She's got the medal to prove it
Queen of the bikers
MBEs aren’t exactly two a penny and bike racers with MBEs are even rarer. When you combine women bike racers with an MBE you only need a thumb on one hand to count them. That makes Maria Costello a very rare breed indeed.
But being a “Member of the Order of the British Empire” is not all that sets Maria apart. She became the first ever woman to take a podium finish at the Manx GP and, for many years, was the Tourist Trophy (TT) female lap record holder – a title no doubt she’d love to regain.
NGKTorque caught up with Maria while she was getting over the disappointment of just failing to clinch victory in the Classic 250 race at the Isle of Man Classic TT, a venue that has a special place in her heart. Being the driven person she is, Maria was already moving on to plan next season’s campaign which will no doubt feature an appearance or two on the island….
NGKTorque: We understand that you used to work in PR, so you’ve obviously got media skills. Combine that with your love of speed, we’re surprised you’ve not yet had the call from Top Gear? Surely they’re in need of a resident bike expert?
No. But I’d love that gig! I’m sure the pay would be better than anything else I’ve ever done.
NGKTorque: Speaking of which, how have you financed your biking career? Is it through sponsorships?
Yeah I put in everything I have and I couldn’t have done it without sponsorship, for which I am eternally grateful.
NGKTorque: It never ceases to amaze us, for all the people we’ve met since we launched, just how much they do put into their careers.
It’s more than a career. It’s my passion though. It’s what makes you tick. It’s what makes your life good.
NGKTorque: So when did you get the racing bug?
It was about 20 years ago. I had a moped – which I didn’t really like. But friends of the family had a son who had a motorbike. I quite fancied their son. His dad suggested that I get a motorbike which I did. One day on my way to work I got knocked off it by a guy with bad eyesight. Broke a few bones and the bike as a result, but got a compensation cheque a couple of years down the line that bought my first race bike.
NGKTorque: So did you have a hero at the time that started your racing motor running?
NGKTorque: Ah, say no more! We noticed your race bike has a distinctive name. Did your two wheel career have you delivering pizza at some stage?
Ahh… my pizza race bike! The bike we used as the base of my Supertwin race bike was a second hand and the dealer we brought it from told us it had been a pizza delivery bike. Hence the nickname.
NGKTorque: So you started off being inspired by Mr Hislop. Tell me about how you started to get into racing. What series kicked it off?
I was inspired by lots of people. Seeing Sandra Barnett race was very instrumental in me starting as I saw that women could do it. I started club racing at EMRA and New Era meeting on a race prepared RGV 250.
NGKTorque: Now you seem to be racing on a variety of bikes. Tell us about that.
I’m so fortunate that I get to ride so many different kings of motorcycles. At the moment I have a BMW S 1000 RR, along with my Pizza Bike and a pit-bike. I also get to ride classic bikes for BMW Classic, and a beautiful Paton owned by Peter and Barbara Beugger in Switzerland.
NGKTorque: Lucky you! So you do get to travel the world racing?
Yeah, it’s thanks to racing that I’ve traveled. I always wanted to go to Australia, it had never happened before but racing took me there. I’ve been to New Zealand, South Africa, America and all over Europe.
NGKTorque: Last month we were interviewing Greg Hancock, the World Speedway champion. He clocked up his third championship at the ripe old age of 43. It seems you bikers seem to get faster the older you get – for instance, you only just missed out on your victory this year. Why is it?
Haha… I have no idea! It’s nice that I am though! People ask me how my season has been and I can say, really great! I’ve had some more PBs including a new female lap record at the Ulster Grand Prix and a new personal best lap time on my PizzaRaceBike – Supertwin at the Isle of Man TT, and that makes you want more the following year. You look at John McGuinness, he had a pretty rubbish TT initially. But the race he concluded with. What a race! You wonder what would have happened if he didn’t have that race. Would it have changed his career path? Who knows? But ultimately I love racing, and I do want to carry on for as long as possible. It doesn’t get any easier – but my love for it is still there!
NGKTorque: Bet it doesn’t get easier, and we bet you’ve got the scars to prove it.
Oh yes, about 24 or so! I was just looking at Facebook the other day and up popped a reminder that it was three years ago that I broke my leg. Or had my leg broken by somebody knocking me off. Yeah – I have a few scars!
NGKTorque: While it’s not a ‘woman in a man’s world’ by any means, there aren’t too many female bike racers. And you would have spent most of your life being the only woman on the grid. How has that been?
It’s been a learning curve. For me as much as them. They perhaps didn’t know how to handle it. And some didn’t know how to behave, I mean it’s not the norm for woman to be beating guys at their own game. But things are slowly changing and stereotypes are being changed.
And I’m not saying I was going out there all the time and beating them all the time, because I wasn’t. But there were definitely a few moments when I found myself on the floor and it wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t because I had done something daft, it was because some guy had done something daft trying to overtake me.
But what I’ve come to realise now, is that I’m in a really fortunate place where I can educate people about woman who ride and race motorcycles. And that is what we need to do, educate more people and show how great biking is. It’s been the best thing I ever did!
NGKTorque: Do you think women have a different attitude to racing?
