She’s Young, Fast and Racing in Europe – In Conversation with Megan Gilkes

The brand new female-only W Series has brought increased attention to the topic of women in motorsport. While some are against the series and some are in favour, you cannot deny that what they have managed to do in such a short amount of time is to create a thoroughly professional development race series that will hopefully provide a much-needed boos to all those who are competing in the series and inspire more girls to get behind the wheel and race. One of the drivers racing in the W Series is Canadian Megan Gilkes, a driver who is racing in the series based on merit and merit alone. She graciously gave me some time to answer a number of questions about her journey so far.

Motorsport Prospects: Tell us a bit about how you became interested in racing.

Megan Gilkes
Megan Gilkes – Photo courtesy of the W Series

Megan Gilkes: I am from a racing family. My grandfather was successful in Minis in the 1960s and 70s in England, and my Dad raced in Formula Ford there and for 2 years in Opel Lotus in Europe. He restarted again after he moved to Canada running an F2000 in North America. I used to help him in the garage and at the track when I was young. Then when we were living in Barbados when I was 9 years old a friend of his had a son and nephew that both raced karts. They offered me a drive and from lap 1 I was hooked… slow but hooked.

MP: You were successful in Go Karts and have moved into F1200 and Formula 2000. How difficult was the transition from karts to cars?

MG: The transition wasn’t too bad from karts to the F1200. I nearly always raced 4 stroke karts where to be quick you need to carry momentum and not scrub speed by sliding too much. This was exactly the same in the F1200, just with a bit more weight and a little less grip. I also had a lot of help early, initially from Bill Vallis at Vallis Motorsport who has run F1200s for a long time and has run some of Canada’s best drivers such as Ashley Taws. The transition to the F2000 was actually a bit tougher than I had expected as the brakes were so much better and there was greater speed difference and more downforce. This has been the case in going to the Formula 3 as well, it is another quite big step.

MP: How difficult is it being Canadian and yet racing outside the country when it comes to finding sponsorship?

MG: I have been incredibly lucky with sponsorship and funding my racing. The F1200 wasn’t too expensive in racing terms, and I was fortunate to meet Bill Comat from Millers Oils early on in my career and he was looking to help a young Canadian driver. Bill Vallis was great too with taking care of my engine. Through the F1200 I met Johan Wasserman who arranged for my race in Brazil. For the F2000 I basically took over my dad’s car and we ran it with the help of Vallis Motorsport and the budget that my dad had previously earmarked for his own racing.

MP: You raced in Brazil. How did that come about and how was that experience?

MG: As mentioned this came directly through the F1200 series. Johan has done a great job in really raising the profile of both the US and Canadian Series and that has included drivers coming here from abroad and also drivers from our series going to Brazil South Africa and Holland to race with them. Brazil was just incredible and will always rank as one of my favourite race weekends. My dad was invited too, and he had announced that it would be his last race, and the chance for us to run against each other was awesome… and after a race long battle, I beat him. That aside, the energy of the people at the track was amazing, I made friends in the racing community while there, that I think I will have forever. Their enthusiasm, passion, and the welcome we both received was remarkable, I got to drive on a current F1 circuit and meet a racing legend in Wilson Fittipaldi whose company builds the cars.

MP: You have made the cut in the evaluation process for the new W Series. How did the invitation come about? What was it like when you got to Austria?

MG: My younger brother Nick read about it and called me as I was on the way home from university and suggested that I get in touch with them. I had to send in a racing CV and a compilation of my results on track to that point, and from that and the 150+ others they received from around the world they selected 60 drivers to go to Austria for the initial shootout. Austria was tough, the standard of driving was way higher than I had expected, but I probably shouldn’t have been surprised as literally the competition were from every continent. What also made it a challenge was that we were tested not in single seaters but a fleet of Porsches and a Ford Fiestas. The selection centre was run by former F1 driver Alex Wurz and followed regular FIA driver selection standards. In addition to the driving which counted for 70% of the marks there was also 30% based upon fitness challenges, presentation and media interaction skills and other indirect driving activities.

I was thrilled to make it through that and we then went to Almeria for a further 4 day shootout where the top 18 of the 28 selected from Austria would qualify. This was in the full F3 cars that we would race and was almost entirely stopwatch-driven. We got to see our own times and data as well as that of the other drivers and by the end of day 3 I knew that I was in with a good chance of getting in. On the morning of day 4, Dave Ryan said that 12 girls had been preselected to make it onto the final grid and would not be driving that day and thankfully I was one of them as I had contracted salmonella poisoning and was in the medical centre with a drip in my arm, which explains why there are only 17 drivers shown in the photo of the graduating class.

MP: You were accepted to race in the W Series, what are you hoping to get out of it?

