Thirty-one year-old mother targets Formula One seat.
What flight of fancy is this? Emma Kimilainen, chuckles at the prospect, conceding it would be some development were a grand prix team to knock on her door, as good a racer as she is. No harm in dreaming. That it should be so in 2021 shines a depressing light on motorsport’s enduring gender bar.
Oh no, not that best-seller, mutters the male majority for whom the question of gender has never nibbled the radar. Kimilainen first sat in a kart at three.
She began racing at five and was competing nationally across Finland at 10. Her team-mates in karts included Valtteri Bottas and Marcus Ericsson. Later in the Formula Masters ADAC series in Germany she partnered Kevin Magnussen. All three progressed to Formula One without an invitation to pose nude.
Not so Kimilainen. Ten years ago, seeking an entry into motorsport’s higher categories, Kimilainen landed a seat in the American sports car endurance series Grand Am. On one condition. That she get her kit off for the lads. The answer was an emphatic no.
This tawdry detail came to light at Christmas on a Finnish podcast. Caught between a strong privacy reflex and not wanting to draw unnecessary attention to herself it remains a sensitive subject for her. Over to you Emma.
“It was something I thought I wouldn’t talk about in public. It was such an intimate moment in the podcast. I was talking to them almost as friends, laughing about crazy stuff that has happened in the past. And then when it came out I was surprised that it got so much attention,” she tells i.
“It was not my intention to bring it up from a women’s rights perspective but I was glad and positively surprised that people saw it that way, thinking that the offer was absurd. It proved how much the world has changed. Ten years ago it wasn’t absurd. It was just another day. Women were presented in a different way in motorsport. There were calendars, grid girls, car exhibitions where women were showcased in a different way, if you know what I mean.”
I think we do Emma. The issue of women and their objectification is complicated since it is presented by some of those who engage in this way as a choice made freely by themselves. That is how the system gets you. It warps and perverts to such a degree it makes women the agency of their own reductionist commodification, the cash-for-looks economy more appealing than alternatives.
“I had done a lot of work to gain respect as a driver, to be one of the guys and not just a female driver amongst the men,” Kimilainen said. “If I was to get a good opportunity I wanted it to be because of my ability as a driver and not because I am a woman with a certain marketing value who poses seductively in a men’s magazine. Nude. That was the deal.
“I hadn’t thought about it in 10 years but after it came out recently, I found the [original] email conversations and I’m proud that I had explained, very clearly, that I have limits. Saying I didn’t want to cross the line where I threw away the respect I had gained as a driver. It was not worth it to me even if it was really difficult to get funding due to the global financial crisis. I didn’t get offended, but my dignity was worth more.”
Kimilainen walked away from the offer and the sport, accepting that, at 21, she had exhausted the process and her career was probably over. Time for something else. Or was it? Three years later, after the birth of her daughter, she was contacted by Scandinavian touring car team PWR Racing.
“I was thinking it was too good to be true, but it turned out to be real,” she said. “They were really lovely people. I was with them for three years, and rebuilt myself as a driver and as a person. It was not easy to come back having not raced for nearly four years without practice or test days. And in a new situation as a parent. It was tough mentally, but I grew a lot as a driver and person.”
After a neck injury curtailed her running in her third season, she moved to the FIA Northern European Zone V8 ThunderCar Series in 2017, and on to the inaugural single-seater category exclusively for women, W Series, two years later.
And now, the great male redoubt of Formula One beckons, if only via a side door with W Series appearing alongside F1 at eight grands prix this season, beginning in France in June.
Kimilainen sees the advent of W Series and the new proximity to F1 as a “lottery win” for women racers. “I’m so glad that we are being taken seriously and considered for our abilities as drivers and not marketing objects. Talent is the thing that matters. I could not be more grateful, and to be driving with F1, I finally get to showcase my talent in these surroundings.”
If nothing else, pandemic permitting, Kimilainen will get to speak her mother tongue with Bottas and perhaps even the notoriously uncommunicative Kimi Raikkonen. “I was team-mates with Bottas in karts in 2003. Sometimes he won, sometimes I did. I was team-mates with Ericsson in 2004. I outscored him. I was Magnussen’s team-mate in Formula Masters. Outscored him too.
“I don’t want to take anything away from their careers by saying that. They are amazing drivers and have the whole package. I’m so glad that they have made it. So many drivers struggle all over the world, no matter whether they are men or women; the funding, back-up, who knows who, etc. It’s so difficult but I know I have what it takes. I hope as a result that F1 teams can really see that we are the real deal and that one of us, if not me then someone else, would get the opportunity to race in F1. It would be pretty awesome if that were a 31-year-old mother. That would be a story.”