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Pace Notes: The Apex Interviews Catie Munnings

This week we are excited to interview one of Britain's most promising racing talents, rally driver and Red Bull sponsored athlete Catie Munnings. Catie shot to fame in 2016 after winning the FIA European Rally Championship Ladies’ Trophy, becoming the first Briton to win a European rally title for 49 years. She's since gone from strength to strength in the WRC, and is at the cutting edge of FIA-sanctioned offroad racing, having recently joined the Andretti United Extreme E Team for the inaugural 2021 season. She talked to us about her career so far, the dynamics of driving a rally car properly, and why electric motorsport is perfect for petrolheads.

Hector Kociak interviews Catie Munnings for The Apex by Custodian. Recorded and Produced by Jeremy Hindle and Guillaume Campos.  Transcribed by David Marcus. Edited by Hector Kociak & Charles Clegg.

Source: Andretti Autosport

You're an all-round athlete and a keen motorcyclist as well as a rally driver. Could you tell us about how you got into rallying, and what attracted you to it over circuit racing, motorcycle racing or even other sports?

I actually started out in lots of other sports when I was at school. I was one of those kids that just did everything outdoors to try and avoid going inside. So I loved and competed at a national level in pentathlon, working every day with a coach after school. Then I went into dancing, and I loved that as well, and the national netball team! I think being active and competitive has always been in my blood. My dad actually used to be a rally driver, but never really had the budget to do it properly. He was very fast however, faster than the guy that went on to be world champion. He just never had the right shot, so he started a rally school at Brands Hatch, the London Rally School, and he was an instructor there. After that he started a motorsport entertainment company which he ran from the family farm, and that's where I grew up - so that's how I got into motorsport.

I would come up from school and there would be lots of instructors out on quad bikes in the field and I would go and join them, or I would be driving around old cars, so it was a very varied upbringing. My dad didn’t sit me down and say right - you're going to go into motorsport. I think the offroad element initially attracted me because that's what I found fun. I loved the changing conditions, I loved the instinct that you have to have as a driver to react in the moment. I hadn't come from an engineering background, as single seater racers often do, knowing exactly which gear you're going to be in for which corner and working with your engineer to manage loads of different things. It was more of an instinctive and spontaneous kind of passion that I had, and that I followed into rallying. So that's probably why I chose rally over more ‘conventional’ forms of motorsport.

A petrolhead from a young age starting out on quads on her family's farm. Source: Catie Munnings

It seems like that instinctive element and being on the edge of control is definitely something characteristic of offroad racing. Moving on, you won the FIA European Rally Championship Ladies’ Trophy at a young age and have been working up to being a really serious competitor in the WRC. In your experience what does a good rally driver need, and what mindset helps you achieve your best stage times?

You know, there's so many people out there that are so talented. I know so many people that I've come across in my career - other drivers, even engineers and mechanics - who are really talented behind the wheel. So I think the number one thing is actually just having the opportunity to drive. It sounds stupid, it's not really like just picking up your tennis racket and going and playing tennis, but I think the whole issue around budget in motorsport, and how inaccessible it is for people is a really tough pill to swallow. It’s the biggest limiting factor that we have in motorsport. And that was me for absolutely years. When I was in the European Championship I was still running off my teammates' second-hand tyres that he would take off after he had finished, as I couldn't afford to have a fresh set of tires every service. If you can get backing to do it properly, I think it's very much luck of the draw. It's a really hard one, because people often ask ‘how did you start out in motorsport?’, and I think you've just got to work with what you've got. Psychologically, don't try and control what you can't control.

There's always people that are going to be out testing more than you. There's always people who are going to have more budget, who are going to be doing more rallies with more experience, and that's just life. It's just about making the best of what you've got, and not overwhelming yourself thinking about what other people are doing.

I've been watching onboards of yours and what really struck me is that going down these twisting tracks, you'll have your co-pilot giving you the instructions and the mental load of having to deal with the road and all of the small judgements you have to make. Are you in some sort of flow state while driving, and did you have to learn how to just handle all of that information at once?

