I still love to ski,” she says, “but hiking is another passion. I’m an outdoors kind of person. If I want to do something crazy, as I often do, I call my best friend Sabrina and suggest a 3.00am sunrise hike up our favourite mountain. No matter what happens in my racing career, some things will never change.”

Does that include the length of her famous trademark 75cm (30-inch) Rapunzel-style natural blond locks? “Oh definitely,” she replies, laughing. “I’ve never ever wanted to cut them. Once, when I was 12, I had a trim, just to my shoulders, and it was the biggest mistake of my life.

“My goal has always been to become the first Formula 1 driver to have hair all the way down to their waist. I’ve achieved one of those goals and now I’m determined to make the other goal a reality too.”