Catie Munnings on Finding Success in a New Championship

Catie Munnings on Finding Success in a New Championship
Catie Munnings on Finding Success in a New Championship
Catie Munnings on Finding Success in a New Championship

In between the X Prix in the debut season of electric motorsport's newest racing series, Catie Munnings chatted to us to explain her path to Extreme E. Racing for Andretti United alongside Rallycross champion, Timmy Hansen, Catie was one of only four drivers to have won an X Prix at the time of our interview. Not only that, together with Hansen, they're the only people to ever have won a race in Greenland!

With some other projects including TV work, where she has her own show with BBC, it's no wonder Catie is open and engaging with her answers. Catie has some fascinating insight into the fairly hidden side of Extreme E, and wasn't hiding anything as she explained her path of reaching the international stage of rallying. We're certain you'll find something you never knew as you read through.

What was it that made you have to become a racing driver?

I don't think it was something that I ever felt. It was definitely not a traditional kind of route into motorsport. So, it wasn't something where I was put into a car quite young with my dad; we didn't go racing every weekend and traveling around the country.

My dad used to be a rally driver so I would go to work with him. He was an instructor as well. He ran the London Rally School and Brand's Hatch Rally School. I would literally go to work with him and sit in the passenger seat when I was five years old, and I'd be really excited by the adrenaline of going fast in the car.

I think as I was growing up, because he had a motorsport entertainment company, which was run from our family farm, there'd be quad bikes and buggies... all of that kind of stuff... running all the time. I got home from school, and I'd literally just jump on it and go out for a few hours. So, it was kind of unconventional training from that sense. It wasn't really something that I was thinking would be a career.

And then, I started grass auto testing when I was 14. I was a competitive person, so I really enjoyed the competition side of that. When I was 17, I had the opportunity to test a Peugeot rally car in France, off the side of Mont Blanc, and that was with some of the best drivers in Europe at the time; they were also testing it. Sitting next to them, I was completely mind blown.

I was 17, and they were European Champions and insane drivers. I was terrified, but I wanted to see what it took to drive that fast and to be that in control. And to be honest, in the passenger seat, it just feels like they're out of control the whole time. It was really impressive, and it had kind of left a lasting impression on me, that I was trying to do that myself.

Where would you think you'd be if it wasn't for your dad, and in this example, his work from when you were a child?

When I was looking into rallying when I was 17, I was also looking around universities. I really wanted to be a vet, so that was something I always wanted to do since I was really young. When I was doing my A-levels at school, I was trying to make that decision because obviously, you have to get really good grades to be a vet, spend seven years at uni, and a lot of work after that and placement to actually qualify. So, you're looking down the barrel of being thirty and qualifying and then going and getting a job. And to me, I was kind of done studying.

I'm a really active person, and I was working hard for my A-levels, but I just felt like it wasn't right for me from that sense. So I think I would, if I didn't see any other options out of that, I'd probably have gone down that route... or photojournalism, because I love photography as well!

For any youngsters now who have a family who aren't particularly interested in motorsport, how would you think they could take steps to become a racing driver or be involved in motorsport in some capacity?

Most people, I know, have a different route into motorsport, so it depends [on] which area you're trying to get into. Your local motor club is always a really good place to start whether you're looking at becoming a marshal, or an official, or a driver. Because there are people there that will have more experience than you and have some contacts in the industry that you can speak to. And maybe even some local sponsorship as well, which is really useful when you're starting out.

If you're looking at off-road, then I think grass auto testing is a really good place to start; that's where I began. The grass is really wet, obviously, in the U.K. – whether it's summer or not! And that makes it a really slippery surface which is really great [for] car control. [It's] the basis for off-road, whether you're doing drifting, or rallying, or gravel, or ice – it gives you really good skills like handbrake turns and reverse flicks. So it's really good fun, as well. You can start that from when you're 14. It doesn't have to be expensive, either. Entry is £5 and then you can take literally any kind of car, whether it's your dad's road car; we had a car that was going to the scrapyard, an old Peugeot 106. And you can literally just drive that until it breaks, but it's really good training for that.

And, obviously, you can go to rally schools as you get older as well if you want to get into rallying, in particular. And then in the motor club, they'll have club events, which are probably more accessible to join. I think karting, obviously, is a good place to start for track racing. But I don't really have much experience in that because, obviously, I went down a different route. But yeh, get in touch with a local motor club and they'll have advice for you.