I think it's definitely a case of being in the flow. When I was starting out, my dad always used to say to me that you'll know you've done a good stage when you get to the end and you think ‘how have I got here?’. I always used to wonder what he was talking about, because you're really trying to focus on the pace notes, but actually after you've written them yourself, it's your own language. After a few rallies of practising with it, it’s like speaking English, in the same way that I'm not really thinking about the words that are coming out my mouth to you right now. It's the same sense of translation when a co-driver is telling you where the road is going to go. With a ‘three left’, you don't even think about what that is any more. You just visualise, and know exactly how much you need to turn the steering wheel, how the car is going to slide beneath you. It frees up your mind for other things, for the little details that you need to be watching out for on the road.

I think it also depends on where you are mentally. If you're really nervous or anxious or if you're stressed, all of those things massively impact you. When I had a massive crash on one of the rallies that I did, Bryan Bouffier - an amazing rally driver - said to me: “you've got to have a goldfish memory in rallying”. You can't go into the next day thinking, oh my God I crashed yesterday, what if I do it again today? He said that shows even down to the split second if you have a near crash in a stage and it kind of shakes you up a bit. I mean we've all been there on the road, when you get that kind of adrenalin rush through your body...

And you don't tell anyone afterwards!

Exactly - you spend the next three minutes thinking ‘what happened there?’. Obviously in a rally it's really easy to do that as well, and then you've missed the next pace note, and that's often when the bigger crashes happen. So I think it does take a while to learn in motorsport.

I work with a sports psychologist who created an mp3 audio file for me, which is awesome. It simulates the start of a rally stage - time controls, the start of the engine, it’s just how the rally would begin. I sit at home and listen to it; you go through the emotions. My coach would tell me to feel happy and confident and calm during it, because for me that was what worked. For some drivers it's about psyching yourself up, but for me I can always focus better when I'm calm and confident. We also used the mental trigger of putting my gloves on; apparently when I put my gloves on in real life, that neuron connection is already there. It's like building muscle, so it's then a natural reaction to get yourself into a calm, happy and confident state. That took me a while, because sometimes I'd go into the drive really aggressively and just try too hard. Often when you try too hard is when you're slowest.

Hearing about that is fascinating - I’m sure some people find it easier than others. Moving on, I wanted to talk about the new Extreme E Championship, which has huge names like Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button participating as team owners and attracting the world's best drivers. You're part of the powerhouse Andretti United Team alongside Timmy Hansen - what excited you about the championship and drew you in?

It just doesn’t sound like something that would happen, does it? I remember when I first heard about Extreme E and had a call with them about being in the driver's pool. We had to have a couple of calls actually, because at first I was like - but this is dreaming isn't it? A floating paddock that's going round to the Amazon and Greenland… what are you talking about, how’s that going to work?! It’s the element of the unknown, which is still there in many ways. I was at the launch on the ship (the St Helena) last week, seeing all the bedrooms being fitted; they've got laboratories going in too, it's just crazy seeing it happen in real life. Then they tell you that, oh yes, we haven't got any phone signal in half the places that we're going to, we're doing these amazing conservation projects before we race, and then we're racing in some of the most amazing spots where people would usually backpack... I just thought, wow, okay I'm going to have to say yes to this one.

I signed up way before all the big names entered; now it's like a race of champions for some of the teams that have lined up. I’m really happy with Andretti United, it's a real family vibe and I think Timmy is my perfect counterpart. We just clicked instantly - he's the male version of me. I mean it's ridiculous, down to the point that we both have the same eating habits. We have to eat every couple of hours otherwise we get hangry! I'm just really excited to get going, and nobody knows what's going to happen, but that's part of the fun.

Sounds like a fantastic pairing. I was looking at the Extreme E driver roster and there are seriously impressive names from all over motorsport - Sebastian Loeb, Christina Gutierrez… it sounds like it's going to be brilliant.

