Time to resurrect a feature I used to write for Formula 1 Magazine back in the day… F1 to Watch. The concept is simple enough: every now and then I’ll bring you a profile or an interview with an up and coming racer who I reckon has something that little bit special. Back in the F1 Mag days our hit rate was pretty good – Alan van de Merwe went on to play a big role at BAR Honda and now drives the FIA Medical car, Ryan Briscoe may never have raced in F1 but has been hugely succesful in the States, Christian Klien got a good run at Jaguar and Red Bull before becoming a tester and then moving to HRT this season, and Tonio Liuzzi went on to smash the F3000 crown and then make his mark in F1.
So to bring this feature back to life, I can’t think of anybody better than the 2010 Formula Renault BARC champion Alice Powell. I first met Alice last year when she was in the middle of her debut single-seater season in Formula Renault UK and I was immediately impressed with her maturity and outstanding racecraft.
She moved from karts into Ginetta Juniors in the winter of 2007, coming fifth in the winter series before taking part in the full Junior championship in 2008 in which she recorded four podium finishes. In 2009 Alice moved into single seaters and the Formula Renault UK championship which launched the careers of the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen, joining the hugely succesful Manor Competition as team-mate to eventual champion Dean Smith.
This season Alice moved across with Manor to Formula Renault BARC and became the first female driver to win not only races but also the championship.
Still aged just 17, Alice Powell has already announced herself to the single seater fraternity and is a talent I can’t wait to see develop and grow over the coming seasons.
Will Buxton: Congratulations on winning the championship. Talk us through this season.
Alice Powell: At the start of the year I didn’t know if I was racing but we managed to get some money together at the last minute. The season started off well and I was able to keep consistent which I think ended up being the key to the championship. The wins I collected combined with regular podiums is what made the difference.
WB: How much did your experience of the car from the year before help?
AP: It was the same chassis and car just with a restrictor plate, so I think that helped a lot. But I missed out on quite a lot of testing. When I finished the season in 2009 I didn’t step back into the car until March, while all my rivals had been testing every week through the winter. It took me a while at the first round stepping back in. I took two fifths though, and by the next round at Silverstone I made the jump and took pole. The season just rolled from there. It was a great year.
WB: You’ve come to a championship very fast. It was only three years ago that you made your car racing debut in the Ginetta Junior series. Why did you decide to begin your life outside karting in Ginettas rather than Formula Ford or Formula BMW?
AP: It was to learn the circuits mainly. It was on the TOCA package and I went to one of the TOCA rounds in 2007 and I saw what it was about and how much pressure you get, how the TV coverage made up part of the package… and the crowds too, there were loads of people there so that got us excited. So in 2008 I did Ginetta Juniors and I got to learn the tracks, but the step up to Formula Renault in 2008 was huge. I was still 15 so I couldn’t test over the winter and I had a short amount of running before the testing ban came into effect. The biggest lesson was learning about using slicks and wings, jumping from treaded tyres to slicks and trusting how much grip the cars had and how much downforce you have was a big challenge.
But Ginettas are great fun and I managed to do five rounds this year alongside my Formula Renault championship.
WB: 2009 saw you alongside some pretty strong opposition like Dean Stoneman, Lewis Williamson and Dean Smith, guys who have gone on to some good things this year. But they’re all about five years older than you… how did you find it, stepping into Formula Renault, aged 15, getting used to slicks and wings and being that much younger than all your male rivals?
AP: It was tough but I was very lucky to have Dean Smith as my team-mate. It was his third year in Formula Renault and he’d done a year in Formula BMW so I learnt a lot from him. I learnt so much that year from a racing perspective, and I was studying for my GCSEs too, so it was pretty hectic. Racing against those guys though was a great school and we got some great press from getting some good results.
WB: And being with Manor too must have been a big boost – they’re a team that have done it all in Formula Renault and Formula 3 and now of course they have a GP3 and Formula 1 team, too. How much did their experience help you?
AP: They’re a great team and their help was fantastic both in my rookie season in Formula Renault UK and of course this year in Formula Renault BARC. My engineer Sarah and I get on brilliantly and I learn something new from her every single weekend. She’s done Formula Renault since I don’t even know how long and Formula Vauxhall before that so she knows the ins and outs of the car and she’s worked with some great drivers and she was pleased with my performances this year.
