One of the world’s fastest female rally drivers, Emma Gilmour is biding her time to race in the radical new Extreme E series by competing in the NZ Rally Championship.
As a kid, Emma Gilmour would hold on tight in the back seat of the family car while her mechanic dad, Alistair, would drive fast. Legally, of course.
Still prone to car sickness as a passenger, she eventually found her equilibrium behind the wheel. That quick driving by dad, she reckons, is why she took to rally driving like a duck takes to water.
So you’d imagine Gilmour felt like she was in the back seat again when watching, half a world away, her team’s electric SUV rolling at the bottom of a sand dune in the Saudi Arabian desert – crashing out of the first event of Extreme E, the world’s latest motorsport series.
Gilmour, recognised as one of the fastest female rally drivers in the world, was back at home in Dunedin – waiting for the call-up to join her Veloce Racing team in the radical electric off-road racing series.
She’s a reserve woman driver for Veloce, one of nine teams in the new Extreme E series, which travels around the globe racing in very remote places devastated by the effects of climate change. It’s motorsport with an environmental message, and also the world’s first gender-equal motorsport series (two women, two men in each team).
“It was exciting to watch from afar, but it’s kind of frustrating too,” Gilmour says. “It’s really, really exciting to be invited, but I’m not quite there yet.”
Covid-19 and border restrictions have made it more difficult for Gilmour to get there. But as she waits to hear if she’ll be flown over to race on the beaches of Dakar, Senegal, for the next round of the series next month, Gilmour won’t be sitting on the couch.
She’s racing in the New Zealand Rally Championship, starting with this weekend’s Otago Rally as a hometown favourite in her beloved Suzuki Swift.
The 41-year-old Gilmour, who’s been tearing up the gravel for half of her life, still dreams of becoming a full-time driver on the world stage. And she knows she’s never been closer to it.
But for now, she will keep running her car dealership, Gilmour Motors Suzuki, that’s been in the family for decades, and racing on New Zealand’s back roads she knows so well.
“In a perfect world, I would be a fulltime driver in the Extreme E, the world would return to normal and I could travel to races, but still rally here in New Zealand. I could be part-time with my business, and I could teach road safety,” she says.
“It’s kind of strange for me having a day job at a desk one day then whizzing along on the gravel at 160 km per hour the next. My body’s thinking ‘What the hell, lady?’
“But I still get such a buzz from it. It always surprises me when people say: ‘When are you going to give up?’”
Because she’s in the prime of her driving life, and has never felt better behind the wheel.
Growing up in Dunedin, Gilmour got her first horse at eight.
“Mum and Dad weren’t horsey at all, but they supported me and my sister’s equestrian dreams,” she says. Gilmour represented Otago in eventing, and dreamed of riding for New Zealand at the Olympics.
But while studying design at the University of Otago, Gilmour had an obstinate young horse that began rearing up. She was terrified. “I just decided, ‘No I’m out, I don’t want to do this anymore’,” she says. “I’d had friends who’d suffered broken hips and head injuries.
“Now that’s a really gutsy sport. Rally driving may be dangerous, but no, horse riding is much more dangerous.
“It was the best decision. There’s no point doing something if your heart’s no longer in it.”
Always active, she had a go at mountain bike riding and trail bike racing, and started navigating in rally cars for her cousin Gwynn, and sister Monica (“she gave up horses before me,” she says).
Then she thought she’d try her hand at driving. She bought her cousin’s car – a Mitsubishi Evo 3 – and raced in the Targa Bambina tarmac rally in 2002.
She was 22 and her dad was her co-driver – this time he had to hold on. She was fast, winning the 4WD class at her first attempt.
“When I started, I saw the car like a big two-tonne object. Now I get a thrill out of making it dance on gravel from corner to corner,” she says.
Gilmour quickly found similarities between horses and rally cars. First there’s the speed and adrenalin buzz, mixed with a little danger. Whether you’re on a horse or in a fast car, you get all the feel through your seat, she explains.
