Three-time Atlantic race-winner Katherine Legge enjoyed a strong showing this week in her first opportunity to drive a Formula One race car.
Legge emerged with the second-fastest time among five drivers that tested recently for the Minardi F1 team at Italy’s Vallelunga road circuit, just north of Rome.
After completing an impressive rookie season in the Toyota Atlantic Championship Presented by Yokohama that saw her claim three race victories en route to finishing third in the final 2005 standings for Polestar Racing Group, Legge proved that she deserved the opportunity to see what she could do behind the wheel of an F1 machine.
With the help of Champ Car World Series and PKV Racing co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven, Legge met with Minardi’s Paul Stoddart at the F1 Belgian Grand Prix in September and he offered the young Atlantic racer the chance to pilot of his cars.
Legge, a 25-year-old native of Northampton, England, made the most of the opportunity, although her first few laps in the high-tech, Cosworth-powered car didn’t go as well as she would’ve hoped. Her first on-tack experience came late in the day in cold conditions on Tuesday, November 22. As she was adapting to the powerful machine and its traction controls, she spun the car on her third lap and brushed the wall. The team then opted to bring the session to a close and start fresh the following day.
Once again running in cold conditions on Wednesday, Legge impressed the team by completing nearly 30 laps as she consistently improved her times throughout the course of the afternoon. She wound up posting a top lap of 1:21.176, which was just under one-tenth-of-a-second off the best mark of the day among all five drivers at the test.
“Overall, it was a really positive experience,” said Legge, who captured wins in Long Beach, Edmonton and San Jose this season. “There was so much to learn about the car with all of the technology and the big boost in power from the Atlantic car, but I just tried to give it my best shot. This was a tremendous opportunity and I wanted to make the most of it.”
Stoddart, the Minardi team principal, was very impressed with Legge’s performance, believed to be the first official F1 test by a woman driver since 1992.
“Katherine acquitted herself extremely well during the test, not just in the times she set, but in the consistency of those times,” said Stoddart. “She was less than one-tenth-of-a-second off the fastest time of the day, even thought her times were set in the late afternoon when the track was not at its best. I believe Katherine has a future in Formula One or Champ Car.”
In addition to the difficult track conditions and trying to learn the nuances of driving the F1 car, Legge said the intense media scrutiny of the test also provided a challenge. The professionalism of the Minardi team, however, helped her overcome those obstacles.
“It was like nothing I’ve ever seen for a test,” said Legge of the hundreds of reporters and photographers who were present at the track. “The whole Minardi team was so supportive and informative and I have to give a massive thanks to both Paul Stoddart and Kevin Kalkhoven for helping to make this happen.”
With her first F1 experience under her belt, Legge will now turn her attention to another golden opportunity for an up-and-coming open-wheel racer. She will test in a turbocharged, 750-horsepower Champ Car on December 20 and 21 at Florida’s Sebring International Raceway with Kalkhoven’s PKV Racing team, which served as her sponsor this season in the Atlantic championship.
“I am very pleased with what Katherine has accomplished and with her progress to date in both the Atlantic series and her Formula One test,” said Kalkhoven, who has helped guide the young racer’s career since first meeting her last winter. “However, I want to see the results from next month’s Champ Car test with (PKV co-owner and driver) Jimmy Vasser before any final decision regarding her future driving status is made.”