Susie Wolff was the highest-achieving woman in motorsport when she retired as a Formula One test driver in 2015. Here, she recalls the powerful influence of family and explains her mission to inspire a generation of girls to embrace motorsport.
My biggest influence
I wasn’t one of those girls who put posters up on her walls. Looking back, the biggest influence on me was not racing drivers, but my mother, Sally, who raced motorbikes. I was very lucky that the women in my life were fantastic role models. They were able to be great mothers and wives but also achieved their own success and that created a balance. Mum had a huge respect for my father but always had her own work and ambitions. Even to this day, I’ve learnt a lot from how she manages it all.
My parents never made me believe that it was unusual, and it wasn’t until my late teens that I realized I’d taken a different path and was one of very few females doing that.
I come from a very small town, Oban, on the west coast of Scotland.
My mother and father have a motorbike shop, which is how they met when she bought her first motorbike from my Dad. I grew up in a motorsport environment and it’s the same for my son now. He is only a one-year-old, but my Dad already has several little bikes in his shop showroom with a “reserved for Jack” sign on. God, help the little guy if he doesn’t like them!
I was always very competitive. I rode my first motorbike when I was just two years old but my father was very much against the idea of me racing on bikes because it was very dangerous, so I became one of the very few girls at the karting track. My parents never made me believe that it was unusual, and it wasn’t until my late teens that I realized I’d taken a different path and was one of very few females doing that.
Making it as a female racer
It’s difficult for any driver to make it to Formula One, regardless of their gender. There are very few people who go on to be successful and make big money from the sport. The difference in strength between the genders also doesn’t play a big enough of a role to allow it to be segregated as a sport, even though women have 30 per cent less muscle mass.
Certainly, there were many moments in my career which were very tough and that’s why I always maintained the mantra of ‘Never give up.’ Joining Williams Formula One, trying to break into their Formula One team and earning respect in the paddock was hard, but I never allowed myself to be distracted by the noise. There was so much media attention around my journey and the fact that I was one of the first women, but I was always a believer that you will never keep everybody happy, so you must stay true to your own path. At the pinnacle of the sport there’s so many trying to break into the top 100, never mind the top 20.
Opting to retire
I never achieved my big goal of racing regularly in Formula One. I got as far as being a test driver, but I was always very conscious of stopping on my terms when I couldn’t get any further. I don’t have any big regrets or bitterness about the dream not becoming a reality but it was a great journey that taught me a lot and I will always be thankful for the opportunity I had.
There was a moment at the end of the season in 2015, when I realized the only opportunity I had was another year as a test driver. I knew that every year I continued to be a test driver I wasn’t competing as much as I needed to be. There’s only so long you can keep yourself out of actual racing, doing a large amount of work on the simulator and a small amount on the track, and every year I was slipping further away. There were also factors that made me believe that actually the chance was never going to happen, so I decided it was time to call it a day and move on to the next chapter of my life.
Retiring is a decision every sports person has to cope with. You wake up with a clear purpose and goal every day, and suddenly you are starting all over again with a blank sheet of paper and you have to ask yourself: 'what are my goals, what is my purpose'? I was very conscious that so much more was possible and that I was young enough to go on and achieve more in a different environment.
When I stopped racing I wanted to give something back.
Moving away from racing meant taking stock and giving myself time to make sure I was going in the right direction. New goals and challenges are starting to take shape. I’ve had a bridge period. I have a fantastic marriage and I’ve become a mother. My ‘Dare To Be Different’ project has been a focus in the last couple of years and I’m very proud of what we have managed to achieve so far.
When I stopped racing I wanted to give something back. For me, it was definitely about inspiring young girls out there, that there aren’t as many barriers as society leads us to believe. There are many women working in the sport and I could see so much potential for them to be role models for the next generation.
My focus is making the Formula One space more diverse. You are missing out on 50% of the population, when you have such a male dominated sport. I see there’s new talent coming up and that’s why I started my own initiative, because that’s the only way to improve the diversity in Formula One, both on track and off track. The more momentum we have, the bigger the impact.
So, Dare To Be Different is about inspiring the next generation, creating role models, and making sure we can connect the successful women so we can nurture more success. Our headline events aim to get eight to 12-year-old girls to karting tracks or to venues, trying a range of different activities.
I’m aware that not every girl we reach will aspire to be in motorsport, but what we have seen is that it has empowered girls and given them a little bit more confidence and self-belief to achieve more than they had once thought.
I’m in a very lucky position because I have front row seats to watch a man lead a team to success. I see closely how Toto thinks and how he structures everything. Leadership is such an important part of the success of a team. But once you’ve achieved that success year on year, how do you keep everyone motivated? That’s something he works very hard at and one of his biggest strengths is his empathy. He understands what motivates people.
He also realizes that it can’t just be a very clear management structure, because there’s huge talent within the team, there’s great young talent and he’s very good at surrounding himself with the best people. He’s able to look at who’s the best in the marketplace, who fits within the culture and the structure, and put them in place, and if it doesn’t work out, he’s quick to see that person isn’t fitting in that role, and consider where else they might fit. If people have a pathway up and they see a possibility of climbing the ladder, they will stay, if not then they’re just going to go to another team.
Inside the car
Funnily enough, Toto is not a great passenger, so I let him drive. On the rare occasion I’m in the driving seat, he’s always commenting on what I can improve in my driving. He’s a very good driver and he was very successful in rallying, but if it comes down to pure speed then I would be the quicker one. He says I’m very good at going from A to B or when there’s long stretches on a race track, but on normal roads, he doesn’t have as much faith in my abilities. I used to take it to heart, thinking he had no trust in my driving skills but Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton went out with him and he did the exact same thing to them. So, if he’s going to tell a four-time world champion how to drive, I shouldn’t be too worried when he also tells his wife how to drive too. Now we have a rule - if I drive, he’s not allowed to comment.
Nature vs nurture
Now we have our son Jack, Toto and I talk about this a lot. I believe in the value of nurture. Take Lewis Hamilton, I believe he’s probably the most talented racing driver of all time, not just of his generation. That talent within him is without a doubt a skill he has that not many people in the world have. But he was nurtured from a very young age; his father recognized that he had very, very strong hand-eye co-ordination and if he hadn’t nurtured him he’d never be the fine sportsman he is now.
Toto argues that although the environment a child grows up in will play a big part in their life, your character is fixed in a way, and you can’t instill ambition or enjoyment of competition. If you’re passionate about something, it’s much easier to be successful. But, if you force the child, it only works until a certain age and they will eventually turn around and go, ‘You know what, it was great fun but that’s not my thing’ - so it’s finding that balance.
Where is your favorite place to drive (and in what)?
Scottish Highlands in a Mercedes Oldtimer.
After starting in go-karting at a young age, Susie began her professional career in the Formula Renault UK Championship, where she notched three podiums and was twice nominated for British Young Driver of the Year Award. After a brief spell in Formula 3, she made her name with Mercedes-Benz in DTM, the German Touring Car Championship, between 2006 and 2012. At the 2014 British Grand Prix Susie made history by becoming the first woman to take part in a Formula One race weekend in 22 years. In 2016 Susie launched her own initiative called 'Dare To Be Different' in collaboration with the UK Motorsport Governing Body, the Motor Sports Association. The initiative aims to drive female talent - inspiring, connecting and showcasing women within male-dominated industries.