Rosemary Smith: 'The flag drops, the bullshit stops and away we go'

At age of 79 the queen of Irish motorsport became oldest person to drive a Formula 1 car

Rosemary Smith trains at Silverstone for the RAC British Grand Prix,  July 1967. Photograph:  Mike McLaren/Central press/Hulton Archive/Getty

Rosemary Smith trains at Silverstone for the RAC British Grand Prix, July 1967. Photograph: Mike McLaren/Central press/Hulton Archive/Getty

 

Rosemary Smith marvelled at the liveried trucks and cars gleaming in the sunshine at the Circuit Paul Ricard just outside the French city of Marseille, bearing the giant initials RS, identical to those on her racing suit. Aged 79, she was about to take a Formula 1 car for a spin.

As she contemplated what lay ahead, the most celebrated and successful female driver in the history of Irish motorsport was touched by the kindness of the gesture, and turned to Colin Hickson, head of light entertainment with Publicis Worldwide, to express her gratitude. He smiled: “Rosie, the RS stands for Renault Sport.”

The tinkle of laughter that punctuates the story is a regular inflection during the conversation as she offers a whistle-stop journey through her garlanded career, one in which she defied the sexism of the sport’s male bastion when she started racing in the 60s, gradually reforming an opinion, whose starting line contained words like ditzy or dizzy blonde, to one of grudging respect.

It’s almost three years on from that historic moment and Rosie, as she is known to friends or sassy teenagers from the driving school at Goffs over which she has presided since 1999, shows no sign of slowing down. Once coronavirus restrictions permit, she will accept invitations to classic car runs, either behind the wheel of a Hillman Imp, in which she enjoyed her most famous victory, or a 4.7 litre Sunbeam Tiger.

The genesis of that Formula 1 drive – she is an ambassador for Renault – originated at a dinner in the Powerscourt Hotel and a chance conversation with James Boyet, Renault’s marking director, and Irish operations manager Paddy McGee who subsequently teased out an idea to make a documentary of Smith driving the Formula 1 car to celebrate the French car manufacturer’s 40th anniversary in the sport.

The concept was one thing but the ex-rally driver would have to prove she could handle the 800bhp beast. She travelled to Marseille and the first person she bumped into at the circuit was Alain Prost, the multiple former Formula 1 champion; much to her delight he addressed her by name, the pair having met many years previously.

The day before she was due to drive she underwent an orientation session – one of the forms she filled in stated that the maximum age for the driver of a Formula 1 car was 65 – under the guidance of instructor Tom Crooke. The previous night he had put cones on the apex of the corners to demonstrate braking points. Cooke took her around the track in a Clio RS, four laps, after which she progressed to a Formula Renault single-seater.

There was one more speed bump to negotiate. A senior track official informed Smith: “I will go out in front of you just for a few laps and if I don’t think that you are up to it, you won’t go out in the Formula 1 [car].” He was satisfied, proclaiming: “No she’s fine, she’s absolutely fine. Away you go.”

It was car against car. The flag drops, the bullshit stops and away we go

On May 10th, 2017 Smith became the oldest person to drive a Formula 1 car. “It was the most exhilarating, terrifying, fantastic [time] and I would love to do it all over again. I had never driven a Formula car except Formula Atlantic many years ago. It was unbelievable,” she admitted.

Rosemary Smith. Photograph: Beta Bajart
Rosemary Smith. Photograph: Beta Bajart

“People asked me were you afraid you would crash? It didn’t enter my head. I resolved that if it was the only thing I achieve, I am not going to stall this Formula 1 car. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. Now I am sure that my times were pathetically slow but that is neither here nor there. The focus wasn’t on whether I might hurt myself.”

Did she know what top speed she hit? “No.” Did she inquire about lap times? “No.” That competitive gene precluded her from asking. In her career she raced to win, not simply content to take part.

What she did appreciate though was the warm ovation she received on returning to the pit lane and garage from crew, spectators and her long-time co-driver from her rallying days and one of her best friends, Pauline Gullick.

It was another milestone in a motorsport career festooned with victories that include several Coupes des Dames in the Monte Carlo rally, while also winning multiple races in the Circuit of Ireland, Scottish, RAC, Alpine, Canadian Shell 4000 and Acropolis rallies.

Smith also made time to pursue circuit racing, at which she also excelled, winning titles; although she found the monotony of endless laps to be rather tiresome when compared to the adrenaline rush of her beloved rallying.

Still she competed in the Daytona 24-hour race in the US and three times at the Sebring 12-hour race in Florida where she rubbed racing suits with actors Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, and then in the evening attended A-list parties with other Hollywood luminaries such as Ernest Borgnine and Bob Hope.

She completed the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon rally (11,000 miles, 48th place) and finished 10th in the 1970 London to Mexico City rally (16,000 miles). In the 1965 Tulip Rally in Holland, Smith, driving a Hillman Imp, beat male and female competitors, the only woman ever to win the race. She recalled: “I rallied and represented Ireland all over the world. We never just drove against women. It was car against car. The flag drops, the bullshit stops and away we go.”