Also, just speaking to people in the industry. Sending messages... there's a lot of groups now like FIA Women in Motorsports do "Girls on Track" - it used to be Dare to be Different by Susie Wolff. I think, obviously if you're interested in karting then you know, kart tracks have their own clubs. So there are inexpensive ways of starting out and then just building contacts from there. Trying to get some local sponsorship always helps.

Money is a significant barrier for many people who dream of becoming a racing driver. So, from somebody inside the racing world, how does getting sponsorship work?

Oh, if I knew! It's very difficult. It's the biggest limiting factor of any motorsport career. There'll always be someone with more budget, there'll always be someone that's able to train more. Because, you know, it's not like tennis we can't just pick up a racket and go and train at the weekend.

In rally, if you want to go testing, it's almost 10,000 Euros every day. And that's because you've got to close public roads and you've got to have permission from the council. You have to have ambulances there, then you've got car hire. Of course, if you wreck the car, you've got full insurance excesses, and the cars aren't cheap either.

So, it is [...] incredibly expensive, and I think there's no kind of way around it when you're younger, obviously. You have to start out at a lower level, kind of club level, and then budgets are probably a lot easier to find locally. So I would always start with your local motor club and speak to people there. Often there's [...] older people that have had their motorsport careers that are wealthy and might be willing to help you out.

It's not something I've ever found easy, to be honest with you. There are books out there, and I've been through different management companies, and I think you've just got to be [in the] right place, [at the] right time. I would always say that actually meeting people in person is far more valuable than sitting there and sending, you know, proposal after proposal behind an email line.

I always try to network at events. I think that's the best way to actually meet people and for people to get a feeling for who you are. I spent years and years trying to send emails and proposals, and you know, I don't think it ever came to anything from any of those companies. It's always been through me putting myself up going to the events or evenings or just trying to meet as many people as possible in the sport. I didn't find it easy being a girl either.

Do you think that the sport is changing? We've seen W Series, for example, for the last few years. Do you think that's how the future of motorsport will be, that it's going to be a bit more equitable for people regardless of gender?

I really prefer to have the racing on a level playing field in the way of not separating it in different championships. So I love the fact that Extreme E is inclusive; we're actually racing for the same goal and we're able to compare ourselves against the fastest driver. Whether that's a man or a woman.

I've raced in rally before this in the European championship. We always had a trophy for ladies. But it was never something that I looked to get or was never something I was fighting for. There were only a few other ladies in the sport, in the European championship, at the time. Whereas I would only compare myself to the fastest guys, even when I was starting out on my first rally because that would be the benchmark for how fast it's possible to go. And to me, there's no difference between a boy or a girl driver.

I was much more impressed when I was able to become fourth overall in the 2WD (two-wheel drive) category in the European championship than I was to win the ladies' trophy because the benchmark was just a little bit higher. So whether it's a boy or a girl who is leading the category, I think that will always be my benchmark and that's what I love about Extreme E. I don't think you have to segregate it so much in motorsport to create different categories completely, because at the end of the day, what we're doing is the same.

On the other hand, championships like W Series are fantastic because they provide seats for girls that wouldn't necessarily have a drive. I think that's also really important. But, yeah, if we could find a way to invest that funding and opportunity into girls that are sort of there, but struggling to find budget to compete at the highest level against the guys. And to give them the equal testing and equal access to all of the engineers and data and everything else that gives you the edge. I think that's the way I would be looking at improving it and, yeah, going for a more equal future.

How do you see the future changing for motorsport as a whole?

I think, probably, hopefully, there'll be more girls on the grid in whatever form that comes. I think as, with Extreme E for an example in the UK, we're on BBC and ITV main channels. People will find [us] on a Sunday afternoon that don't necessarily follow motorsport. I think [we should be] getting females into motorsport at the accessible age [...] when their guy counterparts would be entering, to be competitive.

I think in terms of the future, it's really hard to say whether it'll be renewable fuels or hydrogen-powered or electric. I think it's difficult. In the immediate future, obviously, we've got Formula E and Extreme E now, which are pioneering technology. The fact that they're not run off diesel generators but hydrogen fuel cells... I mean everyone's learning a lot from each race on how to improve that technology. It's cool to be a part of that. I think the future will definitely be electric as well. But honestly, I don't know where Formula One or WRC, for example, will go; which direction they'll choose to go in.

