Emma Kimilainen’s journey to the W Series was one of the more unorthodox from a field of varied backstories, and despite big career setbacks she is now showing title-winning potential.
Born in Finland, Kimilainen started racing aged five, and it was karting that gave her the bug to make racing her choice career.
She graduated to cars in 2005 and competed in the Finnish and North European Zone Formula Ford championships, becoming a frequent winner in her second year, before moving on to sportscars in Radical Cup Sweden for 2007 and earning herself an Audi DTM test at Almeria – a circuit she would revisit more than a decade later for W Series driver selection tests.
A year later she returned to single-seaters in ADAC Formel Masters, where she finished 10th in the standings with one podium, and competed as a fully fledged Volkswagen-Audi junior driver.
The following year the Finn progressed to Formula Palmer Audi, racing regularly against future F1 and IndyCar drivers Joylon Palmer, Felix Rosenqvist and Tristan Vautier.
Kimilainen took four podiums on the way to fifth in the standings, in what was one of her most impressive seasons to date.
The Finn was showing plenty of potential, but that year would turn out to be the last time she would race at Brands Hatch, and in single-seaters, until the inaugural W Series season 10 years later.
“I would have of course liked to do some more [racing] but unfortunately the financial crisis at that time was pretty bad,” Kimilainen tells Formula Scout on her recent competitive return to the Kent track. “I didn’t have the possibility to move on and then I stopped.”
2009 appeared to be the end of Kimilainen’s promising career. She only had eyes for single-seaters but did not have the budget to compete in them, and so decided that without the backing she had no option but to take a break from the sport.
Having stepped away from racing, Kimilainen went back into education and after obtaining a BBA degree, she got married and started a family.
Racing seemed a lifetime ago, but four years later – out of the blue – Kimilainen received a call that, unbeknown to her at the time, would ultimately lead her back to the single-seater world.
“I started a family and I got that golden phone call that no one ever gets saying ‘that we have been having an eye on you for a really long time, would you like to come and drive for us?’
“I’m like ‘yeah sure’, even though my daughter was six months old then. Then I really thought ‘do they know I haven’t been racing anything in four years and I have a baby and everything?’ and I was in a completely new life situation and stuff.”
Despite being apprehensive about it, Kimilainen grabbed her golden ticket and entered the Scandinavian Touring Car Championship with PWR Racing.
Although she enjoyed the three years she then spent in that series, she never achieved the success she was hoping for and put that down to the fact she had forgotten how difficult racing is psychologically.
“I enjoyed the time in there [STCC] because I got back into racing. But of course I had a lot of work to do, because [although] obviously the talent was there and I was really quick, when it came to racing situations and having the pressure and all that, I had to learn everything new again.
“The mental side was totally gone and I struggled a lot, I was nervous and I struggled a lot.”
In addition to the psychological aspect of racing, Kimilainen also had to adapt to co-ordinate her race/life balance, but having worked on it, she has found a solution that allowed her to excel in W Series this year while making the most of family time.
“How to combine those things, it took a while to figure out and now it’s awesome. Now we have definitely figured it out and everything works perfectly and I’m so happy. It has been a journey, but worth taking.”
After four years in touring cars – she spent 2017 racing a Ford Mustang in the V8 ThunderCars Sweden championship – Kimilainen found herself with an opportunity to return to single-seaters via W Series.
Having made it through W Series’ selection process, the 30-year-old found herself back in her favoured type of car, and had it not been for a crash that caused her to miss two races due to injury, she would without a doubt have been a title contender.
“It’s a dream come true to be back in single-seaters,” she says excitedly.
“I am so grateful W Series have given me that opportunity really to be back in this, because this is definitely what I enjoy most driving-wise, and it has been great.”
After recovering from the reaggravated neck injury sustained at the Hockenheim season opener, Kimilainen returned to the series in strong fashion: finishing fifth at the Norisring, followed by a pole and a win at Assen, a second place at Brands Hatch and three fastest laps in a row in point-scoring races.
Speaking about her performances, Kimilainen said: “I’m doing what I would have been doing all the time. I don’t know, I just drive. [It’s] showing what the season would have been if I was not away [for two races].”
The free practice sessions at Brand Hatch were held under changeable conditions, with rain showers periodically appearing, and it was in these conditions that Kimilainen displayed her talent as she lapped almost two seconds faster than the rest of the field when the track was at its worst.
Discussing that performance, Kimilainen says they are conditions she relishes, and has been exposed to from an early age.
“I don’t know how old I was, but there was many years in a row that every time when it started to rain my dad was like ‘OK, we go and drive now’, we just ‘cacked’ ourselves and we went to drive and he would then put me and my brother on the track in slicks and was like ‘good luck, have fun’.
“So, I’m used to driving [in the] wet and I love when the car is on the limit and I can feel everything and just push the limit all the time a little bit further. Yeah, I really enjoy it.”
Although Kimilainen didn’t quite get things right for Brands Hatch qualifying, having altered the set-up of her car, her racecraft was impeccable as she passed Jamie Chadwick for second and hounded winner Alice Powell all the way to the finish.
The W Series has given Kimilainen the opportunity to return to single-seaters – her favourite category – and with a smile on her face all weekend, it is clear the series has reignited this driver’s passion for racing, and she is showing it on the track.
Her driving in the latter stages of the season have been nothing short of brilliant and if she can continue that momentum into next year she will no doubt be one of the favourites for the 2020 W Series title.
With Kimilainen displaying such talent having been away from motorsport for so long, and suffering such huge setbacks, you have to thank the W Series for its existence, for without it, the 30-year-old could have still been at home watching racing on TV rather than demonstrating title-winning ability from the cockpit.