Driven This, Rallied That
A rally driver in many international and British rallies through the 1960s, Rosemary Smith was a trailblazer who beat many boys at their own game. Recently, at 79, she got behind the wheel of a Formula 1 Renault to put it through its paces
Q&A with Marc Stickley
Firstly, an F1 car at 79! An incredible feat. Did you give the Renault the “full beans” and if so, how hard was it (the regular F1 drivers often talk of the physical challenges in the modern cars, particularly from the g forces generated)?
First of all it’s difficult get in and out of because it’s so low, narrow and long. In terms of the actual driving of it, I didn’t really get very much practice. I drove around the track (Paul Ricard) first of all in a saloon car to learn it and then after that I drove it in a Formula Renault, which is very similar to the Formula One car.
Race cars are race cars, they have different characteristics obviously than the road cars, but the F1 car was very exciting as I really had never driven one at speed at all. If I could have had even a day’s practice it would have been easier when it came to doing the filmed laps. One of the first challenges was to work out the paddles behind the steering wheel, which isn’t even a wheel really, it’s like a little bow. I was then warned about stalling it on the line because apparently everybody who gets into a formula one car for the first time stalls it on the line. I thought ‘I can’t do that’, it would let me down really badly so I took off the line very gently and gingerly and luckily didn’t stall it in front of all the mechanics and people who’d turned out…it’s the last thing I would have wanted. I would love to go back and try it again. Now I’ve done it once I know what it’s like and what the pitfalls are. I’m delighted I did it, it was a real experience and a great way to celebrate Renault Sport Formula One™ Team’s 40th Anniversary
I’m used to something totally different with the rally cars. In the F1 car I had all the fireproof overalls, balaclava, neck brace and helmet of course, though we always wore overalls when we were driving rally cars as well, this felt so different and that’s the only word I can really use to describe it. You’re so low as well and I kept bashing my elbows on the side as you can’t feed the wheel the same as you can in a car.
They both (rally and F1 cars) have a lot of G-Force but to be honest I didn’t start off too quickly so I didn’t get that same feeling off the line but once I got going it was very similar in as much as your head is bobbing round a bit, even with the neck brace.
Do you prefer the technical challenge of rallying or the incredible speed and cornering abilities offered by a single seater?
With single seaters, what I found was, when you went into a corner, it was more like a go kart (I used to race them years ago) in as much that you just turn the wheel a certain amount and then straighten it up, as otherwise you will spin off. With the rally cars nowadays a lot of people say it’s much harder as they are so much faster but they are so much more technically advanced than they used to be and in my eyes they are perfection. It is hard as I haven’t really driven a modern day rally car properly, I’ve just had a short run around in a few of them, but they are remarkable nowadays; then again all cars are, the Formula One cars are improving year on year. I also haven’t really driven single seaters that much, although years ago my husband had a Formula Atlantic that I drove now and again but having beaten him a few times I wasn’t allowed to sit in it again…
I did used to race saloon cars but I found that I didn’t enjoy going round and round a circuit as much so I went back to rallying again, I enjoyed it so much more. I loved driving the Formula One car and it was a great experience and I’m so glad I did it but couldn’t put it first in preference to a rally car, I’d prefer a rally car any day.
Daily drive: modern or classic? And why?
Daily drive is a Renault Clio and I’m a Clio ambassador for Renault in Ireland. It’s a lovely car with every whistle and bell, it’s beautifully finished and a dream to drive.
I’d take a modern car any day. I do have a classic, the Hillman Imp in which I won the Tulip Rally in 1965 (gosh, that’s a long time ago) and I still take it on some of the classic runs but there’s no synchromesh, there’s practically no brakes, no power steering, so you have to get the gearing and revs just right to get from one gear to another – and it definitely won’t stop in a hurry. The headlights are like candlelights in comparison to today and the springing is appalling. I do love it but when I come back from trips in it I’m so relieved to leave it with the man who looks after it and get into my lovely modern car which goes first time, stops when you want, the wipers come on…there’s no comparison.
What challenges, if any, did you face breaking into motorsport, or was it deemed to be no issue if competent?