I think it's very much down to the technology over the next few years, and which one can improve and not be limited by that battery life, especially for WRC, where they have long distances and long road sections.

Unlike circuit racing, where you can check your telemetry and say, "Oh, I don't have enough rear grip at turn seven," how important is it for a driver to have mechanical knowledge for the car setup in rallying? How can you explain to the mechanics and engineers what you need changing on your car?

I think it's it's very much knowing your role as a driver. So I've worked with drivers in the past where I've been teammates with them, where they've been almost mechanics and engineers themselves, and they're a lot more vocal in that sense. When you start to work with bigger teams [and that is] one thing that's definitely been apparent this year where we're working with engineers: we've got systems engineers, we've got engineers that look at the data of starts, and what the mapping should be, where the torque distribution should be, and then we've got performance engineers as well. I think, actually, you realize that your role as a driver isn't to know all of that.

Your role as a driver is to translate exactly what you're feeling in the car. It's not just the setup unless something is very obvious to you. It's to translate "Oh I feel like I've got understeer here" or "It feels heavy in this section, I can't get the power down"... whatever your sensation would be. Because actually, the stuff that they can see through the data is almost giving them more information than what we can translate. And, actually, it's funny because I was speaking to one of my engineers, and he's also a Formula E engineer, and he was saying that he can see if he's won a race just from looking at the data. He doesn't need to watch the race, he'll be sat behind his laptop, and you can see if everything's gone right. He would have had the fastest time and won the race, so I think that says a lot about technology nowadays.

But obviously, it's kind of an organic thing as you come up through motorsport [as] you don't have the access to that kind of resource. So, of course, you learn, and it's important to have that feeling. Especially for rally, where we'll be out on a stage, and we have to make the decision between stages. "Oh it's rained so we need to do this with the clicks on the suspension," or, "we need to go softer so we don't have understeer," and that sort of thing. It is important to have an understanding of it, but I think the higher you get in motorsport, the more support you have around you, and the less that becomes of your role as a driver.

Extreme E is so isolated from fan involvement in terms of fans spectating on the day. What are some things that fans would find most surprising about the X Prix that isn't very well known?

Ooh, that's a really good question. I don't really know to be honest with you. I think the thing that shocks you, when you actually see the car... my mum said the same and I thought it when I first saw it... was actually the size of the car in real life. You know, when you see it on TV, we're in mountain ranges or huge sand dunes or in the middle of glaciers, and it kind of fits in with the environment. But when you try and park it in a garage, you quickly realize just how massive it is. So, I think that's always the overwhelming thing when you first see the car.

I think the other side would be the amount of time that we spend actually looking at data and the micro-sectors. So, between each flag on the course, our engineer will tell us we're losing to the other teams or who's faster through which section and the detail that we look at that. But obviously, when you watch the videos, all kind of looks chaotic: we're sliding around in the gravel, but there's real precision behind it, and we know what's fast and what's not, almost instantly, from the micro sectors.

Then the last thing, I guess, would be that you know [...] that it's electric. So, of course, it goes on charging, and we wait for that process. Obviously, the batteries have to be cooled, and it's all calculated that we have optimum power and that we are able to use the full power when it comes to the next qualifying round or the next race. There's a waiting involved, I guess, that's not there with combustion racing.

So, do you only run one battery per car?

Yes, so we run one battery per car. I think in Formula E, they used to actually swap mid-race. But our races are designed at the minute that our batteries are fully capable of our terrain. And also, the climate because the limiting factor with these batteries is heat.

When we're racing in Saudi Arabia, obviously, it's a much bigger issue than if we were racing on the ice sheet in Greenland. Cooling the batteries is a big thing. We have kind of industrial leaf blowers that go in the back of them, and we'll try and cool them down. There's lots of different things that I'm learning this year, being my first year of electric racing too.

Are you noting any difference when you're actually in the cockpit between electric and combustion racing?

Yeah, it's much calmer because obviously, you don't have that engine noise. You also haven't got gears, so it's less for you to do as a driver. Everything is adjustable, so I can be driving along and change the rate of the power steering pump. I can just change my whole feeling through the steering wheel and, also the distribution between front and rear with torque. It can be literally something you change the maps off during the race.

When you watch the in-car [camera] of teams, you'll see it happen: if you've got a long straight, we've got an optimum set up, and then it changes. So it becomes a lot more like track racing because it's not something you'd necessarily normally do in a rally car. But because we know the track, and we've done it a few times, you get to work out actually how to have the fastest time, and you can be a lot more detailed than you can when you're just a rally stage.

