UNIVERSITY NEWS LAST UPDATED : 25 APRIL
Motorsport Technology alumna Christine Giampaoli Zonca, better known as Christine GZ, grew up knowing that a normal 9-5 job wasn’t for her. With a free spirit, a passion for adventure and a love of cars, Christine built the life and career she always wanted and nowadays is one of the best racing car drivers in the world. But it didn’t come without its challenges.
From accidents and finances, to being a woman in a male dominated industry – and a pandemic that forced her career to a halt – Christine has had to prove herself time and time again. But the graduate is now stronger and better than ever, with an incredibly exciting career ahead. We caught up with the alumna to discover all about her life and career so far.
Christine said: “No one in my family likes cars or follows racing, so it wasn’t something that I grew up around. But from a young age, I had posters of cars and toy cars all around my bedroom. In fact, when people would visit my mum when I was young, they would assume she had a son.
“After finishing school in Fuerteventura, where we lived at the time, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I liked cars, but my parents wanted me to study economics or a similar subject, so I ended up going to Prague to study economics, but it just wasn’t for me.
“My parents weren’t happy, so I had to go back to the Canary Islands, and tell my mum that all I wanted to do was be a race car driver. Eventually, she said I could if I studied as well. So, I took a gap year before I decided my next step.”
A chance encounter with a race car driver soon changed everything for Christine.
She said: “I saw a 1989 Toyota Corolla race pass my house one day. I’d never really seen a rally car before, but I just fell in love with the noise, the smell, the bright colours. Every day, I went outside just to see if the car would come back, and after a week, it did. I knew I needed to see it properly, so I jumped into the middle of the road and got the car to stop. I was just 17 years old, but super excited. The driver got out and went crazy at me! But I asked if I could get in and see the car. The moment I got in, my whole life changed in that moment. I knew then that it was what I needed to do.
“From there, it was just a case of looking into how I could become a race car driver, and the man that owned the Corolla really helped me through it. His first question was if I had lots of money. I said no, and he told me good luck. I asked him how he could afford to race, and he said it was because he was also a Mechanic, so it was cheaper as he was able to build his car without the financial help. So, I started working in a workshop to learn the basics, got myself a car to work on, and started my racing career.”
But Christine had to keep the promise that she made her mum, that she would eventually study as well. So, how does a girl who was born in India to Italian parents and has lived all over the world, end up in Birmingham studying at BCU?
Christine said: “I knew I wanted to go to university in the UK as I had some friends in London, Sussex, Newcastle, and Exeter. I investigated a few different universities and applied to them, and then flew over to visit. But when I came over, I didn’t have time to visit Birmingham. I didn’t really like any of the universities that I had been able to visit, so when it came to choosing one, I went for BCU as I knew that there would be a 50/50 chance that I might like it. Thankfully, it worked out for me!
“I arrived at BCU in 2012 to originally study Business Management, that was when it was still taught at the City North campus in Perry Barr. After a week or so, when I was searching for courses at BCU for a friend, I came across the Motorsports Technology course, which was taught in Millennium Point. I looked into it, and just knew that it was the course for me. So, I contacted the course lead at the time and after meeting with him and having a look around the facilities, I switched courses. I didn’t tell my parents, but eventually, I had to tell my mum. She wasn’t too happy at first, but in the end, she realised that I was doing something that I really wanted to do.
“Everyone at BCU were super helpful and I made so many good friends too. My class was really mixed as well, with students from all over the world, which was really cool. Alongside my course, I was still racing, and I was flying home almost every weekend to the Canary Islands to work on my car and race, so it was intense, but also super fun.”
Whilst in her final year at BCU, Christine won her first title, the overall Championship of the Canaries, and she was the first woman to win the competition. After graduating, she had to find a way to make racing her full-time career.
She said: “After graduating, I was super passionate about what I wanted to do, but it is an incredibly expensive sport, and it requires a lot of work, and a lot of money. So, I went back to the Canary Islands and opened my own car workshop, and it grew quickly. But around the same time, a racing team from Barcelona contacted me and asked if I was the girl who had won the Canary Championships. They asked if I would test one of their cars in Valencia, so I headed there and got on super well with the team.
“They soon asked if I would race the Rally Catalunya for them. But, at the time, women competing in motorsports was still very new. I saw it as an opportunity and asked them if we could have an all women team, from mechanics and engineers to drivers and everything in between. So, in our new team, every single person was a woman. I was still living in the Canaries though, so I sold everything I owned, including my car workshop, to be able to give my everything to the team and the race.
“I moved to Barcelona, where I still live today, but I had nowhere to stay. I ended up sleeping under a car in the team’s garage for over two months! Our team got sponsorship, and we went on to win the race. Our winning prize was to compete in the World Championships. It was crazy, because we were seeing all the big names at the championships and super top drivers. But even with the big names there, so many people were queuing and wanting to meet us, as we were the first all-female team they had seen.”
After the highs of the championships though, Christine realised that she still had a long way to go.
She said: “It was amazing, but I soon realised that it is incredibly hard to race without the budget. Even if your team has sponsorship, you still need money to live and you can’t obviously work full-time alongside it too. So, I decided to stop for a short time to work and get some money, and I became a driving instructor for Audi, for those wanting to be sport drivers, which gave me the time and money to start planning for the future.
