Rosemary Smith on her groundbreaking rally career and why Lewis Hamilton should watch his tracks ahead of the Brazil Grand Prix
Elizabeth Taylor's favourite rally driver, Rosemary Smith looks back at her best moments – and shares her thoughts on today's F1 stars
It would be almost too easy to say that rally driver Rosemary Smith changed the face of women in racing, particularly at her peak in the mid-1960s when she won everything from Le Mans to the Tulip Rally to the Rallye Monte Carlo, amassing a host of famous fans – including Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
This year the Dublin-born driver set her sights on Formula 1 for the first time, when at the age of 79 she became the oldest person to drive an 800bhp Formula 1 car as part of Renault Sport Formula 1 Team's 40th anniversary celebrations. Now 80, Smith says the experience has made her re-evaluate what she saw as the more "boring and predictable" motorsport – particularly when it comes to some of racing's biggest stars, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen.
"Since driving the Formula 1 car I've got the greatest admiration for the boys driving now. I mean, it’s just phenomenal, the speeds they get up to and the wheel to wheel racing. That young Max Verstappen, he is brilliant. I mean, he only turned 20 this year, but I think he’s the one that’s pushing Lewis Hamilton now," she told Tempus of the sport.
"I think Hamilton needs to be knocked off his pedestal now – he’s getting a bit too big for his boots," she laughed. "It might be silly to say, because he’s a brilliant driver and I won’t take that away from him but, for me, I feel like he seems to lack respect." >>
Smith, who turned 80 in August, is an ambassador for Renault Clio Ireland and was approached about the brand's anniversary celebrations by the company's CEO. While the irrepressible driver says she didn't think twice before agreeing, she admits her friends thought she was "out of her mind".
"It was exciting, exhilarating and terrifying," she said of the experience. "Compared to a rally car, it’s like chalk and cheese. F1 cars are terribly tight, and you have to sit right down until you can barely see where you’re going. The most difficult thing about it was the gears – the paddles behind the steering wheel – which is a huge change if you’ve not driven anything like that before.
"When I first got on the track, I was told, ‘every single person who drives a Formula 1 car for the first time stalls it on the line’ – and so I was determined not to stall it! All the mechanics were standing around me as I started off. But I didn’t stall it, thank goodness, though I could have been faster off the line. I think I’d be an awful lot better if I went back and did it now," she adds, "if anyone out there is reading this."
Smith was encouraged to take up driving while working as a dress designer, after a customer asked if she would be her navigator. "Of course, she didn’t ask me if I could navigate," laughed Smith. "After about three hours we were completely lost, so we swapped and I drove while she navigated, before swapping again for the finish. We kept on doing that and started winning our races, and then one day I got a telegram inviting me to drive the Monte Carlo rally." >>
After that, Smith was offered a spot on a professional racing group on the world rally stage –though it was only at the encouragement of her father, a racing fan himself, that she took the opportunity. "My father was a great fan of mine, and he was furious with me for saying no! He told me, 'this is the biggest chance of your life, to do something you love and that you’re good at and get paid for it'."
With her model height and good looks, Smith became an instant darling of the world stage. "When I won the Tulip Rally, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were staying at a hotel nearby, and Liz sent an enormous bouquet of flowers with a lovely handwritten note. I used to meet a lot of film stars, especially when I went out to America. But really, I was before my time.
"In the 1960s-1970s it felt like we, as women, had so many opportunities," she said. "Every racing manufacturer would usually have three men’s teams and a women’s team. But the cars were nothing like rally cars are today. We used to have to jump on the breaks, we had no power steering back then, and the overdrive gears would keep breaking so you’d end up with no top gear. I don’t know how we’re all still alive to be honest with you!"