Alter Everything

A podcast about data science and analytics culture.
Alteryx Alumni (Retired)

Trailblazer Emma Gilmour is the first female driver for McLaren Racing, and she's passionate about climate change. Racing in the Extreme-E Series, drivers like Emma race in remote, unpaved terrain in electric vehicles to put an emphasis on our environment. In this episode, Emma shares what it's like being in the drivers seat, and how data plays a huge role in her sport.







Emma title card.png




Episode Transcription

DAN 00:02 


Welcome to Alter Everything, a podcast about data science and analytics culture. I'm Dan Menke, manager of community operations at Alteryx. And honestly, I can't believe I got to be your host for this episode because our guest is the incomparable Emma Gilmour. Emma is the first female driver for McLaren Racing. She travels all over the world racing in the Extreme E Series, where drivers race in remote areas on wild and unpaved tracks and electric vehicles to put an emphasis on our environment and ecosystems that need our help. I'm a huge fan of Extreme E. I'll wake up in the middle of the night if I have to in order to catch a race. And I'm so excited to share this conversation I had with an actual driver. Let's get started. 


 So, Emma, thank you so much for coming to the podcast. We're super excited to have you on this. I heard you up on stage at Inspire here talking about your horse career and obviously your racing career. So I was really excited to kind of hear where the racing started and how you got into that and how you made your way up to the McLaren spot. 

EMMA 01:18 

Yeah. Well, thanks for having me. It's great to be here. Yeah. I mean, when I started rallying 20 years ago, I never imagined that I'd one day be McLaren's first female driver. But going back a step from that, I was a competitive horse rider through my teenage years. Loved the horses, loved eventing. Probably always enjoyed going fast, whether it be in a car or motorbike or on the horses. But yeah, I never imagined a career in motorsport. I started by navigating in rallying. So, in rallying, you have a driver and a co-driver, and the co-driver is the one that calls the pace notes. And that was how I started in motorsport for my sister and for my cousin. And again, I really enjoyed it, just going fast and sliding on gravel roads and stuff, but never thought that I had the skill set to do that. But then one day, I did have a go at it, and it was a little bit like duck taking to water. It was just very natural. I still don't actually understand what is maybe missing that I'm able to drive a car so fast down a gravel road, but it is the [laughter] best feeling in the world, and it's the most addictive feeling. I love that buzz of having a car dance and slide from corner to corner. And yeah, and it's just kept me hooked from that time on. So I've been really lucky. I've had amazing partners and sponsorships through that time, which has allowed me to keep rallying in New Zealand consistently through that time, but I've also had really cool overseas opportunities as well. Raced in the Global Rallycross series in America, which was great. Got to come and visit over here and then get to see America for the first time. Also, got to race and do the World Rally Championship events in Finland, which is crazy. It's like a national, passionate sport over there with really passionate fans, and then also got to learn about cross country rallying, like racing in sand dunes and stuff in Qatar. So I had a really varied motorsport career, and I think that's what lended myself really well to when the Extreme E series came along, because again, it's quite a unique type of motorsport, yeah, and then, obviously, the opportunity with McLaren, so. 

DAN 03:11 

Yeah. I was going to ask you. Their rally car is similar, but very different from the Extreme E. Obviously, the cars are different. 

EMMA 03:20 

Yeah. I mean, quite a lot of difference. A rally car is more like your road car in many ways, lower center of gravity. And when we're rallying, we're on more formed roads. So quite different in terms of, we have suspension travel, but definitely not the same kind of suspension travel that we expect of our Extreme E vehicle. The Extreme E vehicle is a much bigger vehicle. So for anyone that hasn't actually seen what an Extreme E car looks like, it almost looks like a remote-control buggy car. [laughter] 

DAN 03:44 

Yeah. That's exactly how I've explained it to people like, "If you don't know what it looks like, one of those buggy cars," yeah. 

