Continental Conversations With Emma Gilmour, Extreme E Rally Driver

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Rally driving is safer than riding horses.  “You’re so much safer in a rally car.  With the roll cage, seats and harness, you’re pretty well contained” explains Emma Gilmour.  The Extreme E driver is back in New Zealand, nursing a cracked rib from an accident which saw her NEOM McLaren  roll multiple times, shedding panels and body parts in the sand of Sardinia. 

Emma is explaining what has led to this.  Not the accident in Italy but becoming a rally driver.  Along the way, Emma would become the first woman to win a round of the New Zealand Rally Championships (2016) and the first woman to race for McLaren.  “I gave up horse riding as I had a young horse that didn’t want to do what I wanted it to do, and I got scared and got off.  I remember thinking this isn’t for me any more”.

With parents who drive quickly and the frequent rides on the back of her Father’s high speed motorbike, both Emma and her sister were used to speed.  Indeed, it was Emma’s sister who led the way into rallying, and Emma initially joined her as a navigator.  

“Then I had a go myself and thought ‘wow, this is so much fun’.  I thought ‘this is the best feeling in the world’.”  Emma was encouraged by the people around her.  They said she could have a future in the sport if she wanted.  “I had the right people at the right time, saying if I wanted to do it more than a hobby, then it could happen.”

Emma Gilmour (NZL) and Tanner Foust (USA), NEOM McLaren Extreme E during the Scotland X-Prix

This is the best feeling in the world.

It’s undoubted that Emma was a natural behind the wheel.  Already armed with a heavy traffic licence so she could tow her horse float, Emma also rode motorbikes and showed an affinity with speed.  Yet it wasn’t until after her first rally that she really began thinking there might be a future in motorsport for her.  “I won my class and finished 6th out of 100 cars.  This was on tarmac and I thought I should try gravel, so I got a professional co-driver to sit beside me.  Then I discovered the best feeling in the world comes from having a car sliding, apex to apex, dancing with the slightest touch of your hands.  From that moment on, I was hooked”.  

But was there an issue with being female?  This was over 20 years ago and even today there are few women in motorsport.  “I came from horse riding that was genderless so I never saw gender.  Male egos were faced and they all had to beat the girl but it never phased me.” explains Emma.  “Boys are different.  They rib each other.  They take the piss out of each other.  I’m more like ‘what a great job - that was amazing’.  I could never really understand when they would belittle me.”

Instead of getting discouraged, Emma says she chose to concentrate on the positives of standing out, knowing being different would lead to opportunities.  It’s her skill behind the wheel that really sets Emma apart though.  After all, this is a racing driver who has held her own against legends like Hayden Paddon.  So when we ask about women in Motorsport, Emma has the perfect answer.  “What I think would be more interesting is to ask more men about what they feel about women in motorsports.  Because that never gets asked.” 

McLaren appointed Emma Gilmour as their first-ever woman driver.

It's a good point.  One series that is asking questions and embracing women in Motorsport is Extreme E.  Originally conceived to showcase the performance ability of electric vehicles, while highlighting the environmental plights of the world's threatened ecosystems, the series is also unique for each team having one male and one female driver.  They share driving duties and in each grand prix, both having to take a turn behind the wheel.   

“When I knew every team had a male and female driver, I was really keen.  But I was a little late and signed with a team that never made it to the starting line, so I took a reserve driver role.  Then I ended up in discussions with McLaren.  It was the most surreal moment getting an email from Zak Brown (CEO, McLaren Racing) saying he wanted to talk to me”.

Those talks led to Emma becoming the first ever female factory driver for MLaren, something she describes as being ‘like a fairytale’.  Driving for a top racing team must be special.  Being a kiwi driving for McLaren, knowing the history and story of Bruce McLaren, must be something else entirely.  As was the opportunity to go for a spin in Denny Hulme’s 1970 CanAm M8D, the sister car to the vehicle Bruce McLaren died in.  Apparently, driving the 8 litre V8 felt like “being in a F1 movie from the 60’s.”

But what do those Extreme E vehicles feel like to drive?  “They’re challenging,” says Emma.  “The terrain is so unpredictable and they’re very heavy, with amazing acceleration and power, but that’s a lot of momentum to stop and switch direction with.”

Emma Gilmour planting trees during the Scotland X-Prix on May 2023.

Adding to the challenge is a very limited seat time and no opportunity to write pace notes.  “We walk the course and walking at 10km/h is different from driving at 120 km/h.  We have such limited driving time that we have to react as we come across it really.”

Helping the drivers react are specially formulated tyres from Continental.  Able to deal with extreme highs and lows of temperature, they provide traction on all surfaces.  Importantly, they are made with the inclusion of recycled materials, which make up for one-third of the material in each tyre.  

“The Continental tyres are amazing.  They're very tough and able to deal with the weight of the vehicles, all the different terrains and different temperatures.” says Emma, who knows the importance of tyres and the differences they make.  “Being able to get the most out of your car, and the most out of your tyres, that’s what sets drivers apart from the competition.”  

In Extreme E, all teams have the same tyres, which are supplied exclusively by Continental.  So it’s the small tweaks, such as adding a little more pressure or taking some out, that makes the difference.  

Those differences can prove crucial when it comes to close race times.  Extreme E has gathered pace quickly since its inception and can now be seen on TV screens all around the world.  Part of the appeal is the sense of the unknown.  Drivers are tested and have to be fearless.  It’s challenging and they have to “...anticipate and feel the grip through the seat.  There’s no abort button so you have to read and adapt to the situation.”

Emma knows the consequences of not having an abort button too, although thankfully she would only have had to call on it a couple of times in her career, including for the recent accident during Practice at the Island Grand Prix in Sardinia.  When it does happen “there is no time to be scared.  You’re in it before you have time to get worried.”

Emma sustained an injury after a high-speed corner accident during a practice session in Sardinia.

You’d think the recent accident might cause a moment of hesitation when asked about what the future holds.  Yet Emma is keen to get back in the saddle as soon as possible.  Plus she'd “quite like to get into GT racing.  That would be cool and I’d hopefully be able to get into a McLaren if I did that.  But the Dakar Rally is still one of my childhood dreams.”

If you didn’t know, the Dakar Rally is almost 10,000kms over rough terrain and huge sand dunes in the unrelenting Saudi heat.  Somehow, riding a horse seems much safer.  

Watching Emma race is much more fun though.  If you want to do just that, you can follow Emma and all the action from Extreme E online.

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