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20 years after the feat of “the queen of the desert”, the only woman who won the Dakar: she defeated prejudice and her former partner

Jutta Kleinschmidt made history aboard a Mitsubishi
Jutta Kleinschmidt made history aboard a Mitsubishi

In its 43 years the Dakar delivered hundreds of stories and milestones. One of them was the definition of the 2001 edition, when the German Jutta Kleinschmidt became so far the only woman to win in the legendary rally raid event. It was with a special taste since He beat his former partner, Frenchman Jean-Louis Schlesser who was the pilot to beat in those years. Today marks two decades of its historic triumph. That was one of the episodes of a long duel that started before their separation and that even had a chapter in Argentina.

Born on August 29, 1962 in Cologne, Jutta from a very young age did not commune with the weaker sex. Coming from a lower middle class, he studied physics and worked for six years in the BMW Research and Development Department until he left everything to dedicate himself to motorsport. In 1987 he bought a broken motorcycle which he disassembled and prepared by hand in his small apartment in Munich. There in the kitchen he kept the spare parts. With her he competed in the Rally of the Pharaohs, in Egypt. In 1988 he made his Dakar debut and since he had no money to pay a mechanic, he competed by day and made the necessary repairs at night. He almost ran without sleep and had to give up. Until in 1992, with a broken foot, she won the Dakar women’s category called the Paris-Cape Town Rally, with 22 stages and 12,747 kilometers.

At this point the relationship with Jean-Louis had been born. It started as her admiration for him, who came from being two-time world champion of Sport Prototypes with Mercedes in 1989 and 1990, when the German brand decided to compete again. The Gaul surrendered to the German blonde (14 years younger). They were the ideal of an iron couple. There was their love for each other and for rally raid racing. It was so in 1993 they started racing together: he was the pilot and she was his navigator. After gaining the necessary experience and encouraged by Schlesser himself, Kleinschmidt made his debut in cars in 1994. It was at the UAE Desert Challenge, in Abu Dhabi, where she surprised by being fourth and her partner won.

She was racing in the Jean-Louis team with a buggy. The competitiveness of the Frenchman’s squad earned him the support of factories such as SEAT and later Renault. The German continued to excel in rally raid racing, the toughest discipline in motorsport and where decades ago it was believed to be only reserved for men. However, Jutta defeated that idea. In 1998 she was the first lady to win a stage in Autos at the Dakar. It achieved its place and recognition in the environment. But that affected the couple …

He was jealous, but the third was not another man if not the success that she was beginning to reap. He did not accept that Jutta was so competitive and this generated a terminal crisis in their relationship. “When a couple breaks up over an issue like this, it is evident that there was already something that was not working before”Kleinschmidt later reflected.

After the breakup, in late 1998 she managed to join the ranks of Mitsubishi to develop the successful Pajero model. In the 1999 Dakar, where Jean-Louis won, the German finished third being sailed by the Swede Tina Thörner. At the awards ceremony, the sidelong glances were eloquent. “Where there was fire, ashes remain,” says the saying about those who had a love affair. Those ashes were transformed into embers in a short time, but not because of an eventual return, if not to accentuate the separation.

Jutta, on the ramp of victory after winning the Dakar 2001 (Photo: www.jutta-kleinschmidt.de)
Jutta, on the ramp of victory after winning the Dakar 2001 (Photo: www.jutta-kleinschmidt.de)

In the Dakar 2000, she was fifth and he won again. During the season they ran the Cross Country Rally World Cup and the French won the title beating the German. The competition between them grew. Jutta was the protagonist, but could not achieve a title. From Mitsubishi they analyzed not to renew the contract for 2001, however then they reconsidered the issue and bet on another season, appealing to marketing and changing the slogan to sell more cars: “A woman can run the Dakar with our car, you can do it too”. Without knowing it, the commercial strategy that aimed to attract the female audience worked wonders in the sports field.

In the 2001 edition of the Dakar the fight for victory was again between the Schlesser buggies and the Mitsubishi, with Hiroshi Masuoka as the spearhead. He fought the victory against Jean Louis himself and his partner, the Spanish José María Servià. The Japanese had been leading until the penultimate stage. Then his rivals put together a ploy playing as a team. They took off earlier than they should, they were throwing dust at the Japanese who in the effort to reach them damaged the rear axle of his car and lost time in repairing it. The Asian made the claim to the authorities, obtained a sanction for Schlesser, but not a refund of time for the repair of his car. Before the last stage, the Frenchman was penalized two hours for advancing his start. He lost his chances for the win and inadvertently handed it to Kleinschmidt on a platter.

