Paris, France - The battle of the sexes is raging in the tough world of motorsport. American IndyCar driver Danica Patrick, who's only 22, found herself in the vanguard at the weekend when she stunned her male counterparts to take a place on the front row of the grid at the Japan 300 at Montegi.

She finished fourth to hammer home her credentials as the girl most likely to make a significant breakthrough in the male-dominated sport.

But it will be a gruelling road. She's the only woman in the championship while in F1, Indy's higher profile cousin, there have been only five female drivers in the history of the sport - the most recent being Giovanna Amati who drove for Brabham in 1992.

Patrick, who has been racing since she was 10, insists she has a role to play - even posing for a men's magazine to boost her public profile.

"Any publicity is good," she said after her photo spread in FHM magazine last year.

"I wore red and white leather kind of stuff. It was sort of a dominatrix, racy, fiery sort of look but I was always wearing something. There were a lot of things I said no to.

"The only thing people said was maybe I should go out and win races before I do something like that. My answer to that is if a magazine like Men's Health came up to a fit guy on pit lane and asked him to pose by taking his shirt off, he'd be an idiot to say no," said Patrick who stands at just 1.55m tall.

Small she may be but she has big plans.

"The eyes were on me last year because I'm a woman," said Patrick, only the second woman to race in the Indy series.

"They will be until I win something like the Indianapolis 500."

Italy's Amati raced in F1 three times in 1992, failed to make it out of qualifying and never managed to shake off the attention lavished on her solely because of her gender.

"In South Africa there were photographers who insulted me because I did not smile at them," she said at the time.

"I was not there to smile at them. They expected me to be a glamour girl, always available and smiling. I am a racing driver."

Despite her brief flirtation with F1, Amati, now 43, has plenty of memories.

"In Mexico I had a fight with (former World champion) Nigel Mansell. I thought that the day I had Mansell behind me in qualifying I would just get out of his way but then I saw him in my mirrors and I thought: "No, I won't let you overtake.

"You have to wait. I have had to wait. He was very angry with me and pushed me. I did not give way. He overtook me and slowed down. That made me so angry."

Incredibly fit

Paul Stoddart, boss of Minardi in the current F1 championship, says there is no real reason why there can't be more women drivers.

"She'd have to be incredibly fit but there are women around in that condition," Stoddart said.

One woman with her eye on the big time is Japan's Keiko Ihara, a former model. She's racing in British Formula 3 which was the proving ground for F1 champions Ayrton Senna and Mika Hakkinen.

"I have worked to the limit in testing and my machine and I have been improving each day," said the 31-year-old.

"I am also building up my overall muscles, particularly in my neck, shoulders and around the backbone, to battle the G-forces.

"Of course women are totally different from men in terms of physical strength but I don't feel any handicap in the team, being a woman or a Japanese.

"On test days, my team mates go outside the transporter which we share when I change my clothes. They are all kind enough." - AFP