At a rain-lashed Silverstone this month, an extraordinary MotoGP story was taking shape.
Maria Herrera, a 19 year old Moto3 rider from Toledo, Spain, had started from 14th on the grid and despite the appalling conditions, the petite Laglisse Husqvarna rider had scythed her way through the field to fourth place.
Back in the Husqvarna garage, flanked by the team’s crew, Herrera’s father hopped from foot to foot in nervous anticipation, glued to the monitors as, through the swirl, his daughter fought her ground.
Then, 11 laps in, with Herrera in fifth position, disaster struck. Her foot slipped on a pedal and she swerved to a slippery part of the track, where she crashed.
The teenager remounted, but her Husqvarna stalled. She tried desperately to bump start it back to life, but her shot at history had gone — for now. Fifth would have been the best result by a female rider in Moto3.
Returning to the garage, Herrera embraced her father, sad disappointment etched on her face, pride on his.
Close families are common in motorsports and the Herrera clan is no exception.
“My father introduced me to riding, he was a rider, and since I was little I started riding motorbikes,” Herrera, standing among spare bike parts and race leathers in her team’s trailer, told CNN. “I was six years old. My father raced bikes, but he was not famous.
“My family always supported me,” she added. “My father always took me training and my family is always involved with me.”
Also racing at Silverstone was 18-year-old Ana Carrasco.
Returning after a lengthy rehabilitation from a badly broken humerus — her second serious injury of a painful season — she was forced to retire.
Like Herrera, Carrasco — the first female rider to score points in the Moto3 class — had paternal influence behind her entry into the sport.
“My father was a mechanic, and a rider,” she told CNN over the noise of the Silverstone paddock. “They got me a bike when I was three years old, and I started back then.”
At first she says, racing was purely for fun: “The first year was like a game, no pressure, nothing, only for playing.”
As the stakes have got higher, so her family have begun to worry about her. “My family was really relaxed, but now they are becoming nervous,” she laughs.
Tough for a woman
Carrasco admits that reaching Moto3 hasn’t been easy.
“I think for all the riders it is difficult to come to the world championship, but for me it was a little bit more; but for another part it’s better to be a woman, because nobody is here, so I think it’s good.”
She says gender is irrelevant on the track, although she does believe the boys try a little harder when they’re racing her. “On the track it’s the same to be a woman or a man; they try a little bit more when they are with me, but I don’t care,” she added.
The MotoGP community has always welcomed her, she says. “I never feel different. My team is always protecting me, but I have a good relationship with people, with the other riders, so I feel comfortable here.”
This open atmosphere is something Ignacio Sagnier, MotoGP’s communications manager, is proud of. “I think there’s a lot of evidence that MotoGP is a female-friendly sport,” he told CNN.
“We have two women competing in Moto3 right now, and in the past we’ve had others in the old 125cc and 250cc classes. Of course it is also a very physically challenging sport, but you can see that with the right preparation anyone — male or female — can achieve good results.”
Herrera also admits that Moto3 was daunting at first.
“At the beginning I felt the pressure, but little by little it got better and I felt more comfortable with my motorbike and the team,” she explained.
She has received plenty of support from across the grid. “There are lots of riders in MotoGP who try to help me, and I’m very happy because I think I’m slowly securing my place in the team.”
Aprilia MotoGP rider Alvaro Bautista has been a major influence.
“Alvaro is my role model,” said Herrera, smiling. “He’s from my village and I train with him a lot, so I really appreciate him. He’s a very hard-working rider and he gives me a lot of advice.”
Like Herrera, Carrasco has quickly become an established figure on the grid, with her broad, infectious grin and relaxed demeanor and traversing the world with the MotoGP circus is something she clearly enjoys.
“I like the traveling, many countries, and all the people, it’s really good,” said Carrasco. “But also it’s difficult because for studying — it’s difficult — because you are not at home and you don’t have a lot of time.”
When she is back in the city of Murcia where Carrasco grew up, life remains grounded and ordinary.
“Where I live it’s different, because all the people know me for all my life, so it’s like, ‘Hey Ana,’ it’s normal.”
Both riders have caught the eye of reigning MotoGP world champion Marc Marquez. “They have talent and they can achieve great things in Moto3, both have already got some points,” he told CNN.
“I know Maria well and she can be fighting in the top 10. She won a race in the Spanish Championship two years ago and this year in Silverstone she was unlucky to crash when she was in fifth position.”
Grid Girls and Grid Boys
So what do Herrera and Carrasco think about the “Grid Girls” that sashay around the paddock and hold umbrellas over the riders on the grid?
Herrera isn’t a fan. “I don’t like it,” she said. “I’ve always told my father that I don’t like it. It’s only good for the sponsors.”
A year ago Carrasco went one step further, arriving on the grid at the Dutch MotoGP with a male model — naked from the waist up — causing an amused stir at the track.
Sagnier says umbrella holding “Grid Girls” are here to stay, for now at least: “There are no plans to change anything regarding the ‘Grid Girls,’ but it is really up to the individual teams and the riders,” he told CNN.
“If a rider prefers to have a ‘Grid Boy’ like Ana Carrasco did in Assen last year then that is great — it was fun for everyone to see.”
The top prize
The big question for both women is whether they can reach the MotoGP class.
“That is the dream,” says Carrasco smiling. “Now I don’t think about this, because now we are in Moto3, and we need to continue improving, then think about Moto2 and then we will see.”
Herrera, too, is focused on Moto3.
“I think next year, when I know the circuits better, it will help me achieve better results, and in time we’ll be able to fight for the championship.”
The biggest obstacle is the brute strength needed in the top class, argues Sagnier.
“MotoGP is extremely physically demanding,” he said. “The bikes are much more powerful than Moto3 and Moto2. I think that’s the biggest challenge for female riders, as it is for male riders.
“But, in Moto3 and Moto2 I think we will see more women as genuine contenders for the World Championship before too long.”
However, Carrasco dismisses the idea that women aren’t physically enough to race. “This is always difficult, but you can train for this, it’s not a problem I think.”
Looking ahead, Sagnier sees more women entering the sport.
“As well as Ana and Maria in Moto3 we have more girls rising up through the lower categories, so I suspect it is just a matter of time.”
Marquez believes women must get a chance in the top class. “Why not? Of course it’s not easy and not everyone can be in the world championship,” said the Spaniard.
“Ana and Maria have talent and have worked hard from the beginning, they deserve this opportunity.”