Sunday, 1 August 2010

Vanina Ickx

Vanina in 2009

Belgium is the unlikely home of many female motorsport stars. One of the most famous is Vanina Ickx. Although her father is Formula One and sportscar legend Jacky Ickx, she came in to motorsport almost by accident. Whilst studying biology at university, a friend who went to the same gym as Vanina became pregnant. This friend had a sponsored drive organised in BMW's Compact Cup, and knowing Vanina's family background, asked her if she wanted to drive in her place. This was 1996, and Vanina's career had begun. In her first race she finished last, but she was undeterred and competed in the Compact Cup for two seasons, with a best finish of fourth. Her first Spa 24 Hours was in 1997, and she drove a BMW Compact run by the Fina Junior Team, with Kate Rafanelli and Florence Duez.

In 1998 she switched to the Belgian Procar series, first in a BMW 320i, and then in a more reliable Renault Megane. She was rewarded with a third, in a European race at Spa. At the end of the season, she was eleventh. At her second attempt at the Spa 24 Hour touring car race in 1999, she was fifth in the same car. She returned to BMW power for the 24 Hours of Zolder, and was third in class.

2000 saw a considerable hike in horsepower for Vanina, when she competed in the Ferrari 360 Challenge. She won at her home track of Spa and claimed fastest laps there, at Brno and at the A1-Ring in Austria. She was third at Brno and fourth at Magny-Cours. During this time she was also racing in America, in Formula Ford 2000. She racked up three wins, one pole position and a second before funds ran out. That was not all for the season though; Belgium's Belcar series beckoned, plus a drive to fifth in the Lamborghini Trophée, third at the Spa 24 Hours in a Peugeot 306 and a crack at the Nürburgring 24 Hour, with an all-female team in a Honda S2000. For a complete change, she also did some ice-racing in the Andros Trophy, and navigated her father to eighteenth place in the Paris-Dakar rally, one of her proudest achievements.

The Dakar opened the season for 2001, with Vanina in the driving seat this time, in a Toyota Land Cruiser. She was in demand as a test driver, and tried out for many formulae that year. She gained a seat with the elite Larbre Competition team for Le Mans, in their Chrysler Viper, but crashed out. She later admitted graciously that the car was much faster than she was used to. Another try at the Spa 24 Hours followed, in a Porsche 996, with Christophe Tinseau, Xavier Pompidou and Tim Verbergt. They did not finish.

More Porsche power brought another win in 2002. Vanina and her sister Larrissa were outright winners of the Rallye des Princesses in a 911. The Rallye is a classic event for female drivers only. She drove another 911 to eighth place in a Porsche Cup race.

She continued her rallying with a 24th place on the Dakar. Her sportscar outings were limited to a drive in a Vertigo Streiff in the Spa 24 Hours, alongside David Saelens and Renaud Kuppens. She kept her racing hand in with some very competitive Rotax Max karting, and a return to tin-tops in the Toyota Yaris Cup. This gave her some strong top-ten and five finishes. A couple of high-profile guest drives also came her way; she was eighth in a Porsche Carrera Cup race at Magny-Cours, and sixth in the VW Fun Cup 25 Hour race at Spa.

It was back to Le Mans in 2003. A more experienced Vanina drove a Porsche 911 to 27th place, with Sebastian Bourdais and Roland Bervillé. She returned to the famous track again for the Le Mans Story historic racing festival later in the season, where she was tenth in a classic Porsche. It would have been three visits but for an illness; Vanina was all set to drive the Chamberlain TVR Tuscan with Amanda Stretton and Liz Halliday, at the Le Mans 1000km, on the Bugatti circuit. She lost her place in the team to fellow Belgian, Fanny Duchateau.

She also returned to the Larbre squad for the Spa 24 Hours, driving with Jean-Luc Blanchemain, Pertti Kuismanen and Stefano Zonca. She was unlucky again, as the quartet went out with a blown engine. A trip to the Spa Ferrari Days event was much more productive, and Vanina went away with a second and third place in her races. To round off the season, she raced at Estoril in the Formula Renault V6 single-seater championship.

2004 was a busy year for the Belgian racer. She was third in the Oman Desert Express rally raid in a Nissan Pathfinder, navigated by Florence Bourgnon. She signed to contest the Le Mans Endurance series and returned to Belcar, sharing Daikin Racing's new Mini Cooper with Alexandra van de Velde. The duo were ninth overall in class TB, with a best finish of second in class after some initial reliability issues. They raced throughout Belgium and also at the Nürburgring.

Vanina's three LMES rounds were a mixed experience. She was part of a rotating driving squad at T2M Racing, in their Porsche 996 GT3 Cup. Her first outing was alongside fellow Speedqueen, Keiko Ihara, and Wolfgang Kaufmann, at Monza, which resulted in a DNF. At this meeting, Vanina had already driven in the supporting Formula X Sport race, and was third. Her Nürburgring partners were Paul Daniels and Thierry Rabineau, and they managed 30th position. Reunited with Rabineau for the Spa race, she was 22nd, assisted also by Christophe Tinseau.