WB: So it was only your second season in single seaters, you missed most of pre-season testing and didn’t even know you’d be racing. Could you even have hoped to have been fighting for the title at the start of the year?
AP: In January I wasn’t even thinking about winning a championship. I just wanted to get out and race in whatever I could. When we got the money together and I looked at the competition I thought, ‘Well, these guys have done a hell of a lot of testing so it’s going to be a tough year.’ But once I got the first win under my belt at Silverstone it all turned around. I was second in the championship, 25 points behind, and it sort of stayed like that for most of the season with me chipping away. We got to the final round and I was 16 points behind and I really just got my head down, stayed consistent, kept a cool head and it all paid off.
WB: This is bound to be a question you’re asked a million times, but as a girl in a predominantly male world, how do you find you are treated? When you beat the boys are they a little bit more upset than if a boy had beaten them? When the helmet goes on are you just another racing driver or is there some kind of novelty in the fact you’re a girl?
AP: When I started karting at the age of eight and a half I think I was the only girl in the championship I was in and I remember being very conscious of that. It felt strange. For the first four years of karting I remember still feeling that, much more than I ever have done since switching to cars. Now… now that I’ve won a championship, and even before that, it simply doesn’t play on my mind. I just get on with it… I don’t want to say I’m one of the lads, but you know what I mean. I’m a racing driver. And I’m a champion, so after this year I hope their questions, if they had any, have been answered.
WB: Now, sponsorship and money are crucial in this world. Does the fact you’re a female racer help you at all?
AP: It is definitely a help as some of the companies we speak to will ask how many other girls are in my championship and right now I can tell them I am the only one. It’s a great USP and it can attract them. So from that perspective yes being a girl is something that can help, but it all comes down to results and I’ve got to do the job on track.
WB: Let’s go back to basics then… what got you into motorsport?
AP: Ever since I was young my Grandad used to go to F1 races, and I remember looking out for him in the grandstands. I think that’s when I caught the bug. I used to drive around the garden on my bike pretending I was Michael Schumacher. I’ve always enjoyed it and I guess my family might say the biggest mistake they ever made was taking me to a kart track for the first time. It started as a hobby but now its my life.
WB: So who were your heroes?
AP: When I was younger it was Michael Schumacher. I had a little set of red overalls I’d wear on my bike and a red helmet. I was a huge Schumacher fan.
WB: Now looking to the future, you have a championship under your belt. What is the next step?
AP: Given that there was a new Formula Renault car in 2010 and they’re making some developments on it for 2011, allied to the fact it is on the Touring Car package and has good fan attendance and TV coverage, Formula Renault UK is the aim for the budget I have. After that I would love to move up to GP3, then hopefully GP2.
WB: And that Manor link could be crucial. I mean so many young drivers now depend on teams or backers to pull them through. Sebastian Vettel for example has been nurtured by Red Bull for his entire career. Are you hoping to stick with Manor because there is a link all the way to F1?
AP: I think it is important and I’m sure a lot of people would automatically point at staying with Manor because of the Virgin F1 link, but that’s not the reason. The thing is that Manor are a great team. They are always there for me, be it on track or off track. They give me advice and try to help and they’re always on the end of the phone. Sure the F1 link is great, but the reason that I love racing for Manor is that I feel a part of a family, and it is a family that knows how to win. Again though, you need results above everything else, and with Manor I know I can get results.
WB: So I guess the absolute objective is Formula 1?
AP: Definitely. It sounds, sitting here right now, a long way away but you have got to be positive about it and take it step by step.
WB: And you’re still so young. This year in F1 we saw the youngest ever F1 champion crowned and I was just wondering how much pressure there is on young drivers these days to rise through the ranks so quickly?
AP: I think that young drivers of course aspire to be like Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, but you’ve got to remember how hard they work. It’s not just going to happen for you because you’re young. You have got to work hard in the gym, in debrief working on data… it doesn’t just fall into your lap. But there is a lot of pressure because champions are getting younger. But I do think that is a good thing because it could get more people into the sport. But seeing Jenson Button win the title last year in his late 20s and the fact that after so many years in GP2 Pastor Maldonado has made it to F1 is also really positive. It’s a good time for Formula 1, and hopefully in a few years time I’ll be there too.