The first woman to compete – and to win – in the Red Bull Air Race, Challenger Class pilot Mélanie Astles grew up in the South of France, but left as a teenager with little more than her dreams. As she prepares to fly in home skies in Cannes, Astles returns with many of her ambitions realised, making her a role model for dreamers everywhere. Ahead of this historic race, she confides her feelings...
Mélanie, where were you raised?
I was born in the UK, in Rugby, where I lived until the age of three. My parents decided then to leave for France to go back to my mother's hometown of Beausoleil, near Monaco.
What was it like to grow up on the Côte d'Azur?
It was lovely for my brother and me, as children, to live in a place where you can enjoy all the seaside activities in a genial climate. But we were also very close to the mountains for beautiful walks and scenery, and skiing in the winter. Living next to Monaco was also a big opportunity, with the annual F1 Grand Prix, as a love of mechanical sports was already deeply ingrained in me!
You left the area when you were 18, a transitional age for many people. What was life like for you at that time?
Although I was a good student at school, I was not interested in the syllabus. I tried studying economics, literature, even hotel and restaurant management, but nothing stuck. I was completely lost, and I could not understand this world where I could not fulfill my dream of flying. There were so many obstacles at the time: financial, academic, an attitude of "this is not a girl's job", etc. At 18, I probably did not have the determination that I have today and I just resigned myself, however my dream of flying stayed dormant in me.
Now you return to the Riviera with a very different life. The story of your trajectory has inspired people worldwide: from working in a petrol station to earning aerobatic titles and recently becoming an airline pilot with Air France. And of course, you've made history for women in the Red Bull Air Race, earning Challenger Class podiums including a record as the first woman to win a major motorsport title at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Yes, 18 years after leaving school at age 18, I am coming back to the South of France for a very important race. How is that for fate? I just cannot believe what I have achieved. I have been able to cross off many things on my wish list, and a great part of my wildest dreams have come true. Though I never stop dreaming!
Added to what you mentioned, I've also had the great opportunities to fly a Spitfire in Britain, and more recently to fly in a Rafale with the French Army. But most important, along my way, I am so lucky and thankful to have met all the great people who have contributed to making my whole life a dream.
What have you missed about the Côte d'Azur?
Obviously, the wonderful weather of the French Riviera. I lived in different parts of France – in the North, in Normandy, in the Lyon and Grenoble areas – and what I missed most is the very special light of the French Riviera, a therapy for the body and soul. This is one of the reasons why, just over a year ago, I moved further south, to lovely Provence, which is often depicted in books and films. It has the same kind of magical light and beauty as the Riviera.
Getting down to the sport, what is it like to be having a home race – especially for you, where it is not only in your home country but in your home region?
I can hardly wait to be there. This will be a huge event for me. However, racing or any kind of activity in front of a home crowd adds psychological pressure for an athlete. I am counting on everyone to come and support me and give me all their positive energy.
Cannes is also a new challenge for me, as it is my first race of the season (my last race was six months ago), and in the Challenger Class this year we are flying a new type of plane, the Edge 540. The venue and the track are new to all the pilots, so it will be an exciting race to watch.
In a nutshell, then, what is your strategy?
I am really going to concentrate on doing my best and flying smoothly.
And finally, is there anything about your home region that you carried with you during all those years away – and that maybe inspires you still?
If you ask me what my favorite color is, the answer is blue. Not a pure coincidence, having grown up in the South of France, where the stunningly azure-coloured sea and the deep-blue sky meet. Between the two, the horizon, and beyond, I was imagining my future life, which I decided would be full of colours.
Tickets are on sale now for Astles' home race in Cannes, France on 20-22 April. Get your tickets HERE.