“It was still my aim to be a race car driver though, so I decided to quit my job. I had £1,000 in my bank account, and I knew that I had to spend it the best way I could. I hitchhiked my way to a car event in Portugal with my business cards and gave them to everyone I met. I contacted a few companies who had stands at a car event at the NEC in Birmingham, and I told them that I would work for them at the stands for free if they could pay for my show ticket, and I networked there and spoke to as many people as I could. I ended up doing loads of crazy stuff, just to get contacts and to get myself out there.
"I made it my aim to send at least 40 emails per day to try and get sponsorship. But I had nothing back. I was still living in the garage, where I was cooking for the mechanics in exchange for letting me live there, and I accepted that it was the end of my career, and I had no money left.
“But one night, I got a call at around 1.00am, from someone in the USA who said that they had received my email. I had sent so many emails, I didn’t know which one he was referring to. He told me that I had been selected to be the female driver of a new team that they were building. I agreed to come to the selection just a few days later, and asked where I needed to be, and he said Los Angeles!
“After the phone call ended, I went through my emails to find what I had applied to, and realised that I’d put myself forward for an off-road team in LA. I had no idea what ‘off-road’ was, all I’d ever really known was rally driving. The next day, he called me again and he told me that they were covering my travel costs, thankfully, so I headed to the USA. I eventually won the selection and signed the contract to race with them for three years.
“It was amazing. I drove in some cool hardcore racing circuits of over 1,000 miles non-stop. It was another world! Doing that gave me such a leap as it got me media trained, and I was paid to do what I really wanted to do, finally. Unfortunately, then the pandemic hit, and it stopped everything. Our main sponsor was an aviation company, but with no one travelling, they were making no money, and had to sell our race cars.”
But thankfully, another opportunity was about to knock on Christine’s door: Extreme-E.
Extreme-E is an international off-road racing series that uses electric SUVs to race in remote parts of the world, including the Saudi Arabian desert or the Arctic. All racing locations are chosen to raise awareness of climate change, and Extreme E also maintains a ‘Legacy Programme’, which intends to provide social and environmental support for those locations.
However, in February 2022, just a year into Extreme-E, Christine had another setback, an accident where she fractured her foot and would coincidentally take her off the road for six months.
She said: “Mentally, I was way more impacted than physically. When it happened, we were going super-fast, in front of so many incredible drivers. My team were on the radio telling me that I was first overall, but it all ended in just one second. I was so sad and disappointed.
“I flew back to Barcelona and went to the best hospital, but they told me that it would take at least six months for me to get back to normal, which meant that I had to change my whole life quickly. I couldn’t go anywhere or do anything. I am super hyperactive, and the reality that I was going to struggle for a long time hit me. I was watching everyone racing and training, and I just had to sit on my sofa for months. I tried to stay as positive as possible and did a lot of training and tried to remain as active as I could, but it was a really hard time.
“When I got back into racing and realised that I wasn’t fully ready, that was the hardest part, and meant that I split ways from my team at the time. Like everything, there are always ups and downs, but especially in this industry, the highs and lows can hit you super quickly. It’s something that you must be prepared for. Nowadays, I’m back happy, healthy, fit, and fine, and I have a new team and a new challenge.”
Earlier this year, Christine signed with Carl Cox Motorsport, and is racing everywhere from Scotland to Senegal. Alongside racing, the graduate also works with a rally school in Barcelona, which includes teaching and instructing, and she also often gets involved with TV presenting too.
She said: “Being in Extreme-E is the biggest achievement of my life so far. It is one of the craziest championship races, and it is the best level of driving. It’s a small championship, with only around 16 drivers, so to be one of them, is just amazing.”
Extreme-E promotes gender equality, by stating that all teams must consist of a female and a male driver who share equal driving duties. But being a woman in a male dominated industry hasn’t always been easy.
Christine said: “At the beginning, I was quite naïve. I didn’t see the difference. I am a race car driver, I put on my helmet, and no one even knows if I’m male or female. I am super secure about what I do, but of course, there is always stereotyping.
“It’s not always nasty, but there can be a lot of judgement when you first arrive as the blonde girl in the race car, and then you must prove yourself massively to show that this is what you want to do and that you’re good at it. But ultimately, if you really like what you’re doing, and you don’t care what people think, you can move past the background noise.”
Despite the challenges, racing is still what gets Christine out of bed every morning, and nowadays she can finally shine in her incredible career.
She said: “Racing is what inspires me. I wake up on a high with this incredible feeling, which encourages me to go for it 110% every day.
“Of course, you never know what is going to happen next though. It’s not a safe 9-5 job, and you must really work for it to get sponsors, as well as thinking about everything from what you’re driving to your social media presence. There’s always so much to do. Last year, I calculated that I had 271 flights in 2022 alone. I’m all over the world, all the time. You never really stop, and you’re always having to think of what is coming next.”
Christine is now looking forward to the future of her exciting career and has top advice for BCU students too.
She said: “In the future, I am keen to focus on racing, become a better driver every day and enjoy every moment of it too.
“My advice for current students would be to follow your passion, take the time to really think about what it is that you enjoy doing, and explore what careers you can get out of it.
“Doing something you really dislike is hard and very boring! If you do what you love, it will work out for you. Also, try not to care about what others think. There’s no point changing yourself and what you do because others think that they know best.”