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Interview: Susie Wolff on her Formula 1 hopes

Pioneering Scot still hopes to win seat in male-dominated world of Formula 1. Picture: Contributed

Pioneering Scot still hopes to win seat in male-dominated world of Formula 1. Picture: Contributed

  • by STUART BATHGATE
 

THE Christmas holidays have come early for Susie Wolff this year. After the long and arduous Formula 1 season, you might expect the 31-year-old from Oban to be glad of the extra break; instead, the enforced rest is a source of regret.

Wolff should have been in Bangkok right now, to take part in the Race of Champions both as an individual competitor and as part of a two-person team along with David Coulthard. She would have been the first woman to compete in the event’s quarter-century history, and had been especially looking forward to working with Coulthard in Team GB. But the event, due to take place today and tomorrow, was postponed earlier this month in response to the continued unrest in Thailand.

“I had already been in contact with the organisers, so the postponement did not come as a complete shock,” Wolff explains when we speak on the phone just after the postponement is announced. “If there was going to be any risk at all, there would have been no sense in going ahead with it.

“It is quite sad for the organisers, because the race had been held for 25 years consecutively, but I fully understand their decision to postpone it. The event needs setting up early, and obviously they would be looking for a full stadium, and all that would have been very difficult given the political situation.”

Although the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix was also cancelled because of political protests, such occurrences are relatively rare in motor sport. Yet for Wolff, the development driver for the Williams Formula 1 team, every day of her working life could be called a “political situation”.

Since her earliest years in the sport – and given she was two when she drove her first vehicle, a quad bike, we’re going back to the mid-1980s – she has had to deal with opposition to her involvement based on her gender.

At the less offensive end of the spectrum, that opposition may merely be voiced in sceptical queries about the chances of her fulfilling her ambition: few women have ever competed in F1, so why should she be different? At its more militant, it is manifest in a straightforward desire on the part of some aficionados to maintain motorsport as a male preserve, and to disparage anyone who thinks differently.

Wolff is convinced that the position is steadily improving. That the more active opposition to women’s involvement is evaporating, and that the scepticism will also disappear once enough women have been given the opportunity to show they are capable of doing any job within the sport.

“I don’t see it being massive sexism,” she says. “Perhaps it’s just that a lot of people are or were sceptical.

“As F1 is a male-dominated environment, you have to prove yourself. And first of all that means being given the chance to prove yourself. Sir Stirling Moss, who said that women don’t have the mental aptitude to take part in F1, is from a different generation. There’s no reason why women can’t rise to the top in F1. If you’re not good enough you don’t survive.

“I definitely sense the tide is turning. Monisha Kaltenborn is the team principal at Sauber, for example, and other teams have engineers who are women. So it is slowly but surely changing.”

If the day ever dawns when Wolff is no longer asked about the position of women in motorsport, she will be glad. Not only will it mean that real equality has been won, it will allow her to concentrate on her profession rather than being required to deal with what should rightly be at most a side issue.

She entered motorsport because of her love of it, and not through any desire to campaign for women’s rights within it. But, while she may have to exercise her patience when confronted by a daft journalist asking the same old questions, it is clear that she has a genuine commitment to making motorsport a meritocracy. As a Women In Motorsport ambassador for the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, the world governing body), her aim is to increase female participation at all levels, not just to achieve her own ambition of getting a seat in an F1 car.

“I do get asked the same questions all the time,” she says. “But that’s part of my job. Motorsport has always been my passion, and speaking about being a female in a man’s world is part of my responsibility. It’s the numbers getting involved at grassroots level that will allow more women to progress through the ranks. It starts with little girls being read princess stories and little boys being read He-Man stories. If a girl switches on the TV, watches a sport and sees only men involved in it, she sees it’s not accessible for her. Now she can see Monisha Kaltenborn sitting on the pit wall during a race, and female mechanics in the garage.”

It was with the aim of making motorsport more accessible to younger girls that Wolff overcame her initial objections when asked to drive a pink car in DTM, the German touring car competition in which she took part before moving to Williams. “I was reluctant at first when the suggestion was put to me, but then little girls, aged about four to ten, would come up to me and explain they had come to the race to see the pink car.” The pink car was not the sole gimmick: Wolff’s very involvement in DTM only began because Mercedes Benz wanted a woman in their team. She was only expected to stay for one season, but in the end was there for seven, having proven her right to be there for merit.

Her present post finds her in a similar situation. To her detractors, she only became involved with Williams thanks to her husband Toto Wolff, the former executive director of the company who remains a shareholder.

She acknowledges her debt to her Austrian spouse – “He didn’t just open the door for me, he pushed me through it” – but points out that, once the initial push had been made, everything else was down to her. And in any case, given the couple only got married in October 2011, she could point to roughly a quarter-century of achievement within motorsport as Susie Stoddart before Toto even came on the scene.

