She is a woman working in a male dominated environment. She is relaxed and natural, her smile very expressive. Here we introduce you to Karine Vassant, Renault Sport F1 data technician with Team Lotus, a confirmed motorsport aficionado with very varied experience within the field.
Tell us how you got to F1.
That’s a long story! (laughs)
In fact I started my career in rallying, working with Peugeot Sport in the WRC. I stayed in this discipline for six years. I started in 2002 so I was there when we won some titles, which was of course very nice!
Who did you look after ?
I started with Gilles Panizzi on the tarmac rallies, and I also looked after Harri Rovanpera on gravel. Then Markus Gronholm joined the team and things took an upturn. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had the opportunity to work with lots of different drivers.
Then I started to work on the development of the Peugeot 908 LMP car before leaving Peugeot to join Suzuki Sport in rallying, then a short stint with Pescarolo Sport to get some experience of endurance racing and the Le Mans 24 hours.
I then set up my own company and through clients such as Magneti Marelli worked a little with the FIA GT championship and ALMS in the United States. I’ve tried to tick a few boxes…
I also worked on the Dakar Rally once with Overdrive, but I had yet to experience Formula One. Now I have I’m going to retire next year (laughs)…no, not really, I’m going to try and do several years in this discipline.
Why go from rallying to racing ?
It was a question of right place, right time and I always like to try new things: I love motorsport. And I like to get an idea of what is going on elsewhere, to have new experiences. To be honest, I like learning new things all the time. You can’t be scared of change.
Compared to rallying, F1 seems completely different. Are there any similarities though?
It’s true, the two series are completely different, but the basic principles are the same. There are always engines, tyres and gearboxes. Therefore there will always be engine maps, and from this point of view the two are very similar.
However the differences between the organisation of the event and the rules of the championships are very important. We have to get used to the new tyres and tools that the championship gives us, or that the teams use to comply with the rules. The basics, though, stay the same.
When did you start with Renault Sport F1 ?
Actually very recently – I started in January 2011, so things have gone really quickly. The learning period was during the winter testing in February, so a very steep learning curve! I was shadowing other technicians during testing, but I could draw on my previous experiences all the same. I also think I am very adaptable. The biggest part has been getting to grips with the MES system.
Tell us about your role with RSF1.
It’s a bit like being an intermediary between the engine engineer and the car, so being the first link in the chain. Looking at everything that is data capture. Also it’s making sure that everything IT-related works for everyone within our team.
The biggest part of my work is engine mapping on the cars, telemetry control, checking the data we get. We are responsible for this last part ourselves, but the mechanics are as well. My largest responsibility is to make the engine maps and check the car over. In short, if there’s a problem, it’s my fault! (laughs)
Which car do you look after ?
Both ! The data technicians are lucky in that we look after both cars at the same time. It’s a big job, looking after both, and at times it can be difficult as we don’t always put the same engine maps on both cars. There are times when you really need to pay attention: there’s a lot of gymnastics involved.
Do you work with the drivers ?
At my work level, no, that’s not really my role. But on the more personal side, you do have some contact. Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen are really nice guys.
Is it difficult to be a woman in a man’s world ?
It depends on who. In general I can’t say I have any complaints from my side. I think it’s an advantage. They are more helpful, pay more attention. Yet I would say that there is a small worry with some people where you think the guys are going to say ‘let’s see if she can do it’. It’s a chauvinist attitude though…
A woman and a young woman at that, is that worse ?
(laughs). Yes , it’s awful , you should see the proof !
How has your integration into the team gone ?
Really well ! I think Team Lotus is a fantastic team. Personally I think it’s going really well. It’s a new thing to have a girl in a technical team! And I think I’m the sort of person who fits in easily. This side has been really good from my point of view.
How do you deal with all the travel ?
Naturally it’s not easy on your private life. But I think that’s the same for everyone. You’re pleased to go back home and then you’re pleased to be leaving again. You need to be like this. I love travelling, I love moving around, I don’t like to stay in one place. And now I don’t think I could do anything else!
Do you have children ?
No, and I think that the day that I do, I have to put all this aside. I need to calm down first. (laughs).
Does F1 live up to your imagination ?
I haven’t got a clear idea of it yet, and it’s still too early to say. This is only my first race, but in fact I think I imagined it would be a bit like this. The discipline is a bit like it was in rallying and I like that. But I need to give it a bit more time to get a clearer picture.
How is your first time in the paddock ?
It’s great! When you start out and decide you want to do motorsport, you always think about F1. That’s always the ultimate aim. We always say to ourselves, ‘when I make it to F1, that’s the peak of a career.’ But rallying was great as well. I’m really pleased and proud that I’ve tried a lot out.
What made you passionate about the sport ?
It was my friends. And then myself as well when I grew up ! (laughs)