Sports feature

Ottawa’s McLaren GT4 Driver, Erika Hoffmann and a New Life in the Fast Lane

For Erika Hoffmann, life lately has been a bit of a blur. Maybe it’s her whirlwind, overnight success in her favourite sport.

Maybe it’s her new surroundings, suddenly living and traveling in Europe. Or maybe it’s simply the driver’s seat view from her race car as she roars past at 230 kilometres an hour.

Hoffmann’s journey began 10 months ago when she was selected to the Formula Woman racing team. Formula Woman is a televised series to find the next female motor racing champion. Hoffmann was one of 1000 women entered and, after considerable testing and evaluation, Hoffmann made the first cut – one of 75 hopefuls invited to Sweden and England for more testing and time trials.

“We literally had just endless testing,” Hoffmann said. “And then they picked a top 15 out of that. I didn’t think I was going to make it through because all these girls knew each other. Most of them were from the U.K. Some of them had YouTube channels. They were a big deal in my head and I was like, nobody knows me. I’m just this random girl from Canada. So, when they announced the top 15, I was pretty gobsmacked.”

Finally, when all the (exhaust) smoke had cleared, everyone knew exactly who Erika Hoffmann was. The affable 26-year-old was named the Formula Woman winner, claiming one of the four main spots on the team. That meant moving to the U.K. and driving one of the team’s powerful McLaren GT4 race cars in the 2022 GT Cup championship.

We caught up with Erika Hoffmann (only because she was willing to slow down for us) to discuss her incredible year.

Faces: Tell us about the moment you got the news you were the Formula Woman winner out of 1000 other competitors.

Hoffmann: Well, we’d been competing the whole previous day in ice driving. We didn’t know our own times or anyone else’s. The next day they called us, one by one, into a room where we sat down with Graeme Glew, the founder of Formula Woman and professional driver Mia Flewitt. They told me my time on the ice and waited for that to sink in. But I was like, yeah, I don’t know what that means. And then they told me I was the fastest.

I think they were waiting for a bigger reaction, but I still didn’t know if that meant I had made the team or not. They had told us that making it wasn’t fully dependent on times. But they were like, ‘You were the fastest, so that means you made the team.’

That’s when the emotion hit me. I have photos and I literally just sat there with my mouth open. I was not computing. What does this mean for my life now? I FaceTimed my family immediately. My parents were back home in Canada where it was 3:30 in the morning. My sister was in Europe and my brother was in the South Pacific and they all picked up on the first ring. Everyone was there, everyone knew, and they all freaked out. So, yeah, it was a pretty exciting moment.

How did your first season go this summer?

We did a compressed season this past year because we had to undergo training before we were approved to race at the GT4 level. We improved our results each race, with our highest finish being at Silverstone, where my teammate Jodie Sloss and I took home the highest finish of either Formula Woman car this year.

Let’s go back to the beginning of your story. When does your love of auto racing begin?

It circles back to my childhood when I was six or seven. My brother ended up finding a Formula One race on TV and I thought it was a really cool sport. But there was nowhere in Ottawa where you could really watch it. No broadcasts. But my uncle was also interested in Formula One. So he invested in all the fancy satellite dishes and recorded the races for us onto VHS tape. We’d watch it during the week and then put the VHS tape back in his mailbox so he could tape the next race for us.

When I was about nine years old, that’s when Lewis Hamilton was in his rookie season and I decided I’m going to follow this guy. This is going to be my driver. That turned out pretty well. Childhood Erika made some good choices [laughing].

When did you go from fan to driver?

As I got older, I just wanted to get behind the wheel. My parents were like, ‘Honey, we love you, but we can’t fund a go-karting career and bankrupt the family. That’s not happening.’ But when I was a teenager, after I got my driver’s licence, I did autocross, which took place in the Senators parking lot at the CTC. I took my family’s Hyundai Accent, a base level, roll down window car, and did time trials there, which was super fun. And that’s the first time I got a taste of performance driving and felt like this is what I want to do. Later on, I began to race at Calabogie Motorsports Park.

What kind of cars did you drive at Calabogie?

I was just in my street car. I bought a Subaru BRZ. So I just went with my normal daily driver car. That’s how professional I was. And then through that I qualified for their local series. I finished runner up in that series by one point. So, an okay rookie attempt at getting behind the wheel. And then I actually won the Ottawa Sports Car Club Rookie of the Year award.

What was it like going from your Subaru back home, right into a McLaren 570s GT4 race car?

It was pretty mind-boggling. The first ever time I drove it, it was so intense. I was just like, dang, we’re gonna have some fun. I loved it. My coaches told me when they first started driving this car – and they’ve had years of experience – they were terrified. And here I am, all of a sudden, just whipping down at like 230 km/hr, just going for it. So yeah, it was quite the step up.

So you’re going that fast for the first time. Is it exhilarating? Or is it scary?

It’s both. So to be fast, the car can’t be fully controlled, right? If you’re driving well within the limits of the car and you feel good, it feels grounded, it’s planted, then you’re not driving fast enough. You’re not pushing. In my first race, I really focused a lot on not getting overwhelmed, not letting the stress overtake me. All of a sudden, I’m sitting on a grid for my first official race, starting with Lamborghinis and Ferraris around me and I’m thinking, oh my gosh, this is next level.

When the race was over, I was like, I did it. I can do it. This is fantastic.

How are your parents doing with all of this? Maybe some mixed emotions?

They’re super supportive, really proud of me. I couldn’t do it without them. They’re a really great support system. But yeah, they do get a little nervous. They came out to my Silverstone race. My whole family came, which was super cool, and I got to show off everything. I was like, Dad, look at this. The last time we were racing, you were helping me change my tires on my street car at Calabogie. And now I have 12 mechanics and a garage. So, it was really cool to get to share that with them.

They opted to homeschool you, right? What was that like?

Yeah, it was really good. I think the older I get, the more I really appreciate my mom and dad’s sacrifices. My mom’s a teacher, so her focusing so much on us was amazing. And also seeing the advantages, because I’m dyslexic and I think I would’ve struggled a lot more in the public school system. So looking back, it was actually really cool. I don’t think I appreciated how cool it was when I was younger.

What’s your dream now in auto racing?

Honestly, the dream would be to just be able to race more, be able to race at Le Mans, and to really be successful as a female in this industry, because it’s such a male dominated sport. Only 1.5% of racing licences globally are held by women so I’m really passionate about more women getting involved in the sport and really seeing that representation grow. It’s such a cool industry because it’s a sport where men and women can compete head-to-head, which is extremely rare.

What’s the money situation while you’re over there racing?

My races are covered by Formula Woman and I rely on sponsorship to pay my bills and cover equipment and expenses. My goal is to get more sponsors on board who want to partner with me long term, and bring them with me as I compete at bigger and bigger races. My dream is to partner with people and brands who want to go to the top and empower women to compete alongside the best.

Is it automatic that you’re back with the Formula Woman team next season or do you have to compete again to reclaim your spot?

I do have a seat secured for next season. They’re running the competition again, but it’ll look a bit different. They’re going to put the winners in a driver development program. But me and my teammate (Scotland’s Jodie Sloss) are competing again next year in the GT Cup again and a GT4 car.

What’s the date you return for the new season?

Preseason testing starts at the end of February and our first race is April 1st.

So it’s safe to say you’re loving this ride, even though it’s been a little crazy.

I was just a City of Ottawa lifeguard and all of a sudden, I’m here signing autographs in the UK and competing as a race car driver? Yeah, it’s been pretty crazy, I’d say.

By Steve Warne

Photography by Sean Sisk

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