What it means to be a driver coach

It is one of the lesser talked about facts of a career in motorsport, that for most racing drivers teaching is an important part of their livelihood. In fact, unless a driver makes it to the very highest tiers of the industry, the chances are they will put on their coaching hat at some point. W Series drivers are no exception. We spoke with a few of them to hear about their work as teachers, and what it means to them.

Instructing has been a part of Abbie Eaton’s life since 2011, starting out at Silverstone, and then PalmerSport, as well as doing private coaching. For The Grand Tour test driver, hiring a coach was a luxury beyond her means growing up: “Coaching costs money, and I don’t come from a wealthy background, so I taught myself.” Her father, also a driver, was there to give her tips, but she says most of the legwork was done when she was by herself in the car: “In qualifying, I’d go out behind someone I knew was quicker than me, and just try to stick with them.” In her role as a coach Abbie has worked with a huge range of people, the youngest 14 and the eldest 70. Perhaps more surprisingly, she has even coached her own competitors, who have seen her results on-track and approached her for help. When asked if it’s a strange feeling to instruct the same people she’s racing against, Abbie says, “No, it means there’s more competition, which makes the racing more exciting.”

In July this year Abbie began teaching Nerys Pearce, the sole female member of Team BRIT, which aims to be the first all-disabled team to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Nerys, who became paralysed from the chest down following a motorbike accident when she was a medic in the military, had no prior racing experience. Abbie explains that it’s a different way of coaching, because the car is operated solely with hand controls. “There are limitations to the hardware of the car, which means we’re constantly working on our techniques to get it to do what we want. Every time we go out there’s a new hurdle to overcome, but we’re understanding the car, and each other, more and more.” For Abbie, the most rewarding aspect of all coaching is seeing her students improve, particularly if they’ve been struggling with something. “As long as they’re improving and they’re enjoying themselves, that’s all you want.”

Caitlin Wood, who raced in W Series in 2019, coaches on track days for PalmerSport and OpenTrack, which takes her all over the UK and into mainland Europe, as well as private coaching with people in their own cars. She says it’s not uncommon for her pupils to be surprised to discover that their driving coach is female. Just last week she did a job and was faced with one such situation: “I rocked up to the event and said to a staff member at the door, ‘Hi, I’m here to work today,’ to which he replied, ‘Cool, catering’s that way.’” Although such incidents are frustrating, Caitlin says her approach is to “kill them with kindness. I used to get really annoyed by it but I realised that if I can change one person’s opinion then I’ve succeeded. All I can do is be the best instructor I can be and show that there’s no difference between the sexes in that respect.” Caitlin loves helping to give people a new skill and newfound confidence. “When you’re a driver you can get caught up in the politics of motorsport and securing funding, and it can all feel a bit serious. Sometimes it’s just nice to have fun teaching someone the thing that you love to do. Taking someone out who’s never done a track day before and getting them to drive a race car makes me feel accomplished.”

When Alice Powell had to stop racing owing to funding constraints, coaching was how she kept her oar in the sport. Two of her students are now making names for themselves at junior levels: 14-year old Ella Stevens recently auditioned for Ferrari’s Driver Academy, having been selected by the FIA’s Girls on Track Rising Stars programme. She didn’t make the final cut, on account of her being too young, but she is already preparing to have another go at it next year. Meanwhile Abbi Pulling, 17, is making her international debut this weekend, driving in the Formula Renault Eurocup, as a support race at Imola. Alice, who has been coaching Abbi through her British F4 campaign, in which she is currently sixth, said, “We’re looking forward to heading to Imola this week where it will be her first ever experience of the car in the first and only Free Practice session on Saturday. It’s going to be a huge but exciting challenge for Abbi.”

Prior to W Series giving Vicky Piria an opportunity to race again, coaching had been her full-time job: “When I had no budget to go racing I had to figure out what to do, so decided to work as an instructor.” Initially she was teaching safety driving with Alfa Romeo, before moving to Maserati for more commercial work. It became a goal of Vicky’s to be one of the first women to teach for Ferrari, who at the time were not keen on hiring female instructors because they were concerned that clients wouldn’t appreciate being taught by a woman. But, sure enough, it was a goal she achieved: “That was a really proud moment for me. Ferrari is one of the most important car manufacturers in the world. When you’re representing excellence it makes you want to be excellent, and being excellent is a good feeling.” Her work with Ferrari is varied, meaning she could spend one day teaching dealers whose job it is to sell Ferrari’s high-speed road cars, and another day doing performance coaching for people who are starting to race Ferraris. “We have all sorts of clients, from the woman who got scared because she crashed in the snow on a holiday in the mountains, to youngsters who have just passed their tests. There’s a bit of everything, and you have to adapt to each person.”

One of the great things about coaching for Vicky, besides the rewarding nature of the work, is that it enables her to be in a car, even if she’s not driving. “Simply by talking about driving, and explaining it to someone less experienced, it improves you as a driver, so it’s a good thing to do when you can’t go racing.”