Emma Gilmour stares at the coloured wooden beads strung across a long cord, focusing on one, and then another.
It’s a little like being a baby all over again, she admits: “Reconnecting all the pathways.”
It’s nine weeks since Gilmour’s brain was rattled around inside her skull, as her NEOM McLaren electric SUV crashed spectacularly at high speed in a practice run at the Island X-Prix in Sardinia.
One commentator described it as “a proper washing machine of a roll” – the car flinging off panels and bodywork as it cartwheeled across the dusty terrain. You can only imagine what was happening to the Kiwi driver’s brain at the same time, even with her head firmly ensconced in a helmet.
The pioneering Extreme E rally driver broke a rib, over-extended a knee, suffered cuts and bruises to her face and brutal whiplash to her neck, and had to be hospitalised overnight in Cagliari.
Most of those injuries have long since healed. But back at home in Dunedin, Gilmour is still grappling with the foggy, exhausting effects of concussion.
“Your benchmark for how you feel kind of goes,” she says. “I’m feeling heaps better than I did last week, but it’s still not right. I’m still not normal.
“And you get no warning that you’re doing too much until you’ve overdone it and then suddenly, your battery’s empty.”
It means Gilmour – who this year became McLaren’s first female driver to ever stand on a podium – has made the difficult decision not to race the final two rounds of the Extreme E series in Chile next weekend. Norwegian driver Hedda Hosås was named overnight to replace her in the NEOM McLaren team.
“I feel I could probably go and compete now if I wanted to, but I haven’t had any seat time,” Gilmour says. “I’m not really race fit or physically fit. The team has been so good in supporting me to make the right decision for me. So now I’ve got the summer break to get fully fit and strong again.
“When you’re a younger athlete, you just think it’s so important to do every race – it’s make or break.” Now Gilmour, who’s 44 and owns a car dealership, knows better.
She vividly remembers being that determined 16 years ago, when she was involved in a serious crash in a rally in Whangārei. Her seat broke and her head hit the roll bar behind her, knocking her out cold.
“When I look back to that first big crash, I was like, ‘I’ve got to race’,” she says. “I got back in a car three weeks later, and it was too soon. I was getting dizzy driving on the road.
“But with experience and maturity, you realise that, hopefully, you’ve got a long career and a long life ahead of you, and you want to look after yourself to ensure you’ve got your best health for as long as possible.”
This time, she’s taking her own sage advice.
Crash test dummy
Topping Gilmour’s list of ongoing effects from the accident in Italy are fatigue, vision difficulties and noise sensitivity. She’s relieved she’s been spared headaches and balance issues she had last time.
“I find noise really irritating, especially with a lot of background noise. It’s getting better but it’s definitely one of those symptoms where your brain is trying to process everything and it just gets overloaded,” she says. Like at 5.30 am last Monday, when roadworkers were repairing a pothole outside her home.
Well before Gilmour was sidelined by this crash, she was already working towards making her brain stronger.
She’d been invited by Otago University PhD student, Fateme Mirzaee, to be part of her studies towards her thesis: The effect of competitive motorsport experience on the association between oculomotor performance and neck muscle function during side impact perturbations.
“It was a very specific PhD she was doing and she needed driving or motorsport participants so she reached out to me,” Gilmour says. “It was fascinating.” And, as it turned out, timely.
Mirzaee moved to Dunedin last year, after working as a researcher and therapist in a hospital in Iran. She’d read an article by Otago University associate professor Melanie Bussey, who specialises in biomechanics and head-impact injuries in sport, and it encouraged Mirzaee to do her doctoral studies in New Zealand.
Bussey has been part of a world-first head impacts study conducted for World Rugby, measuring the on-field impacts of more than 600 New Zealand rugby players – male and female – through special censors in mouthguards. The data collected so far shows women have a higher ratio of injury to the number of concussion events.
Globally, there’s growing evidence women are at higher risk for concussions and suffer symptoms for longer than men.
In Gilmour’s case, there were weaknesses still evident 16 years after her first major concussion.
When Mirzaee was collecting data from Gilmour earlier in the year, she got her to wear a NeuroFlex VR headset to help measure her brain health.
“Before this crash, it highlighted areas that were probably still a bit weak from my first injury,” Gilmour says. “I was already doing some rehab exercises to improve my ocular movement within the brain.”
With her latest concussion, Gilmour has been working with Mirzaee again.
“With all Fateme’s experience and knowledge in head injuries, she’s been really helpful with my rehab and recovery,” Gilmour says. “We’re using the NeuroFlex headset again, which also has a whole lot of exercises to do as part of your rehabilitation protocol. Exercises that basically get your eyes to track movement, or track movement while your head is moving, and trying to get all that alignment back into your brain.”
Gilmour has also been wearing a laser pointer on her forehead, with the task of aligning the laser with the centre of a bullseye target on a wall. Then there’s the Brock string with the wooden beads, another vision therapy tool.
She’s been amazed by the medical support she’s had this time, compared with 16 years ago when she virtually leapt straight back behind the drivers’ wheel.
“It was just crazy I even contemplated racing again so soon. But now you know you wouldn’t want to have a second knock to your head so soon after the first one,” Gilmour says.
She’s just started back at her local gym, Body Synergy, which is also a musculoskeletal clinic.
“I’ve always been quite focused on my strength and making sure I’m robust enough to go racing,” says Gilmour, a competitive rally driver since 2002.
“They’ve developed a technology called Mr EMG, which has sensors that go on the muscles to see if they’re firing and working as they should. And so that’s been really interesting on my neck, seeing what I’ve lost from the crash and then seeing it come back.
“The fatigue has prevented me from getting any real fitness back, but I’m doing things like boxing and working with my feet, which is really good again for the hand-eye-head coordination.”
It had been a season of ups and downs (then side-over-side) for Gilmour on the Extreme E circuit – her second racing for the British-based McLaren team in the radical off-road series, raced in extreme environments around the globe to highlight climate change.
“It was really nice we got on the podium in Scotland in May so that was great,” she says. She and her male driving team-mate, American Tanner Foust, finished second in the Hydro X Prix in Scotland, but are eighth of the 10 teams going into the final two rounds in the Atacama Desert.
“I love the series and what it represents, like competing on an international stage, and especially representing McLaren,” Gilmour says. “But also to be on a grid that’s 50-50 male and female – that’s really special. That’s one of the most impressive things of the series is showcasing what can be done when women are given the same opportunity as men at that top tier.”
Gilmour will have a quiet Christmas at home – filling in at her dealership, Gilmour Motors Suzuki, managing her fatigue and building her strength to get back into a rally car towards the end of summer. She’s looking forward to the New Zealand Rally Championship programme starting in April.
Although the accident shook her – “I remember everything up to the accident… then I must have blacked out in the spins” – she still loves driving a car, fast.
“It’s the thing I still get really excited about – the buzz that keeps me hooked,” she says. “The reality is it’s a calculated risk when we go and do motorsport.
“If you ever had an accident like that in a road car, you wouldn’t have walked away at all, so it’s a testament to how strong and safe the cars are. We drive on the road every day with just a white line between us.”