The driver taking McLaren back to the future

McLaren's first female driver is also its latest Kiwi, which is already causing excitement over its XE program

McLaren XE

With McLaren confirming a driver line-up consisting of an American and a New Zealander, you could be forgiven for thinking the year was 1970-something and that you were about to read a story about Can-Am or IndyCar.

But no. This story has a familiar opening act, but the rest is rather different.

We already knew that McLaren is racing in Extreme E next year, the famed Formula 1 outfit adding the trailblazing series to its ever-growing list of projects; and we already knew that American off-road racing royalty Tanner Foust would make up half of its driver line-up in the category.

Emma Gilmour will join him, becoming the first female driver in the history of McLaren, but at the same time joining an illustrious club of Kiwis that includes team founder Bruce McLaren, Chris Amon, and Denny Hulme.

“I keep pinching myself, it is just so surreal because growing up in New Zealand, Bruce McLaren, it’s just such an iconic name with New Zealand motorsport,” Gilmour told a media collective that included DirtFish.


“I never daydreamed about racing for McLaren because I was a rally driver so to be able to have passion of motorsport, my rallying, being a skillset that’s now allowing me to race for an iconic motorsport legend, honestly, it’s a dream come true.”

In fact, when it came to getting the initial contact from McLaren Racing head Zak Brown, Gilmour wasn’t even sure the offer was real – such is the departure Gilmour thought XE represented from what McLaren traditionally races in.

“McLaren showed an interest and it was a pretty exciting email to receive in my inbox from Zak,” she said. “I may have thought it was just some Zak wanting to talk to me, and then when I saw the footer I was like, ‘Oh my God’, so I was pretty excited.

“I know that I’m doing all of the events so the experience I’ve gained from the events that I’ve done, I feel it’s been really, really useful. Being part of McLaren and joining this new and exciting series and the environmental things and the fanbase that McLaren has, I feel very honored and excited to be part of that.”

Tanner Foust


Foust fits McLaren's bill, and the brand fits Foust's image

And while for much of its history McLaren has been officially recognized as a British team, Gilmour expects her signing to make waves back home where the outlook is rather different.

“In New Zealand honestly I think it will be very big news because McLaren is still thought of as a Kiwi team because of our heritage and Bruce being the founder,” she said. “So the few people that I’ve told in confidence, they’re just mind blown, and I still get goosebumps thinking about it.”

Gilmour’s not only proud to be following in her compatriots’ footsteps, but doing it while blazing a trail of her own. She’s yet to even don the famous Papaya in a race setting, but she’s already made a massive statement.

“To be the first female driver for McLaren Racing, I feel that’s leaving a pretty impressive mark already,” she explained. “For me, I do motorsport because I love it and I’m passionate about it and if that’s what inspires the next generation then I think it’s successful in its own right.

“It might not be me who’s the first female Formula 1 world champion, but it’ll be this next generation of women coming through that see us women [who can achieve that].

Emma Gilmour - Extreme E 1
Tanner hasn’t driven the car yet so a lot of the knowledge he’s getting at the moment is from my experience of driving the car Emma Gilmour, XE driver

“Women that are groundbreaking have gone before us and given us these opportunities, so it’s [the same for] the next generation that will come through as well.”

It’s all very poetic, a motorsport icon blazing many a new trail while nodding to its past, but McLaren’s new XE effort is more than just a headline-grabbing exercise. As with everything blessed with the McLaren name, the main aim is to win from the off.

And while in most motorsport series entering in year two might mean starting on the back foot, Gilmour believes the combination of her, Foust and McLaren Racing will help it close any perceived gap.

“Working alongside Tanner, he has a huge wealth of experience so I’m really excited to be learning from him and working together to really be a successful team,” Gilmour said.

“Tanner hasn’t driven the car yet so a lot of the knowledge he’s getting at the moment is from my experience of driving the car, but then saying that he’s got a lot of experience with the Baja vehicles and all of the off-road racing that he’s done so I think when we do get that opportunity to drive the car together, I think it’s going to come together really strongly.

Stephane Sarrazin Extreme E crash Sardinia


Veloce's Sarrazin had a huge roll for the second time this season, again escaping unhurt

“That was probably a strength that Stéphane and I had this season,” she added, referring to her partnership with Stéphane Sarrazin at Veloce Racing in 2021. “We worked together to get the car to work for both of us.

“I think it’s really important in XE that the car isn’t just designed for one driver and the other one has to get in and deal with it. If you can make the car a working package for both of you that’s where the competitiveness will come.

“It’s a unique series and it’s not like we’re going to be going back to the same race track and other teams are going to have all the data from the track. So every team is sort of learning a little bit at the same rate.

“I’m guessing the other teams will have a lot more [car] data than what we’re going to have so we’ve got some experience but there’s still going to be a lot of learning that will be happening for sure, but the team that is around McLaren Racing, they’ve got a lot of strength and a lot of knowledge to call on.”

For all the feathers in the McLaren cap though, Gilmour is aware that it will need a huge dollop of luck to go with its rock-solid team and driver combination.

With McLaren Racing behind us, I think it's going to be really successful Emma Gilmour, XE driver

“It’s a difficult series in that you have such little time on the track and in the car, so I’m always very hard on myself, always wanting to be doing a better job, and to try and learn as quick as possible.

“But I’m probably lucky in where I’ve come from with my motorsport background I haven’t had huge budgets so I’ve always had to sort of learn on the go and adapt pretty quickly. So I think that’ll lend itself well to this series but I will definitely be hard on myself and try to improve and get as fast as quickly as possible.

“As we’ve all seen with the series, a certain amount of luck comes into it as well with how semifinals fall and ‘crazy race’ and all those things, but I think Tanner and I will be a strong team together and then hopefully have a bit of luck on the way as well.

“With McLaren Racing behind us, I think it’s going to be really successful.”

Words:Dominik Wilde