WOLFF AT THE DOOR
Can Williams test driver Susie Wolff make it beyond FP1?
For a few moments, Susie Wolff was the fastest grand prix driver on the planet. First out in Friday FP1 at Silverstone, so instantly top of the time sheets. Then, with barely a whimper, let alone a bang in this curiously muted F1 era, it was over. The pristine white FW36, carrying bubble-wrap-fresh driver, pulled up at Club, engine dead. Oil pressure lost after one-and-ahalf ying laps. She’d barely broken a sweat.
A day later, reecting on the ckle twists of a sport that’s happy to slap down almost before it has shown the path to the top, she’s sanguine, still forward-looking positive, though yet to shed the veil of disappointment carried since yesterday’s premature curtailment.
“It was hugely disappointing,” she says, in an accent that shifts between Scottish infection and something altogether more Mittel-European. “One of the big difficulties in Formula 1 is time in the car, because testing is limited. So everybody is ghting for the very few opportunities there are and that was my big day. I’d done the young driver test last year, so I knew the track in an F1 car, and driving for Williams at the British Grand Prix was going to be a really special day. It was just tough to accept that it was over before it even started.”
Frustrating for her, and frustrating, too, for the many thousands keen to nd out if Wolff, 31, Williams’ development driver, has what it takes to compete at the top. The question of gender inevitably rears its head, due to female racers having had such a limited presence in Formula 1 to date. In fact Wolff’s foray at Silverstone was the rst by a woman since Giovanna Amati drove a Brabham BT60B in practice for the 1992 Brazilian GP – a gap of almost 22 years!
Wolff says she has never encountered overt sexism at any point in her racing career, which, over the past decade, has encompassed Formula Renault, British F3, Porsche Supercup and seven seasons in Germany’s premier saloon category, the DTM. She will admit, though, that being a woman and pursuing a career in motorsport has required her to overcome stereotypes in a way that a male driver of similar experience would not have to.
“I think there’s more doubt initially when you join a team,” she says, “like when I joined Mercedes in the DTM, then when I joined Williams. I had to work a bit harder to earn respect initially because that stereotype was there. ‘You’re a little blonde lady, how the hell are you going to manage to drive an F1 car.’ But once you show you mean business, that you’re there to work hard and that you’re not there as a token gesture, the whole gender thing very quickly gets forgotten and I’m treated as an equal in the team. Nobody ever gives me the impression that I’m different because I’m a female driver.”
Wolff is part of a generation of emerging female racing talent that includes the likes of Danica Patrick and Simona de Silvestro. Their collective efforts in top-line single-seaters and NASCAR, whether by design or not, are raising the profile of women racing drivers to the point where the question of gender will – at last – cease to be relevant.
“I’m simply following my path,” Wolff observes, “but when I saw the amazing response I got as I took to the track and I saw all the nice messages people have sent me and how inspired they were by the fact that I took to the track… then, well, if that can inspire just a handful of women to see Formula 1 as an opportunity for them I think it’s positive. But I don’t feel any extra pressure that I’m out there ying the ag for women. I just followed my passion in life, and here I am.”
Close watchers of F1 (as readers of F1 Racing must surely be) will have noted already that Susie – née Stoddart – Wolff is married to none other than Mercedes co-team-boss Toto, who is also a significant shareholder in the Williams F1 team. The more cynically minded have suggested she owes her place in the team only to her husband’s influential position. But questioning on this point elicits an intriguing revelation: “Toto was sent out of the boardroom when they had to decide whether I was going to be given that initial test,” she says. “He wasn’t even allowed to vote.”
She’ll concede that Toto’s wider support has been helpful to her progress, but she’s quick to point out that he, like the Williams team, and like the wider F1-watching world, will offer little sympathy if her speed doesn’t justify her seat.
“There will always be people who are for you and people who are against you,” she says, “and I realise that the question of females in F1 will always be there until it’s done and dusted and I’ve shown that… women can compete at this level. But until I’ve done that, there will always be a question mark because it’s the one big thing left to happen in Formula 1.” Watch this space…
Wolff’s first outing in F1 was over almost as soon as it had begun, due to a sudden loss of oil pressure during FP1 at Silverstone