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Susie Wolff: Forging a path for women in Formula One

13 Oct 15  | Automotive |  CBSbutler
Susie Wolff is making a name for herself in Formula One - and she's not done yet

Susie Wolff (née Stoddart) is an inspiration for young drivers the world over – and not just the girls.

Susie Wolff and the Williams

Sure, Susie’s a girl. She’s even blonde. But for her, the fact that she is the first woman to participate in a Formula One weekend for more than two decades is irrelevant: what’s important is the fact that she got to participate. Susie races not in the name of women everywhere, but for herself.

From kid-karter to the first woman on the F1 track in two decades

Susie started her love affair with speed and racing at the tender age of two, when she was given her first quad bike. At 8, she was given her first kart, and began racing at club level, quickly followed by entrance into the Scottish, British, European and eventually the World Championships. During those early days she was racing against such household names as Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Kimi Raikkonnen. By the age of 18 she was ranked 15th in the world. In 2002 Wolff moved into Formula Renault 2.0, and in 2005 made the jump to Formula 3. Unfortunately, after only 4 races, Susie broke her ankle and was forced to pull out of the season.

The winter of 2005 was, as Susie puts it, ‘the toughest [she] had ever faced. [She] had no money, no team and no prospect of racing apart from testing in World Series by Renault.’


Then she received a call from Mercedes Benz, inviting her to fly to Barcelona to test their German Touring Car. With ‘nothing to lose’, Wolff jumped on a plane and, fortunately, the test was a success and she was offered a contract. In 2006 Susie debuted in the DTM (German Touring Car Masters) and finished her first race within the top 10. Susie raced in the DTM for seven seasons, and in 2010 she hit her peak: at Lausitzring and at Hockenheim she finished seventh, making her the first woman to make points in DTM for almost 20 years. She ended her fifth season ahead of brand colleagues David Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher.


After seven full seasons and 73 races, Susie decided it was time for a new challenge: she dreamt of driving a Formula One car. In April 2012 Susie was appointed development driver for the Williams F1 Team. Her role was principally based at the factory, driving the simulator and carrying out aerodynamics tests.

At the end of 2012, Susie had her first F1 test, after which she was asked to increase her role within the team for the 2013 season. Susie was the first driver to test the 2013 car and attended every Grand Prix in her role as development driver.

In 2014 Williams announced that Wolff would be driving in two free practice sessions, at the British and German Grands Prix. On the 4th July, Wolff became the first woman to participate in a Formula One weekend for 22 years, but her time on the track was unfortunately cut short when an oil-pressure problem cut the engine off, and she was able to complete only four laps. Two weeks later Susie drove in the free practice sessions at Hockenheim, where more car problems gave her a brief fright before her team got her back on the track, and she finished the session with a best lap time of 1minute 20.769 seconds, just 0.227 seconds behind teammate and ten-year veteran of the F1 circuit Felipe Massa. 

In November 2014, Williams announced that Susie would be remaining with the team for the 2015 season in an enhanced role as test driver, with her position expanded to include two runs in Friday practice and two tests.

Susie performed well, if not spectacularly, in both of her practice sessions. In Barcelona, in May, she finished 14th with a time of 1m 29.708s, just 2.88 seconds behind Rosberg’s first-place time and .877seconds behind teammate Massa. July’s Silverstone session saw Wolff finishing 13th with a time of 1m 37.242s, 2.968seconds behind leader Rosberg and .773 behind Massa.

Disappointment for Susie in March 2015

Earlier this year, there was a brief moment where it appeared that Susie might be nominated as Williams’ official reserve driver. In the season-opener in Melbourne, Australia, Williams’ second driver, Valtteri Bottas, was ruled out of the Grand Prix on medical grounds after suffering back problems during qualifying.

However, Williams unveiled veteran driver Adrian Sutil as their reserve driver, which Susie admits came as something of a blow. It ‘was a sign that "yes, you’re close, but you are still very far away,"’ she said.

  "Performance is power: gender doesn't matter, background doesn't matter - if you can perform, that's what matters."
- Susie Wolff

Wolff bore no ill will towards either Sutil nor Williams for the decision, and pointed out that not only was Sutil far richer in race experience than herself, but also that she is licensed only to drive in practice, not in races: she has yet to attain her FIA super-license.

Wolff says that she's not done yet, though acknowledges that she 'can't wait on the sidelines forever' waiting for her chance. She still hopes to make her way onto the starting grid before she hangs up her helmet. 

Super Licenses: harder to get from next year

As of 2016, the criteria for obtaining a Super License will change with the introduction of a points system, which, according to the F1 website, will make it ‘harder for drivers to become eligible for F1 compeition’.

Drivers will need to have accumulated 40 points over the previous three-year period, with the number of points awarded based on the motorsport series they participated in and the level of results the achieved.

Drivers are also required to be at least 18-years-old, have spent at least two years in junior single-seater categories, hold a valid road driver’s licence and pass a test on the F1 sporting regulations, as well as fulfilling the existing 300km in a recent F1 car.

Susie Wolff at #SocialRecruitIn

Last Wednesday (7/10/15), Susie gave the keynote at LinkedIn’s Social RecruitIn event. The event was held at the British Design Centre, London and featured some brilliant speakers, covering some very interesting topics. 

Susie spoke about the hurdles she has overcome throughout her career, and about the determination that any young driver needs to succeed: not just the women. She spoke rather passionately about the fact that she began racing not to show what women could do, but to show what she could do. As her career progressed, however, it became clear that regardless of her intentions, as the premier female driver in motorsport at the moment, Susie would become something of a role model for young women interested in joining the ranks of professional drivers. Her career has become something of a test case, to see whether it is truly possible for a woman to reach the very upper echelons of the racing world: competing in Formula One. 

Many women and girls will be watching Susie with bated breath, to see whether F1 really is a ‘non-gender bias sport…a sport that welcomes both men and women’, as Claire Williams, Williams Team Principal, claims. 
I was lucky enough to meet Susie at the LinkedIn Social RecruitIn event.

I asked Susie if she would like to see more women among her mechanics and in her pit teams, and her response is rather symbolic of her attitude towards female opportunity in general: "because the best focus on performance, gender is irrelevant".

Susie had three key messages for any young hopeful, whether they dream of being a Formula One racecar driver or the Prime Minister.

“Follow your passion”

Susie told how she had gone to university, as many young people do, because she believed it to be the only real option. Partway through her course, she realised that it wasn’t something she felt passionate about. After an intense soul-searching session, she called her father and told him that she was done with university and wished to pursue driving. Credit to him, he told her that he’d pick her up in the morning and that she should start work on a proper plan for her next step.

“Follow your gut feelings”

Susie’s tale of how she left university served to illustrate her second point equally well: her gut told her that the degree she was studying for wasn’t right for her, and after a good hard think, she followed that instinct, leading her to become one of the best drivers in the world.

“Dream big”

Dreaming small isn’t really dreaming at all: it’s just thinking. Dreams should be realistic, yes, but they should also stretch our beliefs about what is possible, and they should definitely stretch our own abilities.

Susie ended her speech with a thought that shows how well she took on board her father’s response to her phone call from university, and provides us all with a framework for emulating her determination and drive:

“A dream without a plan is just a wish.”

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