Cristiana Oprea talks to us about the challenges of being a female rally driver in Romania and how she ignores sexism in the industry. She also reveals how she manages to make gender irrelevant to sponsorship deals by going the extra mile for her clients and providing real value every time.
WHEEL SISTERS: Cristiana, please introduce yourself.
Cristiana: Hello, Wheel Sisters! My name is Cristiana Oprea and I live in Bucharest, Romania. I compete as a rally driver in the Romanian National Rally Championship and in European rallies, part of FIA ERT (European Rally Trophy) or ERC (European Rally Championship). In 2019 I founded the Romanian Women in Motorsport platform (Femei in Motorsport), dedicated to identifying and promoting women involved in all areas of Romanian motorsport.
WHEEL SISTERS: Cristiana, you started your rally career in 2015 at the age of 23. How were you introduced to motorsport? Can you tell us a little bit about your journey?
Cristiana: For me it was a bit of a rollercoaster because in 2015 I’d just finished at the Urban Planning faculty and I was looking to explore areas outside my domain – so I got a job as the PR officer of the Romanian Motorsport Federation. Except for one guest co-driver experience back in 2013, I knew nothing about motorsport, but I loved cars and I had just launched my automotive blog www.emoticar.ro, so I figured it was a good start to learn more about the automotive industry and maybe develop my driving skills. After just 2 months I got the chance to be a co-driver at Transilvania Rally, with a driver who has remained my mentor ever since and who also encouraged me to get my rally driver’s licence and start competing. I did my first hillclimb event that autumn, then in 2016 I rented a car for 2 rallies, after which I decided to build my own race car – a Dacia Sandero, homologated only for national racing events in Romania. In 2017 I did my first full season as a rally driver and I never looked back.
Female rally driver Cristiana and her codriver Diana are a perfect team built on trust, determination and fun.
Pic by: RallyArt
WHEEL SISTERS: What were your emotions and expectations at your first rally as a driver?
Cristiana: My main goal was to finish – I didn’t want my debut to end in a ditch somewhere, especially because my first rally as a driver was in March at Brașov Rally – an event full of unexpected moments with snow, rain and sun – kind of like the Romanian Monte-Carlo. I didn’t care much about the standings, but I acknowledged at the finish line that I had a very long way to go, because I was placed last in the Dacia Cup and I definitely needed more practice.
What attracted me most to rallying was the type of concentration, that unique mental focus that you don’t find anywhere else. I loved this challenge and I still love the complexity of the sport.
I didn’t care much about other things like “what would others say about me being a rally driver”, but that is because people were nice at the beginning – things change once you grow as a woman in motorsport :)
WHEEL SISTERS: What challenges have you had to overcome since your rally debut?
Cristiana: There are different kinds of challenges because, as I said, rallying is a very complex sport and, as a driver, I have to take care of my training, I have to take care of the car and the budget for racing, the strategy for the sponsors and my social media accounts, mass-media appearances and much more. I am more or less a one-woman show.
The first, most common and probably biggest challenge is putting together the budget. It’s hard to convince brands to support me because motorsport is not so popular in Romania and they are afraid to step out of the regular “templates” when it comes to marketing campaigns. I know it’s a big challenge for all rally drivers around the world, but the fact that my story, even though it’s unique in Romania (because I am the only active female driver at the moment and I passed some milestones for Romanian women in motorsport), hasn’t received any support from the governing institutions is quite disappointing. Also, at the moment we don’t have any support from the FIA Women in Motorsport commission, but this is something I’m working on, trying to change this for my country.
The second challenge was maintaining and building trust in myself. It’s hard to keep positive and follow your dreams when all you have is infinite passion, a small budget and step-by-step progress. And at the same time, there is a bunch of haters in between all the supporters (but enough to make me doubt myself). Over time, I’ve built a support community and I have a few people who believe in me and encourage me when I need it the most – I finally found a team who shares my goals and this is all that matters.
Last but not least, of course I had to fight sexism and even a fellow rally driver who bullied and threatened me (the case was closed, they decided he didn’t do anything wrong, despite the public threats he made because I am a woman). It’s constant, but it gets easier with time. I’ve accepted the fact that this is the country where I started my career as a rally driver, but I am working to find a way to move to another place in Europe, where women in motorsport and sport in general are shown greater respect and given greater encouragement.
WHEEL SISTERS: In general: What does the motorsport landscape look like in Romania? What are the most popular racing disciplines and race tracks?
