“My favorite part of racing is the speed.”
This is Ella Stevens who, at just 13 years old, is fighting for a chance to drive for the most famous team in Formula One – Ferrari.
This fall Stevens faces a series of challenges, on and off track at the Paul Ricard circuit in France, with the ultimate prize a place on the prestigious Ferrari Driver Academy as its first female racer.
“It’s a very good opportunity for me,” Ella, already a British karting champion, tells CNN. “We have to do a few fitness tests in the first phase and some karting so that they can see our driving.”
When asked what a place at the Ferrari Academy would mean to her, she says simply: “That would be very good.”
The Academy is, in fact, a breeding ground for future racing stars. Its current crop includes Mick Schumacher, the son of legendary Ferrari driver Michael, Enzo Fittipaldi, whose grandfather Emerson was a double F1 world champion, as well as Arthur Leclerc, the younger brother of Ferrari’s current F1 firecracker Charles.
On the face of it, it’s no place for a 13-year-old girl from a small village in England – who already has a mountain to climb as a female in a sport still dominated by males.
After all, a female has not raced in F1 for more than 40 years, and just six women have taken part in a grand prix weekend.
But Stevens is being supported in her quest by a popular figure in the F1 community, Rob Smedley. He worked as a Ferrari engineer for more than a decade and is now mentoring Stevens through his own Electroheads Talent Academy.
Smedley describes Ferrari’s search for a potential female racer as a “huge step.”
“Having a major player in the sport, with such a rich history as Ferrari, leading on this has to be applauded,” he tells CNN. “It’s absolutely amazing that they want to do this and they’re taking positive action to increase the gender diversity within the sport.”
“We felt we had to make a further effort to expand our area of operation to include female youngsters who want to get on in motorsport,” Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto said in a statement.
“Although there is no actual barrier to their participation, we are aware that it is harder for women to progress in this field.”
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Whatever the outcome with Ferrari, Stevens already has the raw talent and raw speed to go far in motorsport.
Aged 10, she became a British karting champion – the same age as Lewis Hamilton when he also won the cadet class karting championship. She added another title in 2018 and settled for joint-champion in a 2020 winter karting series shortened by the Covid-19 outbreak.
“I’d love to be a professional racing driver and possibly make it to Formula 1,” Stevens says with the shy demeanor of a teenager.
“My brother and my Dad have always been into motorsport. I really like the speed as well, so that’s kind of a big thing.
“I started karting when I was six years old. I first had a go in a Bambino kart at a track in Wales and I really liked it.
“I was a bit scared at first but I got used to it and got faster and faster. It’s very exciting. My favorite part is probably the speed, it’s always something to look forward to when you go out on track and you’re waiting on the grid.
“I don’t really get scared because I’m mostly just concentrating on my racing.”
Stevens is the first driver signed to the talent academy co-founded by Smedley, who immediately spotted her talent.
“Watching her on the circuit, and looking at her data, she’s clearly really quick,” says Smedley, who famously came within a whisper of engineering Felipe Massa to at the F1 world title in 2008.
“Talented drivers have an innate ability to process a lot of information and look at one, two, three, four moves ahead.
“If you see Ella and the amount of incidents she’s involved in, her spacial awareness and how she’s able to circumnavigate situations that clearly is a demonstration of talent.”
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Stevens is also coached by W Series race-winner Alice Powell who rates her protege as a “big talent.”
“She’s already won a karting championship and numerous races so she’s experienced success,” adds Powell. “She’s also had difficult times and has done well to overcome them. She deserves an opportunity to try and get a place in the Ferrari Academy.
“Ella definitely has huge potential to step up into Formula 1.”
For now, Stevens is balancing her driving passion with normal life as a teenager, juggling school and a social life.
“What I normally do is as soon as I get home from school I get my work done and in between that I do all my fitness and my swimming,” Ella explains. “Then I have all weekend to just concentrate on my racing.
“My Mum and Dad are very supportive and sometimes my brother helps out. My friends don’t really know much [about her karting] – but I’d rather keep it that way because it’s easier.”