As to the car itself, the Odyssey 21, how does it compare to rally cars in terms of power delivery and dynamics? What is it like driving one of those things?

Having driven the equivalent four wheel drive rally car, I think it is much easier in the sense that you don't have so much to think about. There's no gears, and that sounds stupid, but it is quite a big part of rallying in that when you're coming up to a corner, there's often a lot to do. Let's say you're coming up to a sudden hairpin; you've usually got to bang down the gears, whereas now you're just braking and getting ready with the handbrake. It takes a lot of the stress out from the driving side.

One of the other obvious things is the noise, or lack of it. I grew up an absolute petrolhead who loved standing in the forest and hearing the rally cars go past, but I think electrification is coming whether we like it or not. The next generation won't know any different, so it's just one of those things that we have to adapt to. From the driving side, it was quite funny the first time that me and Timmy sat next to each other. On the start line you don't get as revved up because you don't hear the noise of it, so it's just quite a shock when you accelerate and it’s more powerful than a WRC car. It’s just this crazy juxtaposition of it being so calm and quiet and having so much instant torque coming out of corners. It’s nice because, as I was saying to Timmy, you could make a lot of mistakes and still look like a hero in this car. You don't really have to carry momentum because you just have instant torque all the time.

Then there are funny things that you wouldn't think about, like locking wheels for example. Normally in a rally car or a rallycross car, when you lock the wheels the first sense you have of that is a knocking sound, and you don't get that at all in the Extreme E car. It's just this kind of silence, and you have to then adjust. Timmy and I didn't even realise we were locking wheels to start with, because it's normally such a powerful noise, and so we had to start learning to feel it a bit more through the seat and be a bit more sensitive to it. So yes, it is an adjustment, but I wouldn't say it's overpoweringly different. It's still an awesome race car. Hopefully people will accept that the world is moving into an electric state and take it for what it is.

It's interesting that driving this electric race car actually makes you more mechanically sympathetic. Have you and Timmy swapped notes all the way through testing, tweaking and learning the car as you go?

Yes, definitely. When we first got involved in Extreme E the format was going to be a male and female pairing, one driving, the other co-driving, and then you switch. We always assumed that we would be in together in the car. It was only quite recently that they decided it would be one at a time; during our preparations we both decided that we wanted to sit next to each other, because you don't get a lot of time in these testing environments. We're used to just chucking petrol in and going, whereas we now have to wait a few hours for the battery to charge between testing blocks. I think it was important for us to feel everything that we could, whether it was through the driver's side or the co-driver's side, because you're almost learning doubly quickly.

Timmy is awesome. I was quite nervous about the whole team mate situation, especially between some of the top names in motorsport and then us girls as well. I was thinking to myself that it has to be a team sport, and I really hoped that I would get someone who would recognise that and would work together on it. Timmy completely gets it however - he sat down in testing said, ‘well, there's no point in me driving fast if you're not going to go equally fast; I think we should really work together on this and then we can make both of us fast’. By the end of testing it was like, okay you're faster on this corner than me, I'm faster on this corner than you, so what are you doing? We would overlay the onboards and he's a perfectionist from that side, which is really useful for me as well. Obviously sharing the car it's the same set up, so you both have to adapt. I think the ones that are going to be successful in Extreme E will be the teams that are able to work together as a really solid unit.

Source: Andretti United Extreme E

I'm excited just listening to you talk about it! Talking of modern racing and rallying, part of that is the increased media focus, the 24-hour news cycle and the need to have a personal brand as a driver. How do you think this makes the role of a driver in 2021 easier or more difficult than back in the day, and what have your experiences been of the professional world?

