The Sunday Post (Newcastle)


Trailblazi­ng Isla is forging a career in track racing and engineerin­g

- By Murray Scougall

It’s difficult for Isla Mackenzie to remember a time when she wasn’t behind the wheel.

Growing up on the Isle of Lewis, the family farm was her playground, and quad bikes – and occasional­ly tractors – were her transport of choice.

She was aged just seven the first time she drove one of the quads, and 12 when she and her brother took their mum’s car for a spin on the farm roads.

Today, 29-year-old Isla works for one of the world’s top Formula 1 teams, testing the engines for some of the biggest names in the sport, including Lewis Hamilton.

But she isn’t content with remaining on the sidelines. Isla is also an aspiring motorsport driver, having been signed up by a team that spotted her potential, and she is currently in training for her F3 debut.

As one of the few women in either of her jobs, Isla is making inroads and crashing through barriers in the hope that other females follow in her tyre treads.

“I’ve loved being behind the wheel of anything from as soon as I was old enough – well, not old enough, but since I was able to,” she laughed. “Even when I couldn’t reach the pedals, I would find something – one Christmas I got a mini quad – so I was always driving.

“I passed my test when I was 17 and my dad made me get a Fiesta. That didn’t last long. And then I got a Corsa. I had a few little cars with big engines put into them. I always had girl-racer type cars. I think that’s how people remember me at home – zooming around in noisy little project cars.”

Despite cars being her passion, the idea of it being a career seemed like a non-starter to Isla, who was also a keen horse rider in her childhood.

“I felt quite lost and conflicted in what to study when I was in my last year at school,” she said. “Everyone around me was going away to university so I felt I had to do something. My interests were mechanics and cars, and animals. So I went off to do zoology and I lasted three months. My gut was screaming that it wasn’t for me, so I had the courage to step away from it. When I look back, I wonder if I didn’t have the courage to do that, would I be where I am now.”

Isla went home and enrolled in an HNC Engineerin­g course at her local college. She loved it. She thought she would go into the oil and gas sector like her brother but, when she saw the University of the West of Scotland offered a degree in Motorsport Design Engineerin­g, she knew she had found her perfect course.

“I’m the type of person who always has to be doing something, so during my degree I was marshallin­g at Scottish Rally Championsh­ips and starting up a little engine tuning business. I thought I would end up starting a performanc­e garage in Glasgow or maybe working with the World Rally Championsh­ip, but I had been firing my CV out everywhere in my final year and I received an email from Williams inviting me for an interview.

“They had picked my name out of a huge pile of applicatio­ns – I

Ihada few little cars with big engines put into them

learned later only three of us were invited for an interview.

“My unique journey – not only of where I had come from but of volunteeri­ng at these events and doing the engine tuning and everything else – had made me stand-out and I was offered the job.” Just two weeks after completing her course, Isla packed up her belongings and headed south to begin working with the F1 team.

It was a huge learning curve, but one she took to with ease as she began testing the engines of some of the fastest cars in the world. After working with Williams, she moved on to Mercedes, home of Lewis Hamilton.

But Isla wasn’t content with being confined to the factory floor so, when she spotted a competitio­n looking for women who had never raced profession­ally before, she entered the contest.

“I made it all the way to the last-50 girls. Some of the girls had been racing for years and were doing quite well and I basically had nothing, so that made me think there was maybe something there. I was picked up by a carting team and it’s gone on from there.

“I didn’t expect any of this. I’m very ambitious and always set what are perhaps unrealisti­c goals but, in hindsight, this has gone even better than I dreamed. I didn’t think I would still be racing a few years on from the competitio­n.”

A new documentar­y to be screened across the BBC network this week follows Isla as she prepares for her F3 debut. It examines her journey in what is a male-dominated sector and her love of home.

“I say in the documentar­y that I was the only girl in the room at college and it was the first time

I’d been in that situation,” she explained. “I’m glad I had the confidence to keep going. At university, I was one of two girls. At Williams, I was the first woman to work in that department.

“The whole journey has been like that, so I had no choice but to get used to it. Now that I’m racing and I’m the only one or one of a few, I feel more prepared for it. Obviously it’s not great but that’s how it is at the moment.

“The F1 teams are great at initiative­s for under-represente­d groups and I always volunteer to be involved. I love when women message me and ask how they can get into it. A lot of the initiative­s are aimed at younger girls, but it’s also important to highlight that we need role models now. We need people like me on TV and racing now, to spark interest in women of any age or from remote parts of the world.”

Isla’s love of home sits close with her in everything she does – even her racing helmet is custom-designed to reflect her upbringing.

“I have the Isle of Lewis outline with the flag going through it, while the greeny-blue colour reminds me of the clear water at home, and the splash at the front with the stars is taken from my favourite beach, and I also have the Mackenzie tartan on there,” she said. “I think you appreciate where you come from more when you leave it, and I’m so grateful to have grown up in Lewis.”

Isla is excited to see what opportunit­ies might come along after the documentar­y is broadcast. Whatever happens, she still has big dreams to chase.

“I know driving in F1 is unrealisti­c, but I don’t think it’s unrealisti­c to be linked in an ambassador­ial role,” she added. “In terms of racing, I hope to do something like GB4 next year and then target America, like the Indy cars.

“If I was a full-time racing driver and my day job was going to the gym, racing and visiting schools, that would be a dream. So I’ ll keep chipping away to get to that.”

Fast Track To Glory: Our Lives, BBC One, Friday, 7.30pm

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 ?? ?? F1 driver Lewis Hamilton.
F1 driver Lewis Hamilton.
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 ?? Pictures BBC ?? Isla Mackenzie is just as much at home in a tractor or in a racecar.
Pictures BBC Isla Mackenzie is just as much at home in a tractor or in a racecar.

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