2023: Emma Gilmour’s annus horribilis

Emma Gilmour was the first woman to drive fulltime for McLaren. PHOTO: MCLAREN
Emma Gilmour was the first woman to drive fulltime for McLaren. PHOTO: MCLAREN
There is no denying it has not been the year Emma Gilmour had hoped for. The Dunedin driver was gearing up for her second season in the Extreme E series, but after struggling to reach the podium and a high-speed crash, things just never quite went her way, Kayla Hodge reports.

Emma Gilmour sits down with a smile on her face.

The Dunedin driver shares a laugh and seems relatively laidback as she starts telling her story, revealing the aftermath of the high-speed crash that left her in hospital.

It would be easy for her not to be so positive.

Frustrating. Tough. Challenging.

They are all words Gilmour uses to describe her second season for McLaren, alongside co-driver Tanner Foust, in the Extreme E series, which featured a bad crash during a practice session in Sardinia in September.

Her car rolled as she attempted a corner for the first time on her opening lap.

"It was really a nothing corner — it was a fast corner — but, yeah, I guess with the nature of the racing, we don’t do a lot of driving," Gilmour said.

"We walk the course — which, walking it at 10kmh versus coming at it 115kmh, is quite different."

After the crash, she was airlifted to hospital for scans and tests, leaving with a concussion, a broken rib, a stiff neck and a sore knee.

"I was still in that mode of trying to save the car. I was still 100% throttled when I went over, so I fully extended my knee."

Dealing with the concussion and the fatigue that followed had been her biggest battle.

"It’s the understanding that your brain is recovering without being able to see that your brain is recovering.

"It’s such a difficult thing because if you have a broken leg ... you can see the swelling, you can feel the pain, but with your head, you don’t feel it, you don’t see it, so to speak.

"I didn’t have any headaches, had a little bit of dizziness, but it was just the fatigue that’s been really the hardest thing to understand and be patient with."

Before her accident, Gilmour connected with PhD student Fateme Mirzaee, who was studying the effects of concussion and side impacts on neck injuries.

Mirzaee had helped with Gilmour’s rehab, using a neuroflex, a virtual reality headset, to give her a baseline of what her brain would normally be able to do.

Over the past two months, Gilmour — who has been heartened by the support since returning home — has called on her team of resources to help her through, including Rowan Ellis, from Body Synergy, who helped with the function of her neck.

While she had made good improvements, noisy and busy environments still drained her energy, and her main focus had been managing her fatigue as she slowly built her fitness.

"It’s just that frustration of knowing what you could normally do and you’re not able to do it at the moment.

Gilmour meets the King, then Prince Charles, at the unveiling of McLaren’s electric rally car in...
Gilmour meets the King, then Prince Charles, at the unveiling of McLaren’s electric rally car in 2021. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
"It’s just having that patience to try and build that fitness back up and the stamina back up."

It led her to make the decision to withdraw from the final leg of the Extreme E series in Chile next weekend, replaced by Norwegian driver Hedda Hosas.

McLaren had been supportive, allowing her the time to make her own decision, one that she knew was right for her recovery at this point.

"Although I’ve had a lot of progression and recovery in the last few weeks, I still haven’t been able to get into a car and have that seat time, which sort of leaves me feeling that I’m not prepared fully to compete at the level that I’d want to compete when I go back.

"I think it was the best decision for the team, and for me, to sit it out and for them to have a replacement driver."

Asked if it was a hard decision to make, Gilmour said "you’d always rather be racing".

But she had learnt from past mistakes, having tried to get back behind the wheel too early from a head knock after a crash 16 years ago.

"I really rushed to get back into the car that time and it wasn’t the right thing to do.

"Now there’s just so much more knowledge and experience around head injuries and concussions, the longer-term effects of not doing the recovery correct at the start, that you probably just take it a bit more seriously."

The extended break through the summer period would give her extra time to get fully fit before getting behind the wheel again.

It had "definitely not been the best of seasons", Gilmour said.

The McLaren drivers reached the podium during the fourth Extreme E leg in Scotland, coming third, but otherwise it had been tough.

"We’ve just struggled, really, for the acceleration off the start line.

"If you’re not first at the first corner, it’s a really difficult series to overtake in, because you’re generally in dust, or you’re dealing with the other cars and damage.

"It’s been frustrating at times because Tanner and I ... know we’ve had the speed, but we just haven’t always had the breaks go our way.

"Then obviously finishing like this is real disappointment for me and also the team."

But reaching the podium in Scotland had been a highlight.

They missed the final on the third leg due to a "silly penalty" on the slippery course, but made the final for leg four.

When Foust handed the car over to her in second spot, there was no water in the window-washers and the mud under the wheels had turned to clay and baked on to the heated windscreen.

"You’re sort of trying to see where the track goes. It’s highly stressful because you’re, like, ‘just don’t make a mistake’.

The 2023 Neom McLaren car in the Extreme E series. PHOTO: MCLAREN
The 2023 Neom McLaren car in the Extreme E series. PHOTO: MCLAREN
"It was a relief when we finished and got a trophy.

"It’s a crazy race series because anything can happen — it’s just so unpredictable."

The constant changing nature of Extreme E kept things interesting — and was a huge platform for female drivers.

"I still think it’s the best motor racing series in the world for women.

"No other . . . motor racing series has ever done what it’s done by giving women an equal opportunity on the world stage and equal machinery.

"I think that’s such a strong message because it showcases, like with all women’s sport, when it’s actually given that platform to be entertaining, it’s as entertaining as when the men are doing it.

"That’s something I really love about Extreme E."

That message was crucial to pave the way for the next generation of female drivers coming through.

"As we always say, you’ve got to be able to see it to be it.’

"I think motorsport is riding a wave at the moment with the popularity of Drive to Survive on Netflix, and women, and young girls, becoming aware of motor racing ... and how exciting it is.

"Having something for the girls to look up to, or to strive towards, I think it’s just so important."

Back home, there had still been reasons to smile throughout the season.

In March, Gilmour debuted her new Citroen C3 Rally2 car at the Otago Rally.

Her friend, Claire Mole, made the trip from Scotland to be her co-driver at the event, where they placed fifth.

"Otago Rally was a highlight.

"I would love to go do it again, because I know I could go faster, but it was a good start."

She also took her Citroen for another spin at the Catlins Rally in August.

"It was great to be back in a rally car. I guess that’s what I love being in — that’s my first love, the rallying."

For now, Gilmour was looking forward to continuing her recovery and enjoying a relaxing break over the summer period.