When you think about the brands that sponsor motorsport, I think this new championship is opening up the doors really. There's no brand that I can really think of that wouldn't want to align themselves with it. I know that there's a lot of talks behind the scenes; you see sponsors dropping out of combustion powered racing because they're moving in the other direction, working on making themselves more carbon neutral, and even major car manufacturers are pulling out because they want to put budget and emphasis into the electric side. So I think it's a really good place to be professionally, as a championship and as a driver thinking of your career and also the future of motorsport as a whole. It's putting the emphasis in the right direction and when I've spoken to people in the industry, even sponsors or traditional manufacturers, the interest around it is so much bigger than conversations that I've had around combustion-powered racing. There's a general awakening going on at the minute.

I know that it's also one of the highly talked about and discussed topics outside of specific championships. It's not that welcome with the more ‘traditional’ sorts of fans - and I completely get it because I was that person! More than anyone, I am willing to stand in the freezing cold in Wales just to hear the rally car going past me. I completely understand the sentiment. But I think it is inevitable. I was watching the news last night and Jenson Button was on there talking about Extreme E, and he just said ‘it's coming whether we like it or not, and I think the best thing that we can all do is we can guarantee that it will be exciting racing’. That's nothing to do with the car or the noise or anything. That's to do with the people that are behind it, the teams that are behind it and the championship formats that we're producing. So Extreme E is ticking that box. I know the noise thing is the biggest thing for most people, and I understand that, but I just think soon you're not going to walk away from an event smelling of petrol and fumes. The next generation won't know any different, and I think they will be as excited by electric racing as we were growing up with petrol racing I think.

It's a good opportunity for all of this to be a driver-led scene as well. As you're talking I'm thinking of people like Lewis Hamilton, who seem to dictate on what people focus on in Formula 1 in all respects. It's a really interesting time for that.

Turning to the media, you were the presenter of Catie's Amazing Machines on CBeebies and I know that you've raced in some very high profile events like the Ice Race in Zell am See for Bentley. Taking all of that as a whole, are there any non-rally cars or machines that you've encountered during those races and programmes which you particularly enjoyed driving?

Oh so many, that's such a difficult question. More difficult than ‘where do you see yourself in five years’, I think! When I was doing the CBeebies show it was so much fun. I would be filming two different machines every day, so it was really full on at the time. Don't get me wrong, sometimes I thought I was absolutely crazy for taking it on as well as the school term. It was 20 episodes, but we filmed it all in a really short space of time. It was bang in the middle of my European Championship season, and obviously everything had its own deadlines, so I would fly back from a race event and go straight into filming and vice versa.  

In the end I was thinking if I went into another year of racing, and the BBC had another two seasons commissioned, I would be doing half a job on each. And that's not really who I am or who I want to be, so it was a tough decision. Doing it, I got to drive some amazing stuff. I drove a snow plough up in the Val Thorens ski resort before the lifts opened for the day, and I created a jump, the sun was just coming up… I think that was definitely a cool one!

Did you go over the jump in something fast?

We ran out of time actually, because when I was coming back down the run there were skiers coming down next to me, and it was the most scary thing ever...

I was half expecting you to say that you had done a jump in the snowplough, which would have been quite something.

Oh no, I wasn’t trusted in it! They put out another snowplough behind me because I didn't realise how difficult it is to try and make a smooth track, and I was making bumps all over the place. They had a guy behind me just tidying up my mess before the skiers went down there.

Ah, found the rally driver! So given all that, can we expect to see Catie Munnings smashing a performance car around the Nordschleife for something like Top Gear in years to come?

Well I was actually filming “A League Of Their Own” with Freddie Flintoff in a rally car along with Jack Whitehall, Alex Scott and Jamie Redknapp. It was really cool seeing them all - that will be out soon actually. I can't say too much about what happened, but it's definitely worth a watch.

...an insight into ‘different’ driving styles, probably?

Yeah, I think it was! I went with Jack and Freddie. Freddie is obviously on Top Gear all the time. Jack hadn't even got his driving license, and we were out in an R2 Ford, a stock car for the Junior World Rally Championship.

It's a proper car.

