Photos: Castrol, Extreme E, Emma Gilmour
Brought to you by Castrol EDGE
Despite being the product of a motoring family, Emma Gilmour wasn’t born with petrol in her veins. But for the past two decades, motorsport has been her passion, from rallying to rallycross and, most recently, the wild new Extreme E electric off-road series.
For its small population, New Zealand has produced a big number of motorsport stars. Depending on your age bracket, you may think of the likes of Bruce McLaren, Chris Amon or Denny Hulme when asked to name NZ racing talent. Move forward a few years and maybe Possum Bourne, Jim Richards or Steve Millen come to mind. More recent still, there’s the likes of Jason Richards, Greg Murphy and Paul Radisich, while the current crop of Kiwi talent includes the likes of Shane van Gisbergen Brendon Hartley, Earl Bamber, Scott McLaughlin, Mitch Evans, Scott Dixon and Liam Lawson, to name a few.
You can add Emma Gilmour to the roster of current Kiwi motorsport stars, too.
In her home town of Dunedin, Emma’s a star thanks to her rallying success that includes a round win – the first female driver to do so – and three runner-up championship placings in the tough New Zealand Rally Championship.
She’s competed in rallycross and also done some circuit racing, but off the tarmac is where she feels most at home and where she’s made the most impact.
Her success isn’t surprising, but how she came to motorsport is.
From a Saddle to a Seat
Growing up in New Zealand with parents who owned and operated a car dealership, Emma was exposed to the automotive life from an early age, but her initial passion was for horse riding and she progressed to a high level in eventing, the equestrian discipline that combines dressage, showjumping and cross country.
While her dad had done some historic racing and mum had competed in tarmac rallies, it was through her cousin that Emma first got the bug for motorsport, when she navigated at a rally event in 1999.
As a horsewoman, Emma loved the buzz and adrenalin of cross country riding, so it’s perhaps no surprise she took to the slip and slide of rallying after swapping horses for horsepower. What is surprising is that the skills that Emma learnt when eventing have translated to rallying.
“Control in horse riding is largely from your seat. Driving a rally car on gravel, a lot of the feel comes from your seat as well.
“There’s also a mindset. If you’re riding cross country and you came to a solid obstacle, you’ve just got to go for it - there’s no abort button. You’ve got to have that forward thinking, ‘attack’ mentality.
“Rallying’s much the same. You’ve got to have that forward focus mentality when you approach things, even if you get it all wrong.”
From that first taste in the co-driver’s seat, Emma progressed to driving in 2002 – and hasn’t looked back: “I’d never really driven on gravel, so that was probably the bit that surprised me - when I finally had a go at it - that I was able to do it.”
Suzuki and Castrol
As the owner and manager of a Suzuki dealership, Gilmour Motors Suzuki in Dunedin, it’s no surprise that a rally-prepped Suzuki Swift is Emma’s current weapon, but she’s driven a diverse range of other cars over the years, from Ford, Subaru and Hyundai, both in NZ and overseas.
“I had always enjoyed driving. Mum and dad taught me and my sister how to drive well on the road – they saw it as a really important life skill.”
When asked to describe her driving style that’s taken her to the top of the podium, Emma calls it ‘neat and committed’, meaning she’s not bouncing from ditch to ditch, but hitting the apexes and always attacking.
“One of the first lessons I learnt when I got taught how to rally drive is ‘if you’re not on the brake, you’re on the gas’, so it’s either one or the other and full commitment with what you’re doing.”
While Suzuki has been part of Emma’s motorsport journey for the past eight years (Gilmour Motors Suzuki was established in 2014), she’s enjoyed a relationship with Castrol that goes back much further, to the early days of Gilmour Motors, when her mum and dad ran the business.
“Castrol’s been there since the start of my journey. They used to sponsor the car I co-drove in, a Mitsubishi Evo III, and we used Castrol in the workshops of dad’s business.
“When I jumped into the driver’s seat for rallying, Castrol were the first partner on board and the first sticker I had on the car, so it’s pretty cool to have them on the journey for the past 20 years.”
The association extends beyond the rally stages, with Castrol products used in the workshop of Gilmour Motors Suzuki, too.
“It’s great having a company that is so performance focused. They’ve got excellent products that not only work great for everyday cars, but they work brilliantly in all of my race cars. I’ve had many different brands over the years, but Castrol always have a product that works well for that vehicle and its requirements.”
Beyond the products she receives for her rally cars, Emma’s connection to Castrol has meant she’s been able to tap into their global expertise, too.