Cristiana: The most popular are definitely hillclimb and rallying, because we have the natural infrastructure for them – amazing tarmac and gravel mountain roads. We have all kinds of motorsports, but only two race tracks which host circuit races.
WHEEL SISTERS: How many women are involved in motorsport in Romania? Why do you think there are so few female Romanian racers?
Cristiana: We currently have around 100 women involved in motorsport: most of them are scrutineers, then we have co-drivers in various disciplines and, last but not least, a few drivers.
I think there are a few reasons behind this lack of representation for women drivers: first is the global issue of grassroots motorsport – too few girls who start motorsport/karting at a young age, something that the FIA Girls on Track and Susie Wolff with D2BD (who sadly isn’t present in Romania) changed in the last few years.
The second reason is definitely the regional problem of sexism in Eastern Europe – Romania is still behind most European countries when it comes to opportunities for women and how we treat them when they enter a sport or any other male dominated area. The final reason – and this is the one I took into my own hands – is the passive attitude of the federation: they didn’t do anything at all for women in motorsport, so I founded FIM and I even succeeded in developing a few small initiatives working with the federation and the motorsport event organisers. I’m working hard to change things!
2019 Cristiana competed at the ERC Rally di Roma Capitale and did very well. With the Peugeot 208 R2 she managed to score maximum points in the ERC Ladies Trophy.
WHEEL SISTERS: Empowering women in the male dominated world of motorsport is a big part of your life. Can you tell us a bit about your initiatives? (Femei în Motorsport, your blog, Rally journal, speaker jobs, etc.)
Cristiana: Through Femei in Motorsport I wanted to put the spotlight on other women in Romanian motorsport, because for a long time I was very publicised and I didn’t want people to keep saying I am the only one. Through my blog and all the speaker and ambassador jobs I have I want to empower women in all domains, and also to bring motorsport closer to all of those who would like to start but don’t know exactly what to do with their passion for cars. I always wanted to be as friendly as possible, to offer useful information even via social media and to encourage people, men and women, to break down barriers and just be brave.
WHEEL SISTERS: In your opinion: What should be the next targets and projects to get more women into motorsport?
Cristiana: I feel that a great project for encouraging more women into motorsport would be something focused on us, the drivers who are currently active in the sport. The ERC Ladies Trophy was cancelled in 2020, which is a pity because it emphasised the fact that women can be competitive too – it was good for the image of rallying and it hasn’t been replaced with anything else yet.
There are quite a few amazing ladies in rallying who can be role models for younger girls and I believe an FIA international project focused on women in rallying is the solution – something which could bring all of us together in a way, maybe support some kind of training programme for us, but also to have us as ambassadors for the sport, in return.
WHEEL SISTERS: You studied architecture and urban planning at the university in Bucharest. Now you are the owner of a creative agency and help companies to develop their brands. How does your education, your job and rally fit together?
Cristiana: I never worked as an architect, but I still use the graphic design skills in what I do in motorsport. Currently I am mainly working for my blog, which has become my main source of revenue, and I also have a few clients in Romanian motorsport for whom I do PR, social media & graphic design projects. I love it because it is flexible, I get to choose my own projects, pitch brands I admire and just grow together with my career as a rally driver.
Cristianas mum has encouraged her since the very beginning and even helped her with the budget in the first few years.
Pic by: Andreea Retinschi
WHEEL SISTERS: How do you spend your free time?
Cristiana: I love spending down time at home, with my two Labradors and the flowers in my garden, just reading and doing yoga. I also play tennis as often as I can – I love the fact that the focus I need on the court, one point at a time, is similar to what I need in the race car, when I focus on the road ahead. Also, when I have a free weekend, I like to test drive cars and write reviews on my blog – I love shooting cars!
WHEEL SISTERS: Back to motorsport: Are you working on your race car on your own? Or do you have mechanics?
Cristiana: I have always had a technical team, but I have changed them over the years because I didn’t feel they were fully involved in helping me achieve my goals. Now I’m very happy with H Motorsport – they are a young team with international experience and I truly believe we are on the same page. Together with them I competed at the ERC Rally di Roma Capitale last year, becoming the first Romanian woman driver to ever compete at such a level (European Rally Championship). Also, they were with me in Bulgaria in 2018 when me and Diana Hațegan, my co-driver, became the first Romanian ladies crew in the last 50 years to compete in a foreign rally. These are the milestones I mentioned earlier. :)
WHEEL SISTERS: Who supports you between and during the rally events?
