Susie Wolff: ‘Formula One is more accessible for women’

 Without a doubt, Susie Wolff is the most prominent female driver in Formula One at the moment.The 32-year-old British driver – currently the development driver for the Williams Martini Racing team – was the first woman to take part in a Formula One race weekend in 22 years when she drove in the Free Practice sessions of the British Grand Prix (and the German Grand Prix) this year.
Susie Wolff
Susie Wolff

With the new regulations in the sport for the 2014 season, Wolff – who is married to executive director of the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team Toto Wolff – feels that “the sport is developing in such a way that makes it more accessible for women”.

“Biologically, women have 30 per cent less muscle than men and thus the physical aspect is huge factor that holds women back… but that only applies to the past,” she explained.

Indeed, the physical fitness levels required for Formula One are intense – slamming on the brakes is akin to doing a 100kg leg press. Wolff says she trains three times a week just on her neck, on top of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) for cardio, kettlebell training for strength, tennis for coordination and pilates or yoga for flexibility.

However, she said, “The new technical regulations mean drivers need to be small and as light as possible, thus you see them trying to lose more weight as every kilo counts.

“The cars now are not as difficult or physical to drive compared to five years ago. Besides, if I train on the neck machine and in the gym enough with my trainer, I can be fit enough to drive those cars as I have already proven.

“The physical disadvantage that women have was a big issue but less and less now. I’m not saying it’s easy to drive the cars now; I still have to work hard to be fit but it is possible.”

Man’s world
Not surprisingly, the most common question Wolff gets is the one about being female in a male-dominated world.

To that, she replied, “Many people ask me about being a woman in a man’s world, but it’s also my world. I’ve been racing in it since I was eight and I never said I wanted to prove what a woman could achieve in a man’s world. Instead I said I wanted to be the best racer I could be.”

“Women do have to work a little harder for the respect initially, but once you prove yourself it never comes down to gender, it comes down to performance,” she added.

It is true that being a woman gets her more attention within the sport as there are few of them, but that makes it a double-edged sword too.

“If you’re not doing well or struggling, people are quick to pounce on you and say, ‘Why should she do well? She’s a woman on the track,” Wolff revealed.

She chooses not to let any of the negativity affect her, and remains focussed.

Ultimately, when she is in the car with her helmet on, no one can tell what her gender is.

Formula One dream
It has always been her dream to get to Formula One.

Now that she is here, in what she describes as a cut-throat environment, she has to stay at the top of her game.

“Formula One is a very competitive environment with little margin for error. If you’re not good enough or your time is up, you’re out very quickly. You have to fight hard to stay here and make a real effort in every area to make sure you are at the best you can be,” she said.

Like every driver, she has had some “very tough moments along the way”, nearly giving up her dream in motorsports a few times.

From karting, she moved up to Formula Renault and Formula Three before going to DTM to race for Mercedes-Benz.

Tough times

She recalls her toughest time in Formula Three where she broke her ankle and ran out of money.

Her sponsors pulled out, she lost her seat in the team and struggled to pay the rent every month.

On the brink of giving up, things turned around when Mercedes-Benz signed her 12 months later to drive in Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM), the German touring car championship.

“In sports, we never really have a choice to give up but circumstances happen in such a way that you have no choice but to give up and the decision is taken out of your hands.

“If I hadn’t been picked up by Mercedes-Benz, I had no money to continue racing and I had no team, so it wasn’t a case of wanting to give up or thinking I got no chance, but rather, circumstances would have made me give up,” she elaborated.

Although she regrets that her DTM career was not as successful as she wanted it to be, it became a blessing in disguise as it pushed her to leave and try something else.

A sportsperson needs success to keep going and that was when she found the one-off chance to do a Formula One test, which eventually led to her being signed by the Williams Formula One team as a development driver in 2012.

Despite the masculinity of the sport, Wolff remains very much feminine although she has a sporty nature.

“I am a woman and proud to be one. I love fashion because I use it as a way to show my femininity. Some people think being a racing driver means having to be like a man, but that’s not true. Yes I have to wear team clothes but I can choose what shoes and what earrings to wear, so I can still have my own style,” she said.

“When I am in my race suit, it is difficult to add your own touch to it, thus I like to wear earrings under my helmet.” She wears the same pair of butterfly earrings – a gift from her husband.

Now that Martini Racing has come on as the Williams Formula One Team sponsor, the iconic dark blue, light blue and red stripes help to enhance her style too.

“Martini Racing has a long heritage in motorsports and it is also a stylish, glamourous lifestyle brand, thus it helps to enhance my fashion sense,” she added.

Happy with where she is in life right now, Wolff tells us how much more she wants to achieve.

A long way more to go she says, adding that there will be a woman on the Formula One grid soon and it’s only a matter of why it has not happened yet.

“There are only 22 places on the grid and every driver, regardless of gender, wants to be on that grid so it’s a tough fight.”