“If I hadn’t fallen in love with driving, I might have become a Flamenco dancer,” says the playful Nerea Martí. “When I was younger I practised Flamenco dancing as a hobby. I love the whole tradition – in fact I still listen to the music before I race.”
While Nerea may have mastered the athleticism and co-ordination of traditional Spanish dancing, the heavy make-up and frilly dresses did not appeal. Instead, it was the smell of petrol and the roar of engines that won her heart, aged nine. “As a small child,” she recalls, “my parents ran a bar in our village in Valencia. I didn’t practise any sport at the time; I just played with friends in the street and local parks.
“But in 2011, my dad – a former bike racer – and my uncle opened their own kart track. That’s when everything changed. I started to practise, just as a hobby at first. My family didn’t know how the competitive side of karts worked, so they were happy for me to keep driving rental karts for fun.
“I loved it so much – mostly the speed. I felt so exhilarated every time I drove. But my parents were reluctant to let me get too carried away, not only because they didn’t know the racing business, but also because they weren’t sure how they’d raise the money to fund me.”
By 2015, Nerea’s determined family had found a way to form a team – Karting Horta Nord – and she started to compete. “It was a new experience for all of us,” she recalls, “and at times we felt a little bit lost.” However, what felt foreign outside the kart was trumped by Nerea’s ability inside it, and her smooth driving style was soon noticed by Spanish teams, including Praga España Motorsport, which she joined as an official driver in 2017. It was with Praga that Nerea completed her first Spanish Championship.
“The Praga team helped me a lot,” she says. “I learned to be smooth in corners, aggressive in overtaking and generally more consistent in the way I approached everything.” In the same year she won her first Valencian championship with the Formula de Campeones team, entering the record books as the first female victor.
In Spain karting pundits began to whisper it that Nerea was one to watch. In 2018, still just 16, she won the Valencian championship for a second time, and bagged a second podium in the Rotax España series. But the best was yet to come.
“Last year I had the opportunity to drive in Formula 4, which was an incredible experience, a dream come true. Working with Praga and Formula de Campeones improved my driving exponentially. I learned so much and became Spanish Formula 4 Champion. Then, at the end of the year, I got the news that W Series had decided to take me on – and that was the second dream come true. My father and I cried when we got the news. My goal is to be a professional driver, hopefully in Formula 1.”
Nerea is one of those drivers whose style looks effortless on track, but her off-track regimen requires hours of effort. “I spend a lot of time watching racing videos,” she says, “studying the strengths and weaknesses of various drivers. I try to take the best parts of their style and incorporate that into my own. Fernando Alonso and Ayrton Senna are my idols. Senna, in particular, is a great inspiration to me because he was a fighter and a hard worker. He always wanted to win and that pretty much sums up what I’m trying to do.”
Asked what it’s like to be a woman competing in a male-saturated sport, Nerea says:
“I’ve never experienced any gender discrimination in Spain. I’ve always felt like just another driver on the track, and over the years I’ve won the respect of both male and female drivers.”
Off track, like most 18-year-olds, Nerea likes hanging out with her friends. She also enjoys making prank videos for YouTube. Her appreciation for music goes beyond Flamenco, taking in reggaeton and pop, and she has a particular penchant for Adele… although she would never listen to the latter before a race because, she says, it would “send me to sleep”.
The rest of Nerea’s spare time is spent preparing for the next race – whenever that may be. Her punishing fitness routine involves a combination of daily gym and track work, including athletics, cycling and football. She is also focused on completing high school, before potentially going on to study marketing and PR at university. But Formula 1 remains the high-octane dream for which she is currently prepared to sacrifice everything.