EMMA 03:48 

Yeah. If you haven't got the sense of scale, you're not sure if you're watching remote control cars or actual real ones. So a much bigger vehicle, much bigger center of-- oh, sorry, higher center of gravity, but the suspension travel is also a lot greater. And the Extreme E cars are electric as well, so different to the rally cars that we're currently driving. The hardest thing with the Extreme E series is that we're racing on courses that aren't a racetrack. So they're basically just mapped out over this terrain that has never had a car race over it before. So it's quite unpredictable, and you don't know what's coming up, within reason. So that's the real challenge. 

DAN 04:24 

Yeah. And that first race in Saudi Arabia, it looked like everybody had to stay away from each other, just so you could actually see two feet in front of you before you got into any turns or ran into each other. 

EMMA 04:36 

Correct. The dust was a real problem at that first event, which it makes it a really challenging series. Because normally, if we use circuit racing as a comparison, you do many laps of a racetrack, and the racetrack is the same year to year, so you can get a lot of data and a lot of practice with that. With the Extreme E, it's a brand-new course. And basically, we walk the course or drive in a road car, the track, and then we maybe get one or two practice laps, and then we're racing and then racing with other cars. So very, very challenging. 

DAN 05:06 

So, because of that extreme area that you're at, where do you then go practice to get used to that? 

EMMA 05:13 

Yeah. I mean, that's a great question. And that is one of the challenges with the series is that you can't really simulate that. So what you're trying to do with setting up the car is make it as easy to drive as possible. And you do that from a set test venue where you're getting the bumps in the car, where it might get upset, and trying to make it so it's quite forgiving, so it doesn't do anything too unpredictable. And that's where data is really valuable because we get such little time on the track. Once we're there, we can then use the data from previous events to try and set the car up as best as possible. 

DAN 05:47 

Yeah. I was going to ask. So you have that small amount of time once you get out of the car, that first practice lap. You're probably looking at a lot of data, right? And then, Tanner, your co-driver, is probably running out, and then you guys are talking to each other. So, when you get that, how much time do you think that you're really sitting with the engineer and Tanner? Are you hours of just sitting there talking about each section kind of thing? 

EMMA 06:08 

Yeah. We're doing a lot more analysis than we are doing driving. To give a comparison, the driving might be five to eight minutes of driving, and then we'll be definitely analyzing it for a couple of hours because there are different things that we're looking at. Obviously, Tanner and I, we have to set the car up that we both like, which is a challenge in itself. Because normally when you're competing, you're just making the car so it's your glove, so to speak. But we've got to probably compromise a little for each other's driving styles. And then we're looking at the data and looking at other competitors, because we have all of their split times, for example, between flag points, so we can see that neither of us were as quick as, say, another team down the pit. So you're then looking at what maybe they did with their line or where they were carrying more speed through the previous flag point to get an advantage over us. So there's a lot of analysis, post the driving. 

DAN 07:00 

That's really cool. For that environment that you guys go into, Extreme E, for those that don't really know about it, it's very environmentally friendly. Everything is battery powered, solar powered. So you guys are in the middle of this nowhere type of area, basically, right? So you guys are-- 

EMMA 07:19 


DAN 07:19 

--hanging out in the sun. Was that a lot different than rallying, or is that similar? Because they kind of go to crazy places for rallying, too. How was that experience? 

EMMA 07:28 

Yeah. Yeah. Good question. With rallying, we do go to remote areas, but the thing with rallying is generally, once the clock starts in the morning, you're constantly against the clock, whether you're just touring along the road to get to your next stage, you're then racing the stage, then you're driving to where you're going to get the car serviced, and then you've got a certain amount of time to get the car serviced. So you're always going. This is a lot more like a traditional kind of racing, like Formula 1 or something, where you're sitting in the pits waiting to go. But couple that with the fact we actually get to do very little driving time, it makes it very challenging in how important the data is. But coming back to what you mentioned about Extreme E, they're doing something that's never been done with sport before, where we're going to areas of the planet that have never showcased live sport. And we're using that platform of sport to get across a really important message about climate change and damage that's happening, so. And again, the gender diversity, no other sport's done that where we've had men and women compete on equal terms at the top level. 