Smedley says coaching a young driver isn’t a huge leap from working from established stars like Massa – as an engineer he can teach any driver about race craft, tire preservation and fuel management – but he is careful about managing expectation.
“You can’t put too much pressure on people that age - it just won’t work,” he says. “We want our Academy drivers to be dedicated to the sport and their purpose but we understand that they’re young people, they have a school career, an education to get and that’s massively important.
“There are driver programs out there which encourage young people to forgo their education. It’s not necessary, it’s an absolute folly.”
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Stevens and her team know that motorsport is a very difficult road. Talent is not always given an opportunity to shine and, when the seats at the very top are limited, it is still a sport where money talks.
For example, Williams driver Nicolas Latifi is the only rookie on F1’s 2020 grid but his father Michael is a Canadian tycoon who also owns a stake in the McLaren team and financed a loan to Williams during the hard-hitting pandemic. Another wealthy Canadian businessman, Lawrence Stroll, is able to ensure a racing opportunity to his son Lance as owner of the Racing Point F1 team.
If drivers don’t come from privileged backgrounds then they have to be able to find funding through sponsors, something even seven-time champion Michael Schumacher was dedicated to during his junior career.
“The hardest thing in motorsport is probably finding sponsorship,” says Stevens. “It’s a lot of money and quite a struggle unless you have a lot of money compared to all of the other people out there who can afford the top engines [for example].”
Then there’s the inescapable conundrum that Ella is also a girl, and there’s not been a female racer in F1 since 1976, despite attempts from talented test drivers such as Susie Wolf and Tatiana Calderon.
Powell, who races in the all-female championship W Series, explains: “To break the barrier, and to encourage more girls into the sport, you need to get a female into F1. Male drivers have the likes Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel to look up to but the younger females haven’t got a role model.”
Ferrari’s scheme, in collaboration with the FIA and its Women in Motorsport Commission, is, however, another small breakthrough. Stevens is one of 25 female racers aged between 12 and 16 who have been selected for the shoot-out for a spot on Ferrari’s Driver Academy.
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Smedley has also launched his own e-karting program which aims to lower the cost of karting and reach a new, more diverse demographic. Stevens is one of three drivers in the Electroheads Talent Academy, whose mission is for talent to earn rewards not spending power.
With nearly 20 years experience in F1, Smedley also plans to activate his network to create more opportunities for young racers like Stevens.
“We are massive friends of W Series, that will definitely be an avenue to look at with Ella,” he explains. “But it can’t stop there, we want it to go on. We want to use our big network of friends in Formula One and Formula E, to ensure that we’re leveraging those relationships to create opportunities for Ella.”
Stevens has also noticed that there are more girls competing in karting, the grassroots of all forms of motorsport.
“Recently I have been seeing a lot of girls getting into karting,” she says. “I’ve seen quite a few on the weekends I go racing on the same grid as me, which is a change.”
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Stevens’ team is doing all it can to try and give her an edge from fitness programs, lessons in race craft, off-track media training and nutrition.
Powell recalls with a smile how she was particularly impressed when, after a post-race visit to a service station McDonald’s, Stevens asked for carrot sticks as a dessert rather than ice cream.
“Ella’s got a lot of work to do, she knows that,” she adds. “There’s a lot of ways to improve on and off track in terms of fitness and the mental side of the sport.
“It’s going to be a big test at Paul Ricard in October but Ella is determined to work hard and do the best that she can.”
This holistic approach to a career in motorsport could be crucial when there are still glass ceilings for girls like Stevens to break through.
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Towards the end of CNN’s video interview, it is a window, rather than a metaphorical glass ceiling, that has got Stevens distracted. Powell explains there are go-karts on track and Stevens is itching to get out there.
Over many years interviewing drivers, especially F1 drivers, almost without exception they zone out of interviews when cars appear on track – any cars.
Perhaps this more than anything shows that Stevens is a real deal racing driver – because to her it’s the racing that matters most.