Clare Rhodes has been living the dream after spending a season as a rally driver thanks to the Silverstone Rally School Lady Quest scholarship.

Rally fan Rhodes beat-off competition from nine other hopefuls at the Lady Quest final in September last year to win the ?35,000 sponsorship package and the opportunity to compete in adrenaline-fuelled rallying. She has now spent a year contesting the male-dominated sport behind the wheel of a Silverstone Rally School-backed 1400cc MG ZR with full support from the school.

Lady Quest - a talent search for the next female rally driver - is open to all ladies with no previous motorsport experience and sees contestants firstly go through an assessment day, where one lucky lady is picked to go through to the final. The 10 finalists then meet for a day of head-to-head action to decide who will be the winner of the exclusive prize.

Although she had never competed before, Rhodes, who lives in Southampton and works as an account manager in a digital agency, had enjoyed watching the World Rally Championship on television and had experienced karting and rally gift days prior to her Lady Quest win.

"I had been go-karting quite a bit and had always been quite good," she said. "I've always been a confident and a bit of a daring driver too. My interest in rallying all started when I was bought a rally day for my birthday about four years ago. I was the only girl and I beat all the boys and from then on I was hooked.

"About a year later I was bought another rally day for Christmas, this time at Silverstone Rally School, and I had another amazing day. My instructor seemed quite impressed and told me about the Lady Quest competition that they ran and thought I should go for it so I did and it all started from there."

Since her victory, 28-year-old Rhodes has gone on to complete six rallies, integrating the sport into her everyday life with the full backing of her husband Alex, her family and friends.

"My husband, family and friends were all really pleased when they found out I had won and have been very supportive throughout the season and constantly asking how its going every time I speak to anyone - even if its meant I haven't seen much of them at times," she said.

Rhodes made her competitive debut with the gruelling Lombard Revival Rally, a four day endurance event in November last year, co-driven by British Touring Car Championship contender Fiona Leggate.

The all-female crew went on to finish 84th overall but the event did not run entirely smoothly as an altercation with a tree made it a tough first outing for Rhodes.

"The Lombard Rally was a real baptism of fire. I went through it all on that rally. My first experience of crashing and experiencing rallying in every type of weather condition possible, the main thing is that I completed it," Rhodes said.

Rhodes hooked-up with experienced and former WRC co-driver Gemma Price for the rest of the campaign and became increasingly competitive throughout the season, giving the boys a run for their money.

She achieved her ultimate aim since winning Lady Quest when, after her finish on her fifth event, the Dukeries Rally in June, Rhodes upgraded her MSA (Motor Sports Association) competition licence from a National B grade to a National A.

Following the upgrade, the Leicester-born driver went on to take part in her first National A standard event - a higher class field - in the Swansea Bay National Rally in July, which shares some of the stages of the British round of the WRC, including the Walters Arena test.

"Driving on Walters Arena on my first National A event was one of my best moments. I had spectated there on Rally GB in 2005 and I had a lump in my throat," Rhodes said.

Rhodes finished 35th overall and picked up her first piece of silverware as she won the amalgamated A7 class but it was also an extremely sad occasion as it was her last event under the Lady Quest scheme before she hands over the keys to the rally car to the new winner at the 2006 Grand Final on September 5.

"Winning my class in my last Lady Quest rally was also a very special moment," she added. "The whole experience has been amazing. If anything it's all gone too quickly and I would love it to continue for another year. I have loved the experience and all the people I have worked with and met. The team at Silverstone have been great, it's been like one big family, they have been so supportive."

As for what the future holds in store for Rhodes now, will she be hanging her crash helmet up for good and returning to normality? Not if she can help it.

"Lady Quest has definitely been the experience of my life so far and one I don't want to forget or to stop," she said. "I want to try and find some sponsorship to continue rallying in 2007 and hopefully at the level I have been competing at."

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