Connect with us

News

‘You need to be heard’: Susie Wolff’s life in motorsports is about more than racing

Susie Wolff’s quiet confidence is evident the moment you meet her.

She’s ambitious and bold, not afraid to fight for something she believes in. And when her character came into question when the FIA launched an inquiry into allegations of conflict of interest last year, Wolff pushed back, filing a criminal complaint last month in relation to the governing body’s statements.

To understand why she’s pursuing legal action, one first must understand Wolff herself, a woman whose name has become synonymous with the fight for women in motorsport. Born Susie Stoddart, the Scot has worn many hats over the years, navigating the motorsport ranks as a driver before entering the management side, now serving as the managing director of the all-women series F1 Academy.

Wolff’s story is one defined by tenacity, starting from a small town in Scotland and morphing into a journey of showing how women belong and can be successful in what’s still considered “a man’s world.”

“Someone said to me many years ago, dream and dream big. But always have a plan because of a dream without a plan, that’s called a wish,” she said in Las Vegas last year. “You need to know how you’re gonna achieve your dreams and have the tenacity to make them happen.”

The rise of a ‘calculated’ risk taker

Wolff found her passion for racing early in life.

Her parents met when her mother, whom Wolff describes as “a daredevil in her own right,” bought her first motorbike from Wolff’s father, who owned a motorcycle shop and raced in the biking world. But Wolff, a self-described “calculated” risk taker, fell in love with the world of four-wheel racing and started karting competitively by age eight. By 13, she dreamed of being a racing driver.

But how was a different issue.

“I remember, I finished 15th in the world karting championships, and the idea of trying to move into single-seaters was, for me, like climbing Mount Everest,” Wolff said. “Where to start? How to get a good team? How to raise the budget?”

She was 18 at the time. Before jumping into the racing world full-time, she began studying international business at the University of Edinburgh but only stayed a year. Wolff headed to race in Formula Renault UK championship. To afford the jump from karting to single-seaters, she got creative. “I spent my student loan on a Formula Renault test day,” she said. “(It’s) the same struggle that many drivers have, not just female drivers. I had a great family background, but we didn’t have the financial means to get me racing.”

Wolff found a sponsor and competed in Formula Renault UK from 2001 to 2004, securing three podium finishes during that span and two nominations for British Young Driver of the Year. She advanced to British F3 in 2005 and competed alongside drivers like Bruno Senna, the nephew of the late Ayrton Senna and eventual WEC world champion in the LMP2 class. She scored points in her debut but saw her season disrupted when she broke her ankle.

Wolff lost her seat in F3 and her sponsor after the injury. “That could have been a moment where I said, ‘OK, this is not going to work,’ and it was also quite hard financially to pay the rent at the end of every month.” She described that period as “the darkest time of not just my career but my life because I really lost all the momentum.”

Then the phone rang.

During the Autosport Awards one year, when she was nominated for British Young Driver of the Year, Wolff caught the eye of Mercedes-Benz. It led to a testing opportunity. “It was one test in DTM, with Mercedes-Benz, that changed the course of my whole life.” DTM stands for Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters, a German series of touring cars. Wolff was initially offered only a one-year contract. She stayed for seven seasons, securing multiple top-10 finishes across several campaigns (the best race result being seventh in 2010).

Susie and her now-husband, Toto Wolff, met in 2007 while she was competing in DTM. Toto was an investor in the company that manufactured the DTM cars for Mercedes. The couple married in 2011, when Susie was still competing in DTM and he hadn’t joined F1 yet. “I always said I would never get married before I’m 30, and for Toto, I broke that rule, and I was 29.”

Prior to him entering her life, she went through what she described as “an unhealthy period where it was only about racing, and then my whole self-worth was wrapped up in my race results.” As she got older, she became more confident.

Reaching the pinnacle

DTM became Wolff’s big break, but she didn’t completely walk away from open-wheel racing. She joined Williams as a development driver in 2012 and committed to the F1 team full-time the following year. The world she was entering, though, still was male-dominated. Only a handful of women have made it to F1, and sexist comments still arose.

