Driving change with Formula E’s Alice Powell

March 07 2024

Ever since visiting go-kart tracks and watching Michael Schumacher on television as a child, Alice Powell had dreams of being a racing driver.

Driving change with Formula E’s Alice Powell

Now, over two decades on, Powell has raced with Formula Renault and the W Series, achieved world-first championship wins, and is currently Envision Racing’s official development driver.

Powell knows the importance of role models and leading by example, and off the track she works to increase girls’ participation in motorsport and promotes sustainability as part of ‘the greenest team on the greenest grid’.

But increasing women’s participation in motorsport, and raising awareness of sustainability, are perennial endeavours – not just token efforts for International Women’s Day.

So how did Powell achieve her childhood dreams – and how can the industry make sure that promoting sustainability, and women’s participation, is a priority all year round?

Alice Powell photographed at COP28 alongside Envision Racing’s Recover – E, a one-of-a-kind race car made entirely from e-waste to help highlight the issue.

Alice Powell photographed at COP28 alongside Envision Racing’s Recover – E, a one-of-a-kind race car made entirely from e-waste to help highlight the issue.

The journey to Formula E

Powell’s journey to becoming a professional racing driver began on the go-kart track, and ultimately took her all the way to becoming one of professional racing’s only female racing drivers.

“I’ve always been interested in racing,” Powell tells Global Sustainable Sport. “I had the opportunity to go go-karting when I was around eight years old, and ever since then I wanted to be a racing driver.”

After working her way up through the levels of go-karting and car racing, in 2010 Powell became the youngest racer – and first woman – to win the Formula Renault championship at 17 years old.

Several other ‘firsts’ followed: in 2012, Powell became the first female driver to score points in the GP3 series, and in 2019 she became one of 18 women selected to compete in the first W Series championship.

The W Series, which fell into administration last year, was the first all-female single-seater racing championship. In 2019, Powell took four podium finishes and ultimately placed third; in 2021, after winning the opening race of the season, she finished second.

In 2020 Powell began working with Envision Racing, who are currently the reigning Formula E champions. Since joining the team, Powell has completed simulator work for all of Envision’s races.

Beyond her on-track success, Powell is keen to highlight the importance of the behind-the-scenes work that takes place in sports like Formula E.

As well as the drivers on the track, engineers, mechanics, analysts, and test and development drivers play a huge role in preparing for each race.

“Everyone sees all the hard work that goes on at the track, but a lot of hard work also goes on behind the scenes,” says Powell. “That includes my role as a development driver — I spend a lot of my time on the simulator, whether that’s testing set ups, tyre development, all different kinds of runs.”

Women and girls in motor racing

Powell is one of only a small number of female drivers in Formula E. In recent years, Formula E and other motorsports have been stepping up their efforts to increase women’s participation.

Last year, Formula E and the FIA announced plans for their Girls on Track programme, which will give girls aged 12 to 18 the opportunity to take part in workshops, career talks, and work experience placements during all 11 race weekends of this year’s World Championship.

This is an increase on previous years when programmes were only put in place for five race weekends across the season. Organisers estimate that this season more than 1,650 girls will take part, in Mexico City, Diriyah, Hyderabad, São Paulo, Tokyo, Misano, Monaco, Berlin, Shanghai, Portland, and London.

Powell believes that increasing the number of girls taking up motorsports is down to visibility, access, and role models. As a development driver, she’s keen to make girls aware of all the different opportunities to get involved in the sport.

“A lot of young girls think it’s just the driving side, and racing’s not for everyone,” she says. “It’s about giving [girls] an understanding that there are a lot of other opportunities out there – whether that’s in PR, or marketing, or mechanics, or engineering. There’s a whole great big team that works on these two Formula E cars.”

Importantly, this needs to be embedded in wider strategies year-round.

“We need to showcase the options, the avenues – not just on International Women’s Day but throughout the whole year,” says Powell.

Other initiatives have attempted to increase the visibility and participation of women in the sport, including the W Series and the F1 Academy.

After the women-only W Series shut down last year, the need for increased visibility is ever-present. But Powell thinks that the sport has made progress since her earlier years.

“It is improving, and I think it’s improving across all sports,” she says.

Experience days like those offered by Girls on Track are vital, she says, for giving girls a real insight into the different opportunities available.

“At Girls on Track, they’ll have a karting session, a medical fitness session, a PR session, a STEM session, a pitstop challenge,” she says. “If you give girls the opportunity to get hands on and make them feel that they can do it, then I’d expect that you’ll have more girls branching into the sport and choosing that career path.”

But while role models and experience days are important, infrastructure – like access to karting tracks and availability of funding – are also critical.

“Funding is a big thing, and if you haven’t got a motorsport college or an engineering school near you, then you’ve got to put in that effort to travel,” she says. “Certainly from a driving point of view, funding at a grassroots level is important – it gets more and more expensive the higher you go up the ladder.”

Alice Powell attending a panel event at COP28

Alice Powell attending a panel event at COP28

Racing and sustainability

 As well as her work to improve girls’ participation, Powell has also been involved in sustainability work.

Envision Racing have consistently centred sustainability in their public work, particularly through their Race Against Climate Change programme. Last year the team also had a presence at COP28, where they announced a collaboration with climate scientist Ed Hawkins.

A major focus is on e-waste, and the team showcased its Recover-E car at COP28, which was made entirely of recycled electronics.

Powell believes that Envision has a particular opportunity to use its platform to raise awareness of these issues, particularly given that Formula E is such a public example of electric mobility and battery technology.

“We need to make sure that we’re utilising our voice and really raising awareness of environmental issues,” Powell says. “I think Formula E has huge momentum at the moment. The racing is really exciting, it goes all around the world, it has fans from all over the world, and I think it’s about really making use of the network and the platform.”

Role models all year round

Powell’s work on sustainability and women’s participation are issues that need continued focus.

“I think it’s important, not just on International Women’s Day, but throughout the entire year,” she says. “When young girls are looking to choose their GCSE subjects at school, they might see on the TV an interview with a young female driver or an engineer or a mechanic, and that might influence their choices which could lead them to a career in motorsport.”

The same is true for raising awareness of climate issues.

“I think the main thing is making people aware of the impact of what we’re doing in our day-to-day lives,” says Powell.

Envision’s work on e-waste is one example of a consistent focus on a single issue that wider audiences might not yet fully understand.

“I was one of them. I didn’t realise that if you can take your electric products and batteries to the recycling centre, that reduces both the need for mining minerals and the energy it takes to get those batteries,” Powell says.

But Powell is optimistic that awareness is improving.

“I think it is changing, but of course we’d all like to see things move a lot quicker,” she says. “[Formula E] is changing people’s perspective of electric cars, and climate change.”

As sport celebrates International Women’s Day, the message of consistency and visibility is one to remember if the industry wants to truly drive change that lasts.

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