From karting to single-seaters and now to saloons, it’s been a hard journey in motorsport for Laura Tillett – and the attitudes of her peers haven’t made her life any easier, as she tells Jamie Klein.
It goes without saying that any young driver these days with an eye on reaching Formula 1 is in for a tough time. Without the help of rich parents or another major benefactor, you’re unlikely to make it far, no matter how great your talent.
For 24-year-old Laura Tillett, a former star in karting, that dream of reaching the very highest level appears to be over: with opportunities to race single-seaters having dried up, she has now switched her focus to carving out a career in touring car racing.
However, there was always an extra obstacle for Tillett to overcome besides the chronic lack of funding so many drivers face – the respect, or rather the lack thereof, she has had from her male rivals.
“In karts, every year I would move up a class,” she explains, “and because I was a girl I would have to constantly rebuild that respect among my competitors.
“You get a lot of knocks when you aren’t doing well, and a lot when you are as well – once, when I was in the top three in a European championship race, I was told it was because of my engine!
“It’s not just in karts – in any category, when you are up against a new set of drivers who see that you’re a girl, they instantly assume you’re going to be crap.”
From karts to cars
Tillett had her first big breakthrough back in 2008, when she placed fifth in the Kartmasters British Grand Prix, and the following year, she made her first appearances in the CIK-FIA European and World championships, bagging herself a works drive with TonyKart for 2010 in the process.
That year, she came 11th in the WSK Euro Series and 13th in the global equivalent, before moving over to CRG in 2011 and coming seventh in the KF1 Asia-Pacific championship.
It was only after that, at the age of 20, that she finally made the transition to car racing – but her sole Formula Renault BARC campaign was not one to savour.
“When I had a paid-for drive, it was logical decision to stay in karting, but when it got to 2012, I decided I had to make the move to cars before it was too late,” she says.
“But I didn’t do any testing, so I was using every single race as a test session, whereas everyone else had got the learning process out of the way that before the season started.”
Tillett emerged from a bruising season down in 26th in the points, and her only single-seater appearances since have come in the India-based MRF Challenge series, which she contested for the third time in succession during the most recent off-season.
She admits the thought of returning to senior karts to make a more permanent career has occurred to her: “I had run out of money after my year in Formula Renault, and I was considering going back to karts because I just missed racing.
“My parents paid for me to do a round of the German karting championship, just to get back out there, and I have done a few kart races since that have gone well.
“It has crossed my mind to go back and try to make a living out of it, but I think there’ll always be the urge to race cars and progress up the ladder.”
Indeed, Tillett contested her first full season of car racing in three years in 2015, joining the UK-based Volkswagen Racing Cup championship, which offers a very different challenge to what she had been used to.
“Single-seaters is getting harder and harder because of the bigger budgets,” she admits. “There are a lot of rich kids coming though that can learn to race cars from 15 years of age.
“So we were forced to look at alternatives, and we decided to change paths and head towards saloon racing and the VW Racing Cup.
“I don’t get the same excitement from driving a saloon as a single-seater, but it’s good fun and very laid back, whereas in single-seaters it’s become so professional that it can take away some of the fun.”
While the transition to tin-tops hasn’t been straightforward so far – Tillett placed only 16th in the VW field last year – she already has an eye on a long-term touring car future.
“Racing in DTM would be my ultimate dream,” she says. “The cars in that series are amazing and the level is so high, but to do that you have to start somewhere.
“So it would be great to do another year of saloon cars in some form and move forward, and perhaps aim to race in the BTCC in 2017.”
A lack of role models
But, Tillett reckons that the less-than-stellar record of the sport’s two most prominent female drivers – Carmen Jorda and Susie Wolff – will make her job tougher when it comes to achieving her recalibrated goals.
“Obviously you are more noticed as girl driver, especially if you do well, but at the same time people tend to not like taking risks on girls - and it doesn’t help when you have famous girls who are bad.
“Carmen is in the spotlight, and because she’s not that great, people assume that’s what all female drivers are like.
“It’s the same with Susie. She did a good job and made it as far as she could, but ultimately it helped her massively being married to who she is… and it’s hard to believe she would have been there without him.
“The whole world of motorsport is about who you know – and if you do know somebody influential, you are more likely to get somewhere.”
With all that in mind, can she picture a girl getting a race seat in F1 any time soon?
“The female drivers that have been in the public eye haven’t exactly been of the top level – we haven’t exactly found the Lewis Hamilton of the girl world yet.
“But there are quite a few girls coming through in kart racing and the lower formulae now, and a couple of them have massive budgets and will able to get the laps under their belt.
“Maybe someone like Tatiana Calderon, who has both talent and a lot of money, could get there – I really rate her as a driver, and it was a major achievement for me to compete with her in MRF.
“But time isn’t on her side, because everyone is looking out for the 16-year-olds coming through, and not the 22-year-olds.
“Luck plays a massive role, a bigger role than talent in this sport.”