MG: The opportunities are immense. I have the chance to compete in the inaugural series with 20 (including the 2 reserve drivers who run test days with us) of the top women drivers in the world, in a class of car that on my realistic racing budget I couldn’t have dreamt to drive. The series is fully funded, has live TV coverage through the UK’s Channel 4 in 30 countries, and has the backing of top motorsport personnel including David Coulthard, Dave Ryan and Catherine Bond Muir. We have motorsport specific fitness training and nutritional advice from Hintsa Performance and get to race at 6 iconic tracks in Europe along with the DTM Championship that attracts tens of thousands of fans. I really want to build a motor racing career and take everything from the opportunity that the W Series has given me but even if this doesn’t happen, I would still consider myself one of the most fortunate people ever to have had such an experience.

MP: The obvious question has to be asked. Being a woman in a heavily male-dominated sport must have its trials as well as its triumphs. How has the experience been for you so far in your career?

MG: Motor racing is a male dominated sport but I have received a lot of support both from men and women. At my racing car school in 2016 one of my instructors was former Formula 1 driver Divina Galica and maybe because she was the only female instructor and because of what she had achieved I gravitated towards her. Since then she has been a constant help to me and is now my formal driver coach. That said as I mentioned earlier Bill Vallis, Johan Wasserman, as well as Phil Picard, Jim Kearney, Glen Clarke, Che Smith all obviously men have been hugely helpful to me over the last few years and without them I would not have been in a position to successfully apply to the W Series. On track the car doesn’t recognize whether I am male or female. It just does what I tell it to do, most of the time…

The other drivers, it is interesting and you get a full range, I guess similar to life. From ones when I started and who joked with me and gave me endearing nicknames like Little Bit and Tinkerbell, to those who I battled tooth and nail with for race wins that have been kind enough to post hugely supportive and congratulatory notes as I have had this and other opportunities. On rare occasions there have been drivers that haven’t taken so well to being beaten by a young and relatively inexperienced girl… but again that is a small minority and I contrast that to a multiple-time US National Champion an awesome driver and true gentlemen who I never actually beat … at least yet , but he still took the time to post a really kind message to my Facebook page when I was selected into the W Series.

MP: What are your short, medium and long term goals for racing?

MG: I am going to enjoy this season to its max!

I would like to be in a position to challenge for podiums in the W Series but I have to recognize that this is a stretch goal as these women are experienced and frankly excellent drivers who have won F3 races, driven for F1 development programs, and competed in some of the highest echelons of both single seater and sports car racing. That said I believe that I can as long as I continue to improve. I am also very fortunate courtesy of Ligier, Honda and Momentum Motorsports to be running in the next 4 rounds of the US Formula 3 Series starting in Pittsburgh next month, so to perform well there is clearly another goal.

I have a huge desire to make it to F1 in some capacity. My dream is as a driver and that is my main focus, but if not then as an engineer. I am studying aeronautical engineering at Imperial College London, have been fortunate enough to have work experience at Mercedes F1 where I got to work on Lewis Hamilton’s car on a test rig in the factory and in my spare time I help out at Vallis Motorsport.

MP: What would be the single most important piece of advice would you give girls who are either karting or are thinking of entering the sport based on your experience?

MG: Pester your parents to let you have a go, show your passion for the sport and take every opportunity to get as much seat time as possible in whatever vehicle you can, as you never know what opportunity is just around the corner.

MP: What is it that you love about racing? What keeps you going in the sport?

Courtesy of the W Series

MG: The adrenaline, the feeling you have when you take a corner at the absolute limit, the reward of setting your best ever lap time at a track and the absolute exhilaration of overtaking another competitor and watching the chequered flag fall for you as you cross the finish line first.

MP: Physical fitness and nutrition are vitally important for a driver. What kind of training regime do you follow to keep in top shape for racing?

MG: You are absolutely right, fitness and nutrition are key ingredients for a successful race driver. I have always been active, I ran cross country played provincial level junior tennis and have my black belt in taekwondo, but the W Series have taken it to another level. They have engaged with Series supporter Hintsa Performance that are a global name in fitness and nutrition and we all have a personal coach that we work with remotely away from the track. On race weekends you will see us doing light work outs and pre-race exercises.

I have a real weakness for chocolate eclairs and since I was selected for the Austria shootout I have entirely abstained. At the end of the season, I am going to my local bakery in Toronto and that period of abstinence will end!

MP: How helpful is sim racing to a driver these days?

MG: Huge! We do a lot of work on the simulators that the W Series bring with them to the track before the weekend formally starts. In addition to this I use a slightly less sophisticated version at home in Toronto and while I am in England I have a friend who lets me use theirs. I have found it immense especially for tracks that I haven’t driven on before.

MP: Any final thoughts you may have?

MG: Having attended the first W Series event at Hockenheim, I would highlight what an incredible job the organizers have done. The cars look great and are amazing to drive, the level of professionalism from the engineers, mechanics, and support functions at the W Series HQ is unreal. The engagement of motor sport legends, leading media such as Channel 4 and its personnel, and being on the same race program as DTM help add to the profile of the series. If you are looking to vacation in Europe take the opportunity to attend an event. Any motor racing fan would not be the least bit disappointed, as the racing is wheel to wheel and exciting. Look for number 49 with the Canadian flag on the back and make sure you come over and say hi.
 

A big thank you to Megan for taking the time to speak to me during an extremely hectic period of her racing career!

Author: Mark Boudreau