A YOUNG woman is one of 300 thrill-seekers vying for a spot in in the 2021 Formula Woman Racing series.
The competition sets out to find the next female motor racing champion and Sarah McKenzie reckons she has what it takes to be the next Rosemary Smith.
The 29-year-old from Monkstown has been hooked on motorsports since she was introduced to it by her mum Karen when she was just 10.
“It was the heyday of Schumacher at the time and then the baton was passed on to the next generation of drivers like Lewis Hamilton, who I’ve been a fan of since he first came into Formula One in 2007,” said Sarah.
A Commerce International with French graduate from UCC, she sees the Woman Racing series as a once in a lifetime opportunity to be part of something “that empowers women of all abilities to feed their passion for motorsport”.
The only criteria to enter is to be over 17 and have a full driving licence. Racing experience is not needed which makes it accessible.
“Those of us who live in the motorsport world just as fans would never normally get an opportunity to be behind the wheel of a McLaren without this.
"And when I was originally sitting on the fence about actually submitting my application, the uniqueness of that opportunity is really what pushed me to enter,” said Sarah.
So far, she and the other applicants, including a handful from Ireland, have had to score 100% in an online assessment to qualify for the next stage.
“It covered everything from what different flags mean during the course of a race, down to how to deal with technical elements of driving a race car at high speed, such as under-braking and over-braking,” said Sarah.
For the past year, she has also worked with a personal trainer and a physio to prepare her body for what she hopes will be time spent behind the wheel of one of the world’s fastest cars.
“The goal is to prepare me as much as possible for the physical challenges of driving a car at high speed around a race track, as it will be very different from driving a standard road car.
“I will also be taking on a BMW driving experience at Mondello at the end of this month. This will be the closest that I will get to the ‘real thing’ before getting to the Formula Woman on-track assessment in Wales in September, so it will be really important for me to get a sense of the physical impact that I can expect by going through the experience there.”
She said she’s really excited to meet the other Formula Woman applicants at the on-track assessment day.
“It has been tricky to do this virtually, so I’m really looking forward to actually meeting like- minded females and sharing such a big common interest with them.”
On-track assessments will continue into November (depending on where applicant are based), after which 16 finalists will be selected to take part in the final ‘shoot out’ in winter 2021/early 22.
Six of those will then be trained and coached between February and April, 2022, ahead of two ultimate winners receiving a sponsored entry into the GT Cup Championship. The winners will then be awarded their prize of a drive in McLaren GT4 race cars in the UK GT Cup championship during 2022.
They will undergo full training and coaching during the months of March and April prior to taking to the grid in the 3.8 litre twin turbo V8 race car.
Sarah, who currently works for a Fintech company in Cork, recruiting interns and new grads out of university for them, admits she’s very much a thrill-seeker.
“Beyond driving, I have always loved roller coasters and would always be the first person on board for a trip to a theme park.
"I had been hoping to complete a bungee jump while travelling to New Zealand during my time living in Australia, but unfortunately the trip had to be cancelled due to Covid.”
The pandemic has also delayed an opportunity for her to attend a Formula One Grand Prix.
“My mum and I have a pact that neither of us will attend one until we can both go together to our first one. So although I’ve had the opportunity to attend races while living abroad, I’ve stuck to our deal and hope to be able to make it to a Grand Prix next year once Covid travel restrictions are hopefully gone,” said Sarah.
Neither she nor her family have any fears for her safety.
“Luckily, they trust my driving ability and I think the fact that we’re so familiar with the sport as a family reduces their level of worry as it’s not a big ‘unknown’.
"Motorsport is definitely still dangerous overall but the level of safety has come on in leaps and bounds over the years.”
So too has the number of females involved in the sport.
“There is certainly a growing presence of females in motorsport, the W Series which is a single-seater, female-only series, launched in 2019 and will hopefully provide female drivers with a more established route into Formula One, which is the pinnacle of motorsport.
Having said that, there have been prominent females in motorsport for many years, with Susie Wolff being a great example. Rosemary Smith is an Irish legend, she was a rally driver and also became the oldest person to ever drive a Formula One car at 79 years old in 2017.
Unfortunately, these women have had a much more difficult road than their male counterparts.
“Netflix’s Drive To Survive series has certainly sparked a lot more public interest in the sport as well, which is great as I have particularly seen a lot of younger, female fans becoming interested in F1 and also F2 since that show launched.”
For now Sarah is focused on being one of the Formula Woman winners and getting to drive a McLaren GT4, which she describes as an “unbelievable machine”. But ultimately, regardless of the series outcome, Sarah feels that Formula Woman is not just an opportunity to race.
“It is also an opportunity to become part of a special community of women in motorsport and learn racing skills that are not normally accessible to me. The underlying message of the competition, since its first iteration back in 2004, has always been about empowering women of all abilities to feed their passion for motorsport and to create a community amongst each other,” she said.
Sarah also has a YouTube channel to chart her journey and where anyone interested in sponsoring her journey can contact her. Search for her full name and ‘Formula Woman’.