DAN 08:26 

Yeah. I feel like it just has this really great-- it's looking at all aspects of the world and using sport to make that a known thing. So it's a really cool-- I've watched every race [laughter] of it since it began. And I know this is McLaren's first year, which was really cool to see because there's been teams there that hadn't even made it to the finals of their first race, and you guys did. 

EMMA 08:51 

Yeah. It was so exciting when we got through to our final. Yeah. 

DAN 08:54 

Yeah. And I was watching the race, and we showed a clip a bit last night at Inspire of you basically passing two cars at one turn, which was crazy. Can you kind of walk us through from that beginning to that turn? When you hit that turn, did you know that you went by all those guys at that one time, or you were just keeping the line and going? 

EMMA 09:12 

Yeah. It's really interesting. Because the nature of the racing, it's not like we've gone down a racetrack, and it's like, "Well, this is where I'm going to turn in because this is the line that we take." You take off from the start line, and everything's changing, because all of a sudden, you've got a car on your left, and you've got a car on your right, and then they're bumping and jumping. They're out of control. So you're trying to keep yourself as clean as possible so that you're out of all dangers' way. And then these cars are really important about momentum. Because they're such a heavy vehicle, you really want to keep your foot to the floor and keep the throttle going for as long as possible. So that's what I was focusing on. It was a big climb up the hill, and I just knew I needed to keep the throttle on. And yeah, I was kind of-- you don't know what's happening with the other drivers around you, but I knew we'd carried good speed up through those flag points. 

DAN 09:55 

Yeah. I was shouting at a [laughter] TV when I saw that. It was really cool. I have kind of a funny question about that. Now, you guys are strapped in, but to your waist, right? And there's so much bumping. How do you keep your feet on the gas pedal or even on the brake without your feet bouncing up and down? 

EMMA 10:14 

Yeah. The interesting thing with it-- I mean, that's why you keep your foot just jammed to the floor with the throttle. [laughter] Easy, problem solved. But with the brake actually kind of different to your road car, it actually has quite a lot of resistance. So, again, you can push it quite hard. But the seats that you're in, if you can imagine a big baby seat, but as an adult size, so you are quite contained. Probably the hardest thing on the body is actually the helmet on your head because there's a lot of weight up there. And the seats have what they call wraparound. That, again, protects you in an accident. But when you're getting moved side to side over these desert booms and stuff, it can be quite difficult to also keep focused on where you're heading. So I don't notice the pedals so much, but definitely the head and the vision getting knocked around. 

DAN 10:54 

Yeah, yeah. Because I know the Formula 1 guys have to work on their neck and stuff like that. Is that some of the kind of exercises that you have to do, too, to keep your head on straight, [laughter] basically? 

EMMA 11:03 

Yeah. Yeah. It definitely helps, but you can be quite sore after a race. Even though it's quite a short race, they're pretty physical, the cars, and how much you're getting moved around. 

DAN 11:11 

Yeah. Because with those in-car cameras, you can just see the driver's head bouncing all up around. It's pretty crazy. I know that there's more races coming up, obviously. And they're all kind of themed, right. So the Saudi Arabia one was desert, and I think the next one is water, the next in Sardinia, Italy. Have you been to see the track there yet or just seen Google pictures [laughter] of it? Have you actually been there to see it? 

EMMA 11:35 

Yeah. Interestingly, this is the first track that we're going to that we've previously been to. So last season was the first season of Extreme E, and I was a driver, a reserve driver for another team. So I actually competed in Sardinia last year. So I feel familiar with the terrain. It was a difficult event last year. There was a lot of challenges with it, but quite different to Saudi Arabia with the sand. We'll be doing more with dirt. And yeah, but it's again a challenge with dust and where the terrain goes, probably a bit more like a rally course, which I'm more comfortable with. 