It had been over two decades since a woman drove on track in an F1 grand prix weekend. Giovanna Amati tried and failed to qualify for several races in the 1992 season after being several seconds slower than competitors. After that, no woman came close for years. During the 2014 British Grand Prix weekend, that changed when Wolff made a practice outing. Another followed during the German GP weekend that same season, and Wolff was just two-tenths of a second off of 11-time grand prix winner Felipe Massa’s lap time.

Looking back on her F1 chapter, she said, “I definitely wasn’t the most talented, but I had an incredible amount of tenacity. And that got me pretty far.” Her role with Williams expanded in 2015, which included testing responsibilities and two more practice outings, but she retired in the fall of that same season, stepping away from driving entirely.

“I didn’t want to carry on as a test driver for another year. I was very conscious that I didn’t also just want to be known as an ex-racing driver,” Wolff said. “As a sports person, you always know there has to be the next chapter, and I wanted to be in control of when I started that chapter.”

Championing women in motorsports

Dare To Be Different was Wolff’s way of giving back to motorsports in her next chapter. She founded and launched the initiative in 2016 in collaboration with The Motor Sports Association, aiming to increase female participation on all levels of the sport, not just on track and in the driver’s seat.

“I’ve only ever done one interview in my whole career where I wasn’t asked about my gender, and I felt that I had to do something because of this idea that I was always the only (one),” she said. “I felt it was passing the baton on to the next generation, letting them learn from what I’ve done, right? Avoid the mistakes that I made and just make sure that the sport could be more diverse long term because I didn’t see any reason why you couldn’t be successful with a woman in sport.”

Wolff had been an ambassador for the “She’s Mercedes” campaign and was honored in 2017 as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for her contributions to women in sports. While working behind the scenes and helping break down barriers, a new racing opportunity arose.

Her formal step into team ownership and management came in the form of Formula E, the electric car single-seater series. She became team principal and a shareholder of ROKiT Venturi Racing in 2018, but that wasn’t her first contact with the team. When she was still driving, Venturi had reached out about a possible Formula E drive. In 2021, Wolff was promoted to CEO, and Venturi finished second in the 2021/2022 season, just 24 points shy of Mercedes.

But the noise about her being the only woman in the room continued to follow Wolff, something she admits annoyed her during the Formula E chapter. “I felt that I was just one of the 12 team principles, but there, I did what I always do. I just focused on performance and nearly won the world championship.”

Wolff announced in Aug. 2022 that she was stepping down ahead of the team’s partnership with Maserati. She didn’t just walk away from Formula E, though.

“When I finished in Formula E, I just chose to stop talking about women in motorsport. Even in my last two years, all the requests I got, I tried to let other women within my team do them, to kind of shine the limelight on other women, not just me all the time,” Wolff said.

“I really felt like I said everything that needed to be said… All these panel discussions you get invited to, the same discussions, the same topics, and I just felt I’ve done all I can do now. And that’s why I was very convinced that I need to move into a different industry and find a new challenge.

“But then F1 Academy popped up.”

F1 Academy is the all-women junior racing series that’s part of F1’s pyramid and competes in F4 machinery. Wolff joined the series as managing director in March 2023, over a month before the inaugural season opened in Austria. “I kind of feel in this role, we’re not talking anymore. We’re reacting.” Wolff added that talking about women in motorsports doesn’t “frustrate” her because it helps not just the F1 Academy drivers but also those who may be watching.

“At my stage in life, I (have) 25 years of (being a) racing driver, I ran my own team, I know this paddock really well. I have no qualms to go up and ask for what I think needs to be asked for, and I have no problem to hustle and get my elbows out if I feel that I need to fight for something,” Wolff said, explaining why she took the role. “So from that perspective, I think it really was that opportunity linked with a passion to make this sport more diverse and to give opportunity to more talented women.”

