Zhang Yan is the country's first female driver to get a
competition licence for drifting, a motorsport in which drivers
oversteer to cause loss of traction. Zou Hong / China Daily
Paint a picture of a professional racing driver and the image of a supercharged car with a macho man behind the wheel tends to run the course. But when this job belongs to a woman, a beautiful young female considered a goddess by her fans, stories of romance add depth and color to the impression.
As the first female driver to get a competition license for drifting in China, Zhang Yan, 26, who is also a Chinese Formula Junior racer, admits that her gender has made the sport more interesting.
"People usually think the sport of racing belongs to men. My experiences have proven that women can also do it well," she said.
Zhang said she learned cart racing as a young adult, but hadn't seriously planned to turn racing into her profession from the start.
She admitted that her first job after graduation, as an anchor on Shandong Cable TV, was not as exciting as racing. Putting it into a pit stop, she decided to join a racing club in Beijing.
Two years after she started driving a race car in 2006, Zhang won at England's legendary Torrington Park track in a 2008 British Formula Ford race. She was also ranked sixth at Cadwell Park in the 2008 British Formula Three Championship.
"I am really proud to be a female racer since there are fewer than 10 of us among 2,000 Chinese professional drivers active on the international circuit," she said.
Weighing only 45 kg, Zhang's slim legs are marked with bruises from the job.
"If you didn't know what I did for a living, you might think the bruises were the result of family violence," she said.
"Race cars are no way near as comfortable as standard road cars. They have simple interiors."
The vehicles Zhang drives can achieve speeds of 300 km per hour, but only by keeping them as light as possible. As a result, interiors are sparse and often lack passenger seats.
"Driving a racing car is not an elegant job. On the contrary, you get covered in dirt and sweat. The helmet is not like one in a movie, because your face is totally squashed by it," she said.
As she sits in her privately owned car, parked at the street curb, Zhang looks like any other driver.
But the racing star said she made it from the South Fourth Ring Road to Chongwenmen subway station in only 10 minutes.
"That's not as astonishing as when I once saw her drive a car with one hand sending a message on her phone and the other holding a bottle of water," boasted her broker, Shen Ran.
Zhang said driving on the street has also made her personal life more interesting.
"I was once caught by a policeman who suggested I should overtake less. I followed his advice and we became good friends. He fell in love with me but he wasn't my style," she said.
Working all the time brought loneliness too.
"I spend all my time traveling from one city to another to attend races. I felt lonely on Valentine's Day. There were lovers everywhere but I was alone," she wrote in her blog.
Over the past three years, Zhang has spent most of her time traveling to Australia, Great Britain, Spain and Germany.
"I only have four or five days each month with my family, then I use the rest on racing. I don't have time to fall in love," she said, laughing.
But when pushed on the subject of her perfect man, Zhang said love remained most important but other things mattered, too.
"If he was no good at driving, it might be a problem," she said.
With three racing cars - Formula Ford, Formula BMW and Formula Nissan - Zhang said she couldn't live without driving. Her lifestyle doesn't come cheap, though, with more than 2.5 million yuan needed to cover racing and training costs each year.
"I'm lucky to have joined China Drift Factor club, because it supports drivers and sources sponsorship to pay for overseas competition entry fees. I don't plan too much about my future. I'm satisfied with what is happening right now," she said.
"I can't think about my life without driving. Maybe when I become old, I will have other interests, but now it is a part of me."