“Ultimately, the stopwatch decides,” she adds. “I don’t need people’s opinions. I just need the chance to prove myself on the track.”

That chance with Williams came in July during the Young Drivers’ Test at Silverstone, when she had her first real outing in a Grand Prix car, and posted a lap time just 0.46 seconds slower than that set by Daniel Juncadella of Spain, the European Formula 3 champion. Given Wolff had hardly been in a single-seater on a race track since her own days in F3 seven years previously, it was a commendable performance, one which reduced the sceptics to silence. “I’m proud of my driver test. So many people were waiting for me to test and fail, so they could say that women would never be able to race in F1,” she says. “I always view my time in F1 as before and after the test. Beforehand, I could sense everybody asking, ‘What’s she doing in the F1 paddock? Is she good enough?’ After my test, that attitude changed.”

And what of the fact that someone like Juncadella is seven years younger and more likely to be regarded by an F1 team as a long-term prospect?

She can point out that ten drivers, among them some celebrated names such as Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost and Graham Hill, have all won world titles when aged 35 or more. And that the man still often regarded as the greatest driver of them all, Juan Manuel Fangio, was also the oldest world champion of them all, having been 46 when he won the title in 1957.

“I feel no pressure of time because of my age. In my early 20s I would never have been able to cope with what I’m doing now, so in fact this chance has come at exactly the right time. I will continue for as long as I can be successful.

“I have offers outside of F1 for next year. But I want to drive an F1 car, because it’s the best there is. I’m pretty sure I’m going in the right direction. In F1 nothing is really certain until the dotted line is signed, but I am fairly certain what I’ll be doing next year.”

Although she refuses to confirm it, that seems sure to mean another year as Williams’ development driver – and presumably another year in which no woman will compete in F1.

It has not always been that way: as long ago as the late 1950s, Italian driver Maria Teresa de Filippis took part in the world championship, racing in five Grands Prix.

Another Italian, Lella Lombardi, took part in 17 from 1974 to ‘76, and at the Spanish Grand Prix of 1975 became the first and so far only woman to finish in the points places. Since then, three others – Divina Galica of Great Britain, South Africa’s Desiré Wilson and Giovanna Amati of Italy – have all entered races but not qualified for a start.

Maria de Villota, a test driver with the Marussia F1 team, was Wolff’s main rival from the current generation of women drivers. She died in October, aged 33, from cardiac arrest, the consequence of injuries she had sustained in a crash in July 2012. Now, apart from Wolff, hopes rest with her fellow Briton Alice Powell, who at the age of 20 is competing in Formula 3.

It appears certain that there will be another woman driver in Formula 1 sooner or later, but even if Wolff does not make it herself, she will remain convinced that she made the right decision, around the turn of the century, to commit herself to motorsport.

Then an international business student at Edinburgh University, she quit her studies to pursue her dream.

Perhaps the only regret about leaving was the fact that her parents were denied the chance to see her graduate. But that chance came, albeit belatedly, in October of this year, when she was made an honorary fellow of the university, in recognition of her role as an ambassador for women in sport.

“It wasn’t an easy choice, but I’m a great believer in following your gut feelings in life. It takes a lot of bravery,” she says.

“I just didn’t feel right at university. I wanted to give racing driving my best shot. But I was back there, and I got to wear the red gown, and was presented with my diploma at the graduation ceremony. And my mum and dad were there, so it was a special day.”

Her mum and dad, and her husband’s parents, will all be there for Christmas as well, in the Swiss village of Ermatingen where the Wolffs now live. “We’ve got a couple of weeks off over Christmas and New Year, so we’re all having a big family Christmas together in Switzerland. My husband is from Austria, so his family are coming from there, and mine are coming over from Scotland.

“Then everything kicks off again in the first week of January and we start the real big push to get everything ready for the start of the F1 season. Because of the big rule changes it’s a very big winter for everybody in Formula 1.”

A very big winter, and a very hectic one, so perhaps once the new F1 season is in full swing Wolff will be thankful for that extra enforced break brought about by the postponement of the Race of Champions. Having said that, the additional peace and quiet this week is perhaps only coming at the expense of a far busier few days next spring, as – political situations permitting – the organisers plan to rearrange the event for then.

“It’s too early to say when it will definitely be rescheduled, but at the moment the word is that it could go ahead in March,” she says. “That would be ideal timing, really – it would fit in well with the first Grand Prix of the year, in Australia on 16 March.”

It would fit in even better if by that time Wolff herself were scheduled to take part in that Grand Prix. But whatever happens between now and then, and indeed over the rest of her career, she can already be proud of her pioneering work within the sport she loves.

 

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