by Jim Kearney
Racing is full of incredible stories but this one reads like a Hollywood movie script. In just two years, Canadian Megan Gilkes has gone from driving a $5,000 Formula Vee to testing a turbocharged Ligier F3 car with 300 hp. She is one of twenty-eight remaining candidates for a free ride in the W Series and is gearing up for the final tryout in late March in Almeria, Spain. Yes, I said it, a free ride.
The groundbreaking female-only European F3 series is bankrolling the entire enterprise. Drivers selected do not have to bring any funding whatsoever. The aim of the W Series is not only to provide exciting racing, but also to equip the drivers with the experience and expertise to advance their careers. They firmly believe that women can compete equally with men in motorsport if given the opportunity. It is the real deal. Series administrators include such motorsports luminaries as Alex Wurz, David Coulthard, Adrian Newey and Lyn St. James. The W Series will be a support race in all six events of the very popular DTM Series beginning in May at Hockenheim and culminating at Brands Hatch. A total prize fund of US $1.5million is available, with a first prize for the W Series champion driver of US $500,000.
The petite third-generation racer took some kidding when she began racing Formula Vee at age 16. Race officials bestowed names like “Little Bit” and “Tinkerbell” but she took it in stride. Without drama, she established herself as an up-and-coming talent. At the Road Atlanta Majors in 2018, she qualified her FV on pole in the rain. Since then, she’s come a long way.
Megan doesn’t claim to be an authority on how to develop yourself in motorsports, but she was willing to share what has worked for her. While it may seem strange to take tips from an eighteen-year-old, there can be no denying that Megan is on the fast track. What is she doing right?
Get Quality Seat Time – The More the Better
“Nothing is better than getting quality seat time. I did a few years in Briggs & Stratton karts which had big fields and intense competition. Like Formula Vee, it forced me to think about race craft rather than just driving around. If you are in a conga line of 12 FV’s at Mosport you need to be thinking about how you are going to get to the front toward the end of the race.”
She also recommends driving a lot of different cars. She recently ran test days at Roebling Road and MSR. At Roebling, she ran her dad’s F2000 in the rain. At MSR, she ran a Momentum Motorsports F4 and the following day, a Spec Miata. At the initial W Series tryouts in January at the Wachauring in Austria, she drove a Ford Fiesta ST and a Porsche Cayman SJ. Then it was back to MSR to try the new Ligier F3, complete with 300 hp and a turbocharger. A few weeks later, she ran an English F3 version of the Tatuus, sans turbo. When we last spoke, she was back at school in London and set to test the following week at Donington Park on Tuesday and at Snetterton on Wednesday and Thursday. Good thing she is young!
Use a Driver Coach – Have a Plan for Every Session
“I’ve been really lucky to have a family that is very into racing. I’ve also been fortunate to have good driver coaches and I honestly believe I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. Both my Dad and my coaches have instilled in me a serious approach. I work on having a plan for every session. What is it, specifically, that I need to address in order to go faster? The more explicit my targets and goals, the more likely that I will improve.”
Always Do a Track Map – Every Single Time, No Excuses
“It is really tempting to chat with your crew or competitors when you get out of the car, but I’ve learned that my recall is much clearer if I do a track map or debrief sheet immediately after every session. I remember more things and I’m able to give better feedback. It has really helped my confidence in thinking about both my driving and what the car is doing.”
“I listen to music to stay relaxed and focused. I have a little concern about the dangers of racing, but I’m much more focused on my level of performance. My biggest fear is not doing well. I stay on top of the schedule and I try to always be ready, so I’m not surprised when it is time to get in the car.”
“I follow a ritual when I get in the car. I remember to keep my hands soft so I can feel what the car is doing and make smooth steering inputs. Next, I remind myself how wonderful it is to be in a race car and how fortunate I am to get to do this. Third, I think like a cat about to pounce. It is time to turn off the left brain and let my instincts drive the car.”
The Cherry on Top
“My very last thought before I roll out on track is always the same. I say to myself, out loud, ‘You can do this.’ I say it twice. I want to send this message to my entire being: I have set reasonable goals and I intend to achieve them.”
Deal With Fear – Have a Methodical Approach
“I think you have to be aggressive, but I am thoughtful as well. I’ve been fortunate to race with drivers I can trust and that helps keep worry away.” When Megan was at the World Karting Championship in Italy, she had an accident that resulted in her breaking an arm. “I’m not oblivious to the risks. I always try to go for gains in a methodical manner. I may not be fastest in the first few sessions, but I’m accumulating information about both the car and the track, and I’m building speed.”
Downforce – Sometimes a Big Gulp
“FV taught me what I could expect from mechanical grip and it schooled me in maintaining momentum. It’s all well and good to have wings and extra grip, but if you are using them and the extra power to cover up sloppy driving, you are fooling yourself.” Her early F2000 tests at Mosport were memorable. Megan says the increased acceleration was intimidating at first. “My dad helped with the braking points. They are not all that different from the FV but everything is happening a lot faster.” Mosport has some famously daunting high-speed sweepers. “It took a very deep breath for me to keep my foot down in Two and Eight. You really must learn to trust that the car can do it, particularly on entry. My dad was both pleased and a little miffed when after a number of Mosport visits, I beat his best time.”
The Ligier F4 was a different animal. “It turned about the same lap times, but it felt like a kart with wings.” Her F2000 experience gave a glimpse of how it should be. “I had to chuck the F4 around to get it to do what I wanted it to do.” Testing the Ligier F3 opened her eyes to power. “It had more of everything. When I put my foot down the rear was wriggling around and I thought to myself, wow, this is really fast, especially when the turbo kicked in. When I came in, I had a smile the width of my helmet.”
Megan is no stranger to hard work. She is in her first year at The Imperial College in London studying aeronautical engineering. In addition to playing a mean game of tennis, she has a black belt in taekwondo. She has also completed an internship with the Mercedes F1 team. “I want to take advantage of the incredible opportunity provided by the W Series and perform to my very best. I know that I am up against some very talented and quite experienced drivers. But in my heart, I believe I am up to this task. I’m getting better every time I get on track and I relish the challenge the W Series provides. It is a golden opportunity and I’m going for it.” Underestimate this young woman at your peril.
This article first appeared in Speed Secrets Weekly, a subscription newsletter delivered to inboxes every Tuesday. With famous and not-so-famous guest contributors, along with weekly tips, advice, and stories, the reading is entertaining and educational. Subscribe today for just $24! →
Jim Kearney is one of those driver coaches who just quietly goes about his job and helps drivers become winners. No hype, no fuss, just results. The number of SCCA Runoffs winners and podium finishes he can be credited with is…well, growing, since I’m sure he’ll have more this year at VIR. He’s also coached pro drivers, gentlemen drivers, and was a champion Formula Vee racer, himself.