The German had not won any of the 20 stages and was left with the victory in the general classification. On January 21, 2001, she became the first and so far only woman to win the Dakar. An article from the site Automundo collected testimonies of that definition and rivalry between them. “It bothers me that she is convinced that she won the Dakar in good law. It is not like this. In any case, the winner should be Hiroshi Masuoka, his teammate, who was the great dominator. Jutta did not win any stage and should not even have celebrated on the podium, “he wielded. “I was victorious thanks to Schlesser’s mistake on the penultimate stage. It would be good if I appreciated it, but I suppose you don’t want to talk to me… ”she replied.

Eight months later and within the framework of the Cross Country Rally World Cup, the fight between the “ex” came to Argentina. From September 18 to 23, 2001, the “Por las Pampas Rally” was held in Mendoza. It was a kind of mini Dakar. In Cuyo land the problems continued. In the first kilometers of competition, Schlesser accused Kleinschmidt of throwing the car at him in a section of the course when he was about to overcome it. “It is not the first time he has done this to me, in the Dakar he covered me for 200 kilometers. But hey, that attitude does not surprise me, she is a woman … “, he shot.

“Kleinschmidt is very problematic … If she were faster she would be a good driver and so she wouldn’t have to criticize me. You didn’t win anything and you should be aware that you need to accumulate more experience. She cannot come and pretend to beat me, I have more years in motorsports than her and a career that includes titles in Formula 3, Sport Prototypes and a career in Formula 1… ”, he specified.

That only competition in the Maxima that Jean-Louis mentioned was at the 1988 Italian GP where he raced a Williams and replaced none other than the Englishman. Nigel Mansell, who was recovering from vibrations injuries to his car at the Hungarian GP. In Monza, Schlesser and Ayrton Senna They touched, but the person responsible for the maneuver was the French, who was behind. The Brazilian was leading the race with two laps to go …

In his small apartment in Munich where he prepared his first race bike.  He was 25 years old (Photo: www.jutta-kleinschmidt.de)
In his small apartment in Munich where he prepared his first race bike. He was 25 years old (Photo: www.jutta-kleinschmidt.de)

She also responded with thick ammunition: “Schlesser could not bear that a woman beat him in a race as particular as the Dakar. He asked his sponsors for a lot of money to run that test and after my triumph he did not know how to justify himself. I know he doesn’t like me, there is a personal problem between us ”.

“It happens that some do not know what he really is like. After the Dakar I won, he called Mitsubishi countless times to stop them giving me more support, and he didn’t do it because he wanted my place but because he really hates me.”, He added.

About his six-year courtship with Schlesser, he ruled that “that was the worst mistake of my life …”.

Because of her milestone in the Dakar, Jutta is known as “The Queen of the Desert”. In addition, it became a symbol of gender equality in Germany and in other countries. In this regard, he stated that “I think there is no difference in skills. Women need to have the will to win, just like men to be truly successful. “

Years later they both continued racing the Dakar on separate trails. He continued with his buggies and she was hired by the official Volkswagen team. Jutta in 2007 returned with her first love, BMW, in what was her last participation. When the race moved to South America, Jean-Louis did not come to these latitudes accusing that leaving Africa the essence was lost. That is how he organized the Africa Eco Race, which he won between 2009 and 2014. This test is a kind of “dissident Dakar” that ends in the capital of Senegal, like the old days. The Frenchman retired in 2015. He then set about developing a 4×4 prototype for Mercedes that has just been presented. The goal is for that vehicle to race in the Dakar, the Africa Eco Race and the Cross Country Rally World Cup.

While the German today works as a journalist. When he can, he usually runs a rally raid race to show his vice. She is also dedicated to teaching other women the secrets of cross country driving. And he lectures on motivation and overcoming obstacles.

Jean-Louis Schlesser and Jutta Kleinschmidt in 1994, when they were still dating ... (Photo: www.jutta-kleinschmidt.de)
Jean-Louis Schlesser and Jutta Kleinschmidt in 1994, when they were still dating … (Photo: www.jutta-kleinschmidt.de)

Motorsport was the Cupid of this story. The passion for the sport brought them together, but the competition separated them. That rivalry reached its highest point in that Dakar in 2001, where after the race the Mitsubishi team never claimed to the authorities that Masuoka be reimbursed for the time he had lost in the repair of his car. Schlesser noted that “for a marketing issue it was convenient for Jutta to win the race.” Kleinschmidt cared little about this criticism. And much less to the Japanese brand that after its victory changed its slogan: “A woman can win the Dakar with our car, you can do it too.”

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About the author

Kim Diaz

Kim recently joined the team, and she writes for the Headline column of the website. She has done major in English, and a having a diploma in Journalism.

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