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Nothing comes close to the feeling of trying to do an out-and-out quick lap in a Formula One car. I love the speed and the adrenaline. All your senses are heightened. You’re pushing yourself and the car to the absolute limit, fighting for every last 100th of a second.
This season I will become the first woman since 1992 to drive an F1 car at a race weekend, when I take part in the first practice sessions of the British and German Grands Prix in July for the Williams Martini racing team. It’s a big chance. I don’t take it for granted that I’m part of an F1 team: I see it as a natural progression from starting as a development driver two years ago. Each step of the way, I’ve proved myself, given the engineers what they need in terms of precise technical feedback, and this has led to more opportunities.
I’ve been through many ups and downs on the way, competing in Formula Renault, Formula Three and the German touring car championship. Most people think that choosing me for these Grand Prix sessions is a breakthrough in a male-dominated sport but some say it was just a marketing ploy. I know not everyone will be supportive of me, or of women driving in F1, but do you really think the ultra-competitive Sir Frank Williams would let anyone drive a multimillion-pound car as a publicity stunt? Or waste a precious race practice session to create some headlines?
I’m lucky because my parents, who run a motorbike shop in Oban, on the west coast of Scotland, never gave me the impression my gender would be a disadvantage. I’m 31, had my first motorbike when I was two years old, and started racing karts when I was eight.
I remember being taken to watch a Formula Three race – a mini version of F1 for up-and-coming young drivers – and seeing Jenson Button win. That’s when it clicked that this was what I wanted to do.
F1 became my goal. I can be quite determined when I want to get somewhere. My mother always said, “Do what you enjoy. Don’t let anyone influence you.” I didn’t realise I was doing anything unusual for a girl until much later in my career. By then it was too late. I was enthralled.
The Williams Martini race drivers, Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas, are the last line of attack. They’re the guys who have to bring home the world championship points. As development driver, I’m one of 580 team members working to make them as competitive as possible.
My role involves helping set up the cars for races and testing new parts on a simulator. I can clock up 100 laps a day, at up to 300km per hour, in an environment of total secrecy at the team factory in Oxfordshire. I drive a mock-up car, under an egg-shaped dome, surrounded by 3D computer screens connected to a team of engineers who are watching through a window.
At the Grands Prix I always have my headset on, listening to the feedback from the drivers. If they have an issue such as understeer, the engineers can say, “We tried this in the simulator and it helped.” I’d never have Felipe or Valtteri coming up to me saying, “OK, what would you do here?” We’re not best buddies, we’re simply all working towards the same goal. What the engineers want is the most precise description of how the car is performing on the track so they can convert that information into a faster laptime.
In May, I’ll also be driving on an official test day after the Spanish Grand Prix. “Real” time in the car is important to assess how close the simulator experience is to the race car. I do miss the adrenaline of racing side by side with other cars. So it will give me immense pride and emotion to climb into the new white FW36 and drive out of the pit garage at Barcelona, and then again at Silverstone and Hockenheim. For me, it’s addictive: speed, adrenaline and competition.
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