It was interesting, not least because we were filming with COVID protection and had a perspex screen between us, so I couldn't even grab the hand brake when I needed it... so yes, I'd recommend watching that one!

That sounds like a lot of fun. As we're coming up to the end of our time, I've just got a few more quick fire questions to ask. The first of those is: do you have any racing heroes or people you particularly admire in your field?

Definitely, I think Michèle Mouton is a big one, for paving the way for women in motorsport. Sébastian Ogier always seems to pull it back when everyone looks to him and thinks oh, his race is over or there's pressure on him now and there's no way a human can perform in that situation. He has got mental ability that's beyond any driver I've seen. Lastly, probably my dad. He’s been a big inspiration in helping me through my career at times when I would have given up. He's definitely got something in perseverance and he's taught me a lot about holding onto your dreams. So yes, I think they're probably my top three.

That's a great answer. On that theme of perseverance: what's the most difficult rally or rally stage you've ever raced and why?

Probably the Azores. I still can't believe we go around the rim of the volcano, right at the top. I think there's a 500-foot drop off the side into what was the crater. There's the lake at the bottom, and it's a beautiful scenery, but there's no barriers or anything. If you go off there, that's it - big time. I remember I nearly crashed at the top. There's a video that I put on YouTube of it. My co-driver said look, just take it easy around here, we've got nothing to win on this, just get round the top and then we can race down the side. Literally about five kilometres into the stage, right at the top, what did I do? Clipped a bank and span -  luckily the right way, and not into the volcano. I think that they were talking about moving the stage because the organisers had said that nobody had any idea of how hard they’d worked to make it approved by the FIA...

...and now you'd made it look like Mario Kart.

Hah, exactly! I think now the stage is not in quite the same location but still, it's an incredibly difficult rally, racing on the volcanic rock. It's just something else.

The rather close shave with a volcano! Credit: Catie's YouTube 

I think that's something that people underestimate. When you are actually there and you can see the drop, that must tighten up your driving up a bit. It's just insane to think that you can just fly off the side of a mountain if you get an input slightly wrong.

I know. I remember the first year that I did it, there weren’t actually any hay bales in places in that section. For some years they put out hay bales on the apex that was closest to the drop, and I just thought that a hay bale is not going to stop anyone - not the kind of four wheel drive high-spec rally car that would just nudge it out of the way! But I guess it makes you feel a little bit more confident.

Source: Andretti United Extreme E

My last question is, I think, one where we need to set the record straight once and for all. On a rainy night in Wales, what is Catie Munnings' favourite rally stage snack? I have to preface this by saying that when we asked David Gandy a similar question, he talked about his endless drives to get prawn sandwiches from M&S service stations...

Hah, I love a prawn sandwich from M&S as well, but I don't normally have space for it in my rally car! For me, I know it's not the most nutritious, but for a little boost, I love a midday Mars Bar and a can of Red Bull. When I've had a nutritious lunch there will always be some energy bars there, but there's something about that combination. I absolutely love it halfway through the day. I don't normally drink that much caffeine when I'm not racing, and I don't really eat sugary stuff either. My sister is a nutritionist so we eat very healthily at home, so I only ever have it when I need it, usually after a long week of reccies and 4am starts. When tiredness hits you halfway through race day and you're in that kind of calm zone, it's ideal for when you need to psyche yourself back up!

Well I think that's one that the listeners should take to heart. Catie, it's been an absolute pleasure having you on today for a wonderful interview. Thanks for talking to us, and all the very best in Extreme E and your future rallying outings!

Thank you very much!

You can keep up to date with all Catie's latest news on her website at https://www.catiemunnings.com/ or on her Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/projectktrallye/. For more details about Andretti United Extreme E at https://www.andrettiunitedexe.com/.


The Apex Team

The Apex Team

The Apex Editorial Team @Custodian: Charles Clegg - Interviewer, Hector Kociak - Editor, Jeremy Hindle - Production, David Marcus - Transcription