Some teenagers flip burgers in the summer after their A-levels. Catie Munnings flips rally cars (well, only once). Rory Ross meets the wunderkind tearing up the rally drivers’ playbook
It wasn’t the most auspicious start. In the curtain-raiser of the European Rally Cham-pionships (ERC) in Belgium last year, Catie Munnings overcooked a corner, skidded, rolled and—after briefly exploring the flight envelope of her Peugeot 208 R2—came to rest upside down in a ditch, having taken out an electricity pylon. She was 17.
She dashed back to England to sit Biology A-level the next day. That done, she tore back to Belgium, leapt back into her Peugeot, and, amid plumes of mud, qualified for the rally. Chastened, she finished 24th in her category, 66th overall, out of 95. “I felt shaken,” she says. “My bud-get couldn’t afford another crash.”
Munnings, now 19, is the great British hope of rallying. After her seismic debut, she is competing in her second ERC season, which wends across Europe to finish at the Wales Rally GB in October.
Whatever her chosen career, Munnings would probably come top. At school in Kent, she was an academic, musical and performing arts scholar, as well as deputy head girl. She competed nationally in athletics and was talent-spotted as a dancer. She wanted to be a vet, but rallying spun her around.
“It’s in the blood,” she says. “Dad drove. I used to work for him. At 13, I competed in ‘auto testing’, basically stunt driving. I never thought of it as a career. I saw no opportunity, no role models. It was a bit of fun. Then it got more real.”
Munnings landed a test with the official Peugeot rally team. Of course, there is more to rally driving than sitting in a car, even an upright one. Munnings juggles a portfolio of ambassadorial roles. When we met, she was en route to teach ice driving in Sweden. She’s also a motivational speaker. Then there is the image-polishing, brand-tightening and media-profiling. I expect Munnings’s emotional intelligence helps when courting sponsors. She talks at the speed of a revved-up Peugeot 1.1-litre engine, but manages to insert a laugh into every sentence. She comes across as both driven and relaxed, determined and charming, feisty and … “Fun-loving,” she says. “I love travelling, animals, yoga and eating healthily. I like a laugh. And I’m fiercely competitive.” Boyfriends can wait. “Life is so varied. I’m not missing out.”
Munnings likens rallying to an “intelligent battle” against ice, mud, the odd cow, the occasional pylon, and one’s own limitations. When travelling on the edge of what’s possible, every corner is a dare; every crest another frequent-flyer point.
Her co-driver, Anne Stein, is a lawyer from Germany. “A good co-driver is the difference between fast and medium pace,” says Munnings. “If you trust the co-driver, you drive com-pletely to her pace notes.”
Rallying manages to be both sexist and egalitarian at once. There is no women’s category. In the car, Munnings is judged on results; out of it, she is mobbed, and gets many more inches than the boys.
“I don’t call myself a ‘female driver’, just a ‘driver’,” she says. “There is equal footing between me and the guys. If I get patronized, it motivates me.”
What irks her are the pit girls. “I was in the Czech Republic and there were four girls around the car,” she says. “So tacky. I thought we’d moved on from that.”
Only one per cent of rally drivers are women; Michèle Mouton was the last to make an impact—in 1982! Men’s physical strength has traditionally given them the edge. Munnings argues that new power-steered lightweight cars favour women.
“We carry tools to meet the 150kg weight limit,” she says. “Many of the guys are over the limit. There is no difference between me and the boys, so, yeah, bring it on.”
From Vanity Fair En Route, published with the Summer 2017 issue of Vanity Fair, and on sale June 2