As well as her full-series racing commitments, the Belgian racer took part in a great number of guest drives, usually at her home circuit of Spa. Back in her Porsche 996, an entry into the Spa 24 Hours, an FIA GT round, brought a tenth place finish and a class win. The Pirelli Ferrari Challenge was another good move, as she won in her 360 Modena. Sticking with Porsches, she was thirteenth in a Supercup race and fourth and fifth in two BTCS events. Remarkably, she took part in three 24-hour races at Spa that season: the Spa 24 Hours, the VW Fun Cup 25 Hour (32nd place) and even a round-the-clock race for Citroen 2CVs.

In 2005, Vanina continued to build on her progress in European sportscar racing. She was hired by the British Rollcentre Racing team for their assault on the LMES and Le Mans itself. She proved to be more than up to the challenge, and handled the Dallara-Judd LMP900 extremely competently. At Le Mans itself, she regularly set faster lap times than her team-mates Martin Short and Joao Barbosa. As a team, they began well, and ran as high as second, before a lengthy pitstop dropped them out of the running. They eventually finished eighteenth.

The LMES was a much greater success. Vanina, Martin and Joao were third at Spa, Monza and Silverstone and fifth at the Nürburgring, battling against the dominant Audi R8s. It was only a poorer eighth place at Istanbul that dropped them out of the title running. They settled for third.

With the LMES over, Vanina jumped ship for the last three rounds of the FIA GT championship. She was back racing for the Gillet Vertigo Streiff team, and more competitive this time. In the Chinese race at Zhuhai, she and Bas Leinders were thirteenth overall, with a GT2 class win. She repeated this feat in Bahrain with Renaud Kuppens, 20th overall this time. The same pairing could not finish in Dubai.

Belcar had not been forgotten either during this busy year. Vanina was reunited with the Daikin Mini and Alexandra van de Velde for selected rounds. The duo started from pole and claimed an outright victory in the Touring Class at the New Racing Festival of Zolder, 20th overall. In August, they were third in class at the 24 Hours of Zolder, accompanied by Gaby Uljee and Caroline Grifnée. This was Vanina's third 24-hour race of the year, following Le Mans and an attempt at the Spa 24 Hours in a 996 GT3, which ended in retirement for her and her three team-mates.

Not content with this busy schedule, Vanina also found time for trips to Germany for guest drives in the Porsche Supercup and the SEAT Leon Supercopa.

2006 began with a return to classic rallying. The Ickx sisters renewed their driving partnership in the Legend Boucles de Spa event, manning a Porsche 911. They were eighteenth overall. Not long after this, Vanina was signed by the Midland Audi team to race in the DTM touring car series. The announcement followed a rare joint on-track appearance by her and her father, testing the DTM car.

Vanina's DTM results were not brilliant, and her time in the championship must have been trying. The Midland car was a 2004-spec Audi A4, and so lagged behind the newer models somewhat. However, she managed to keep the pace with team-mate Jeroen Bleekemolen, who replaced Olivier Tielemans. She was 15th at Hockenheim, 16th at Lausitz, 18th at Oschersleben, thirteenth at the Norisring, 18th at the Nürburgring, 16th at Le Mans and eleventh at Hockenheim, her best result. The other three rounds resulted in DNFs.

Surprisingly to some, she returned to the DTM in 2007, this time as part of the TME team. Her car was a 2005-spec A4. It was another forgettable year. She was 15th at Hockenheim and Lausitz, 17th at Brands Hatch, 19th at the Nürburgring and 18th in the season finale at Hockenheim. The other five races ended in retirement, one before the race had even begun.

She walked away from the DTM at the end of the year and returned to sportscars and rally raids. The year began with the Tour of Senegal, and Vanina was all set to drive in another Dakar, until it was cancelled at the last minute. It is unclear how much of the Tour took place either.

The main part of her season was taken up with the Le Mans Series. She was back with Rollcentre Racing and their Pescarolo-Judd, as well as her old team-mates Joao Barbosa and Martin Short. Duncan Tappy, Charles Hollings and Mikael Forsten also joined them throughout the year. They were tenth at Barcelona and seventh at Monza, from 18th on the grid. The Nürburgring was less forgiving, and the team suffered technical difficulties, but they were still ninth. Spa was another frustrating race, plagued with car problems, and gave them another ninth, although Vanina beat her own lap record in the process. They were eighth at Silverstone, with Vanina on the last leg.

In between, Vanina drove at Le Mans once more, for Rollcentre. Her team-mates were Joao Barbosa and Stephan Gregoire. They were eleventh overall, first privateers home and fourth in the petrol car standings.

