As the only Chinese driver among the 28 qualifiers in 2019 W Series, Grace Gui is one of the trailblazers in motorsport in China. We had the opportunity to catch up with her to hear her thoughts on her own career, women in motorsport, and the growth of motorsport in China.
Starting from the back of the grid
Unlike most of the European drivers, Grace’s racing career didn’t start with karting when she was a child. She had seen Formula 1 races on TV when she was a kid, but most of her knowledge of motorsport came from video games of racing. Maybe the F1 races and video games planted something in her, but it didn’t come to fruition until she was in her 20s.
Before becoming a driver, Grace studied cinematography at Beijing Film Academy and almost collaborated with Zhang Yimou on a documentary. She was also an editor for an automotive magazine for five years. When asked about why she passed on working with Zhang Yimou, she said “I prefer a more relaxed and routine daily schedule and lifestyle. Working on a film crew might lead to health problems in the long fun. Of course I didn’t give up on photography after studying it for four years. I became an editor for automotive magazine because I liked cars since I was a child.” In the five years being an editor, because of her skill in photography, Grace was also sometimes asked to act as a journalist and a photographer at the same time.
In 2014, Grace got her racing license, and switched her career from an editor to a racing driver. At that time, she was 23 years old. Comparing to five times Formula 1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton, who was already GP2 World Champion and multiple F1 race winner at 22, this was a really late start. “If I started as a kid, my career must be very different. For racing, you gotta start young. For example, my friend Diana Rosario from Macau, she was working at karting tracks after school, and she could practice right there, that’s a really good way to get into it. For me I can only try to make it work for myself.” Even though she had a late start in her racing career, it didn’t take Grace long to have high achievements. In 2017, three years after she started racing, Grace finished second in Asian Formula Renault Class B. In 2019, she qualified as one of the 28 W Series qualifiers.
From China with speed
Even before W Series came along, Grace already considered training in Europe. “The industry is at a much higher level there than here in Asia. If you have the means to go there, it would be a really good opportunity to train and race there, especially for younger kids. Of course you’ll need either your family or your sponsors to pay for it. Without a big fat wallet, you just have to hope you don’t get into accidents so you don’t need to pay for repairs. That’s not possible.”
Then came W Series that didn’t require funding from the drivers, and Grace sent in her application. Unfortunately, she didn’t make it into the final driver list in the second round of driver selection, but at least she was able to show her ability in front of other drivers, and former F1 winner like David Coulthard.
“W Series driver selection was very comprehensive. It covered technical skills, physical abilities of different aspects, as well as team work, media, art and intellectual work. Even though English is not my first language, I communicated well with them. I think people in the W Series liked me, they think I’m humorous and like talking to me.”
“For 2019 season most of the tests were done at Melk. They put us into groups based on our age I believe. My group was for drivers between 27-29, I was in the same car with an American girl, others in our group are from India, France and the UK. Then in Almeria it was mostly just testing with the F3 car. I really like the idea that we don’t need to bring funding to W Series. It’s really difficult for a commercial race to be ran this way. The teams they gave us were really professional, and our cars were also nice.”
Driver selection for W Series allowed Grace to show her ability, but also let her reflect on the gap between motorsport culture in China and Europe. After all, China was almost 100 years behind Europe in that aspect. “Those European girls started young. Some of them would say they put together an F4 car at home. That’s really impressive. They were all amazing drivers.”
Besides the gap in motorsport culture, Grace also sees differences in physical features. “They also seem stronger than me and more energetic in a way. Tatuus F318 was really heavy. After maneuvering it for like 3-4 hours in the morning, we had to play tag under scorching sunshine in the afternoon. In the end I was really exhausted. But while waiting for the bus to go back to the hotel, the other girls could still manage to squeeze in some games like throwing a tennis ball. I really just wanted to lie down and preserve some energy for the next day. Maybe they were brought up on a different diet and more training. My advantage was in my flexibility and agility. Not everyone can do some of the yoga poses we were asked to do in the tests, but I can do all of them.”
As someone deeply involved in the industry, Grace had more to share regarding catching up with Europe in motorsport for China, “No one is doing something like W Series in China, not for male or female drivers, we are really behind the curve. There are actually a lot of people in China interested in getting into motorsport, but event organizers or government authorities don’t really care about cultivating the industry. Our race organizers are not very professional, sometime sponsors can decide the result of a race. Of course we are still making progresses, now more money is invested in motorsport, more karting tracks or smaller circuits have been built in Beijing, and parents are more willing to send their kids to try karting. Enterprises like Geely have also founded F4 and sportscar races in China. Many manufacturers are involved in CTCC and CRC, but motorsport is more like a branding platform than an R&D platform for them.”
“Overall we are still catching up, including our Shanghai International Circuit. It’s too far away from the city, the nicer hotels have only been built recently. The F1 race hasn’t helped the local economy enough. We didn’t leverage F1 as a commercial opportunity well enough. Only a small group of people care about motorsport in China.”