DAN 12:05 

Is it weird being in the car by yourself and not [laughter] having your navigator in there telling you what to do? 

EMMA 12:11 

Yeah. It is. It's interesting because again, I've done rally driving where you're used to someone having a conversation with you, telling you where to go and all that kind of thing. And I thought when I went circuit racing that it would be not boring, but a little bit less overload of all the data that's coming in. But the interesting thing is, as soon as you put other cars around you, you are just dealing with so much already. And the thing with Extreme E is that you're also dealing with the terrain. So, normally on a rally course, all I'm worrying about is the angle of the corner and the maximum speed I'm going to carry through it. As in this, you're trying to read the terrain and pick a line. So it's a lot more, you're doing it as you see it kind of thing. So quite a different, yeah, feeling. 

DAN 12:51 

And are you in contact with your race engineer? Is he in your ear? 

EMMA 12:56 

Yeah. She is in my ear. 

DAN 12:57 

Oh, she? Okay. 

EMMA 12:57 

Yeah. So it is really cool working with our two female engineers on our team, which is fantastic, but it's quite difficult because they can't see us, so not so much Rallycross where it's a spotter on a tower, and they're watching you the whole track. It's live time. This is, they're watching on a TV screen in the command center. And it's a little bit delayed. Tanner and I tried. He could spot for me was the idea. We tried, but he was busy telling me, "Yeah, yeah. You can move over. You've got room there." And then, with the delay, it was like, "No. I can't move over." So we decided [laughter] it was too tricky without it being real live time to have that kind of spotter information like you might see in Rallycross. 

DAN 13:33 

Yeah. Before you just mentioned that, I just thought about that, like the track, especially in Saudi Arabia. You're just surrounded by mountains and sand, and then you're basically driving around a mountain, and there's nowhere for anybody to stand safely to spot what's going on. So that's pretty wild. 

EMMA 13:48 

Yeah. So they're kind of following you as a dot on a map, so to speak. So it's definitely just enough delay, yeah, to not be as useful as it would be if you're on a racetrack, so to speak. 

DAN 13:58 

And so you do have to do a driver change in this. Is that something that you guys practice is getting in and out of the cars and setting the belts up and all that stuff? 

EMMA 14:04 

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. At the moment, for the series, they've set us a time allowance, so. And that might change as the series evolves, where it does become a really important timed part of the race. But at the moment, basically, once the car is stopped in a neutral, we have 45 seconds for us to change drivers. Tanner and I are quite lucky because we're similar size, that we don't have to put seat inserts in and adjust belts or anything. It's really easy for us to do a driver change. So we've got it down to a pretty fine art. But it doesn't take much for things to go bad if you get your buckle caught or intercom doesn't pull out as quickly as you expect it to. The seconds disappear quite quickly, so. 

DAN 14:41 

That's really cool. Going back to your past or things like that, is there a place, your favorite track that you've had? I know it's hard for drivers to pick their favorite track, but was there a place that you really loved with racing? 

EMMA 14:57 

Yeah. With my rallying, it would probably be rallying in Finland because they're so mad passionate about the sport over there. And with the daylight hours, the car I was competing in, we were down near the back of the field, but you'd be racing along these roads, and you've got mad, passionate fans just shaking hands up, and yeah. 

DAN 15:15 

Yeah. Crazy. Yeah. 

EMMA 15:17 

And so you feel like a real rock star [laughter] racing there, which is really cool. And the roads themselves, you watch it on TV, and you think, "Oh, yeah. They've got really big crests there." But when you're actually driving it, it is like driving over a motocross track, like how steep the jumps and that. So that was a very cool experience. But with Extreme E, last year, we went and raced in Greenland. And I mean, that's just so cool to go to a place like that, to go and stand on an ice shelf and see firsthand what's happening with climate change and that kind of thing. I mean, that's pretty special. And I have to say that when I started motorsport, I never imagined those kind of paths crossing, that I'd be able to do that kind of thing. 