She also accepted a drive in the BTCS Spa 12 Hours, sharing a Delahaye Racing Silhouette Megane Trophy, with David Loix and Frederic Bouvy. They won the race comfortably. In the mood for more endurance, Vanina and Frederic Bouvy joined Alexandra van de Velde in a Red Bull Ferrari 430 for the Zolder 24 Hours. They could not manage a win, but were fourth overall, second in class.

Historics had not been forgotten either. Vanina attended the Le Mans Classic and drove in the Copenhagen Historic Grand Prix. Her car was a 1971 Ford Escort.

2009 was a much quieter year. Vanina entered three major events: Le Mans, the Spa 12 Hours and the Nürburgring 24 Hours. She joined the Creation team for Le Mans, teaming up with Jamie Campbell-Walter and Romain Ianetta, in a Judd-engine Creation CA07 LM1 prototype. They were 24th, 15th in class. Vanina was somewhat disappointed, but stated that it was always good to finish a 24-hour event.

Spa was better, although she did not repeat her 2008 win. Vanina, Frederic Bouvy and Christian Kelders piloted the Megane to second overall. This assisted the team of Bouvy and Kelders to a BTCS championship win.

Her car for the Nürburgring classic was a “green” VW CNG Scirocco, run by VW Motorsport. She was 17th overall, first in class, aided by Thomas Klenke, Peter Terting and Klaus Niedzwiez.

In 2010, she focused on the Le Mans Series. Driving a Lola-Aston Martin LMP1 prototype for the Signature Plus team, with Pierre Ragues and Franck Mailleux, she was seventh at Le Castellet, thirteenth at Spa, third at Algarve, 23rd at the Hungaroring and sixth at Silverstone. She finished the season in joint fourth place, with her team-mates.The same team entered Le Mans itself, but retired during the 19th hour.

As well as the Le Mans 24 Hours, Vanina also drove in the Le Mans Classic. She was demonstrating a fully-electric racing car produced by Citroen.

For 2011, sportscars remained her priority. She drove a Belgian Racing Ford GT in the FIA GT1 championship, experiencing a mixed season. The GT's reputation is a fragile car was borne out by five retirements. Vanina's best round was Silverstone, where she was seventh and ninth. She was only 33rd in the championship.

Once more, she entered Le Mans, driving for Kronos Racing, with Bas Leinders and Maxime Martin. Their car was a Lola Aston Martin B09/60. They were seventh overall.

For charity, Vanina entered the 25 Hour Fun Cup race at Spa. She was fifth overall, with Maxime Soulet, Nico Verdonck, Pascal Mathieu and Stephane Lemeret. They were driving an M&Ms sponsored car for Make A Wish, with each driver representing an M&M colour. Vanina was Miss Green.

She was also in action at the Nürburgring 24 Hours, driving a gas-powered VW Scirocco GT24-CNG. Along with Chrisptoph Niedzwiedz and Thomas Klenke, she was seventeenth, and won the class for alternative fuel cars. Vanina takes a keen interest in green fuels in motorsport; later in the year, she drove in the World Solar Challenge in Australia, for solar-powered vehicles. Her car was a Umicore Imagine.

In 2012, she was set to contest the European Le Mans Series, but did not, for reasons unknown. She announced her retirement from competitive motorsport in April 2012, for undisclosed reasons. She enrolled in business school, and became a mother in April 2013.

After retiring from professional driving, Vanina has occasionally competed, mostly in historic racing, such as the 2014 Le Mans Classic, which she entered in a Ford Shelby Mustang. She has also raced in the Fun Cup again, at the Nürburgring, driving with Marc Duez. In 2013 and 2014, she took part in the Stars Rallye Télévie, a celebrity motorsport event which appears on Belgian television.

Despite claiming that she really had retired for good and was only involved in motorsport in an administrative capacity, Vanina put on her driving shoes again in 2017. She was one of a group of invited drivers who took part in the Audi TT Race of Legends. The race, the last-ever TT Cup event held, was won by Frank Stippler. Vanina was seventh.

Earlier in the year, she had taken part in the Fun Cup 24 Hours as part of an Ickx family team: Jacky, Vanina and Larissa, plus their younger half-siblings Joy, Romain and Clement. She also tested a Formula E car at a promotional day.

She travelled to the USA for the Pikes Peak hillclimb in 2018, driving a Gillet Vertigo special with Tony Gillet.

When not driving fast, Vanina has also broken records on microlights and ski slopes, competed in triathlons and raced motorcycles. She has also sung live on stage with Francophone performer Khadja Nin, who is her stepmother. In 2015, she tried cycle racing, taking part in a relay race in Northern Finland during the Midnight Sun season, in suppport of skin cancer charities. She received her pilot's license in 2018 and continued to be involved in aviation in 2019, as well as riding some of the stages of the Tour de France on her bicycle.

(Image copyright Anthony Megevand)

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