Laia Sanz is not only one of the most successful women in motorsport, but one of the most successful riders of any gender in the sport. With multiple World, European and Spanish Trial Championship victories, she has now set her sights on a brand-new challenge. Having spent her career racing on two wheels with motorbikes, she is now making the transition to four wheels for the inaugural season of Extreme E. She told me about her career, racing in the Dakar Rally and joining the sustainable movement in Extreme E.
Laia grew up in a family who were passionate about motorsport meaning that it was at the age of just two years old that she first sat on a motorbike. It was then a few years later that she first started riding when she secretly began using her older brother’s bike. “I started riding when I was four years old and then competing when I was six. I loved racing from the beginning, I saw my Dad and brother driving and so I started too,” she said. Her competitive debut came after her mother encouraged her to do so in a local race. Although she finished last in her group, this had ignited a love of competing. At the age of 12, Laia won her first race, going on to take her first championship in a non-official European Trial Championship the following year. “I started doing trials which I’ve been doing for many years. I did the World Championship, the Spanish Championship, and then started thinking about Dakar but it was always on a motorbike,” she explained.
In 2000, at the age of 14, Laia won her first official title in the Spanish Youth Trial Championship, before going on to achieve her first international title in the Women’s World Trial Championship, a competition she would go on to dominate. In the same year, Laia entered the Women’s European Trial Championship, finishing second, with her repeating these World and European results the following year. From 2002 to 2006, Laia won both the World and European Championships every season, making a total of seven World Championships and five European Championship titles. Despite not continuing this in 2007, she was back to her best in 2008, going on to achieve double titles for the next three consecutive years.
Competing in the Dakar Rally had been a dream for Laia since she was a child and so in order to prepare for this, she entered the 2010 Women’s World Enduro Championship. In her debut season, she finished third as she began training for more long-distance events. Just a year later, her dream came true as she raced in the 2011 Dakar Rally. “Dakar is popular in Spain; I would watch it on TV every night when it was on. It was a dream, but I never imagined that I would do it. It’s like for kids now watching Formula One, it’s something you never think will be real. I really enjoyed it,” she told me. In her Dakar debut, Laia finished in an extremely respectable 39th place which meant she won the Women’s trophy, as well as improving on her previous season’s result in the Women’s World Enduro Championship, finishing second. “Dakar was something I’d always wanted to do, but when I was a kid, I didn’t think it was possible. Also, if you’d explained to me that in my first Dakar I would get the results I got, top woman in my class, I wouldn’t believe it,” Laia said.
2012 saw Laia make history, and not for the first time. She took the Women’s Trophy in the Dakar Rally and secured the titles in the Women’s World Trial Championship and Enduro Championship. By winning this trio of championships, Laia became the first person ever to do so. She then repeated this in 2013, again cementing her place in history. After 13 World, 10 European and eight Spanish Trial titles, Laia decided to focus on Dakar and Enduro racing, wanting to concentrate on improving in these events. “Every year I am more experienced and learn things, and also my driving skills have improved a lot since my first Dakar. I didn’t come from rallies or enduro, I came from trials which is really different. My speed, physical condition, you really improve a lot every year,” she said.
Since 2011, Laia has finished every Dakar Rally, with her best result coming in 2015 when she finished in ninth place overall. She also added to her Women’s Enduro World Championship tally with a total of five titles. However, she is now taking on a new challenge as she enters the revolutionary Extreme E Championship. Launched by Formula E founder Alejandro Agag, the championship will travel to some of the most remote parts of the world to highlight the dangers posed by climate change and the effects it is already having. With Extreme E being on four wheels rather than the two Laia is used to, this is something she has little experience in, although she is hoping that her past racing in Dakar may come in useful. “I think it can help,” Laia said. “The experience racing abroad is good, but my handicap is that I’ve never driven a car like this. I don’t have experience on four wheels, so that will be really challenging for me. How the electrics work and the settings on the car are all things I will need to learn. Everybody will have more experience than me so it will be really interesting but I’m ready to improve! I think I am also in a good place to learn with Carlos (Sainz) so I can’t wait.”
Laia will race with the Acciona Sainz Extreme E team which was created by Acciona, the first team to compete in the Dakar Rally with a fully electric vehicle, and legendary rally driver Carlos Sainz, who she will share driving duties with. “I had heard about the championship last year and then I started to speak to the team in the summer. Some months ago, Carlos called me and asked me if I would like to do it. Of course, my answer was yes,” she described. Another revolutionary part of this championship is that each team is required to have both a male and female driver. Speaking of this, she said: “we have an important role because we will be doing half of the race. Our performance will be just as important which is really interesting. I think it will help a lot of women in motorsport, and for us, it’s a huge opportunity to show our potential.”
As the main motivation behind Extreme E, climate change and sustainability were also key factors in attracting Laia to the championship. “I think it is something special, this message. Sometimes motorsport has a bad image, and that’s not always deserved because we love nature. It’s good that we can help to show how important it is to take care of the planet and I think this will be the direction that motorsport will take in the future,” the Spaniard explained. This push for more sustainability also means that testing of the cars is limited with teams unable to travel to the locations ahead of racing there. Therefore, preparation will be vital, even if a little difficult. “We don’t have a lot of time for testing the car. It will be tough because we will go directly to the places we race without testing there. Of course, after Dakar, this is now my main goal, to try and train with a similar car, that will help me get experience and give me some kilometres to get used to four wheels,” she told me.
Laia’s career has seen incredible success with over 30 championship victories, though it is some of her performances in which she hasn’t won titles which she is most proud of. Speaking of her career highlights so far, Laia explained: “I would say Dakar in 2015. I finished ninth overall and in one stage I finished fifth which was my best result, and also the best ever results for a woman in Dakar. In the World Rally Raid Championship, I finished one stage third and that was one of the best moments of my career. My career is so long that there are many good memories!” With such a long and dominant motorsport career, Laia is now taking a chance with a brand-new championship in a four-wheeled world she is not used to. As an incredible role model for people wanting to get involved in the sport, she advised anyone interested: “it’s hard sometimes, but if you work, you can achieve anything. Just try to work hard and enjoy it!”
Heading photo credit: Extreme E