She later added that there are days when it doesn’t feel like any progress is being made, and others where change is evident. More than Equal, a not-for-profit initiative that focuses on growing female participation in the sport, conducted research in recent years about the gender gap in motorsport, and found only 51 percent of survey respondents knew women could compete in F1.

F1 Academy also poses an entrepreneurial challenge for Wolff. “As much as some people kind of sometimes say to me, ‘Oh, you’re on such a crusade,’ I’m not only on a crusade for women in motorsport. ​​I’m also on a crusade to build this into a sustainable business model which flies.”

Guiding the next generation

Wolff isn’t one to back down, as evidenced by her taking legal action against the governing body. As her husband, Toto, told Sky Sports last month, “Susie is a strong woman; she doesn’t take anything from anyone and has always followed through on her convictions and values, and that’s the case here. She’s very unemotional about it and pragmatic. She feels wrong was done, and the court needs to hear that. Nothing’s going to bring her off that paths, that’s how her character is.”

When the FIA announced its investigation into the alleged conflict of interest, it didn’t name the Wolffs. The governing body said its compliance department was looking into the “media speculation centered on the allegation of information of a confidential nature being passed to an F1 team principal from a member of FOM personnel.” But F1, Susie Wolff and Mercedes released statements denying the allegations.

Wolff’s initial statement didn’t focus purely on the claims but rather on the bigger picture. “It is disheartening that my integrity is being called into question in such a manner, especially when it seems to be rooted in intimidatory and misogynistic behavior and focused on my marital status rather than my abilities.”

The FIA dropped the matter a few days later, but as Wolff highlighted in a subsequent statement, she felt the damage had already been done. “When I saw the statement issued by the FIA yesterday evening, my first reaction was: ‘Is that it?’ For two days, insinuations have been made about my integrity in public and through background briefings, but nobody from the FIA has spoken to me directly,” she said in a Dec. 8 statement, adding that she “received online abuse about my work and my family.”

“I might have been collateral damage in an unsuccessful attack on somebody else or the target of a failed attempt to discredit me personally, but I have worked too hard to have my reputation called into question by an unfounded press release.”

There’s no question that much of the F1 paddock thinks highly of Wolff. When discussing her complaint during an Australian GP press conference, McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown called her “one of the most respected people in motorsport.” Lewis Hamilton said that same weekend, “Hopefully, this stand that she’s taking now will create change, will have a positive impact, and especially for women. It is still a male-dominated sport.”

And the seven-time world champion is right. The number of women participating in motorsport has been static for some time, but series like F1 Academy, teams like the all-women Iron Dames and women like Wolff aim to change that as they inspire generations. The Scot has spent her career navigating the racing ranks as a driver, running a race team and championing women in motorsports. She knows and experienced the challenges and pressures of this space; it’s part of her mission to show there are opportunities up for grabs.

That’s why when asked what advice she had for young women, Wolff didn’t skip a beat. After all, there were moments from her career when she wished she could have carried more confidence.

“Believe in yourself. Don’t be scared to speak up when your voice needs to be heard. Don’t feel like you always need to be heard,” Wolff said last November. “But in the moment, you need to be heard, have that inner belief and confidence to stand up for yourself, to put yourself forward, and figure out where you want your path to go.

“Don’t allow others to dictate your path. Be strong to know what your path is, what your direction is, and, and lean on others when you need help.”

Wolff easily could have walked away from the industry. Motorsports remain a male-dominated environment with very few women in high profile roles, but Wolff’s new chapter zeroes in on changing that perception, with F1 Academy extending beyond just being a racing series and focusing on the motorsport pipeline, too.

But the Scot’s story was never about a crusade. It was about a simple dream that morphed into a plan.

“I never set out on a mission to prove what a woman could do in a man’s world. I love racing. I love the competition. I love the racetrack and the environment. I love that it pushes you out of your comfort zone. And now I’m on a mission to definitely make sure that more women realize the opportunities within motorsport.”

(Lead image of Susie Wolff: Clive Mason, Jared C. Tilton/F1, Ker Robertson / Getty Images; Design: John Bradford / The Athletic)

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Must See

More in News