When you Google “Rallye Des Princesses,” the image results reflect the 18-year-old all-female driving competition at its most superficial: pairs of smartly dressed women posed in, or occasionally even partially atop, vintage sports cars backlit by scenic French countryside. But there is a reason the masterminds behind the rally, which is presented by Richard Mille, are careful to advertise it as more than just a “ladies’ event.”
Riding shotgun in this year’s rally, held from May 27 to June 2, I can report that amidst the candy-colored Porsches and sleek Mercedes, the adrenaline rushes and pure fun, there are deeper experiences to be found—opportunities for bonding, reflecting and empowerment.
Viviane Zaniroli, a French classic car and road-rally enthusiast, conceived the event nearly two decades ago. Bored with women’s roles at traditional rallies—that of either bystander or copilot—she created an event that gives them a chance in the driver’s seat.
Rallye Des Princesses draws inspiration from the Paris to Saint Raphaël race, one of the first all-female rallies, which ran from 1929 to 1974. The Princesses’ course, judged by 30 regularity checks along the route, begins in the heart of Paris and concludes in Saint Tropez’s Place de Lices. The 350-kilometer course takes participants through the countryside and up the Alps, then deposits them at a celebratory gala near the sea.
It may sound glamorous—and it is—but it isn’t easy. Each car holds two women, the pilot and the navigator. GPS and apps of any kind are strictly prohibited, so the navigator is armed with nothing but a book of typed instructions and accompanying diagrams, and the driver, for almost an entire day and a half of the race, must steer a vehicle older than she is around hairpin twists and turns on mountainous roads without even the poorest excuse for a guardrail.
It seems every woman has a horror story. I spoke to Laure Mennesson, a French woman competing for the fourth time alongside her sister in their father’s 1970 Porsche Targa 911 Noire; she lost a tire in the first year of participating. Another working mother, Hortense Huchet Du Guermeur, born and raised in Brittany, had the roof blown off her 1971 MG B Rouge during a particularly violent rainstorm in the middle of the mountains. On my own first day, I directed my pilot so far from the route that we nearly missed lunch at one of the many picturesque chateaus designated for midday rests. If not for touches like those meals, the average bystander might wonder what draws over 100 pairs of women back year after year.
Maintaining an element of elegance is part of Zaniroli’s mission to give participants, many of whom hold full-time jobs in addition to raising children, a week away from the pressures of daily life. Although most of the day is devoted to driving, each night the women are met with Champagne and sponsor gifts while they stay at four- and five-star hotels. And there is time allotted before and after dinner to connect with one another.
“It’s like a dream,” one of the participants told me on the penultimate evening, a Cannes sunset painting the picture behind us. It’s rare that an event is able to attract such a diverse group of women. This year, participants from the U.S., UK, Switzerland and France included financial advisors, lawyers and marketing executives.
At the gala in St. Tropez the following day, many of the women were keen to share why they cannot wait to return. Some say it’s to visit with friends from other countries. For others, it’s the pampering or the chance to escape reality for a few days. But one perspective seems to transcend all the rest: It’s an opportunity to feel powerful.
“I’m a working woman. I have two kids and a husband, and this is the only week when I can just forget everything. When you return to your life, you can’t help but feel so strong,” Du Guermeur says.
The rally is also a race, of course, and there are women who are clearly focused on winning. This year’s victors were first-time competitors Veronique Castelain and Stephanie Wante in their Porsche 911SC. But the rally’s emphasis is not on speed or style but rather teamwork, intelligence and intuition. And while most of the participants are portraits of femininity outfitted in color-coordinated jumpsuits, impeccably tied headscarves and large-frame sunglasses, princesses they are not.
On the flight home to New York, I thought about what makes the race special and remembered an anecdote from one of the competitors, a financial advisor from Geneva. While passing through a village en route to Cannes, she noticed a small girl admiring her car. Instead of focusing on finishing on time, she stopped and let the girl sit in it with her for a moment.
“Now I am a princess too,” the girl said.