Written by Jenny Clynes, Edited by Nicola Spingies
Ireland is recognized for its prominent motorsport scene, although it is more known for motorbike racing and rallying than Formula One. However, with only a few Formula One drivers produced by the country, there are a number of iconic women from Ireland who have had huge successes within the sport. These women are truly inspirational role models for girls from both Ireland and across the world who have a passion for motorsport.
One of the most iconic women in motorsport history is Rosemary Smith, a rally driver from Dublin. Smith, by trade, was a dress designer who had won several awards for her designing skills and worked in a clothing shop in Dublin with her mother. However, she had also been interested in motorsport from a young age.
Her father was an amateur racer who taught Smith how to drive when she was just eleven years old — she even got her license at sixteen by pretending to be a year older. While working at the clothing shop, she had the opportunity to take on the role of a navigator at a rally in Kilkenny. However, she decided she didn’t like this role and instead became a driver. Here, Smith showcased a natural talent and immense skills at rally driving, which marked the beginning of her motorsport career.
Smith originally began racing in a Triumph Herald and then changed to a Mini in 1961 when competing in club rallies and driving tests. In 1964, she won the Circuit of Ireland rally driving a sunbeam rapier. However, the Rootes Group Competition Department offered her a works drive in the Hillman Imp, and this would become the car she was the most synonymous with. Smith is regarded as one of the key reasons why the Imp is such an iconic cult car.
With the Imp, Smith racked up 21 finishes, 24 international starts, nine class wins, and 12 Coupe Des Dames. One of her most iconic wins was the 1965 Tulip Rally, where she won outright in her Hillman Imp. This victory also made Smith the only woman ever to win the race.
Nevertheless, she has a long and impressive list of wins—including several in the Scottish Rally, Alpine Rally, Acropolis Rally and the Canadian Shell 400. In 1965, Smith was also announced at the Texaco Sportstar of the Year.
Despite such an impressive list of victories, Smith faced her fair share of adversities. She was barred from racing at Le Mans because she was a woman, and hers was one of ten cars that were controversially disqualified from the 1966 Monte Carlo rally. Upon disqualification, Smith vowed to never compete in the rally again unless the decision was reversed.
One achievement that really sticks out is how she took the pole position and came second in her first-ever Silverstone race, an example that encapsulates Smith’s immense talent.
Rosemary Smith ultimately represents how women can still be feminine and “girly” but can dominate motorsport despite how people perceive them. She was previously described as “a dizzy blonde, the young one with blonde hair and false eyelashes” who would constantly be underestimated by her male counterparts—even after she took the top place on the podium.
After her racing retirement, Smith still remained a prominent figure in racing, working as a motorsport journalist, founding a driving school, and running a think awareness transition year driving programme.
She also made history in May 2017 when she completed a test drive in a Renault Formula One show car on the Paul Ricard circuit. This made her the oldest person ever to drive a Formula One car. However, the world record went undocumented by the Guinness Book of Records because they thought that it was so unlikely that they failed to send a representative to witness the drive.
Bernadette Collins is another iconic woman dominating Formula One. The strategy engineer from Northern Ireland currently works for Sky Sports as a broadcaster, but she first made a name for herself when she joined the McLaren and Aston Martin Formula One teams.
Collins is from a small village in County Fermanagh and originally had little interest in pursuing a career in motorsports. However, things quickly changed when she became one of only three female students in her mechanical engineering degree at Queen’s University Belfast.
During her final two years of university, Collins was part of the Formula Student Programme organised by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. It involves students designing, testing, constructing, and driving small-scale formula racing cars. Collins completed a graduate training programme with the McLaren Formula One racing team, where she had the opportunity to visit the McLaren technology centre and rotate through each department every three months.
This helped her to gain in-depth knowledge of each role and the inter-team requirements. During her graduate year, Collins transferred to the McLaren Design Department, working on vehicle transmission and serving as a volunteer engineer at the GP3 Series. She then continued to move her way up the ladder in McLaren, working part-time for the GT sports car racing team and supporting its factory operation to manage greenhouse emissions. In 2012, she was promoted to performance engineer.
During the 2013 season, Collins was a race engineer for the United Auto Sports GT team and was later made the temporary Primary Performance Engineer for the McLaren Formula One team.
In 2014, this became her full-time job role, and she worked with Jenson Button just three years after graduating from university. Collins left McLaren in 2015 and joined Force India as a performance and senior strategy engineer for Nico Hulkenberg. During her time there, she helped the team claim a podium with Sergio Perez at the 2015 Russian Grand Prix and helped them towards placing fourth in the Constructors’ Championship in 2015.
Collins eventually went on to become Aston Martin’s strategy chief in 2020. Her immense success and impact within Formula One were encapsulated when she was named the UK Government’s Make It in Great Britain list in 2012 and became an ambassador for the project. She was also featured in the Forbes 2016 “30 under 30” list for manufacturing and industry in Europe.
Julie Coulter is a project engineer at McLaren Formula One who is originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland. Coulter was involved in the Engineering Leadership Programme run by Formula One in schools. She also attended Queen’s University Belfast and studied mechanical engineering.
During her time at the university, Coulter undertook the Red Bull Racing placement programme, led the university’s first Formula student team, won the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Engineering Leadership Advanced Award, and achieved a first-class Master’s degree.
A truly impressive list of achievements, especially for a student.
Upon graduation, she joined McLaren as an operations graduate, where she was involved in the role of aero planner buyer. This involved Coulter participating in the planning and purchasing the components required to complete wind tunnel testing. She later became a project engineer for McLaren, where she looked after the fuel system, electrical systems and aspects of the cooling and steering systems.
One of Coulter’s most impressive achievements transpired during the Covid-19 pandemic, when McLaren joined Ventilators Challenge UK. Coulter was a buyer for electrical looms and assemblies and was responsible for over 200,000 loom constructions that helped thousands of people in need.
Although these women have not necessarily had “traditional” roles in Formula One, they have each made a significant impact within the sport and ultimately serve as inspirational role models for girls across the world, especially in Ireland.