SHE may be the only woman behind a wheel in the testosterone-fuelled world of Formula 1, but Susie Wolff has never asked for concessions to be made on account of her gender.
On occasion, however, motorsports officials have tried to treat her differently, not least the time when she made her way out onto the grid to discover an unlikely cheerleader.
“I remember coming and seeing this not small guy in white trousers and a white T-shirt,” she recalls, stifling a laugh. “I thought to myself, ‘I don’t need to be seeing that before a race!’” The alarming sight was a grid boy, a gender reversal on the custom of scantily clad young women parading on the tarmac. It was a gesture by organisers of the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) which Wolff kindly rebuffed. “I explained afterwards I’d much prefer if we just had a grid girl,” she said. “It’s not something that should change just because I’m a woman.”
It is to Wolff’s credit that she deals with such crass, if well-intentioned overtures, with little fuss. In the 17 years since she decided to pursue a career as a professional racing driver it’s been a route full of obstacles and opportunities, but throughout every twist and turn, the 30-year-old Wolff says, life in F1 is the same for everyone. “Many people ask me if it’s tough for a girl,” she laughs. “I say, ‘Yes, but it’s also tough for a guy’. In elite sport, as soon as you get to the very top, it gets harder and harder and harder.”
Last October, the Oban-born Wolff carried out her first test run of Silverstone in Northamptonshire for her team, Williams. It marked the culmination of several months’ work alongside a 30-strong team of engineers, ensuring that every minute detail was attended to in a bid to get the maximum out of Wolff and her FW33 car.
The day started ominously, with wet conditions making further demands of her prowess. Undeterred, Wolff posted a string of impressive times. It was, she says, an exhilarating experience that proved no matter how much simulation work a driver carries out, nothing compares to the real thing.
“I can remember leaving the pits and going down the hangar straight for the first time, and the speed was pulling my helmet when I was hitting four Gs. My first thought was, ‘Have I done it up tight enough?’ But my team told me, ‘No, no, that’s just what happens’.”
As a development driver for one of the world’s most esteemed F1 teams, she is now charged with testing the new FW35, while edging ever closer to securing her Super Licence in order to become the official reserve driver.
It is a bold but realistic ambition, and testament to the relish Wolff has exhibited for a life of speed ever since she sat on a three-wheeler ATV (like a quad bike) at the age of three.
The third generation of her family to race – both her grandfathers were trials riders and her father, John, was a road racer – she favoured four wheels over two. When she was eight, Wolff discovered her competitive edge racing go-karts at Knockhill. Initially taken aback at the aggression on show, she quickly mixed it with the boys, bumping them back “twice as hard” after asking the advice of her father.
A few years later, a visit to Donington Park to see a Formula 3 (F3) race featuring a young Jenson Button convinced her to dedicate herself to her passion. “I was 13, and in my head, I suddenly switched to thinking, ‘That’s what I want to be, a professional racing driver,’” she remembers. “It was the speed, the level of competition, the adrenaline.”
The journey so far has taken her from karting to Formula Renault F3, DTM, and as of last April, F1. Her home, and base, is Switzerland, where she lives with husband, Toto Wolff, who recently left Williams to join the Mercedes F1 team as executive director. There is, however, no conflict of interest at home, Wolff says. “We’re respectful of our positions in our teams, and we’d never jeopardise that. We’re not technical people anyway, so we couldn’t discuss all the tiny calibrations to parts of the cars.”
When we meet in Glasgow, Wolff is back in Scotland to promote a project that encapsulates her progress to date – Driven: The World’s Fastest Woman, an intimate documentary directed by her brother, David Stoddart. She agreed to the project after realising her time in F1 will not last forever, but stresses that the film should not be seen the final chapter in her story.
In the 63 years that have passed since the introduction of the World Championship, only five women have entered a Grand Prix, compared to 822 men. Of that select group, just one – Lella Lombardi – has secured points on the board, and that was back in 1975.
An eloquent and thoughtful ambassador for her sport, she knows only too well the importance of promoting a woman driver for the right reasons.
“I think the people at the top like Bernie [Ecclestone, the president and CEO of Formula One Management and Formula One Administration] know a woman driver has to happen,” she says. “In the same way, it has to be done organically, with a woman making it due to her performance. If you try and put one there for media purposes, it’ll fall flat on its face.”
Asked if women have to work harder to achieve their goals in the sport, Wolff nods, and says that the image of the jetset, champagne lifestyle of an F1 driver applies only to one sex: “You have to sacrifice more than a man, because you’re judged more on what happens off the track.
“For guys, that’s part of their image as a racing driver, to be seen as a playboy. As a woman, you definitely have to stay more on the straight and narrow.”
While one of her predecessors, Giovanna Amati, once bemoaned how every question was focused on her gender, Wolff accepts that people will view her through a prism.
“I don’t get tired of it,” she says. “It’s part and parcel of what I do, and I realise that people are interested in my opinions. I always say I’m not out there to prove a point about what women can achieve in F1, I’m racing because I love it, I’m racing for me. When I have my helmet on, you can’t tell whether I’m a man or woman.”
Even so, she enjoys bruising the considerable male egos in the motorsports world. “In DTM, my sponsored car was pink in colour, and a couple of my teammates said they hated seeing it,” she recalls, grinning. “I think it motivated them even more because they have massive egos, and that happens in F1 too. It shouldn’t be but that’s how it is, it’s a stereotype unfortunately. If a guy has an issue being beaten by me, that’s their problem.”
Wolff wants to make further inroads in F1 before she can happily accept the status of a role model, steadily changing perceptions by excelling on the track rather than making grandiose political statements. Nonetheless, she realises her profile in her homeland will explode after her brother’s film airs tomorrow night.
Focusing on the build-up to Wolff’s Silverstone test, it was, both say, a challenging if ultimately rewarding process. “Knowing what makes good drama was one of the things that initially put me off,” says Stoddart, who arrives near the end of the interview. “I didn’t want to show Susie in a crash, or show her downtime. That’s the hard bit.”
His sister, smiling, replies: “There were times I felt like throttling him and he could have throttled me!”
You get the sense, however, that both are pleased with the result. Asked what he wanted viewers to learn about Wolff, Stoddart looks on at her with pride: “That she’s a self-determined person who had a goal throughout her life and has made a lot of efforts to achieve that goal.
“She’s not a crusader in terms of women’s rights but the offshoot of all her hard work is that she has become an inspirational figure for women looking to break into a male-dominated world.”
• Driven: The Fastest Woman in the World is on BBC2 tomorrow at 8pm