Under the Visor: Alice Powell

For years, racing drivers have been considered elite athletes who spend as much time in state-of-the art gyms as they do behind the wheel.

But few will boast sledgehammer swings as part of their fitness routine – unlike W Series racer, Alice Powell.

As a builder’s mate to her dad Tony, it’s an essential tool for the 26-year-old driver.

She said: “I fetch and carry a lot but my speciality is smashing bits off walls, especially tiles when we’re doing bathroom renovations – oh, and not forgetting unblocking drains and urinals.”

Alice enjoys the hands-on work in the family firm, based in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, but admits her unusual day job is the harsh reality of funding gaps in her 18-year racing career.

“Racing has been the sport of privileged billionaires for years and it’s hard for women to get sponsorship. A single season can cost way over £600,000.

“Despite writing hundreds of letters and proposals to businesses and race teams, my funding dried up in 2015. Companies used to say things like: ‘We’re not sure that a woman in motor racing is the right positioning for us.’

“Then W Series came along and changed the game. I had just been unblocking a urinal when I got the call.”

Alice is candid about funding shortfalls but is keen to point out that she has never allowed her gender to hold her back. On the contrary, the imbalance in the sport has spurred her determination to succeed from the very beginning.

She said: “My earliest racing memory was when I first started karting aged 8. Behind me, a conversation was taking place between a father and son just before the start.

“‘You’ve got to get past her,’ he told his boy, ‘because you can’t get beaten by a GIRL.’ I put my foot on the accelerator and went full throttle, speeding past him. I decided then and there that no-one was going to get in the way of my dream to make it as a successful racing driver.”

Alice’s love affair with the sport started in front of the television when she was just 3. She recalled: “I loved racing from a very young age. My granddad Jim, now 78, used to watch F1 races live and my parents kidded me that I would see him on telly if I looked hard enough. So, from the age of 3 I sat glued to the screen looking out for him. Before long I was so hooked on racing, I used to sit for hours mesmerised by the speed and sound of the cars. Michael Schumacher was my favourite driver because I loved his bright red Ferrari race colours and whenever he lost, I cried.

“I was a big tom boy too – much more than my younger sisters Ellie, now 22, and Grace, 20. Dolls definitely weren’t my thing. When I wasn’t cheering for Schumacher, I was playing tag rugby, football and – Scalextric.

“I also had a little Early Learning Centre play mat which I raced toy cars on and, aged 5, I made my own race track in the garden with bends and chicanes. I used to speed round it on my little push bike dressed up in a mini red driver’s suit and plastic helmet. My mum Eileen has never let me forget that I completely trashed the garden.”

A turning point transpired when Alice’s grandad, an air force engineer turned hotelier, took her to the Kartex indoor race track, in Oxford, when she was 8.

She said: “I remember it being in a big hangar and I remember the smell of petrol. From that moment on, it’s fair to say racing became an addiction. The owner told my granddad he thought I was fast and should be taking it seriously. Within 6 months, I was racing outdoors in my own kart.

“My dad and granddad used to sling it in the back of the car and off we’d go to race. We couldn’t afford wet tyres, so I had to make do whatever the weather.

“I remember just driving round and round circuits never wanting to stop, even if I needed the toilet.”

Within a year, Alice won the Reading Trail Park karting championship and, aged 11, she joined the Shark Motorsport team, based in Camberley, Surrey. She added: “I don’t think my dad and granddad understood what a racing career would cost. They were going in blind. So, joining a team seemed the most sensible thing to do.”

Alice made the transition from karts to cars with seamless ease and before long she was making it on to podiums winning prizes.

She said: “I achieved 5 podiums in Ginetta Juniors and by 2010 I was the first woman to win the Formula Renault Race and Championship in a single-seater 2L car that reached speeds of 150mph.

“In 2012 I did a year of GP3 with the backing of a Japanese healthcare firm, some family money and a private backer but finance stopped me completing a second year and by the age of 20 I was forced to pause my dream.

“Luckily, my mum had been really strict about me completing my schooling and I left with a handful of good GCSEs and AS Levels in science, psychology and business studies but I missed the race track a lot.

“In 2011, I started coaching young drivers and some of my pupils have included Billy Monger, Josh Skelton and Carter Williams. For the last 3 years I’ve been teaching a 12-year-old girl called Ella Stevens who is doing a fab job.

“But the reality of not having a sponsor meant having to earn a living helping my dad in the family building firm and I was very happy doing that until W Series came along.

“So far, I’ve been on the podium three times now but whatever the outcome of the final race, all the W Series drivers are winners because we are giving young girls the role models that we desperately missed.

“And there is more camaraderie between us than I’ve seen between men on the race circuit. During a recent race in Misano, Italy, another drivers’ tyres collided with mine and flipped me into the air, putting me out of the race. Afterwards, we talked about it openly and she apologised. There is no bitching, just lots of banter.”

Off the track, Alice enjoys spending time with her fiancé James, a 36-year-old deputy golf course manager who she met through one of her best friends in 2014.

“Another W Series driver Sarah Moore and I have joked that we might get married at Brands Hatch because we are both engaged but I haven’t managed to persuade James yet.

“He’s totally cool with the idea of having a racing driver wife but he does get nervous before I go on the grid. Off the track he complains about my driving, saying I’m too impatient, so I let him take the wheel of our VW Golf.

“I can’t help the way I am on the track. I love the speed and in a racing sense, I am very competitive. Being wheel to wheel is something I really enjoy.”

Alongside occasional shifts smashing up bathrooms, Alice keeps fit with team sports.

The Tottenham Hotspur season ticket holder said: “When I’m in a car I can be single-minded, but outside I’m a team player and love football and hockey.”

Alice is also proud to be an ambassador for the Dare to Be Different foundation which promotes the advancement of women in motorsport.

She said: “As I was coming up through the sport there was no-one female to look up to.

At an average race meeting of 200 drivers, there were around 7 women around if I was lucky. I tried to blend in with the boys but a few times they said: ‘You can’t play with us because you’re a girl.’

“Now W Series has changed all of that. Hopefully it won’t be too long before the boys will be following our lead.”