Ayla Ågren: “It doesn’t matter who you drive against, it’s about how much you learn and push yourself”

Norway, Sweden and Finland are countries known for many things in motorsport, from ice driving to rallying, however they are also home to some of the sport’s fastest and most instinctive racing drivers. Norwegian driver Ayla Ågren karted across Europe as a child before deciding to move to the USA to pursue her racing dream. Despite a championship win in the States, funding became increasingly difficult, though it looks like her journey could be back on track as she enters the second season of W Series. I spoke to her about her career, advice and why sharing the track with Formula One will be so important for everyone involved in W Series.

Ayla’s love of motorsport began when she was young. With family members already involved in the sport, it was whilst watching them that she was inspired by seeing a female racer. “It all started with my parents at the Nordic Championships in karting,” she said. “We were there to watch my uncle and cousin competing. We were walking around and then all of a sudden, I spotted a female karter. At that moment it was like a light switch went on and I thought, ‘I could do this too’. From then I was asking my parents if this was something I could try. When I was six years old, I got my license and now 22 years later we’re here!” Ayla began karting nationally before starting to race in German and Italian championships along with other European series. However, at the age of 18 she made the decision to move to the USA to further pursue motorsport. “I started karting first in Norway and Sweden, and then all over Europe, and in that time frame was when Danica Patrick was leading the Indy 500. Again, it was that light switch of seeing an inspiring female that meant I thought it was achievable. I switched direction and my thought process towards the States,” she explained.

In 2011, Ayla moved to the USA where she took part in the Skip Barber Karting Shootout, securing a scholarship to compete in the Skip Barber Summer Series, achieving four podiums in her competitive car racing debut season. “I finished high school, and went to follow my dreams! Through the scholarship system I’ve been able to race on many incredible tracks there,” Ayla told me.

In 2013, Ayla took another step forward as she joined Bryan Herta Autosport in the F1600 Championship. After finishing the season fourth in the standings, with two podiums, she bettered this the following year, taking the championship victory. “I did the F1600 Championship with Bryan Herta Autosport, and then for 2014, a lot of the same core group transitioned into Team Pelfrey and together we were able to win the F1600 Championship, and still today that is one of the proudest moments of my life,” the Norwegian driver explained. Though the season wasn’t completely straightforward with the title going down to the last race. “Going into the final weekend, it was actually between my teammate and myself to win the championship. The race weekends have a qualifying race on Saturday, and then another on Sunday. The Saturday qualifying was not good but on Sunday we were able to put it on pole and come out with the win and the championship,” Ayla described.

Despite this success, a difficulty well-known to many in motorsport soon became a problem for Ayla, putting a pause on her plans. “Finding the funding, the partnerships and sponsors throughout racing is one of the hardest things for anyone. 2017 was when, on my end, it came to a stop. There was some funding there but it wasn’t enough to do full seasons so I did half the season in 2016 and again in 2017. It was one of those things when you think, ‘ok, what is this actually leading to?’,” she told me. Turning her hand to painting offices for teams and doing catering, Ayla began looking for other work around motorsport to support her own racing. However, a ground-breaking new series presented another option. “I was doing anything really just to make ends meet. I then eventually got into a different side of racing with spotting, and working for a suit manufacturer. I then learned about W Series and the opportunities that it could potentially bring,” Ayla said.

W Series was launched in 2018 with the aim of allowing female drivers “the opportunity to race relevant cars on relevant tracks, giving them the relevant experience, confidence and qualifications to put them in contention for drives in the upper tiers of motorsport.” As a free-to-enter championship, it also allows those who have struggled for funding previously to continue pursuing their motorsport dreams. When it was first announced, Ayla was unsure, however was soon convinced, applying for the inaugural season in 2019. “I started hearing rumours about it and people were saying that they just wanted to segregate, and driving against the guys was something that was attractive to me. I got reached out to by Stefan Wilson who is a good friend, and he said, ‘Ayla, think about it this way, if they had a championship for tall drivers there’s no way in hell I would say no,’ and he is a very tall driver! When he put it like that I thought, ‘it doesn’t matter who you drive against, it’s about how much you learn and push yourself’. That really changed my perspective. I then started hearing more about what W Series is and what it really is about,” she explained.

Although she applied for W Series’ first season, she was unfortunately not one of the drivers chosen. However, soon after the season-finale, she received a call. “After I didn’t make it the first go round, it was definitely a big disappointment. Setback is the wrong word, because you should never expect anything, but it was then like, ‘well what now?’ I dug deep and kept working and then got the unexpected call in August 2019 from Dave Ryan, and there wasn’t any doubt, you take the chances you get and that was a second chance for me,” Ayla said. With the second season having been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year the W Series cars will return to the track competitively for the first time since August 2019. However, with restrictions in place, preparations have been difficult with limited track time. “That was something I was able to do through my connections in the States,” she said. “I started doing pace car rides with the Indycar Series, not to say that makes up for any of it, but at least I was allowed to push a little bit and feel the car. It was super helpful to do it that way, but more so, analysing videos, doing ‘sim’ work and fitness training, but being in Anglesey and in the car was more valuable than anything,” she told me, adding: “it’s taking a little bit to get readjusted and back to the feeling that you can push and you’re not just in your comfort zone. I’m loving every minute of it though, the Tatuus F3 is an awesome car, and I can’t wait to show up at the Red Bull Ring and show the world what we can do.”

Ayla also took part in W Series’ Esports League launched after the 2020 season was postponed.

Despite this being a new car and series for Ayla, she is aiming to challenge those who competed in the previous season and fight for the top step of the podium. Speaking of her hopes for the year she explained: “I’ve always set goals of where I want to be, but it is also very important for me to take each weekend as it is and just focus on the things I can control. You can plan two, three, four months ahead, but last year came as a surprise to everyone so I try to stay in the now. My goal is definitely to be fighting for the championship, there’s no reason for me to be there if it’s not to fight for wins.”

W Series was a support race for DTM in 2019, however, this year will see the championship’s profile raised even more as it competes on Formula One race weekends. This will provide the opportunity for the drivers to showcase their talent to a larger, global audience. “It is a massive plus for the series,” Ayla told me. “I think it really showcases what W Series is about and in just two seasons it is now on the biggest platform in the racing world. I think a lot of people are now taking W Series more seriously, because it is really here to stay. It will be great to showcase what we can do as female drivers and hopefully show that we can excel into seats in F1 and Indycar. For me personally, it will be my first ever F1 race and I’ll be competing on the same tracks as my heroes so it will be amazing.” Racing alongside Formula One also means that Ayla will be competing on some incredibly historic tracks which are synonymous with motorsport, and there are two she is particularly excited by. “I’m really looking forward to Spa, it’s a track I’ve always been very intrigued by and loved the races there. Of course, COTA (Circuit of the Americas) which is close to Houston where I’m based currently. Those two will be the highlights of the year for me,” she explained.

Although her motorsport life and career have not always been straightforward, Ayla Ågren would advise anyone wanting to get involved in the sport to take the plunge. “Do it!” she said. “I don’t think you’ll ever regret it, whether your time in motorsport is long or short, you create friendships and partnerships that you won’t ever lose sight of. Keep asking questions to personnel and professionals. They will take you under their wing, help you learn and teach you a lot. If I could give myself advice when I was little, it would be to ask questions and never doubt it.”

Photo credits: W Series