The cars this year have taken a battering, and there are a lot of reliability problems so far. What's it like knowing you've got this team behind you to then see your car in pieces on the track, knowing that they have to then spend the next hours fixing that?

It is difficult. I think it's kind of almost expected. This is the first time we've run this car, and to be honest with you, Spark, who were building the car, they didn't even really know what the locations would look like. I think, with COVID, we've had to be really flexible with where we travel to, and obviously, they're building a car that's got to be resilient in each of the different locations, whether it's sand or snow or gravel. Each of those is a very different surface.

Normally when you look at a WRC car, they'd be spec'd differently for each of those locations, as they are when they go to the Safari Rally, compared to Corsica, for example. It's part of the process. You have to be mechanically sympathetic. There's definitely a lot of element of luck in it this year, and we kind of see the championship turning out that way.

There's been times when, even in the last race [at the Island X Prix], [Chip] Ganassi's car broke down and that meant they didn't win the final. Obviously, things like that are massive for championship points, and we're almost seeing the most reliable cars towards the top of the leaderboard now. We've been okay in the first half of the season. We've come into some problems in the last race, and also in Senegal.

It is a shame because it's frustrating when it feels like it's out of your control. But at the same time, we have to remember that it's a big work in progress for everything. The cars are constantly being updated. Hopefully, for season two, there'll be even more as we all learn about the terrain. But it's part of our job as drivers to try and be sympathetic towards them.

And you have to remember that you're not racing on a track that's been prepared [where] you can push to the limit everywhere, as you would with the rallycross track, for example. We're literally racing on the natural terrain that hasn't been touched, and that's the same when you think of the crashes. You have to really adjust your perception of things, and you have to realize there are dangerous places on the course, and it's not somewhere you can go 100% because it's been crash-tested.

People think it's safe, but it's very much our judgment and [has] a kind of cross-country rally feel to it. It's hard, because when you're racing side-by-side, you just want to go flat out over everything. So, it's a weird dynamic, because in qualifying, you'll be a bit more cautious, but then when it comes to the racing, anything can happen.

The format with the two drivers swapping the car in-between, what's it like in the team? Is it actually quite competitive with yourself and Timmy to be thinking, "You're going quicker than me," or are you actually using it as a way to be quicker as a team and helping each other out?

It's definitely teamwork. I'm not sure what it's like in other teams. That's one of the things that I'm the most happy with for Timmy, is the fact that he's a really genuine guy. He's really helpful when things go wrong, he's not a diva if I'm not doing the best that I can. He's got loads of experience in rallycross... the side-by-side racing style he's helped me a lot with this year. I've actually been out and done some rallycross races in Sweden and America with him and his family and team.

So it's been really useful having that and, I think, actually, just being able to compare the data to somebody with the caliber of [him]. To be in the same car and to know that, actually, I can drive it as fast as he can drive it, and then to compare it and see how we're both growing throughout the year. We both learn stuff from each other because he's not used to rally where you don't really see the track before you're meant to drive fast on it.

So there's been things, like pace note development, that we've taken from doing the track walk together - or run, I should say actually! The last race [...] literally turned out to be a 14k run. So it's hard to try and remember the track without just trying to stay alive in the heat of Sardinia.

I think it's definitely teamwork from that sense. It doesn't really matter if I had the best day if he hasn't got the feel of it or vice versa. Then you know it's definitely about finding the strengths for your teammate. We take that into account when we have shakedowns because both drivers [don't] drive the shakedown. We'll alternate with who feels like they need to drive.

Every day is different when you're racing: one might be more nervous than the other or feel like they need to just drive to get it out of their system or have something they want to test on a particular setup. Then we always go with what will be the best result for the team at the end of the day.

So with only one driver driving the shakedown, does that mean that when you go out, it's literally your first time on course when you're trying to set hot laps or hot times?

The shakedown is sometimes only 200m in the car. But the free practice, you have one run that doesn't count before you go into qualifying. So each driver will get one free practice lap, and then the other one just gets to shake the car out as well.

You looked delighted at being the first person to win a race in Greenland. Do you care for records and, if so, how did it feel?

