As Ferrari’s first ever driving instructor, Vicky Piria was proud to take part in a line-up of key staff, but she got mistaken for a hostess and was asked for directions rather than motoring advice. Despite such gender battles, the talented and resilient Italian does not bear grudges in a sport which is still in a period of enlightenment.
She says: “My way of dealing with it is to not make a big deal of it. I got the Ferrari job in 2015. At the beginning, it was a problem being the first woman, but it’s important to be firm and professional without being too stuck up. Something I do notice, though, is that if I make a mistake, it’s more noticed.
“There’s a difference in Italy, and gender is an issue. If you imagine an Italian family, you think of the mother cooking lasagne every day. That still applies. It’s slowly changing though. People constantly ask, ‘Why are there no females in Formula 1?’, but they should also ask, ‘Why aren’t there more talented men in Formula 1? There are 20 Formula 1 drivers and becoming one is almost as much about money as it is about anything else.”
Vicky finished in a solid ninth position at the end of last year’s W Series. Other career highlights include racing for two years in Formula Abarth, Italian and European championships, from 2010. She also started 16 GP3 races in 2012, then competed in Euro Formula 3, finishing 4th in Jerez and at Le Castellet. She became the first female driver to compete in GP3 when she raced for the Trident team. But she makes no secret of the fact that she has had to fight to maintain a place on the grid, or the fact that the promise of a glittering US career did not materialise. She quit Media Studies at university to trial Pro Mazda but finished just two races before heading home in 2013. W Series offered her a second chance.
She says: “For me, it was a big deal to come back racing, and it’s a responsibility too, because, if you return, it means people have invested money and time to make that happen. I’m now racing against the top 19 female racing drivers in the world, and other talented women are rooting to get my place off me. But that’s the nature of sport. So I have to be willing to work hard, and renounce a social life, because I need to race well and in order to do that I have to be fit. At the end of the day it’s something I love and am passionate about.
“But, as well as being a racing driver, I’m also a normal person who has to pay rent. When I stopped racing, I had to work to earn a living, but I was always drawn back into the racing environment – either as an instructor or in the media, anything to stay involved. What’s important is that you must have the inner power to reinvent yourself. I had to make things work in a different way and hope another opportunity would come. With W Series, that happened.”
The W Series races have provided yet another learning curve for the talented 26-year-old, who lives near Milan. “There were definitely highs and lows. From the beginning of the pre-season, I started very high and was feeling ready, and then I had to face the fact that I hadn’t been racing for a long time and I needed to allow myself to regain what I’d missed out on and get back in the rhythm. The first two races were my low point therefore, but then eventually everything began to improve.
“It was very difficult to deal with mentally, but what really helped me was after the first race – Hockenheim, my poorest race – I realised that I was thinking too much about the details and focusing on too many little things. After that my mantra was to try to keep it simple – the driving, the way I spoke to the engineers, the training, everything –because I realised I’d been focusing on too much, as I say.
“When I started to simplify things and let myself enjoy it, everything got better.
“Misano, race three, where I finished fifth, and Brands Hatch, race six, where I was sixth, were the high points. Brands Hatch was the last race of the season and, for me, it’s very important to finish things well because people remember the last race.”
Vicky’s very existence is linked to a racetrack. Her parents met on a beach near Misano and married after a whirlwind romance. She says: “My mum Daniella is a teacher. She’s British but she moved to Italy, aged 27, and met my dad Piero two years later at the seaside close to Misano. They got married after 10 months and are still so in love. My dad, who works for an energy company, is very Italian and my mum is very English. I’m really similar to my dad. He’s got a strong, passionate character while my mum is the calm observer.”
According to Vicky, her father has been instrumental in both inspiring and shaping her race career. She says: “He bought this go-kart for my brother when he was six and I was eight. I was a tom boy. I was always playing with boys and getting dirty in the garden. I never played with dolls. For my holy communion, my mum wanted me to wear a dress, but I refused, so she ended up buying me a pair of pale pink trousers. I was just so stubborn. When I was three or four, she took me ballet dancing but by the third lesson the teacher told my mum I was refusing to get changed.
“I have a very strong connection to my dad. I remember watching Michael Schumacher with him on Sundays, and when he bought this kart for my brother I wanted to show that I was better than him. But then I really, really liked it and started doing local, traditional Italian races where the prize was a big piece of ham. While my dad was developing my racing, my mum was taking me horse riding. I ended up playing ‘horse ball’ which is like rugby on a horse. But then the two sports started to clash, and I chose karting.
“When I was racing go-karts, there was still a part of me that wanted to be a marine biologist because I love animals and I love the ocean, so I imagined myself on a ship studying dolphins.
“I loved karting but when I was doing it there were no other girls on the circuit, no examples for me to follow. When I started racing cars, the passion built slowly, but if I were a little girl now I would forget about being a marine biologist because I could see W Series and a path worth pursuing. W Series gives us a chance to race but it also gives a chance to those little girls who can approach karting in a different way.”
For Vicky, the turning point in her career was a Formula Ford driving course which led to GP3 in 2012. She says: “There I understood something big was happening because I was going quicker than expected. That was the moment I thought: ‘I can do this.’”
Since then, racing has become an irreplaceable part of her life. “Racing brings out the best part of me. When I’m in the car, I feel like the best version of myself both mentally and physically. It’s not just the speed. It’s that I really love nailing the perfect lap, and to do that you need one feeling in your core where everything flows in a natural way. You reach a stage where things feel slow even though they’re very fast.
“Racing drivers look for the perfect lap, the perfect race, the perfect car, the perfect tyre temperature – it’s the pursuit of perfection. Sometimes it’s too much and you feel you want to slow down, but that’s when you need to work on yourself as a person and understand that you don’t need to be perfect all the time.
“I’m still trying to figure it out. I’ve always been like this. It’s about balance. When things get too much, I like to spend time with my family and just be myself.” Vicky still turns to horses when she wants to truly relax: “Horse riding is the only thing that relaxes me. My family live in the countryside and I love galloping through it.”
She also indulges in normal pastimes, like music and make-up: “I over-obsess about particular songs and tend to play the same one over and over. Before Brands Hatch, I was always listening to Narcotic from Liquido. I go through phases from hip hop to rock. I like fashion and I’m no longer scared to wear mascara on the racetrack. It’s natural for me so why should I hide it?”
And is there a desire to settle down and have a family? She says: “I’d like to have a family but my need for perfection comes into it. I’m very picky because I’m just so focused on my life and career. I live it with a lot of passion so I don’t give myself a chance to get to know someone. Guys understandably say things like, ‘You’re away a lot,’ and I’ve even had one admitting, ‘I’m nervous about driving with you.’”
For now, Vicky says she is happy to settle for the unconditional loyalty of her two Hovawarts dogs because they “love you no matter what”. She adds: “I’ve learned not to set goals. I just want to look back in 20 years and say: ‘I did the best I could.’”