“The technical team at Castrol are always very, very good at matching the product, whether it’s gearbox oil or your engine oil, to the performance requirement. They’re very thorough with that behind the scenes support and backup.”
That support doesn’t start and finish in New Zealand, either.
“Early on in my career, I won a scholarship to compete in WRC events in Europe. Castrol were part of that journey. They had a car that they had access to in the UK and they helped with that side of it - Donald Smith and Castrol UK were very helpful.
“When you’ve got a company with the size and reach of Castrol, it’s very beneficial. You’re able to call on the Castrol technical department and their knowledge, so it’s a very supportive brand in that regard.”
The Kiwi Connection
Being a proud New Zealander, Emma is also proud of what her countrymen have been able to achieve in motorsport. She’s come into contact with many NZ racing luminaries over the years, but not always racing wheel to wheel against them.
“Through some of my other activities, like driver training work I’ve done, I’ve met lots of other motorsport talent – people like Earl Bamber, who’s doing amazing stuff overseas, and Liam Lawson, who’s doing amazing stuff as well.
“Brendon Hartley and I did a motorsport academy together many years ago and he was really helpful last year when I was doing contract negotiations with Extreme E teams
“Likewise, Shane van Gisbergen. What he does is pretty special and he was in the same motorsport academy as me and Brendon.”
Speaking of Extreme E, Emma took the next step in her motorsport career last year, when she signed up to the all-new electric off-road racing series as a reserve driver for Veloce Racing.
This year, she’s forged a special kiwi connection by being one of two drivers selected by McLaren Racing for their inaugural Extreme E campaign. She’s also the first ever female to drive for McLaren Racing.
When the invitation to wear the famous 'papaya' orange colours came from McLaren Racing boss Zak Brown late last year, Emma didn’t need to give it much thought.
“Growing up in New Zealand, the McLaren name is synonymous with motorsport and is motoring royalty. Being a rally driver, I never imagined our paths crossing, so being contacted by them was mind-blowing!”
While Emma feels the pressure of being a Kiwi driver driving for the famous team founded by fellow Kiwi Bruce McLaren back in 1963, it’s no more pressure than she puts on herself.
“I always want to do a good job, but I think that, with what I’ve been through in my career, and the experience I bring to the team, the Kiwi connection is a really nice circle.”
If you’ve yet to see Extreme E racing, look it up online. It’s brief but brutal motorsport, with plenty of thrills and spills from the coterie of talented drivers that have included the likes of Jenson Button, Carlos Sainz, Laia Sanz, Nasser Al-Attiyah, Jutta Kleinschmidt, Sebastien Loeb and rising female star Catie Munnings, to name a few.
Each team fields a male and female driver and both have to drive the car, while the remote nature of the locations (deliberately chosen to shine a light on areas affected by climate change) means there’s no pre-set course, so drivers have to learn it after very little reconnaissance work.
“As a driver, it’s one of the most challenging motorsports I’ve done, because of the limited seat time. We get very little time driving the course. And the course isn’t a racetrack – it’s just marked out cross country. It’s the terrain that makes the Extreme E cars so challenging to drive, because it’s so unpredictable.”
At time of writing, Emma was partway through the 2022 Extreme E season with McLaren Racing that’s been a learning year for her, co-driver Tanner Foust and the rest of the team, but there have been glimpses so far of good things to come.
The Road – and Off-Road - Ahead
Looking ahead to 2023 and beyond, Emma’s goals are simple: “To win!”
OK, there’s a bit more to it than that, specifically enjoying what she’s doing while still being competitive: “I feel very privileged and lucky to get to do what I do. To keep enjoying it and competing at the top level.”
With a 2023 Extreme E seat and the goal of delivering the championship for McLaren in its 60th Anniversary next year, Emma also has her sights set on a fresh assault on the New Zealand Rally Championship. Clashes with the Extreme E calendar means an NZRC championship is probably off the cards next year, but round wins are a goal.
Looking further ahead, Emma says she has a few iconic motorsport events she’d relish the opportunity to take part in.
“I’d love to do Dakar – that’s definitely a bucket list event. Pikes Peak would be pretty cool to tick off the bucket list, too.”
At a broader level, Emma’s looking forward to seeing more women in motorsport, both in the seat and on the tools, and is already seeing evidence of that.
“In our Extreme E team, I work with two fantastic female engineers. In the Otago Rally this year, there was 50 per cent females in the entries.
“I’d hope that, in the future, it’s not seen as abnormal being a woman in the sport and women are just part of the motorsport community.”
You can follow Emma’s progress at: emmagilmour.co.nz