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, reect­ing 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

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