I think we have a different thought process. We think differently, we learn differently. I’m generalising, but I’m going by my experience of running women only track days. It’s such a different environment to a normal track day. And it’s because it’s all women there. And they have a different approach to what they’re about to do. They’re thinking about it differently.
NGKTorque: Do you think you manage risk better than a man?
Hmm… I don’t know about that. Maybe we just approach it differently.
NGKTorque: Do you beat your fellow competitors purely by speed, or by guile?
Gosh… I don’t know, both I guess?. How many races have I done? And how would I work that out? A lot of it is speed. But you still need to be smart and clever. When people say ‘take your brain out before you race’, it’s actually the opposite. You’ve got to work it out and be clever.
NGKTorque: How different is it for you racing on a circuit, compared to racing something like a TT? Road racing seems beyond belief and you guys must be beyond brave to do it!
I’ve grown to love road racing. It’s dangerous but then all racing is. Road racing has made steps towards being safer than before, but there are still dangers and I’m fully aware of them. But it’s SO GOOD! It’s just so good. There are some great circuits in the world that I’ve been lucky enough to ride and race on. But nothing beats road racing. It might look crazy. But it doesn’t feel that way. Don’t get me wrong I get more nervous when I ride at the TT that anywhere else. But it’s just a wonderful experience. There isn’t a word to describe how good it is.
NGKTorque: Car racing seems to have been sanitised to the nth-degree. The old Nurburgring was probably the closest thing to a TT in car racing. But isn’t it brilliant that you guys are still able to race in a TT environment?
You know, I think it would sad if we were unable to race in a TT like we do today. Life is about living and we get to do that in road racing!
NGKTorque: Do you find it difficult racing against the clock rather than against other competitors? Does it take a different kind of mindset?
Yeah it’s definitely different. Sometimes you can find yourself alone on a TT circuit. It’s all about concentration. And having the strength and fitness to be able to do so. It’s a very different thing, especially with the TT being so long.
NGKTorque Speaking of which, how long does it take you to learn a circuit? Do you know it now?
You’re always learning the TT. And there’s always more to know. I wish I had the knowledge of David Jefferies or John McGuinness. They have a special knowledge of that place.
It has changed since I first went there [almost 20 years ago] some of the corners have been altered. My first time at the Manx Grand Prix I learnt it by sitting with Eddie Roberts of Pirelli, every evening, and talking a lap with him. So by the end of practice week I could talk through an entire lap from start to finish.
NGKTorque: You’re no stranger to visualisation then?
Yes, I always sit and visualise a whole lap before I practice or race. Now I also watch onboard videos, there’s plenty to watch now to help with learning the TT course.
NGKTorque: Isn’t the problem with that is it reveals all of your secrets, all your special lines…
I don’t think it gives those away. It’s just not accurate enough. But obviously homework is so important for that place.
NGKTorque: Is physical fitness as important as mental fitness do you think? Do you have one of these crazy fitness regimes that so many sports people have these days?
I do enjoy staying fit for my sport, because I’ve broken so many bones it’s important otherwise I wonder how my body would be if I didn’t. And I’m totally enjoying CrossFit. It’s transformed my body, making it stronger and giving me more mobility. Three years ago I had a broken femur for the second time, but I’m able to more things now than I could before I started CrossFit, many things that some people said I would never do again.
NGKTorque: What will ultimately make you stop?
Ahh, that’s the million dollar question. We’ll just see how it goes. Running my ‘women only’ track days is something I’m totally passionate about and I want to grow those because I want to see more women enjoying two wheels and staying in biking longer. Maybe I’d run a race team, I’m looking into lots of different options – but still being involved in the sport. I always want to be riding a bike. And if that’s competitively that’s even better.
NGKTorque: You say part of your future will involve your women only track days. Can you tell us more about them?
I started up ‘Women on a Motorcycle’ on facebook as a place for woman to share each other’s experiences. It’s a community for like-minded women to socialise, support and help each other. I want to promote and encourage confidence to those who want to enjoy new adventures on two wheels and introduce the brilliance of biking to ladies that don’t yet ride.
From the group came the idea of a ‘women only’ track day. Using the track as a controlled environment where I can provide coaching to women who want to improve their riding skills and become more confident.
NGKTorque: Going back to bikes… if Santa was sitting on the end of your bed, what bike would ask him for?
It would be quite a long list of modern and classic machinery. I’ve fallen in love with so many of the bikes I’ve raced but I have a few favourite road bikes too.
I’ve ridden some amazing bikes including a hand shift classic BMW. I got to sit on a Norton that Hizzy won the 1992 TT on and I’m off to the National Motorcycle Museum open day soon and they have a lot in there that I’d love to own!
NGKTorque: Finally, what do you do to wind down?
I’m not sure I know how to do that. Family time is important in the off season as I’m away so much racing in the summer.
I’m writing a new book, we’re going to bring my current book ‘Queen of Bikers’ up-to-date. So that’s something I have to find a lot of time for this winter.
NGKTorque: Sounds a pretty full calendar, Maria, so thanks for making the time to speak to NGKTorque. And good luck for next season!