Cristiana: I am lucky because I always have my mother on my side – she has encouraged me since the very beginning (when I decided to change careers) and even helped with my budget in the first few years. The support I get during rallies from the boys in the technical team is also important, and it’s even better because my boyfriend is one of them and he completely understands my full dedication to rallying. Also, Diana Hațegan is my good friend, co-driver, therapist and whatever-else-I-need during rallies and in between – I am lucky to have her by my side.
WHEEL SISTERS: What are your strengths as both an athlete and a person?
Cristiana: I think the fact that I am optimistic helps me with all the challenges. I proved to myself over and over again that I can do whatever I want as long as I truly, really want it and if I’m passionate enough to work as much as I need to. I never give up until I know I really did all I could – which actually never happens in rallying, because there is always a little bit of money which can be invested in a race car.
WHEEL SISTERS: How did you get sponsors? Do you think men are more likely to get a sponsorship in motorsport than women?
Cristiana: I try to get sponsors by growing my image as a rally driver and building interesting and valuable communication projects for every brand I pitch. I don’t believe in the classic “logo sticker” on the race car – this is why I am very involved in social media and public events, where I can bring motorsport closer to the public and talk to them about defensive driving or inspirational topics like having the courage to follow your dreams or female empowerment.
I don’t believe it’s easier for men to get sponsorship, even though I’ve had my fair share of sexist comments – I think it’s a matter of 5% luck and 95% professionalism. If I have the chance to meet a person who sees the value I can bring to their brand and if they’re willing to work together with me and build something unique, the gender doesn’t matter. This is what happened with Michelin and Walero Motorsport – two brands I genuinely love and use. They made me their brand ambassador and we developed some great projects together – and there’s more to come!
Cristiana tries to get sponsors by growing her image as a rally driver. Furthermore she builds interesting and valuable communication projects for every brand she pitches.
Pic by: Attila Szabo
WHEEL SISTERS: What has been your proudest moment since your rally debut?
Cristiana: It’s definitely our ERC debut in Rome 2019. After three years with a Dacia, I just decided I was ready to learn from the best, so I rented a Peugeot 208 R2 and competed in Rally di Roma – my first rally with an R2 race car! We just wanted to enjoy the car and finish the rally (because a retirement would have been veeery expensive), but we managed to score maximum points in the ERC Ladies Trophy and finish the rally on the amazing P8 in ERC3 – I never dreamed of such a result!
WHEEL SISTERS: If you had unlimited cash, what would you do in motorsport? Which car would you drive?
Cristiana: I would definitely just invest in my career, step by step – I don’t believe in skipping steps! Even if I had unlimited cash, I would still buy the R2 rally car I’m working towards right now and continue my endeavours in the European Rally Championship. I would invest in an international rally driving school (also on my to-do list for 2021) and I would definitely get more seat time during tests. My goal is to become the first Romanian woman driver to ever compete in the WRC, and if I do this in the next couple of years I can still enter in the Junior WRC, which would be the ultimate dream!
WHEEL SISTERS: Who is your role model?
Cristiana: I find inspiration in a lot of places, but here are some athletes I really admire:
From motorsport – Catie Munnings, Ekaterina Stratieva, Molly Taylor.
From other sports – Simona Halep, Lindsey Vonn, Serena Williams, Roger Federer.
WHEEL SISTERS: You said you have experienced sexism during races. How did you deal with it?
Cristiana: I was very upset the first times I was bullied or discouraged, but as I said before it gets easier and I just learned to ignore them and do my own thing – I see a lot of frustration from older rally drivers who just can’t adapt to today’s demands, especially social media and the connection with the community you need to have. I just accepted it’s their own problems they reflect on me, so I just don’t care anymore.
WHEEL SISTERS: What advice would you give to girls or women looking forward to getting into motorsports?
Cristiana: Be brave and just follow your dream! But keep in mind that there is a lot of hard work involved. Not only that, but motorsport often requires sacrifices you wouldn’t have expected – you will most likely have to sacrifice holidays, personal time, personal budget or any other kind of personal plans (or even relationships). True passion is key.
WHEEL SISTERS: What are your sporting goals in the upcoming months or years?
Cristiana: I am currently trying to sell my rally Dacia Sandero and I am searching for ways to put together a budget to buy an R2 spec rally car, maybe a Peugeot 208 like the one I competed with in the ERC. My plan is to mix national and European rallies and to build my way up to the WRC.