Yeah, it was really special. The fact that it was our first Extreme E race win as well. It was a big moment for us as a team to prove that we could do it. In Senegal, we really struggled with our pace, and we didn't have a good feeling. We were kind of wondering if we were going [in] the wrong direction with everything. And then to come back and actually to both be fast in Q1 – then the car actually, unfortunately, had some reliability issues with the system.

But we were able to put it back in, and we finished first in our semi-final, and then first in the final. So, it's kind of [...] perfect. Then we went for a swim in the ice glacier, as well at the end [...], which I think I'll always remember. It was really cool!

At the time of this interview, the Greenland win is the only non-Rosberg X racing win of Extreme E so far. Does that raise your stock for season two? Are there driver transfers between the seasons?

Me and Timmy are already signed by Andretti for next year, so we'll be staying with the team. I'm excited about that. I think me and Timmy have been fast. Even though we haven't won, as I said earlier, you know it comes down to reliability a lot for the end results. I think we've got a lot more that we can do next year, and there'll be a lot more race wins in the future – hopefully, when everything settles out a bit in terms of the cars, the results will be a lot more dependent on pace in the racing.

The ODYSSEY Extreme E car is handling different to other rally cars from its sheer size that you alluded to. Are you finding it easier on certain terrains than others?

Me and Timmy have grown up on gravel – it was the first time both of us were racing on sand this year. So when you compare that to the people from America, or you know X44 team, for example, that are sort of fully off-road on sand in desert challenges all the time, it was a bit of a challenge for me and Timmy. But we did some training out in the sand dunes beforehand. We went out for a week with some Polaris RZR buggies, which was awesome. I think we adapted to it, but definitely, we felt more capable on the gravel.

Across a lot of racing series, some drivers are called pay drivers. How did the economics of Extreme E work out with regards to that relationship between driver and team?

I think pretty much with all teams, it's professional drivers. I don't think they've – well, they haven't got any, kind of, gentleman drivers, as we like to call them. In endurance series, they have, sort of, a gentleman driver and a professional in most teams. But, in this one, it's professional drivers, I think, across the board in every team. Of course, different teams have different deals with their drivers. I don't know the ins and outs of the teams, but as far as I'm aware everyone's sort of signed up.

Because at the end of the day, the teams need to win. So they need to get the fastest girl that they can find, and then the fastest guy that they can find. I guess that's what the priority for them is, regardless of the economics. So I can't really speak on behalf of the other teams, but it's definitely not cheap racing. Extreme E is extreme environments, the cars are sailing on the boat, and I think the cars are valued at a million each. The teams will, kind of, have to have sponsorship behind [them], in order to be successful.

Talking about your typical race weekend in Extreme E at the moment, what's your day-to-day? Do you have specific food at specific times, or do you do as the team tells you, or do you have a lot more autonomy?

It's different at every race. For example, in Greenland, because of the UK broadcast time, we actually stayed on UK time... which meant breakfast and leaving the boat, where we were staying, in the morning was 4 am. And lunch was 10 am. So, it's really funny because we tried to stay on that time schedule as much as possible.

Every race is different. In Saudi Arabia, we're racing in the middle of the desert, so it's a bit of a trek from the nearest kind of apartment things that we can find to the track. It is extreme. In some places, I didn't even have a towel from the shower. You're not expecting the kind of racetrack five-star hotel accommodation, because we are racing in really remote locations and that's part of the adventure of it.

So you definitely bond as a team. As I said, there are no divas in the championship because everybody has to kind of accept that that's part of it. And it becomes a lot more spontaneous in the racing. It's not the typical race conditions that we're used to, with trainers there, with warm-ups, etc. Because each team can have, I think, seven people in total, including team managers, PR, everything. Everybody's got multiple jobs, and it's a lot more hands-on deck.

That sounds the opposite of glamorous but just as fun! Your weeks and weekends when you're not racing, what's a day in the life of Catie Munnings like when you're not at the racetrack or on a racecourse?

Oh, it's hard to say! I do some TV work as well, so I do some presenting stuff, normally around cars, whether it's [the] Festival of Speed or –. I have my own TV show, which is kind of like Top Gear, but for kids. So I always get up to fun, different stuff, driving different stuff.

I think I'll also be training quite a lot as well. I spend time with my dog – I love walking my dog. Just normal stuff, I guess! When I'm at home I try and be at home and make sure I have 'off' time as well. Especially with the long season, I think we're finishing racing on 18 December, and then we're starting up again with team launches and everything in January. We don't really get an off-season, so it's demanding being constantly on the go.