Emma Kimilainen: The Finnish superstar is going global!

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Emma Kimilainen Assem
Emma Kimilainen at Assen / Image: W Series

Emma Kimilainen is a name that is going to become a lot more familiar to motorsport fans around the world this year. When W Series 2021 kicks off on the 26th June at Paul Ricard, keep an eye out for the Finn.  She missed the first half of the 2019 season with an aggravated recurrent neck injury but the second half of the season was all Kimilainen.  Three fastest laps, one win, and a second; get ready for a lot more of that in 2021.

We enjoyed a Zoom interview with Emma “In the Grandstand”. She gave us a great insight into her career so far, and how things are shaping up for her in 2021. You can watch a shortened version below, or enjoy the full 52-minute in-depth conversation by clicking here.

Emma Kimilainen’s early years

Kimilainen’s father has always been a motorsport fan.  He bought a kart for himself to have fun in and a smaller one for his children and their cousins which Emma was driving from the age of three.  Her first competitive race came at the age of five and she graduated to the Finnish National racing series at the minimum required age of ten.  There she would be teammate to lifelong friend Valterri Bottas.  Kimilainen has fond memories of the whole family travelling around Finland to the various kart tracks with a caravan to stay in.

Emma Kimilainen Go Kart
Image: @emmakimilainen Instagram

After ten years of karting, Kimilainen had a growing frustration with the sport.  The competition was heavily influenced by how much budget a driver had. That budget dictates what chassis or engine they could buy.  She began to feel that moving up to single-seater racing where there were far fewer manufacturers involved would let her natural talent come through.  Kimilainen began her single-seater career in 2005 in the Northern Europe Formula Ford championship.  Finishing 5th in her debut season and 2nd in her second season definitely proved her instincts were correct.

Sadly after three more seasons of racing in Radicals and then as an Audi driver in Formula Masters, Kimilainen’s funding ran out. Her racing career went into an indefinite hiatus in 2010.  Ever resourceful and resilient, Kimilainen promptly gained her bachelor’s degree in Business and Marketing. Once done, she launched her own company and secured plenty of radio and TV work as well.  Oh, and found the time to have a daughter as well!  Talking to Kimilainen, you hear her talking about opening doors and if this door is going to close, she will try to get this one to open.  This is a woman who is determined to make a success of her life.  She’s succeeding at it and most importantly, having an enormous amount of fun in the process.

Emma’s return to the cockpit

Three years after Kimilainen stopped racing, she received what she describes as “the golden phone call.” PWR Racing had been monitoring her career from afar. They finally had the funding and the team in place to be able to offer her a place in the Scandinavian Touring Car championship.  Kimilainen laughs as she recounts wondering whether they knew she had a six-month-old daughter at the time.  But the team could not have been more understanding:

If you are a mother or father, what colour you are, female or male.  If you have the talent, you’ll always have the talent and they believed in me

Scandinavian Touring Cars are similar to the Audi DTM car Kimilainen tested in 2007.  A racing chassis with the engine behind the driver and a body draped over it is how she describes it.  A full-blown race car rather than a heavily modified production car.  Kimilainen joined the team for the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

Sadly Kimilainen sustained a neck injury in the opening round of the 2016 championship which would flare up again, as we know, in the W Series Hockenheim race.  This ended her STCC career and she competed in Swedish V8 ThunderCars for 2017 and 2018 instead.

Then, of course, Kimilainen received her second Golden Phone Call.  An invitation from W Series headhunters to apply for the inaugural “W” championship.  Similar to many people around the world, Emma initially had her misgivings about the point of W Series:

I just wanted to be the best driver, not the best female driver

But she quickly came to see W Series for what it really is; an opportunity to lift female talent as drivers, to enable them to compete in competitive machinery and serve as a springboard for their future racing careers beyond W Series.

Emma Kimilainen joins W Series

Kimilainen applied, and after passing the initial selection week in Austria, where 60 drivers were whittled down to 30, she went on to the second selection week in Almeria, Spain.  This time the drivers would be driving the Taatus T-318 F3 car for the first time. The same beast that they would later race in the championship.  Kimilainen was one of the first 10 drivers to be selected to be on the grid of 18.

Emma Kimilainen Number 7
Image: W Series

Kimilainen reflects on those two weeks as being highly intensive, but very enjoyable. A fortnight where the drivers were tested on their physical and mental abilities.  Teamwork skills, driving skills, racing prowess, presentation and communication, understanding of the car.  The W Series evaluation drilled down into everything that is required of a modern racing driver.  Take note young drivers dreaming of making it big one day.  If you want to succeed, these are the areas you need to be good at.

W Series held it’s first race at Hockenheim on the 4th May 2019 in support of DTM.  In a wet session, Kimilainen qualified 4th. But she suffered a poor getaway at the race start before Megan Gilkes T-boned her into the hairpin. A lap 1 incident eliminating her from the race and half of the championship.

The driver came completely out of my sight.  I looked in the mirror and saw no one was there and then, I don’t know, she had some error there or it was pretty wet on the inside of the corner and she completely missed her braking.  So I had already turned in and was completely turned in when she hit me, pretty hard.  She still had 110km/h when the impact came.  It was such an unfortunate angle.

Despite turning up in Zolder and driving in practice, Kimilainen had to concede to medical advice and not drive at Zolder and Misano.  But good news was coming. Her doctors were able to permanently fix her neck issue and she returned at the Norisring race.

From as early as the initial test sessions for that 2019 season, Kimilainen felt confident about the season ahead. She knew she was definitely a contender for the title.  But with such a short season, she was aware that any accident or car failure would make the task almost impossible.

You need to be really smart and really clever

One of the most fascinating things that Kimilainen mentioned to us, almost in passing, was around the close-knit community that is W Series.  The drivers are all friends, they have a WhatsApp group, share telemetry and racing lines together.  They travel on a bus together from the hotel to the circuit and back again.  There is a very real sense of them all being one big team together…until the helmets are on and the visors are down of course.  Kimilainen revealed that this has really helped her be able to focus on being at home after races which is very relatable.  If you have ever been karting or involved in a sporting event that triggers an adrenaline response, you’ll know what she means.

More than just single-seaters for Kimilainen

It will come as no surprise with Kimilainen’s background that she says single seaters are her preferred car to race in.  She likes a car with a lot of grip and loves to drive LMP cars as well. But, then again, she then confesses she loves racing anything!  Kimilainen is a racer through and through.

W Series Trophies
Image: W Series

Talking of LMP cars naturally led to discussing future plans. Kimilainen would love to have a crack at endurance racing and in particular the big one; Le Mans.  What a brilliant prospect. Here is a driver who is ready to take a track at the absolute limit within two laps, who has an almost preternatural instinct for the grip available and can preserve a set of tyres.  A driver who when asked why she was so quick at Assen replied:

I like a track with fast corners and chicanes.  A track that requires balls!

I think it’s pretty clear that the world is owed the marriage of Emma Kimilainen and the Circuit de la Sarthe.  Team owners make it happen.

If you ask Emma Kimilainen if she feels she could have won W Series 2019 without the neck injury, the answer is a firm yes.  Ask her who she views as the competition, the answers are unsurprising; Chadwick, Visser, Powell and Garcia.  The other four drivers who won a W Series race.  She’s not discounting anyone though from the fight for the championship.  And no one should discount Emma Kimilainen in 2021; W Series’ very own Flying Finn.

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