Chelsea Herbert: "I’m going up against world class acts"
The new Toyota Racing Series season is about to get underway and young Kiwi Chelsea Herbert will be the sixth woman in the series history. Exclusive interview with the New Zealander that makes her formula debut at Cromwell.
Lando Norris, Lance Stroll, Robert Schwartzman, Daniil Kvyat, Nicholas Latifi, Mitch Evans, Earl Bamber, Brandon Hartley: those are just some of the graduates that raced with success in New Zealand's premier formula championship, the Toyota Racing Series.
A championship that has established itself as a real stepping stone to the most talented single-seater drivers, increasingly attracted by its winter schedule, TRS has also become a January tradition for overseas motorsport enthusiasts, who can enjoy the quality racing action in a mostly quiet time of the year.
Among the pool of 20 international competitors now heading to Cromwell, in New Zealand's South Island, there is Chelsea Herbert. The 21-year old homegirl will in fact be the sixth woman to compete in the series history, joining Fiona Hamilton, Christina Orr, Leanne Tander, Michela Cerruti and Tatiana Calderon.
Chelsea Herbert's name came to international attention when, last September, she was selected for the all-female W-Series selection program in Almeria, Spain. It was her very first experience of a formula car. But on home soil, Herbert is no rookie.
A touring car upcoming star, Chelsea did not follow the common route from karting into single-seaters, but she rather transitioned to some of the most competitive national touring cars series such as the V8s Championship, where the young Kiwi has written important pages of the sport's history by becoming the first woman to win a race. At the end of the 2017-18 season, she scored 12 podiums out of 18 races: a remarkable result that put Herbert on the radar of national media.
When, next Saturday, Chelsea Herbert will hit the track at Highlands Motorsport Park, it will be her formula racing debut, in one of the most competitive grids the series has ever witnessed. On her side, Chelsea can count on prior knowledge of the race tracks, as well as the testing experience of the W-Series car, which is essentially identical to the new Toyota FT-60.
Whatever the results will be, it is a massive learning opportunity for the young New-Zealander, who sees TRS as a chance to further establish herself as an international racing driver.
We had the chance to ask her some questions about the upcoming Toyota Racing Series, her dreams of V8 Supercars and the experience of W-Series. This is what she told us about herself and her motorsport career.
"I’m going up against world class acts and I don’t even need to leave my home shores, which is an opportunity that is too good to pass up. "
RACERS: Describe yourself as a young woman and as a racing driver; What are your interests beside motorsports?
CHELSEA: I’m a 21 year old who’s standing tall at 5.1ft, [1,55 m], I don’t know if there’s a usual ‘motorsport driver’ image but from people’s standard reaction when I tell them I’m a motorsport driver, I can tell you I’m obviously not the ’standard fit’ whether that’s because I’m a female, or whether that’s because I look more like a dancer, I don’t know, but it doesn’t really bother me either way.
I’ve raced since the age of 7, I started in the same way as the majority do, in go karts. I loved karting, it was something we always did as a family. Both my brother and I raced (and still do), my dad forever poured all his spare time and love into both of our karts and my mum was always our number one supporter, even when there would be an argument in the pits over who should’ve won the race...
My passion continued to grow and after 9 years of karting I stepped into cars. After racing in the SRS Ute series, and NZV8 Touring Cars for 3 seasons, I’m very excited to move into the TRS series this season.
I’m a very passionate race car driver, always willing to learn and always trying to push myself to be better, as we all are. I feel privileged to be in a sport that allows both females and males to compete for the same titles and championships.
My interests beside motorsport include fitness, spending time camping and surfing with my partner and dance.
R: You have been announced as the only girl on the Toyota Racing Series grid: a highly competitive championship that has a growing international status. What does it mean to you to be part of this series? Both professionally and personally.
C: To be part of the TRS championship still seems a bit surreal. Up until a few months ago I had never seriously considered TRS as a pathway for me, after looking further into the class, it was a no brainer. It’s going to be extremely beneficial for me to compete against the world’s young up and coming single seater drivers to help develop myself as a driver.
I’m going up against world class acts and I don’t even need to leave my home shores, which is an opportunity that is too good to pass up.
R: What are your targets for the upcoming championship?
C: My target is to learn and develop my race craft. I’ve never raced a single seater before, so it will all be learning.
R: There are some well-known names among the winners and former entrants of the TRS, with some of them now racing in Formula 1 and other elite championships. What are your long term goals?
C: I’ve still got my sights set on V8 Supercars in Australia, because of my V8 background I am inclined to aim for that, but depending on how this season goes, my direction may change tact.
R: The TRS car is basically the same chassis of the W-Series and some FIA F3 Regional championships. Do you think that some more single-seater experience could potentially help you in developing as a driver, even in GT or touring cars? Is that something that you would like to explore?