Men! When I went into racing first of all I did it privately for a few years and then did the RAC rally of Great Britain. After that, a girl from England contacted me to say she was doing the Monte Carlo Rally and would I go as a driver. I thought she would then be co-driving….no no…she sat in the back of the Sunbeam Rapier and waved to the crowds as we went by. When we got to Monte Carlo Norman Garrad came over and said ‘I’ve been watching you and I’d like you to be one of our drivers.’ I said ‘no thank-you’ and that was the end of it as far as I was concerned. When I came back and my dad was outraged that I hadn’t taken the opportunity so unbeknownst to me, my mother wrote to the Rootes Group, for which Norman was the competition manager, and said sorry and that I was tired and that I’d love to be part of their team. I didn’t know this until I got a letter back saying I was now a member of the works rally team. In the beginning, their cars weren’t really winning anything and they had to do something as they didn’t really have another car that would be a good rally car, they’d won lots over the years but they were just outdated. They thought, let’s bring in this ‘dolly bird’ which is what all the male drivers called me, which I guess I was in their eyes as I had been a model and not being ‘done up’ just wasn’t me. So we got a lot of publicity from shots of me on the bonnet of the cars and the male drivers and men in the teams thought I was only there to get that publicity, they didn’t realise I could actually win, which I started doing and Rootes were delighted.
Some of the men of course were lovely, but some were awful saying ‘what do you think you’re doing’ and ‘do you think you’re a driver’. It did used to hurt me and at the time I didn’t say anything as I was so new to this professional circle of rally drivers. I used to go home and my dad would say ‘you go and prove them wrong’ as he was always so supportive. So I went on and the more I started winning the more people noticed and gained respect for me but it definitely didn’t start that way.
How do you think women could break into the mainstream single seaters?
I think it would be great to see women competing at the top level of all sports, but motorsports seem to be one of the last bastions of male domination (on a large scale at least).
There are girls who are test drivers for big companies and teams but they don’t race. I don’t think they will break into it soon, maybe in another 10 years, but at that point the race cars will probably be controlled by remote or completely autonomous anyway.
Rallying is clearly one of your great loves. In recent years its popularity has declined (I remember watching the Lombard RAC stages as a boy). How can the sport remain relevant, while drawing viewers?
The big rallies still draw the big crowds, so much so that you can’t get near special stages and there are thousands of people, film crews, media etc.. The public follow the big names and the big rallies have the money and marketing to secure themselves, which the smaller rallies just don’t have. For the small rallies they are just getting so expensive and for people just starting out insurance is prohibitive and running costs are enormous, it’s so hard to get into. Even in karting, where we all started and remains a very good place to start, you have to have all the best equipment and the biggest and best kart, the top racing gear – it costs a fortune, making it very hard for youngsters to get going. Then to get the experience required to make it you need to go to different countries and race so the costs just keep adding up. It needs to be more accessible.
What do you see as the biggest gain motorsport has given everyday drivers?
When we went out in the cars we were sort of test drivers, we’d go out on the race track and something would break and they’d change it, then we’d go out again. Anything they found on those races and events were then incorporated in the new road cars to make them as safe and efficient as possible.
While racing things would break and change and any improvements found on those events they incorporated into new road cars with a big focus on safety, ensuring things wouldn’t break, that the tyres wouldn’t burst as did in the past etc. The one difficulty now with road cars I feel, is that they are built to go faster and faster so young people go much too quickly as you don’t feel speed in modern cars
That’s why I started a driving school to teach practical driving skills in a safe environment to students before they reach the age for driving on public roads. This approach has proven to be a very effective way of giving the students an appreciation of the dangers and practicalities of driving and teaches skills such as managing speed through going down the gears instead of just slamming on the brakes. It also gives the student a grasp of the rules that affect them even as pedestrians and cyclists who alarmingly account for almost half of those maimed or seriously injured in road accidents.
Do you still compete? If so, do you need a co-driver?
I do occasionally still compete and in fact I’ve recently been invited to take part in a classic rally in September next year from London to Portugal. Basically, if I ever get asked to compete I just say yes and never think of the consequences until afterwards. I took part in a rally last year where I was lent a 2002 Audi Quattro which went like the wind. I had a girl with me who had never sat in a rally car. When we were starting there were three cars, then us, then another car behind in which I heard the two men saying “they’ll be holding us up the whole way round” I thought “sonny boy you’re in for a surprise” and they didn’t see us for dust. That is until we got to a junction and my friend June, who had never sat in a rally car before, was navigating and couldn’t work out which way to go. They caught us back up and went left so we followed. I had soon caught them up and was pushing to go faster and faster… I must have put the men in front off as they soon indicated and pulled over to the side to let us past! At the next break I asked if I’d frightened him and his response was simply “oh mY god….!”