Maria Costello, record-setting motorcycle racer who had a point to prove

by Charlotte Vowden
8 March 2022 5 min read
Maria Costello, record-setting motorcycle racer who had a point to prove
Photo: Charlie Magee

As part of International Women’s Day 2022, Hagerty is giving a platform to women driving change. Catch the other stories in this series and read about the precision welder, Bugatti museum curator interesting kids in cars, and the lecturer podcasting from her Morris Minor.

“International Women’s Day is important because it’s an opportunity to give a shout out to the women who are doing great things now, as well as the women before us that inspired us. When I saw Sandra Barnett racing it flicked a switch inside me which said ‘Yeah, I can do this’. I’ve always been wary of women-only championships because I’m afraid women will be used as a bit of a side show – we can compete and win against the guys. Ana Carrasco, [the Spanish bike racer competing in Moto 3] thank you so much for proving this point.

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It’s vital that young girls see themselves represented in motorcycle racing; you can only be what you can see. I get told I’m a role model but I just see it as I’m doing what I love. I’m so excited to see more young girls coming into it and find it humbling when riders like Chloe Jones [competing in the British Superbike Championship] name-check me as someone that’s inspired them. I think things have improved for female riders because they are getting more credible opportunities, and long may that continue because we’re still not quite where we need to be.

When I held my women-only track days there was quite a lot of negativity, mainly from men, who asked why it was necessary. I’m fiercely proud of the fact that I race on equal terms with the guys, but when it comes to learning, improving confidence and increasing knowledge a normal track day surrounded by men can be intimidating. By creating a controlled all-female environment I was bridging a gap. Some women were scared of riding their bikes while others wanted to go and race.

Maria Costello IWD
Photo: Amy Cutliffe Photography

I coached all day and gave it my everything, which was exhausting, but the feedback and positivity was amazing. I’m really looking forward to being involved with a rider confidence session in April that’s been hosted by Bennetts to celebrate International Female Ride Day. It’s so important to keep improving your skills, we all need confidence in life, especially on two wheels.

The best thing I ever did was get on a motorbike and I’m fortunate that I’ve made a career out of it that’s lasted over 26 years, but you shouldn’t ask the question: what’s it like to be a woman in the world of motorcycle racing? I used to rack my brain looking for an answer but I can’t make any comparisons because I’ve only ever been female. I found my way in a male-dominated sport, and big steps have been made to get more women involved; it’s wonderful to see young girls get rides in established BSB teams.

I don’t really have weekends or a set routine – one minute I’m out testing in Spain, the next minute I’m at home doing the housework – but there are elements that are consistent; I’m always eating and training. My coach, Tom Loasby, is brilliant. I can’t ride as much as I want to because track days are expensive, so physical fitness is important – it’s top to toe. A lap on the Isle of Man TT lasts almost 20 minutes, and a race consists of four laps, which is a lot of time on a motorbike, and for most of that I have to stand on the pegs carrying my own weight. Endurance and core strength is vital, so I do lots of press ups and squats. I also work with a nutritionist. 

Mariah Costello during her rider training
Photo: Charlie Magee

With physical fitness comes mental fitness. My hypnotherapist helped me get my mojo back after I really hurt myself at the Isle of Man TT. There were no watches being swung back and forth in front of me, it was about working on how to focus and self belief. In the blink of an eye things can change for the better, just like they can for the worse, and those skills to deal with tough moments have filtered into my personal life too.

I have to be completely self-motivated to run my team, get sponsorship and find the money to live. That involves lots of boring things like telephone calls, emails and writing proposals. I’m great at prioritising, but the worst at delegating. I suffer massively with migraines, but I’ve learnt to train with them, work with them, coach with them and even race with them because I have to. 

The pandemic brought everything to a halt, which made me realise how much I love, need and want to go racing, so this year is full steam ahead. The three big road races are back; the North West 200, Isle of Man TT and Ulster Grand Prix. I’ve also got a new role at the TT as a presenter on their broadcast team which is a dream come true. I used to think I would race forever, but my body reminds me that maybe I won’t, so the opportunity means the world. I’ve still got a little bit more to give though, and my next goal is to become the fastest woman on three wheels as part of an all-female team. The record is 110mph and so far we’ve reached 103mph.  

I don’t think every first is necessarily important, but breaking down boundaries is. I was the first woman to stand on the podium at the Manx Grand Prix and set the female lap record at the TT, which got recognised as a Guinness World Record and in 2019 I was the first woman to race a solo and a sidecar at the same TT – I’m going back to do that this year.

Back to riding school with Maria Costello_Hagerty
Photo: Charlie Magee

I never thought I was a competitive person until I got a motorbike; I loved cross country but used to hang back so that I wasn’t picked for the county team. If you want to ride professionally, there isn’t a set path, especially in the UK, but organisations like FAB-Racing are a good place to find out about what it’s like on and off track. 

The best thing you can do is go and try it, but the reality is, motorcycle racing can hurt you; I’ve broken more than 24 bones. I used to give talks in schools and was very aware of the fact that it sounded fast and thrilling, but the dangers mustn’t be overlooked, especially when dealing with youngsters. My parents weren’t into it at all, and when I started racing it was hard – I was about 19 and had a different attitude. I was a girl in a man’s world and thought I had a point to prove but that didn’t do me any harm, it fuelled my fire. There are only so many spots on a grid for every championship, but who said life was going to be easy?

Chilling out is something I need to get better at, we all plug in our phones to recharge but when do we ever recharge ourselves? Big chunks of my life are super busy, I spend nearly three weeks at the TT surrounded by people and there’s so much going on so when I get home I tend to be a bit unsociable. I like my movies, paddle boarding and mountain biking, but it’s not long until I get the TT blues, and get going again. I can’t bear just sitting on the sofa.”

Read more

Goodwood Revival: Maria Costello gets the bug for racing cars
Back to riding school with Maria Costello
The One That Got Away: Maria Costello and her Suzuki RGV250

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