The women vying to be Formula 1’s first female driver in 50 years: Racing exec SUSIE WOLFF is training the next generation of women drivers and reveals the sexism she has faced as one half of racing’s most powerful couple
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I’m a little starstruck when I meet Susie Wolff. Her job? To ensure we’ll see a woman on the starting grid of a Formula 1 race in the next decade.
With 25 years’ experience as a racing driver and four heading a Formula E team, the 40-year-old was appointed as managing director of F1 Academy – Formula 1’s newest all-female driver series – at the start of their inaugural season in March.
It’s a sweltering Saturday in June in Zandvoort, north Holland, and I’m meeting the F1 Academy team on their fourth race weekend of the 2023 season. Fans are arriving, crew rushing around on scooters and cars revving.
Amid the chaos in the paddock, Wolff is filming a promo video for F1 Academy’s social channels. ‘Those bloody race cars,’ she jokes in her Scottish accent when interrupted.
Formula 1, the world’s most prestigious motorsport, is steadily winning over women. According to CEO Stefano Domenicali, the Netflix docuseries Formula 1: Drive to Survive has been vital in reaching new fans, including women. Around 40 per cent of fans and 25 per cent of race attendees are now female.
Growing up on the west coast of Scotland with her elder brother David, Susie Wolff (pictured) was immersed in the world of motorsports from an early age
The growing numbers have caught Hollywood’s attention too – at the recent British Grand Prix there was a cameo by Brad Pitt, who was at Silverstone filming his as yet untitled movie about F1 for Apple Studios.
‘This is a once in a lifetime chance,’ Wolff tells me. ‘Young females are the fastest growing fan demographic – we need to capitalise on that.’ The F1 Academy is partnering with Reese Witherspoon’s media company Hello Sunshine (founded to broaden opportunities and perspectives for women) on a docuseries, too, and if there’s one thing we know about the Hollywood star, it’s that she can spot a success story.
There’s no lack of talented female drivers, but only a small percentage race professionally – the last to compete in a Grand Prix was Lella Lombardi in Austria in 1976. She remains the only woman to score points in the World Championship.
Enter the F1 Academy, a new racing category offering 15 promising female drivers the chance to develop in five of the best junior teams. At the end of the season, the one with the most points will win the championship, and progress to a top team in a more senior category.
‘If you want to be a successful racing driver, you need to race against men,’ Wolff says. ‘It would be naive to say men don’t have a physical advantage, but if you look at some of the F1 drivers, they aren’t huge, muscular beasts. It comes down to talent.’
One of the only female drivers in recent years to come close to securing a spot on the F1 grid is Wolff herself. In 2014, as a test driver for the Williams team, she was the first woman in 22 years to participate in a race weekend.
She lined up for a practice session of the British Grand Prix, but due to an engine failure only lasted four laps. She took part in another practice session at that year’s German Grand Prix, and two more in the 2015 season, before hanging up her helmet.
‘I’m very ambitious, but also very realistic. I could sense that my chance had gone,’ she admits. Even though it was an easy decision to make, the aftermath was tough. She’d spent her whole life with a clear goal: being a racing driver in Formula 1. ‘Suddenly, I didn’t know who I was. I lost my identity. I had a blank sheet of paper in front of me.’
Growing up on the west coast of Scotland with her elder brother David, Wolff was immersed in the world of motorsports from an early age. Their parents, John and Sally, owned a motorcycle shop in Oban.
Pictured: The Formula 1 Academy Media Day at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in April earlier this year
At two, she was given a motorbike, at eight a go-kart. Racing was a hobby at first, then her parents took her to a British Formula 3 race when she was 13. She remembers, ‘That was the day everything changed in my head.’
There’s a ladder system in motorsports – most start in karting, graduating to F4, F3, F2 and F1. Wolff began competing in karting in the early 2000s – she was named the best female kart driver in the world – before progressing into Formula Renault, British F3, the German Touring
Car championship and eventually F1. After retiring, between 2018 and 2022 she led the Venturi Racing team in Formula E, a racing series for electric cars.
Her impressive CV more than qualified her for the role, but Wolff still faced sexism.
As one half of motorsport’s most powerful couple (she married Toto Wolff, CEO and team principal of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team, in 2011) her first press conference as team principal was an eye-opener. ‘The first question was, ‘What qualifies you for this job?’ The second, ‘Did your husband get you the job?’ And the third, ‘How are you going to manage this job with a baby?’ That’s when I realised there was such a long way to go, because no one else was asked those questions.’
As we make our way to the grid for the first race, excitement builds among the fans, the teams and the F1 Academy. Wolff walks up to a few drivers, and it’s clear from the way she engages that she’s passionate about the work. When the lights don’t go out to signify the start of the race, she’s on the phone to a race engineer within seconds (‘This is a disgrace!’). And when, halfway through the race, the championship leader is forced to retire, she’s frustrated (‘We need to look into those fuel pump failures’).
Most of Wolff’s weekdays consist of meetings and video calls. On weekends, she travels to the racetracks – a rigorous schedule, she admits, but one her family is used to. ‘My husband and I often joke that I may be the MD of the F1 Academy, but I’m also the logistics manager of our family.’ Their six-year-old son, Jack, is already racing. ‘I’m a big believer in the power of sports. It can give you so many life lessons on teamwork, winning and losing, and what it feels like to be scared or nervous.’
Motorsport is undeniably dangerous, yet it remains a thrill, for competitors and fans. ‘These are the most talented drivers in the world, in the fastest, most technically advanced racing cars in the world,’ says Wolff. ‘They race at the most amazing locations – the F1 drivers are going to race at the Las Vegas Strip this year – and that’s glamorous.’
Does she still race sometimes? ‘Not at all. I’m way too competitive to do it for fun. If you want to win, you need to put in a lot of preparation and I don’t have time these days.’ She does enjoy driving, ‘but I hate being stuck in traffic.’
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