Our Woman of the Week is Naomi Panter, known by her teammates as 'Pants'. She started her motorsport career as one of the founding members of Current E. At the end of Formula E's first season, she was offered a role as PR and Communications Manager for Mahindra Racing.
Naomi at Buddh International Circuit. Photo credit: Nick Heidfeld
Bridget Schuil: What was your first memory of motorsport?
Naomi Panter: It's something I got from my dad - he has always been a huge fan of cars and of racing. Some of my earliest motorsport memories are of watching F1 on TV. My dad was a big Damon Hill fan. I remember him winning the World Championship, and his years against Villeneuve. Along with that, I remember going to a couple of classic car rallies. My dad's passion was always classic cars. I went along to a few, and remember loving the sounds and smells of the cars.
My mum was also a big inspiration, although she was more interested in bikes. She met my dad when they were both working in the hotel in Banbury. It was one of the hotels used by a lot of the racing teams around the time of the British Grand Prix. They would often tell me stories of people in motorsport coming to stay in the hotel, like the time they found the nose cone of a Marlboro McLaren birthday cake or the time they cooked and served Alain Prost his breakfast the morning he won the British Grand Prix. (As a family, we take a teeny bit of credit for fuelling that win. Not that I’d dare say that to him now in the paddock.)
BS When did you decide to pursue a career in motorsport?
NP It's almost embarrassing, because it sounds so recent. I always dreamed of working in motorsport, but it was never a realistic goal for me. My background is in architecture; there was never a direct translation of my skills into motorsport, which I always assumed was either racing, or engineering and technology. Ireland has a very strong heritage of motorsport, but it wasn't really accessible where I lived in Limerick.
I remember distinctly when I decided to push for a career in motorsport. It was just before the British Grand Prix in 2013 – the year Hamilton's tyre blew up. I had tickets to the Grand Prix, which was my first ever Formula One race. My dad and I drove from Ireland, and we took the time to explore the area around Silverstone. We went to Woodstock and Banbury, and the towns were filled with team members wearing their kit, all preparing for the weekend ahead. It was that feeling of the motorsport community, and the heritage of racing, and a sense of them doing something monumental. It was there and then that I made the decision to spend the next few years pushing really hard to make a career in motorsport and to be creative about how I would get there.
Winning the VW Ireland Journalists' Hot Lap Competition. Photo credit: Paddy McGrath
BS You mentioned you were an architect. How did you get from architecture to your current role?
NP So yeah, I trained as an architect. My interest was always in the creative. The five year course was the hardest thing I've ever done. It was incredible, it was intensive, and it taught me a lot about a wide array of things. Architects are famous for knowing a little about a lot, in that they have a very broad skill-set. This means that you can think about things in minute detail while also considering something on the scale of an entire building. If you translate that into what I'm doing, it's very much a similar idea – we're not talking about a building, but we're talking about putting together a race weekend and building an entire community. It's important to be able to see the end goal while focussing on the minute details that need to get you there.
BS Who have you found to be the most supportive person in your motorsport career?
NP As I've said, my partnership with Ross is one that I treasure, and I don't think either of us would have got to where we are now without each other. It was a very complimentary partnership, and one that certainly drove me; I think it drove Ross as well. And Ross introduced me to the Formula E paddock.
BS That's an interesting route to take. How did you reposition yourself for work in motorsport?
NP Well, I graduated in the middle of a recession, in 2011. There weren't many opportunities, but I was lucky in that I was never out of work. I worked on a sustainable transport project straight out of University for three years and quickly moved towards the PR and creative side of the project. I wasn't used to only working nine to five. Regularly, in architecture school, we would skip one night’s sleep each week, just to get things done. I used the free time that I suddenly had to start to experiment with motorsport. I used mornings, evenings, and weekends to start working on various projects.
