Catie Munnings: Extreme E “is going to pave the way forward for motorsport”

Catie Munnings is a rally driver, TV star and next year will be joining the movement aiming to make motorsport more sustainable. Extreme E was launched last year with Catie going on to join the driver programme and subsequently being signed by the Andretti United team. Along with rallycross driver Timmy Hansen, she will be travelling the world racing in some of the most remote parts of the globe. I spoke to her about her start in motorsport on grass, rally driving around Europe and her hopes for 2021.

Motorsport has been a part of Catie’s life for a long time, however as a youngster it was other sports that interested her a little more. “When I was younger, I was really into athletics, I was in the school netball team, and went on to do pentathlon which I did until after my GCSEs but before my A-Levels. Motorsport has always been in my life as a hobby, I grew up surrounded by quad bikes and off-road buggies. My family had a business which catered for stag-dos, hen parties and also corporate events so I grew up with the instructors at the weekend and playing on all the kit,” she explained. At the age of 14, Catie began to get involved in racing, competing in the junior levels of grass auto testing, though said: “it was more the kids from the village just having fun!” It was three years later that her first experience of rally driving came about after being invited to a test event. “When I was 17, I got the opportunity to test for Peugeot in France and drive one of their cars with team Saintéloc. I was massively blown away by the whole event. I sat with the guys in the cars and they were so fast and I also worked with the engineers. It was just a whole other level of professionalism that I hadn’t experienced before,” Catie told me.

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After impressing in the Peugeot test, the team were keen for her to be involved with her going on to race in the FIA European Rally Championship with the Saintéloc Junior Team. “They liked the fact that I was a beginner and so didn’t have any bad habits. The French champion at the time, Charles Martin, was my coach so I did some testing with him and the engineers. They also wanted to encourage more women into motorsport so I managed to get some sponsorship to go and do a couple of rounds that season.  I was still doing my A-Levels so it was a very busy time. I went in a complete novice and we decided that this was the best way for me to progress as much as possible in a short space of time,” she said. In her debut season in the championship, Catie won the FIA European Rally Championship Ladies’ Trophy, and although she is proud of this, it is her performance as a whole that she was most pleased with. “I’ve always been someone who likes to race against the guys and when I got involved in the ERC, I thought it was cool that they had a Ladies’ trophy because it encourages more women into the sport. I prefer to compare my times per kilometre to the fastest junior though. It was really nice to win the trophy but I would say that I’m prouder of my achievements like coming fourth overall in the two-wheel drive category on the basis that I genuinely believe that there is no difference between male and female drivers,” she explained.

“I give credit to the European Rally Championship for everything I’ve learnt”

After four seasons racing in the European Rally Championship, Catie had progressed hugely and credits the championship for much of this. “ERC is one of the best rally championships in the world, you really feel that they want you to be there and help to support you wherever they can. The roads are of a very high standard and some of the most difficult rallies I’ve ever done were with the ERC. The rallies in Poland and the Czech Republic are absolutely insane, so fast, so technical, all whilst being on slippery tarmac or incredibly rough gravel. I give credit to the ERC for everything I’ve learnt,” the young driver told me. However, this year she took another step forward entering the FIA World Rally Championship for the first time. “It came out of the blue a little bit,” Catie said. “It’s always been something I was aspiring to and it’s a natural progression when you look at a driving career, but for me everything was pulled together two weeks before we were on the start line. My co-driver was unavailable so I found a local girl from Sweden who had loads of experience on that surface. I got to the race not knowing how to turn on the car and all the other juniors in the championship had been there for five or six years and so knew everything about the cars and the rallies. I just took it for what it was, I was going into my first WRC event so I was massively excited about it.”