Smith received a bouquet of flowers and a note from Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to mark that victory in Holland.

Learning to drive in a field in Old Bawn in Tallaght owned by her father, John Metcalfe Smith at 11 years old – he taught all three of his children, Pamela, Roger and Rosemary to swim and drive as important life skills – the wet, muddy surface proved to be a prescient schooling environment for her subsequent career.

Her father, who owned a garage at Rathmines, did a little racing at weekends as did her brother, Roger, but the family lacked the finance to embrace it on a more serious level. She left the Loreto Beaufort school at 15, trained at the Grafton Academy to be a dress designer – she also modelled – and opened her own boutique in Dublin on South Anne Street; it proved an unlikely conduit into motorsport.

Delphine Biggar, the wife of 1956 Monaco Rally winner, Frank, owned a coffee shop across the road and persuaded her to act as navigator in a rally in Kilkenny. It soon became apparent that Smith was a better driver and they swapped places, which suited both.

Her talent was quickly visible and she soon picked up a works’ drive with the Rootes Group and later British Leyland, Ford and Porsche among others. At five foot, 10 inches, she understood why her sponsors were not averse to employing her in an ancillary role for publicity purposes. At one point she made the front page of the Daily Mail, when barred from racing at Le Mans because she was a woman, a rule the organisers didn’t remove until 1971.

She said: “In the beginning I was a dizzy blonde, the young one with the blonde hair and false eyelashes. Then after I started winning things, there was a bit more of a grudging acceptance and then when I got the drive with Rootes in England they started to take note: ‘She must be quite good’.

“Now when I talk to some people I raced against, I get much more respect. They would say, ‘oh you beat us all ends up’ but they would never have done so at the time. To be beaten by a woman, that would never do.

“People thought we were making a fortune but we didn’t get paid for driving and what’s more the contracts permitted two mistakes and after the second one you were out.”

Perhaps the most glaring example of the sexism she experienced can be found in a quote from Lord Stokes, managing director of British Leyland, ahead of the 16,000-mile, London to Mexico rally in 1970. As Smith in the new Austin Maxi and her co-drivers prepared for the start at Wembley stadium, Stokes ventured: “Girls, if you get as far as Dover, we will be very pleased with you.”

Smith’s aside to her co-drivers was: “We are getting there [Mexico] come hell or high water.” And they did – racing through England, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico to finish 10th.

There are a few stories that sum up her determination and singular focus, the first when a mechanical failure threatened to end her participation in the London to Sydney rally at the foot of the Khyber Pass.

“I remember my father saying to me that if a car wouldn’t go forward it would usually go in reverse. So I reversed for 53km up the Khyber Pass. All I was intent on was getting to the top; I didn’t know how far it was at the time.”

On another occasion while driving a Porsche in the Geneva Rally, she narrowly avoided being killed when a shock absorber went, fell down and cut a brake pipe. “We were coming down a steep descent in the Alps at 3am. I put my foot on the brake, no brake. I could hear my dad’s voice saying, ‘snap down through the gears as fast as you can’. I did, yanked the handbrake, the nose swivelled, and we went into a wall.”

She looked across at her white-faced, co-driver Ginette Derolland who had been pleading with Smith a few seconds earlier to slow down. Smith asked why she had been so upset and the French girl explained that two of her friends had been killed at the exact same spot the previous year after failing to negotiate a sharp right-hand bend and plunging into a ravine.

In another adventure, two men in a small plane rescued her during the East Africa Rally, the car having become stuck in a pothole in the middle of nowhere in Kenya.

Arguably the most glaring example of her competitive instincts can be gleaned from a tale about her great friend and co-driver Pauline Gullick, someone Smith has turned “upside down, downside up and around in circles”.

One year the throttle cable went during the International Rally in Donegal. “I got her to sit on the wing of the car, pushing it [cable] down, the bonnet was up virtually to my face level, so that I could maintain acceleration. I could see very little out the windscreen, but we were up to third overall and I was keen to push.

“The next thing I hit a bump, going too fast, about 60 miles an hour, the bonnet cracked the windscreen and when I looked in the mirror I saw Pauline rolling down the road behind me. All I thought at that moment was, ‘oh damn, we are out of this event’. I didn’t think, ‘oh is she [Pauline] dead?’ It says something about my make-up obviously.” Pauline, like the friendship, survived.

Smith has overcome a great deal of adversity in her life outside racing too, including a fraught relationship with her late mother, Jane, miscarriages, a miserable marriage, a relationship that cost her a house, and much more, all of which are chronicled in her book, Driven (HarperCollins), written with her good friend Ann Ingle.

Yet despite this, she has never given up – a title she wanted for her autobiography – or backed down from a challenge. She retains a zest for life and new experiences and that’s why she argues, “I couldn’t be a dear old lady. I hope not anyway.”

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