I was lucky that the first person I met was Ross Ringham at Current E, which was essentially a technical blog at that time. Formula E was still in its early stages. A lot of teams and drivers hadn't been announced. From the first conversation, we had a very similar vision. We knew that this was a great opportunity to get stuck in and make something cool that people would respond to – me working on the graphic, creative side, and Ross on the editorial side. That began a partnership that I really treasure. Ross and I worked very hard, and started working with Shivy (Shivraj Gohill) on photograhy. About halfway through the Formula E season, Dan (Bathie) joined us as well. It was a very good professional partnership, even though we were only communicating via WhatsApp and the occasional Skype, which is amazing, looking back.
Ross’ cheeky approach of (and I’m paraphrasing) “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission” has certainly helped us get very far, and I'm very proud of what we achieved in the first year. I’m glad that Ross, Shivy, Dan and I still work together on some projects. I've learned an enormous amount from all of them. That quality of their work has never faded, and if anything is just continuing to improve. It's wonderful to watch how Current E's profile is still expanding. Even though I don't wear the Current E across my sleeve any more, I am immensely proud of what we all built together.
Naomi trying a car out for size at the London ePrix
BS What are the biggest challenges you face in motorsport?
NP Well, my role in motorsport isn't a traditional one. I didn't get my job through an agency, or working in a motorsport setting. I got to where I am in a very different way. The challenge for me so far was getting here, and I hope my work will speak for itself and allow me to stay. I personally find it quite difficult to switch off. There is always a lot to think about and to plan. I care a lot about what I do and with the exception of a few rare nights, I have dreamed about Mahindra Racing and about Formula E every night since I joined the team last August.
As to the most challenging aspect of the work, it's no secret that the schedule is demanding. The sheer amount of hours we need to put in before and during a race weekend can be a shock to the system. But when you get a great result like Nick's podium in Beijing, or our double points finish in Buenos Aires, it feels like winning the Championship. Success in racing feels like nothing else. It goes without saying that it's hard work, but if we weren't all absolutely passionate about it, we wouldn't be doing it.
BS What was the most exciting or surreal moment in your career thus far?
NP I don't know if surreal is the right word, but for sure standing on the grid before my first race with Mahindra, in my team kit was amazing. Having worked really hard and got through the nerves of planning for this first race, I just stood and took a moment to just be there. It was an incredible feeling, and I'll never forget it. The grid is my favourite bit of every race weekend. We go through a lot in the preparation before each race, the days are just so busy, and in many ways the grid is my moment to just take a breath to realise where I am. It's a fantastic thing.
There was also a surreal moment in Beijing. I'm notably tall at 6’3”. That can draw a bit of attention. In Beijing, I was walking with Nick (Heidfeld) and Bruno (Senna) to a press conference in the Bird’s Nest Stadium, and this guy came running up with a camera, speaking in Chinese to Bruno. That's nothing new; that happens all the time. But he was trying to give the camera to Bruno. Bruno was like, “Do you want a photo?” and then the fan gave the camera to Bruno and pointed at me. Nick and Bruno were in stitches, laughing at me. Nick tweeted a photo of Bruno taking a photo of me. That was definitely an ice-breaking moment with the drivers who still constantly tease me about how tall I am.
At the Beijing ePrix. Photo credit: Nick Heidfeld
BS What advice would you give to women or girls looking to pursue a career in motorsport?
NP It's a tricky one; I don't think of myself as doing anything against the odds, so I'm not sure I can really answer that. I’ve been very lucky. I just want to be seen as a person who is pursuing what they love, who just turned up and got on with it. In the autumn of 2014, I couldn’t even get media accreditation for the preseason tests; I actually snuck in past the guards the first day. By preseason testing for Season Two, I was back there, this time in my Mahindra team kit. I think that's all down to being rigorous about what I was doing, and clear about where I was going.
To girls and women specifically, I would say to not think in those terms explicitly. Motorsport is an area that relies on finding people with the best experience and the best skills, whether male or female. All teams are in competition. Teams want the best ability, the best insights, the best ideas. They want to always be a few steps ahead, and that doesn't discriminate. It's about trying to be the best and showing people that you deserve to be there. Everyone starts somewhere, so just get going.