“Our country invested so much money in many other sports. For motorsport, we probably also need some state backing. I went for W Series and other international races on my own. But if you are the only one with a Chinese flag next to your name, you do feel like you are representing your country, you feel some kind of honor, and you feel like you are there for a cause. Unlike for example if you are from the UK, you see several other British drivers as well, then it feels differently. However, when you feel like you are representing the country, your country is not backing you up, they don’t think you are doing this for them.”
A photographer, a pianist, and most important of all, a DRIVER
As a professional driver, Grace doesn’t hold a day job any more. According to her, her driver salary isn’t enough to cover her training and repairs, so she also coaches drivers or take on photographer works to make money.
When cost of living is taken care of, Grace can settle down and train for races. She has a simulator at home so she can practice at home. She has physical trainings everyday in the gym. In terms of trainings on track, she would go to Beijing Goldenport International Circuit for track days, or travel to other cities, “I go train at SIC and ZIC often. The atmosphere and track condition is nice there. I can train for 3 days, then rest for one or two days, then train for another few days. It’s pretty convenient.”
Since she got her racing license in 2014, Grace has raced in road racing and rally, in single-seaters and sportscars. When asked about her preference and understanding of different types of racing, she said: “Different types of racing all have their uniqueness. You make friends in rally, you help others today and they might help you tomorrow. In road racing it’s all about wheel to wheel battle for 0.01s. Rally is long and hard, road racing is just a weekend but might be physically more demanding because of the high downforce. Sprint and Endurance races in road racing are also different. I like single-seater because its demand both physically and mentally, the cars are also more sensitive to your maneuver. Your decisions and actions must be careful, controlling the car is a true challenge to yourself.”
Grace comes off as a pretty ‘Zen’ person. It shows in her mindset towards racing. “Most people think I’m Zen, but actually I’m really focused and driven. I just adjust to results pretty fast. When you have good results, of course it makes you happy. But you still need to know there are people faster than you out there. If you didn’t have good pace in a race, feeling bad isn’t gonna help. You need to find the problem and deal with, whether it’s technical improvements or your own mental strength. I’m in a very competitive sport, even though I’m a Zen person in life, I have to be driven in a race. You can stand humbly next to your opponents, but to prove yourself you have to overtake them in the race. ”
Among all Chinese drivers, Han Han is perhaps the only one with fame from outside of motorsport, speaking about him, Grace has pretty high praises, “He’s a good driver. He raced road racing and rally. Some people thinks he’s just racing for fun, but Han really loves motorsport and is really dedicated to his career.” Besides his own racing career, Han Han also made two films about racing to help promote the sport in China, “We kind of circled back to our overall culture. After the films’ release most people were just going for the buzz. I really hope his films can generate more interests among teenagers for motorsport, as well as interest from our government and local sponsors.”
As the rare existence of female drivers, we inevitably arrived at the topic of pitting male driver against female driver. Speaking of female drivers’ advantage, Grace thinks they have better agility to take more pressure. Women also performs better when facing bigger shock and trauma. Men might get too excited and run off the track. Additionally, at least right now in China, because of the rarity, it’s relatively easy for female drivers to get sponsors. When asked whether she was ever discriminated against in the paddock, Grace felt she hasn’t experienced any of that.
After her own training and racing, Grace also watches Formula 1 races. She would catch up on the on-demand platforms if she can’t make it at the live feed. She wrote in her 2019 W Series profile that her racing hero is Max Verstappen. She said she wanted to write down herself but the organizers also requested that she write someone else in addition. She wrote Verstappen because she thinks he is a brave driver. He drives his own races regardless of what people think of him. Now her racing hero changed to Charles Leclerc. “He’s cute and shy, in this season I think he’s shown his abilities. Also he’s young with potential.”
Grace drives an Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, although the car can rarely be driven to show its top performance feature in Beijing’s traffic jam, “I don’t drive very fast on the road, I only push when I’m in a hurry to get to something.” For racing, Grace gave up skiing to avoid unnecessary injuries. “When I first started racing I was still skiing, but I got really beat up every time, so I stopped.” Now her hobby outside of racing is playing piano, “I’m just playing for fun. I started practicing when I was a kid. My parents were pushing me through the grading system and I really didn’t like practicing for the tests. So they allowed me to play just for fun not for the grades. Then I liked playing.”
This winter, Grace will be racing Asian F3. Even though SIC is not on the calendar this season, we still look forward to hearing her good results from the championship!
You can start too
If you are also thinking about getting into racing, or pave a racing career for your kid, Grace has some advice to share, “for those late starters like me, it really depends on what kind of funding you have. Enough funding can support you in races with professional drivers. If you don’t have enough money, it would be easier to race in amateur single-maker series where everyone is at similar level. If you don’t want to be the driver, you can also try being the co-driver. For kids, just start from karting. Don’t give up even if you don’t get enough sponsorship. You can always keep practicing, that doesn’t cost much. Races really burn through your funds.”
Racing is all about passion, you can keep going if you are passionate enough. You attitude drives your results. Even if you are not a professional racing driver, you can still book plenty of track days to keep racing.