“Riding was great for developing resilience. In all sport, it doesn’t matter how well you prepare, you can do everything in your favour and still have a bad day.”
Her driving style has been described as “aggressive, smooth and committed”.
“Early on in my career, I was focused on the wins. But now it’s the people you meet and the experiences you have that are the best part of this sport,” she says.
Gilmour had hoped she would get to see more of the world through the Extreme E series.
The unique motorsport event was the brainchild of Spanish businessman Alejandro Agag, who was involved in Formula One and came up with Formula E, the open-wheel electric racing series. This off-road series is billed as “the race for the planet”; its aim, to reinvent motorsports as an environmental force for good.
It’s raced in zero-omission ‘Odyssey 21’ vehicles, that look like overgrown electric buggies, in far-flung corners of the world. The final three rounds will be raced amongst the retreating Arctic ice in Greenland, the cleared Amazon rainforest in Brazil and the fast-melting glaciers of Patagonia’s Tierra del Fuego.
And it’s attracted some of the sport’s great names – two-time world rally champion Carlos Sainz, rally’s most crowned driver, Sébastian Loeb, and Formula One champion Jenson Button.
When the Extreme E series was first announced last year, Gilmour was signed up as the No.1 female driver for a team, “but its funding fell over and I was absolutely gutted,” she says. “I still had people pushing my name forward and Veloce wanted me as their reserve driver. It’s good to have a foot in the door.”
She’s reserve to British driver Jamie Chadwick, who won the inaugural W Series – the all-female single-seater racing championship – back in 2019. It was their French male driver, Stéphane Sarrazin, who rolled their SUV after hitting a patch of camel grass in the first qualifying round of the first event in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, earlier this month.
“It damaged the roll cage of the vehicle, which compromises the structural integrity of the car, so you can’t keep racing,” Gilmour explains. “So they were out for the whole weekend. It’s tough when they’d travelled all that distance.
“The series is just so challenging. From the cool concept of Extreme E to the remote locations and racing without leaving a trace. And levelling the playing field with everyone seeing the racecourse for the first time together.
“With circuit races you could stay on a simulator for weeks before and know the course like the back of your hand.”
Gilmour says being a woman has given her career opportunities some male drivers haven’t had, to build an impressive CV in global rallying, rallycross and cross country driving.
“As a woman, people remember you; you stand out,” she says.
She was the first woman in the world to race in the Red Bull Global Rallycross in 2014, with fellow Kiwi Rhys Millan (cars racing on a dirt track built up inside a stadium) and was the only female to make the final of the X Games.
Gilmour was then crowned the top driver of the FIA Women in Motorsport cross country rally selection after a desert rally training camp in Qatar in 2015. The following year she became the first female to win an event in the NZ Rally Championship, dominating the Rally of Canterbury.
But there’s a flipside to the opportunities she’s taken up. “You’re often there as the marketing piece, so you don’t always get the best equipment – you’re not given the opportunity to win. You’re just the girl competing,” she says.
“In Qatar I was driving over sand and a wheel disappeared into the countryside.
“But the way I see life, if you have a chance at doing something, but haven’t got the best car, you still go out and do it. It’s better than sitting on the couch.”
She sees the best way to prepare for the Extreme E series is to drive. And she won’t be just ‘the girl competing’ in the NZ Rally Championship.
“I’ve had a few reliability issues over the last few seasons with my car. We did a big rebuild at the start of 2020, and then Covid hit,” she says.
“But that’s given us another 12 months to fine-tune the car. It’s going better than ever, and I’m driving better than I have before.
“When you’re younger, you can be pushed around. It takes a while as a woman to find your feet and make your mark.”
And she won’t be alone – she’s one of five female drivers in a record entry field of 114 starting the Otago Rally tomorrow.
* Emma Gilmour had four top-three stage times in the Otago Rally, before her Suzuki Swift succumbed to mechanical failures and she was forced to retire from the race.