C: 100% that is why I’m racing in the TRS Series this year. As a driver I have no single seater experience and I have had a lot of people I respect in motorsport think that my driving needs skills that can only be learnt in a single seater. I’m excited to learn a new area of motorsport for sure. Driving a single seater has been proved time and time again to benefit drivers even in GT cars and I am aiming for the same.
R: You already made headlines nationally for being a race winner. Explain what went through your mind when you realized that you firstly won a race, and how it felt like to be the first woman to do so.
C: I hadn’t won a car race up until that race. I was always a top 5 driver so to finally bond with the car and feel like I had it all together was a really special feeling. That season was massive for my self confidence as a driver, I continued to win more races and gain round wins from that point which positioned me at the final round fighting for the championship win which was a situation I grew hugely from.
R: The power and influence of role-models, especially when younger, can be massive. Did you ever have a role model when growing up, that inspired you in motor racing, but also in life in general?
C: I never really had a role model growing up, even to this day. I often like different aspects from various people and look at certain areas of a person/ a performance as motivation.
R: Do you think that it is important for young girls to see women drivers racing in top-championships internationally? Do you think it might play a part in inspiring the younger generations to take up careers in any field, or both young girls and boys are equally inspired by men and women athletes, in your opinion?
C: My honest opinion is that both boys and girls are inspired by men and women athletes equally. I know from personal experience that I always looked up to males in my sport because realistically that’s all there was at the top. Everyone is different though, and for young females to have a female in a top motorsport level and competing at the front would be inspiring for sure.
R: You came under the international spotlight when you were shortlisted for the W-Series selection process. How was your experience of that series? What is your standpoint on it? How was it like to work with the other girls?
C: I really enjoyed the W-Series. It pushed me in many ways. Such as flying across the world for the first time, not only that, but doing so alone. It pushed me as a driver to try and work with a team and engineer I had never met before along with driving a car I had never even sat in before. I was definitely disappointed in my performance in Spain but upon reflection I feel proud to have been one of the finalists and to be seriously considered for such an awesome series.
The idea of the series isn’t to seperate female drivers from male drivers, it is simply to help us develop and help us gain more recognition to then encourage a more secure step into those top tier championships. I think it is a really cool concept. Honestly, I forgot I was even surrounded by all girls. We were all drivers, there to drive and compete for a spot in the championship. It didn’t feel any different to a standard race weekend.
R: Have you noticed any significant difference in the approach of your national motorsport environment and a European motorsport operation?
C: Don't have any single seater race experience in either environment to be able to answer.
R: How was driving a formula car for the first time? What were the biggest steps in the direction of adapting to the driving technique of a touring car to a formula car?
C: I absolutely loved driving a formula car, I wish I had the opportunity to driver one sooner. People have always made the comment to me that my driving style is much more suited to a single seater so it was cool to finally give it a crack.
The one thing I had to work on re-wiring my brain on was knowing it was ok to apply full power on the exit of turns rather than nursing the throttle on exit like the Touring Car needs. The cars feel so stable and confident, so I aim to have that mastered by the end of Round One.
R: Racing is expensive and it can be very budget-influenced. Have you ever faced difficulties in getting sponsorship by being a woman? Have you ever felt any gender-based discrimination in the industry?
C: Motor racing is very expensive, and like a lot of NZ drivers, I’m not family funded. I have been very fortunate to accrue some great sponsors over the years. However, if it weren’t for MTF Finance I wouldn’t be where I am today, or have had the opportunity to progress through NZV8s. MTF Finance have backed me since 2015 and 100% believed in me right from the start. They love what I’m doing and they also love the fact that I’m a female in such a male dominated sport. They have also backed my MTF Finance team-mate Avalon Biddle who is a NZ Champion motorbike racer, so it is very motivating to have such passionate support from a great NZ company.
R: Was there ever a moment in your career so far, when you thought that you were running out of funding?
C: Every season! Sometimes the off season is that hardest part of this sport. The uncertainty of not knowing if you will have enough funds to compete in the next season is tough. Both my parents and I have put countless hours into finding sponsorship to compete. I am very lucky to have parents that are so supportive in helping me find the funding to compete. Thankfully MTF Finance have been able to relieve the majority of that stress over the last few years.
R: You were elected as Regional Sportswoman of the Year 2019 – what does it mean to you?
C: Not often is motorsport included in those types of sports awards, so to not only be nominated, but to come away with the award was really special!
R: I suppose that you're often being asked by young girls (and boys) about how to become a racing driver. Was there any tip that you wished you had figured out earlier in your career, when you were just starting out?
C: I feel like karting is really important for anyone wanting to get into motor racing. Ideally starting young and getting as much seat time as possible is what’s going to help shape you as a driver.
"It’s going to be extremely beneficial for me to compete against the world’s young up and coming single seater drivers to help develop myself as a driver."
Additional reporting by Simone Passarello. Special thanks to Richard Gee.