The creators of the 2006 Disney cartoon Cars could surely never have imagined that a three-year-old Russian girl who loved their movie would one day wow the actual racing world. But while other up-and-coming drivers cite the likes of Ayrton Senna and Lewis Hamilton as their idols, 16-year-old Ira Sidorkova is not ashamed to admit that her inspiration is the little red Disney creation Lightning McQueen.
Ira, from Petrozavodsk, on the western shores of Lake Onega, north-western Russia, says:
“I became obsessed with cars when I was very little, so, when I was three, my parents took me to the cinema to watch Cars. On our way home I told my dad, ‘I want to race.’ I saw Lightning McQueen and I just loved the way he raced – the speed, the cornering, everything. I can’t explain it really – I just fell in love. I built up a collection of Lightning McQueen toys after that – maybe 40 of them. They’re all still in my bedroom at home.”
Anton, Ira’s Russian entrepreneur father, was puzzled by his daughter’s extreme reaction to a routine family trip to the cinema, and her mother, Anna, still harboured hopes that weekly ballet lessons would ignite a more conventional passion for their little girl. But little Ira’s love of Lightning McQueen would not be quelled, and eventually a compromise was reached: when she turned six, if she was still keen, Ira would be allowed to try a kart at a local kart track.
“Well, when I was six, I was still mad keen,” Ira remembers, laughing. “Dad was pretty much in shock, because he just couldn’t understand why his little girl was so interested in cars and racing, but he kept his word and agreed to take me to a nearby karting track all the same. And I absolutely loved it – I just loved the speed. I put in a really good lap for my age, and the karting coach there told me I was naturally quick.
“When I was seven, my dad bought me my first 50cc Easykart, and I did a bit of testing and even a few races in it, in Finland, which isn’t far from my home, which is quite close to the Russia-Finland border. The kart scene is more developed in Finland than it is in Russia, you see. Then, after that, I did my first serious kart race in 2010, when I was seven, in the Italian 50cc Easykart championship. There were 80 cars in the field – and I finished fifth. After that, Dad realised I was maybe quite good, and I was given a new cadet kart, which was faster, and I did some races in the Estonian Championship. It wasn’t a great season for me, because I still had a whole lot to learn, but I was getting better all the time and I came second in the same championship the following year. After that I continued to race in Estonia, in the micro class, then I took part in the Russian Rotax Championship in 2015 – when I was still only 11 – and I came third in that. But after that we had to stop because we had no budget left.”
Budget or no budget, by now she had well and truly transferred her love of Lightning McQueen to Sebastian Vettel, and, if money enough could be found, a racing career beckoned.
Indeed, by now, Ira could not imagine a life without racing, and, despite her youth, the 11-year-old began looking for sponsors. Eventually she found her way back to racing with the help of a man whom she still calls her “racing godfather”.
“I got my first sponsor in 2015, Michael Lepekhov, of Academy Rally, who’d previously sponsored the World Rally Championship driver Evgeny Novikov,” she explains. “With Academy Rally I went from karts, via rally cars, to touring cars. I was still only 12 by the time I first raced a touring car, and when I was 13 I entered the Russian Circuit Racing Series Junior Championship, a touring car series, in a Volkswagen Polo, and finished second in it.”
In the three years since then, Ira’s career has gone from strength to strength. Her native Petrozavodsk is classified as subarctic and is often snowbound: the thermometer mercury rarely strays above zero after sundown, November-through April. Temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius are not uncommon on some December, January and February nights, and the record low is minus 41.6 degrees Celsius. Not surprisingly, in 2017 13-year-old Ira won the Ice Circuit Junior Racing Cup in comparatively balmy St Petersburg, 250 miles south-west of her subarctic home town, but she proved herself to be quick off the ice too when in 2018, at 14, she won the Russian Circuit Racing Junior Championship, the series in which she had been runner-up the year before.
Last year she competed in FIA Formula 4 Spain with Drivex, the race team founded in 2005 by Formula 1 driver Pedro de la Rosa. It was a difficult learning experience for her, but she knew it would be. Besides, learn she did, for she achieved two podium finishes in Russian Formula 4.
Now her sights are set on moving up from Formula 4 to Formula 3, having secured a race drive in the 2020 W Series championship. Peter Aleshin, director of the Russian-financed but French-located SMP Racing Junior Programme that backed Ira’s Formula 4 Spain programme, says: “We at SMP Racing were aware that the FIA had recently focused a lot more attention on women’s motorsport, and that they’d ratified a women’s single-seater series [W Series]. It therefore seemed worthwhile for us to have a participant from our country in W Series. Therefore, we’ve decided to prepare a driver who we believe can perform well in it. And in our opinion, today, in terms of age, potential, talent and a number of physical parameters, Ira Sidorkova is the most promising candidate.”
Ira is clearly enjoying every moment of her current ascendency. “I liked racing the Tatuus Formula 4 car,” she says, “because it was really fast and it was something new for me. It was my first year in single-seaters, after three years in touring cars, and, after that, at the end of the year, I felt confident enough to go for the W Series test in Almeria [Spain] – and now I’m here.
“Even now, though, I think it’s still quite hard for my dad to accept that his daughter is a racing driver. It’s harder for Dad than it is for Mum, I think. He wanted a princess and instead he got a racer, but he’s still very supportive. They do everything for me, to be honest.”
Ira, who learned English only four years ago, describes her family as “close-knit”. Her sister, Zlata, 12, is a junior champion ballroom dancer, and her brother, Marat, 14, is a keen snowboarder. They help to ground her when she is not racing. “I try to do my best at school, and I tend to get As and Bs even though I do so much travelling. Well, I used to do so much travelling before the Coronavirus crisis changed all that. My teachers are very understanding. They support my racing, but they always ask me to take my school books with me to race meetings. School work is important to me, but of course racing is number one.
“It’s hard to explain what happens to me when I’m in a race car. I like the speed and the adrenalin. I’m comfortable there, and I don’t have any fear. I’ve had a few crashes, but they didn’t frighten me. I had a big shunt in a kart race in Estonia. My kart somersaulted through the air, but I was OK. The next day I won the race.”
Ira will not be legally permitted to drive off track – on public roads in her native Russia – for another two years, but she is already dreaming of cruising downtown Petrozavodsk in a Dodge Challenger. “That’s my dream car,” she says. “I really like American muscle cars.”
Away from racing, she enjoys snowboarding, skiing and swimming. She tried modelling but she concluded she was not suited to it.
“I had to change dresses every 10 minutes. That’s not for me. Changing tyres, yes. Changing dresses, no.”
Followed by more than 100,000 Instagram fans, 16-year-old Ira already has a very healthy fan base. “It’s unusual to be a female racing driver – especially in Russia,” she explains. “Most Russian girls don’t know anything about cars, so Russian boys like us girls who are petrolheads. Believe me, a girl can be very popular in Russia if she likes cars.”