WHEN it comes to attacking a glass ceiling, few sisters can do it by themselves. Instead, there’s usually a support cast goading, cajoling and encouraging.
In the case of Williams Formula One test driver Susie Wolff, the inspiration for her first outing with Williams a fortnight ago wasn’t just Maria de Villota, the test driver who lost her right eye in a freak accident during a routine straight-line run at Duxford Airfield, which ended with the 32-year-old Spaniard ploughing into her team’s transporter. Instead, the guiding light who did so much to influence Wolff’s 20-year motorsport odyssey is the slight 50-something woman from Oban who was going crazy on the paddock wall at Silverstone as the Scot emerged from the garage in a Formula One car for the first time.
That woman was her mother, Sally Stoddart, who, along with her husband John, has been the inspiration behind her daughter’s career.
“My mum used to race bikes and cars when she met my dad – in fact she met him when she bought a motorbike from him – so I could see from my mother that there are no limits to what you can achieve as a woman,” says Wolff.
“I was very lucky in that my parents supported my racing so much – they just said ‘whatever you want to achieve, if you work hard enough you can achieve it’. They never, ever let me believe that, as a female, I couldn’t compete in a man’s world.”
Wolff’s early years were spent watching her motorbike-racing father compete but, after he bought Susie and her and older brother David go-karts when she was eight, motorsport became a family affair. Her parents would pick their two children up from school in Oban on a Thursday afternoon and drive for 24 hours to circuits in Spain, France or Italy in a truck that was half living space, half workshop.
Both parents would work as mechanics before driving Susie and David back to Oban first thing on Sunday morning, usually arriving just in time for school on Monday.
If the kids slept all the way there and all the way back, Sally and John would go to work having barely slept for four days. “What mum and dad did for us was incredible, even if they say they really enjoyed it and that it kept us together as a family,” says Wolff.
Yet for all the encouragement provided by mum Sally – not to mention father John and brother David, who hung up his crash helmet at 18 after sustaining a broken leg in a crash and is now a director making a film charting Wolff’s first year in F1 – there was always an issue around just how far Wolff could progress in a sport that remains dominated by men.
Five women have driven in Formula One (two of them with Williams) but whether it is karting, Formula Renault, F3 or German touring cars, Wolff has competed in environments which at best have been ambivalent about the role of women and, at worst, implacably hostile.
“Martin Whitmarsh [McLaren CEO] was right when he said the other day that ‘the team principals are probably the most sexist and machismo bunch of managers you could ever hope to meet’,” laughs Wolff, “and I’m under no illusion that I’m definitely a woman in a man’s world. But, at any level, motorsport – and especially Formula 1 – is a very performance-based sport and, if you’re not good enough you won’t survive.
“Of course it is frustrating that people want to talk about me as a woman driver rather than just as a driver, I am also realistic – the reason Norbert Haug gave me a chance in DTM [German touring cars] was because Mercedes Benz wanted a female representative.
“Their idea was just to have me in the championship for one year and I ended up staying for seven years because, as Norbert said after the first season, ‘Susie is here because she is a racer, not because she is a girl’.
“People on the inside realise I wouldn’t have stayed there unless I was good enough because, while it’s a male-dominated sport it’s also pretty ruthless – it’s all about success.
“It doesn’t bother me if I’m getting attention because I’m a girl. You’ve got to be positive. My car in DTM is bright pink, for instance – it’s a marketing gag and when they suggested it I just rolled my eyes and decided to focus on the job, although I did draw the line at having a semi-naked guy draped across my car!
“But the positive side-effect of having a pink car in the DTM was that little girls between four and ten would come up to me all dressed in pink and say ‘You’re driving a pink car, I would love to drive this car’. It’s great to see little girls who had no interest in DTM start coming to races with their fathers because they want to meet the girl who’s driving the pink car.”
Although Wolff believes a lack of women at grassroots level is the reason for their paucity at the top of motorsport, that is changing. Sauber recently appointed a female team principal in Monisha Kaltenborn, while Leena Gade was the chief engineer for the triumphant Audi Le Mans 24 Hours team. There are also more women behind the wheel. German Jutta Kleinschmidt won the Paris-Dakar Rally in 2001 and, in 2008, Danica Patrick won a round of the IndyCar Championship and finished third in the Indy 500. While Wolff, who is 30 next month, will struggle to get a frontline drive in F1, 19-year-old Alice Powell finished in the points at Monza’s GP3 race, and is a genuine future F1 prospect.
For now, however, women in the paddock who aren’t wearing bikinis can still raise eyebrows. The testosterone-fuelled atmosphere around the sport is such that Wolff has had to contend with a whispering campaign that she has only got a drive because her Austrian husband Toto, a former Williams test driver, is also a significant shareholder in the team.
“People will say I’m only where I am because of my husband or because the team might want to employ a woman,” she says, “but you don’t get to drive a Formula 1 car unless you’re good enough, especially with a top team like Williams. Does anyone seriously think that Frank Williams would have taken me on as a developing driver if he didn’t think I was capable of it? Would he really have let me take control of an absolutely priceless car because my husband – who was sent out of the room when the decision was made – sits on the board?
“That said, none of that affects my focus at all, because the bottom line is that I don’t race to prove a point about women, I don’t race to break down barriers – I race because I love racing. Driving the F1 car in testing is still the best day of my career and I wouldn’t swap anything for that chance to have driven that car on that day, no matter who says what. I’ve always believed in myself and that’s what has got me this far. As soon as you start listening to the gossip surrounding you, you just get dragged down by it.”
That is unlikely to ever happen. Wolff has developed strategies for coping with the men she races against, taking quiet pleasure in their wounded pride and cold shoulders when she beats them. “That’s just boys and their egos, that’ll never change,” she says. And even adapting to the man in her life by declining to drive Toto any more after one bout of backseat driving too many.
For Wolff, testing in F1 is “not about feminism or a crusade against men, it’s about proving that we belong here, that we can do a good job – that I can do a good job”.
Taking forward the work started by De Villota, pictured above, is simply a continuation of Wolff’s quest to prove herself worthy of a place on the grid.
“After what happened to Maria, it was very important for me to go out and show everybody that it was just a freak accident and that, actually, women do have a place in Formula One,” she says.
“She wrote to me saying, ‘It is up to you now to go out there and show them that we can do it — you are driving for both of us’.
“So I had her in my thoughts and I had her star on my helmet. But, fundamentally, this has to be a selfish thing.
“I’m doing this for me, not for anyone else.”