Zoe Florescu-Potolea: «No shortcuts, you must race with the best at every stage.»

Columns: Interview
On the heels of the extraordinary podium finish at the Italian Championship, we met Zoe Florescu-Potolea, the 15-year-old representative of Team Birel Art. Very clear thoughts and already very consistent with her goals, she makes no concessions for girls in motorsport: if they want to reach the top, they must get used to competing only with the best, at the highest level. (fm)

15-year-old, an American and Romanian citizenship with a residence in Italy, racing for Birel Art Racing Team in the KZ2 category, with an Italian license. That's Zoe, who splits her time between Bucharest and Desenzano del Garda (studying at Minerva Virtual Academy for Athlets).

Which age did you start karting and where, who was the trigger to karting in the family?
«It all started at the legendary Kartodromo La Conca where I first ever jumped in a kart. It was 2016, I was 8 yo and I remember perfectly every corner and the famous chicane… It was through a friend of my mom’s, Constantin Raileanu (from the Real Racing Team), who was organising karting camps at La Conca. So last week making podium in the Italian Championship at La Conca was a very emotional moment for me… 
Coming back to my racing beginnings, nobody in my family was into motorsport and nobody was even watching F1.  But my mother, as she learned to drive on the streets of New York, thought it was a great idea to send my sister and me to a camp, in the south of Italy, and while practicing being independent she thought it was cool that we learn how to “drive”. This is all it needs sometimes to bring a young girl into racing! That's why, initiatives like F1 Academy's Discover Your Drive, followed by the More than Equal development program, or the Iron Dames Young Talents program, just announced today, are welcomed now.»

When did you take part in your 1st race ever and when did you move to racing in Italy?
«My first ever race was in September 2018, in a Mini category.  It was one of those races, very eventful, lots of drama, crashes, broken equipment, mechanics rushing to fix everything before the next session, me falling to my knees trying to pull my kart out of the gravel, but never giving up and doing everything possible to race to the checkered flag.  Results?  Forget about it!  But I left that racing weekend wanting to do it again, so I never stopped ever since.
After racing in Romania and participating in a few international races, my parents and I wanted to try and see how I would adapt to a thorough international season, with a professional team, having exceptional equipment.  We did our research and we decided to make that step in 2022, with Birel Art Racing Team.  It was a very difficult “upgrade” to process, not only to shift gears from racing with a “home” team, but also to make the step to the OKJ category.  I had a great environment to continue learning to race professionally and I am so happy now to be back in the Birel family, with champions and people who perform, care, and have fun at the same time. I raced with Birel Art Racing Team in the highest, most competitive karting competitions in the world, including the WSK Euro Series, RGMMC Champions of the Future, the FIA European Karting Championship, and the FIA World Karting Championship. At the end of 2022, I also emerged as the winner of the FIA Girls on Track Rising Stars Program. As a result, I had the opportunity to continue my development in 2023 with an international karting season supported by FIA Women in Motorsport and Ferrari Driver Academy in the OK category. I was also assisted by the Iron Dames and coached by Michelle Gatting at some of the races.  I loved it and I am still grateful for it. 2023 was another busy year with competing in all the top WSK, RGMMC and FIA races. It turned out to be a very difficult season for me as the team was struggling with some engine issues. Considering this, in October at the 2023 FIA World Championship in Franciacorta I was fast, P10 in my group, but then, due to a problem in the handling of tyres from the team, my final result was compromised. After that race I decided to leave the team and we finally decided to start a new driver development program for 2024 in the shifter category, KZ2, back with my first love, Birel Art Racing Team.»

Let’s now come back to your wonderful weekend in La Conca: was that your first podium with Birel Art Team wasn’t it? Tell us in details the perfect weekend you got and how's working with this team.
«I was very fast the whole weekend, and in Race 2 I had the record lap time!  As all drivers are saying, this is one of the most technical and physical demanding karting tracks. I am very fit at this stage of the year, so I think this was helping massively, and then if you are mastering the famous chicane, then you are on top of the lap timing board. Also, the weekend before I raced at the 2nd Round of the WSK Open Series at La Conca, with Birel Art Racing Team.  I finished the final on P19 that weekend, but nevertheless, it served as great preparation for the 2nd Round of the ACI Italian Championship, having benefited as well from the coaching of my friend and colleague, Daniel Vasile. We definitely put to good use all the data collected during the WSK weekend: how the track suffered damage, how the chassis was behaving, how the chicane needed to be negotiated in order to gain the most, what were some of the outcomes of certain mistakes, how to not repeat what doesn’t work, etc.  
For the ACI Karting races I am assisted by KCS Team, which is the team ran by Antonio Mancino, with Birel Art chassis and TM engine and they managed to have my chassis on point and I delivered! »

How’s KZ class? What do you enjoy of it and what are you still trying to deal with? What about the power of the kart?
«This first podium in KZ means a lot for me and, Italian Championship in KZ is probably the most competitive out of all national competitions, and managing this is motivating me a lot. I enjoy KZ, the gear-shifting, the brutal braking and acceleration, the standing start - it is a very new sensation and feeling for me and definitively a big step in my racing development program. All this is making the driving style much more different than the OK Senior category, therefore it took more time to adapt. I am still trying to deal with being more comfortable with the gear-shifting, as in the race you need to pay a lot of attention at how you manage the gears, for example at the start, normally in the first few corners, when everyone is so close to each other, you need to shift down. You also do this when you pass and normally when there is a change in speed.»

