Sarah Byles: “Like many in motorsport, my role is very fluid. You muck in everywhere!”

New Zealand has a famous motorsport heritage with rallying and racing, and boasts internationally-renowned drivers like Scott Dixon, Brendon Hartley, Mitch Evans amongst many more. It’s also a proving ground for the latest talent in the Toyota Racing Series NZ in which many European drivers take part. As a hot-bed for competition, it is no wonder that the country also inspires motorsport exports at all levels. Sarah Byles is NZ-born and raised and spent her childhood around cars and rallying, so working in the industry was a no-brainer. She has worked with many series including Formula E and World Superbikes, so I spoke to her about cars, bikes and motorsport PR.

Growing up in New Zealand, Sarah attended motorsport events regularly. “My Dad always took me to rallies when I was a kid. He used to compete in rallying in the 1980s and got back into it, which got me into driving as well,” she told me. After getting her first competition licence at the age of 13, Sarah competed in rallysport, autocross and hill climbs, however it wasn’t until the age of 15 when she got her National Rally License that she started co-driving. “I kept competing both in clubsport and as a co-driver until I finished university,” she said.

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At university Sarah studied journalism after contemplating the best way into motorsport as a career. “I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, and the pathways into motorsport in NZ are not the clearest. We don’t really have any motorsport-specific degrees in data engineering for example. I came across a journalism course, and decided I wanted to try and become a rally journalist because I enjoyed writing about things I knew inside and out,” she explained. Whilst studying, Sarah worked to get as much experience as possible by attending national rallies, working with organisations and those running the events. “From my first year, I worked with Rally NZ, and was very lucky to work with Martin Holmes, a very well-respected rally journalist. I realised quite quickly that it was going to be difficult for me to make a living out of it, and as a result got involved in PR,” Sarah said.

Following university, she went onto work for an agency. “I met my boss at a national race meeting while doing some volunteer work experience with an NZV8 team, and then went to work for his PR and Communications agency in Wellington. I worked on New Zealand’s national racing and rallying series as well as a lot of brands that sponsor or operate in motorsport,” she told me.

After a brief sabbatical in Australia working in a non-sports role, Sarah moved to the UK to see if she could reignite her motorsport career on a global scale, saying: “I packed up everything and moved to the UK. I started working for a PR agency, Sine Qua Non International, which has clients in a number of series. I was quite lucky to work with Hyundai in the WRC across the whole four years, Williams F1 for a while, Mahindra in Formula E as well as some involvement with Toyota in World Endurance Racing.”

Working with the Mahindra Formula E team, credit: FIA

With Formula E being such a new championship, she enjoyed being able to tell a different story. “From a PR perspective, it gave me something new to talk about, and people are genuinely interested in the real-world applications that Formula E offers. It makes it easier to get interest from publications that wouldn’t usually cover motorsport,” Sarah told me. Agency work exposed her to many series, all at the top level, however earlier this year she was offered a role with a team in the FIM Superbike World Championship (WorldSBK).

“I’ve had an outside interest in motorbikes for a few years now,” Sarah explained, “I passed my licence three years ago in the UK, and I had wanted to work with motorbikes before but didn’t have the experience. In my role now I look after marketing and sponsorship, which has come purely from my agency background. There is still a lot to learn, like race formats and technical regulations, but the fundamentals of how you talk about motorsport and how you market it to sponsors are similar no matter what motorsport you’re looking at.”

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At the Pata Yamaha Official WorldSBK Team with Rizla, her role is officially Sponsorship and Marketing Manager, but this includes more than the title suggests. “Like many in motorsport, my role is very fluid. You muck in everywhere because we have quite a small team. I work directly with Team Principal Paul Denning and look after day-to-day contact with our sponsors. That’s anything from updating them about what the team’s doing to looking after branding representation on bikes, uniform, riders’ leathers and the trucks. I also look after our team’s social media feeds and host guests at the races,” she said.

Although helping out can add to her list of responsibilities, for Sarah it only makes her feel part of the team more, something which she didn’t always get from working with an agency. “When you work for an agency you’re almost a little bit removed because you’re there to provide a service for the team going to the event. Being here, I go away with them, and I’ll help with packing up the garage at the end of the event. I love doing that because you are a part of all of it,” she added.

Sarah Byles has worked in many forms of motorsport, turning her hand to all of them. Having worked both directly with a team and indirectly with agencies, she has amassed experience she always knew would be crucial to success in the industry. This year is her first season in WorldSBK, and although she knows she still has a lot to learn, she can’t wait to get stuck in and be a part of a team fighting for championship honours.

(all photos, unless stated, credit: Sarah Byles)