When Emma Gilmour opened the door to her MIQ room, she was probably expecting her breakfast, not the leading automotive journalist of this (and indeed, any other) era.
“Oh, hello,” she greeted. “When you asked for an interview I just assumed it would be by phone or video call. I didn’t realise you were allowed in here.”
“Never underestimate the power of the Press, Emma,” I assured her. “It’s important that the New Zealand populace are kept informed of one of their favourite daughters. You rank right up there with Lorde, Courtney Duncan and the Ingham twins”
She ushered me in and I quickly scanned the hotel room. Unfortunately, there was no ransacked minibar nor carelessly discarded underclothing; the room was showing the same tidy lines she keeps on a rally stage. I did feel, though, that I owed her an apology for appearing at such an early hour.
“Sorry to catch you in your pyjamas.”
“This isn’t nightwear,” she corrected, ‘It’s exercise gear,” as she pointed over to the stationary bike in the corner.
Exercise gear? I’d heard of the concept but it’s not something you see a lot of in the NZ Autocar office.
Emma had returned to our shores following an extended stay in Europe. The offer to act as substitute driver for Veloce’s Extreme E off-road racing team had blossomed into competitive drives in Greenland and Sardinia. Suddenly she’d gone from Dunedin car dealer to rubbing shoulders with Carlos Sainz and Sebastien Loeb – and being viewed as an equal.
Then came the momentous phone call from McLaren.
“I still find it bizarre that I’m contracted to such an iconic brand. The initial approach from Veloce was perhaps an acknowledgement that my efforts over the years were being recognised. But to drive for a team like McLaren, with so many historical and emotional ties for Kiwis, is really special.”
I asked her what it was like to compete in the Odyssey SUV campaigned by all the Extreme teams. “They look to be a real handful,” I observed.
“They’re actually very easy to drive. The E power is so smooth, and you don’t have to worry about searching for the right rev range or gear. They can be a little unpredictable over bumps as the rear suspension doesn’t have much travel, so they tend to keep bottoming out. In Greenland it was so rough, especially as the track deteriorated, that I felt like I was in a pinball machine ricocheting off the scenery. But they’re fun – I just couldn’t stop myself laughing.”
Her Extreme commitments will mean some clashes with the domestic rally season, but she still hopes to contest her home event of Rally Otago plus the eagerly anticipated return of WRC Rally New Zealand.
This will mean another run in her familiar Suzuki Swift Maxi. An outing in the Cambrian Rally in a rented Fiesta R5 gave her an insight into the car of choice of many of her rivals.
“The R5 was amazing in what were some truly terrible Welsh conditions. The grip through the corners was phenomenal – you could see the benefit of years of development in the world championship.”
It felt very comfortable chatting with Emma, particularly as it was our first time together since the restraining order lapsed. I was going to ask her how it felt being treated like a contagious criminal, in managed isolation, when our conversation was interrupted by an electronic alarm.
“What’s that noise?’ she asked.
“Probably just a smoke detector,” I assured her. ‘Your neighbours aren’t vapers by any chance?”
The alarm grew louder and was joined by a recorded voice announcing “Intruder Alert” over and over again. There was the sound of running feet and the baying of hounds. She looked puzzled. “It doesn’t sound like just a fire alarm.”
I quickly gathered up my tape recorder and note pad. “They’ve probably discovered the hole in the perimeter fence. I don’t suppose I could hide under your bed for a few hours?”
This article was first published in the February 2022 issue of NZ Autocar Magazine.