What about girls not just “in karting” but “girls in KZ”: did anyone inspire you? What’s the reason why you decided to race in KZ? Do you have a fav driver in karting? And in F1?
«I believe that you need to understand, master and love the KZ if you want to continue in a single seater. If for example you don't understand brake bias, front locking, a standing start, the gear-shifting, how, when (and at what cost) can you be fast in F4…?
There are not many girls in KZ, I think it is only me and one or two more, but most of the top international races it is just me so far this season. I think girls need to regard the FIA karting categories more seriously; if you want to equally compete with the boys, you have to go where the hardest and toughest boys are, in the hardest and toughest categories.  Otherwise you are fooling yourselves and, in all honesty, serious racers will know that you are not prepared at the highest level, and will already have an advantage over you. Michelle Gatting is a good example that I admire a lot. She is successful now, but hey!,  she was competing at the top of the karting competitions, with Verstappen and Jordon Lennox, in KZ, on the same track, fighting the top 5!  There's no shortcut here, you must race with the best at every stage of your motorsport career. Currently my favourite driver in karting is my coach, Dani Vasile. He is an amazingly fast and smart KZ2 driver who also helped me with the big change from OK Senior to KZ. I had the chance to meet on the karting track quite some F1 drivers on test days but my favourite F1 driver is Lando Norris, he is a very fast driver, and very kind off track. I also admire Alex Palou. 

Now, going deep in your latest seasons, please tell us more about your path in the OK classes (both Junior and Senior). If possible, draw a line that allow kids to understand why these two classes are so important for a young driver but also what are the challenges moving from minikart to OKJ.
«If you are seriously in love with motorsport and you want to become a real driver ,you have to go for the OKJ and OK categories, the FIA classes in karting. This is the top level in karting and beside skills and commitment, you need a good budget. You must race at this level and never look back to the national championship or lower power engines competitions. So advancing to OKJ was a huge step for me, on all levels: physical, skill-wise, mentally and commitment from my family to support me and to travel extensively. I consider advancing from Mini to OKJ is the biggest change, the most difficult. For me, at least.»

Then speaking about OK Senior: did you feel the gap from OKJ? What’s been the main challenge when switching to OK Senior? What can you tell about tyres: such a big difference from your point of view?
«I think physically they are not very different, and as speed, I think it is much easier to adapt when stepping up to OK Senior than stepping up to KZ. OK Senior also has its challenges, you need to learn how to handle the carburation, and most importantly, the tyres. If it's cold, you really need to know how to bring the tyres into the temperature. Then you have more power, you need to understand this and to learn how to use it. Last year we used MG Tyres, where the tyre degradation was quite high, therefore we really needed to minimise the tyre damage for the 5 heats that we had in a race. With 145 kg and 39 hp this is the category where I really started to understand the dynamic of racing and what makes you faster. Now in KZ I understand even more and get even more behind this so it's all coming together. »

Now let’s go finally to the topic you maybe have been asked more about: why do you think there are so few girls – and women – at the top level of motorsport and obv, what’s your personal goal in career so far. Do you also like, aside F1, some other categories?
«Yes, in the last three years in my OKJ, then OK category international competitions, we were only a few girls. Most are not racing anymore at the top level, or they stopped at all. Now in KZ this season it is only me and sometimes Emma Felbermayr racing, so with all the big hype around women in motorsport, I am asking: where are the girls racing ? Where are they trying to equally compete with the boys? Because if you are not performing and being able to win now at the top level in karting, I don't see how a girl will be successfully up the feeder series, F4 and so on.  For a young girl wanting to race I consider the budget and the family commitment as the key to succeed.  My personal goal is to become the best driver possible and to have the chance to drive fast cars.»
We saw you racing Dacia in Romania, tell us more about this Championship and about the car which is not actually known as a “racing” car.
«As part of my driver development program, I decided to race in the Romanian Endurance Series,  Dacia Logan Cup, after some test days that I really enjoyed. The Logan Cup category it's a budget single make championship that many karting graduates and other enthusiasts can afford. My car has a stock engine and gearbox, a KW racing suspension, custom exhaust and software, improved brakes and all the necessary safety features and it´s so much fun to race with. 25 crews battled out last year and it keeps on growing - a fitting choice for my car racing debut, a very good school when it comes to a totally different weight and volume compared with my go kart. In the first three rounds of the 2024 Romanian Endurance Series I already visited the podium on both circuits (Motorpark Romania and Transilvania Motor Ring) and look forward to keep evolving together with the West Competition Racing team.»

Last question: pick one, OK or KZ?
«Oh My God! Definitely KZ and I’m so looking forward to the rest of the season. But let's not forget, I also started F4 tests already last year, I am successfully competing in a car endurance series, so it's getting tricky to pick...»

Created by: fmarangon2 - 29/05/24

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