19 February 2020

Meet India's fastest woman on four wheels... oh, and she's also an airline pilot

Being the fastest woman in India on four wheels was never going to be enough for Sneha Sharma.

And the fact that she became an airline pilot to fund her dream of entering Formula 1 says a lot about what drives the 29 year-old from Mumbai.

"I was 14 when I discovered my passion for race driving," she says. "I went to a local track and I immediately felt at one with the car. I was just so happy in that moment and knew that was where I should be.

"And then I went on to set the fastest lap of the day," she added.

Just 15 years later, she was dubbed 'India's fastest female driver' hitting astonishing speeds of 270 kmph at the Buddh International Circuit, Greater Noida. 

Today, she is one of only four female racing drivers in India and boasts an impressive CV that includes being shortlisted for the 2015 Volkswagen Vento Cup and the Toyota Etios Cup in India. She has also had six race victories and 14 runner-up positions.

She also secured another six wins and nine runner-up slots at the Mercedes young star driver programme and is currently the only Indian female racing driver competing outside India.

Having just returned to her home in Mumbai from the FIA F4 in Sebang, Sharma spoke to Newschain about some of the obstacles that have confronted her along the way.

"People just assume that because I am a woman I don't know how to drive,” she said.

"They say things like, 'we will take you out on the first corner' or 'I'm going to whack your car'.

"Pink to make the boys think" (Sneha Sharma)

She said male drivers would purposely target her: "There were times when two or three drivers would gang up together and try and push me off.”

She recalls a practice session when she prevented a male driver from overtaking her.

“One driver could not overtake me for two laps," she said, "so on the third lap I let him overtake me but when he did, he purposely hit my engine four times to cause damage.

“Please make sure you include that," she asked us. "I want other women to know about the pain, but keep going anyway.

“I call it pain because it really was painful, but I fight through it and I want other women to know they can too.

“He couldn’t face that I was stopping him even though I wasn’t a man.

“There were moments when I felt broken and was in tears but I hid them in the bathroom because I did not want to look like a weak woman in front of the men who don’t believe I am strong enough,” she said.

"I did give it back though," she added, laughing. "He tried it again in the second session and I just defended and because of his dangerous manoeuvre he sort of went in the air (he landed safely) but all these moments were when I feel I gave it all. 

"I consider myself a human before I am a woman and it drives me forward. It’s not about being liked. I gave up being liked a long way back and now i just want to be respected for being good at what I do. F*** being liked.

"Once the racing helmet goes on, I am not a man or a woman, I am a racing driver."

Sneha tops the podium ahead of all her male competition in a South East Asian F4 race (Sneha Sharma)

For the Indian speed queen there are other roadblocks that have stood in her way. As is often the case in motorsport, finance is a big issue.

The determined young driver hasn't let this stop her and in the early days when she couldn't secure a trainer, she used her pocket money to pay marshals and mechanics to teach her the ins-and-outs of the cars and also helped out at the race track to raise cash.

Where many people might take up a job as a waitress or in a bar to fund their aspirations, a 17-year-old Sharma took a much bolder step.

Sneha proudly poses in her IndiGo pilot uniform (Sneha Sharma)

When she finished her education at Conossa Convent School in Mumbai she moved halfway across the world to California in order to train as a pilot.

Her father, Vijay, who was a captain in the merchant navy, was forced to take out loans in order to fund the move.

Strangely, the idea of flying came from watching a film about the Formula 1 legend Niki Lauda.

Legendary racing driver Niki Lauda inspired Sneha to take up flying (PA Images)

"At the end of the film Rush, Niki Lauda takes up flying in order to gain discipline and that is what inspired me. Normally people look at him just for his racing but I look at him as a whole person flying and racing and achieving not just because he is a man.

“I feel that especially on the race track. He was a very inspirational man and if he can do that, so can I, even if I am a woman. 

"I took up flying to support racing. I love flying but racing is my first love and now I can inter-relate the two and use both the experiences to enhance myself as both a pilot and a racing driver."

Sharma works for the Indian budget airline Indigo, where she sits behind the controls of an Airbus 320.

"The only difference is that in the aircraft I'm trying to fly within a safe limit whereas in a race car I'm always trying to push as much as I can."

Sharma alongside one of the Airbus planes she flies for Indigo Airlines (Sneha Sharma)

She now hopes to advance in motorsport with the ultimate goal of reaching Formula 1 and while she hopes inspiring others is a big part of her career, she is determined for another reason.

Her mother, and biggest supporter, Renu, passed away two years ago and it is for her that she is now so driven.

Sneha alongside her mother Renu, whom she cites as her biggest inspiration (Sneha Sharma)

"I see hurdles sometimes move away by themselves and I know it's her because she is close to God now. They're in it together."

Sharma has recently secured funding from JK tyres and, after seeing her fly around the track, her employers Indigo airlines also came on-board.

They now only require her to fly six days a month which allows her the time to focus on driving.

"I really want to show my appreciation for all the support they give me," she said. "I want to use this opportunity to give back and perform.

"It is for them, for me and for my family that I am now aiming for Formula One. I am going to show them it was all worth it."

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