DAN 15:54 

Yeah. And I think that's what's really cool about the Extreme E. And I've explained it to people, and they're like, "Well, I don't get it. Usually, you equate cars with pollution and stuff." I'm like, "Not these cars because they're all electric, and literally, the entire set up is all environmentally friendly, even how they transport the cars." 

EMMA 16:11 

Yeah. The barge. 

DAN 16:13 

So to put that light on it and use sport, especially a motorsport, is really cool, I think. 

EMMA 16:19 

Yeah. Well, it's so unique, and I think it's the first sport to do that, which is super cool. So, yeah, you feel really special to be part of that because it's only a small paddock. There's 10 teams there. So you're one of 20 drivers. So you feel very honored to be part of the Extreme E program. 

DAN 16:33 

Yeah. When they were putting the car together, did you have input in the car knowing, "Okay," with your rallying experience, that initially, "This is the way I would like the car set up," or did you have to kind of get in it first, ride it around, and then say, "Okay. Let's make these adjustments first?" 

EMMA 16:52 

Yeah. Good question. So the cars are a one-make car. So every team has exactly the same car, and there are only so many variables that we're allowed to alter or change. So, when we did our first test, there was a lot of things where we were just getting familiar with the car because it's such a different kind of vehicle you're racing. But yeah, I mean, there's fundamental things about what a rally car does and an Extreme E car does in terms of how it responds to braking and accelerating, and those are things that, yeah, you adjust it. And probably the biggest thing is seeing how smaller adjustment you can make to a car and how big a reaction that has because that's where once we're on event, we'll know we can adjust that, and it's going to give us either more turn or less turn. It's going to give more stability, less stability. So that's probably the biggest thing that we take away from testing. And part of the Extreme E is that we don't get unlimited testing. So testing time is really important because we do such a small amount of it. 

DAN 17:42 

Right. And compared to the rally car, because most electric vehicles have a lot more torque than the gas, but rally cars have a lot of torque in them, too. Is there a very extreme difference between the two, or are they kind of close within that, like getting off the line and putting your foot on the gas and it going? 

EMMA 18:00 

Yeah. I mean, the Extreme E car is an amazing feeling because it's just instant torque, and it just keeps pulling on that same level of torque, which is really cool. And you don't have to change gears. So it's super easy. 

DAN 18:10 

Right. [I was going to?]-- yeah, yeah, yeah. [laughter] 

EMMA 18:12 

It's just like a really big golf cart. So that's really cool versus a rally car where you're always trying to keep the car in the right rev range to get the maximum torque. So you've got to be changing gears. You've got to use clutch. So it's a lot more work to keep the car in its performance window. So, yeah, so quite different in that regard, but the electric power is super cool to use. And another part of the Extreme E racing is that we have what they call a hyperboost, where one lap, we're allowed to go to maximum power for four seconds. So it becomes quite strategic to where we use it in the race. 

DAN 18:43 

Yeah. I remember seeing they have the little limiter up on the-- you can see which drivers are using it in what areas, [music] and that was pretty cool to see. Thanks for joining us on the podcast. 

EMMA 18:56 


DAN 18:57 

So excited. I was very excited to meet you and talk with you. I'm a huge race fan of every kind of racing. So it was-- 

EMMA 19:02 

Thank you. 

DAN 19:03 

--really fun to do that. 

EMMA 19:03 

You had great questions. 

DAN 19:04 

Oh, thanks. [laughter] Thanks.  


Thanks for listening. For more on Extreme E and the Alteryx and McLaren partnership, check out our show notes at Catch you next time. 




This episode was produced by Maddie Johannsen (@MaddieJ), Dan Menke (@DanM), Mike Cusic (@mikecusic) and Matt Rotundo (@AlteryxMatt). Special thanks to @andyuttley for the theme music track, and @mikecusic for our album artwork.