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It was also announced this year that Catie would be racing in the brand-new Extreme E championship in its debut season in 2021. Having been a part of the driver programme created by the series, she signed with Andretti United Extreme E team. “I first got contacted by the championship itself when they were putting together a driver pool and at first, I wasn’t sure whether it would work with my current deal or if it would clash with WRC. The more I heard about it, I just thought that it was an incredible place to be. This championship is going to pave the way forward for motorsport and change the sport as we know it, much like Formula E has done in the track racing world. Alejandro Agag has an incredible vision and there are huge forces supporting it. It was an opportunity that I just had to jump at,” she said. Not long after, Andretti got in touch with Catie. “We had conversations over a few months because they wanted to make sure they were putting together the right driver pairing. They were talking to Timmy (Hansen) at the same time and wanted to make sure that everything would fit with us. The team has two absolute powerhouses of motorsport with Andretti and their Indycar and Formula E background, and then United Autosports, head up by Zac Brown and Richard Dean who bring so much experience. It will be really cool to learn and the fact that me and Timmy are in it together and need to be fast for each other is really exciting and quite different to what we’ve done in motorsport before,” Catie told me.

Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool

An important part of Extreme E is its sustainable message, and this was one of the reasons that Catie was attracted to the series. “I grew up wanting to be a vet and give something back to animals and so it is something I really connect with. The fact that we are rebuilding and regenerating environments and natural habitats is amazing, but also when you think about the bigger picture of climate change, the awareness we are raising is really important. 2020 has shown us now more than ever how important that is,” she said. Another ground-breaking part of the championship is that each team is required to have both a male and female driver. “Personally, it’s nice to know that you’ve been chosen because people have sat there and looked at your speed and that’s why you are there. You have to do a good result for the team so that equality is really nice and the fact that they’ve made it a championship rule is very special,” Catie described.

credit: @catierallye1

Although the testing days in Extreme E are limited, the team are trying to ensure that they are as prepared as they possibly can be. “The limited access to the car is part of the carbon-neutral message. We’re not going to just be flying all over the world, testing all the time so a lot of the preparation is out of the car,” she explained. Extreme E will visit some of the most remote areas of the world in order to raise awareness of how climate change and human actions are affecting them. However, preparing for the surfaces and terrains they will encounter is quite a challenge. “Timmy and I come from relatively normal surfaces you could say, and have all the basic driving skills on gravel, tarmac, snow and ice, but the bumps of the Amazon rainforest… that’s something we will have to work on! Timmy has a great race craft that he has learnt in rallycross, and I’ve been driving between trees my whole life. Hopefully we can both bring something to the table and make sure all bases are covered by the time we sit on the start line,” she said.

As with many in motorsport, there have been a lot of challenges along the way, with one that will be particularly familiar to most drivers. “I think budget is always a limiting factor,” Catie described. “Even up until last year, I was running on my teammate’s second-hand tyres, we just didn’t really have the budget to be there and do it the way some people do. We’ve missed out on testing and experience buys speed in motorsport in the sense that the more you can practice, the faster you go. Also, I think it’s important to accept that there will always be people that are able to do more practice than you and ensure you are in a good mental space because at the end of the day, you are there to do the best you can.” Mental preparation is key to performance and is something Catie has worked hard on using a range of techniques. “There are sports psychologists that you can work with that are specific to motorsport, but I do a lot of yoga and meditation to try and always have a space of calm to come back to. I use breathing techniques on the start line if I’m feeling anxious or stressed. We’ve found out over the years that I perform much better when I’m relaxed and calm,” she told me.

“Just keep pushing and working for it”

At only 23 years old, Catie Munnings has competed in the FIA European Rally Championship, made her debut in the World Rally Championship and next year will be travelling around the world racing with Extreme E. As an ambassador for women in motorsport, and those in the sport generally, her advice to people wanting to get involved would be: “start out at your local motor club, get in contact and let them know what you want to do and there might be an opportunity that comes from that. Marshal at events and get talking to people who are already out there doing it. People will want to help you because they know how hard it is to start out. Do what you can, I was grass auto testing in an old banger my Dad bought on eBay! There are some great organisations out there too that encourage women in motorsport now like Girls on Track and cool competitions to win some quite mega drives so just keep pushing and working for it.”

Heading photo credit: Red Bull Content Pool