Susie Wolff is walking in the paddock at last weekend’s Race of Champions with a local Barbadian driver when a spectator calls from the crowd, “who’s your girlfriend?”
She doesn’t bat an eyelid – she’s heard worse.
When she takes to the car for the first time in practice, a dumbfounded Petter Solberg, the former world rally champion, turns to her and says ‘wow, you can actually drive’.
Wolff, the first woman driver in Formula One for 20 years, is amused rather than irritated. With a smile she says: “I felt like saying, ‘why do you think I’m at the Race of Champions?’ I’m a woman, it doesn’t count for much – woman or man, when you come out on track it’s about performance.”
At the same time she is well aware that the fact she is female in the higher echelons of motorsport is her unique selling point and she cannot recall a single interview when gender hasn’t been brought up.
The 32-year-old Scot is a trailblazer for her sport and her gender: the first woman to score points in the DTM (German touring cars) for 20 years, the first to compete at the Race of Champions and, most tellingly, the first to drive in a competitive session at a grand prix for 22 years when she tested for Williams at Silverstone last season.
As the team’s official test driver for next season she will become an F1 regular, although she admits the next step to a fully-fledged race seat may never materialise.
“I’m very ambitious but realistic,” she says. “I’m happy to have made it to F1. I’d love to get on the start and do a race, and I’d like that to be in a Williams. We have two great racing drivers and, if something should happen, yes, it would be great to race. I’m a great believer that if you knock on enough doors and stay at the level maybe an opportunity comes.”
To get to that point, some critics have suggested that she has only made certain steps up the ladder because of her gender and as a marketing tool for teams and sponsors.
David Coulthard disputes that. He has raced against his compatriot at DTM and partnered her to the runners-up spot at the Race of Champions Nations Cup at the weekend.
“She’s talented, she’s got speed,” he says. “The difficulty, which is the same as any other racer, male or female, is that being good isn’t enough – being exceptional is what Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso are. That’s the big challenge.”
Wolff’s parents met when her mother Sally walked into a shop to buy a motorbike from her father John, and motoring has always been in the lifeblood for the Stoddart (her maiden name) family.
Her parents instilled in her the idea that she had as much right from day one as any boy to be on any grid. “I have an older brother, only 18 months older, and they never differentiated: ‘you play Barbie and your brother’s on the motorbike’,” she recalls. “I was well into racing before I realised there weren’t any girls and they never made me believe as a woman I couldn’t have the same possibilities.”
There have been tough moments on the way up to F1. There were the Mercedes team-mates asking how her breasts coped with the bumps on the track, there was the pink car she was made to drive in the DTM.
She hated it but at the same time, as always seems to be her custom, she saw the positives. “It was such a cliché – blonde girl in pink car – and I didn’t like it at all but the sponsor wanted it. Then so many girls came up to me and their fathers said, ‘we only came to the race to see the pink car’.”
Growing up, there were few female motor-racing idols to aspire to but Wolff hopes she can be one herself, even if “it is just one little girl watching on TV and thinking F1 is not just for boys”.
At Williams now there are two women, herself and deputy team principal Claire Williams. The two bonded over those who have questioned their place in the sport, with Williams’ critics pointing out that she is the daughter of team founder Frank.
Both have had to work harder than their male counterparts to earn respect, Williams by playing an integral part in the team’s turnaround in fortunes in 2014 and Wolff with what she does in the cockpit.
“Coming to new environments, people look at you and think, ‘what’s this blonde lady doing, she thinks she can drive a racing car’. But you work hard, keep your head down and show that you’re actually capable,” Wolff says.
“As a woman people judge you on your looks regardless of the fact you’re just there to race. So you have this very fine line of trying to look good as you’re representing your team and sponsors but then people say ‘she’s only there for marketing’. So you say ‘who cares?’, go out and carry on and let them talk about it.”
Watching Wolff over the course of a race weekend, were it not for the fact that she is constantly being asked about it, one suspects she would not give her gender a thought when racing.
But a driver who has been labelled “the fastest woman in the world” cannot escape that fact. Having fought to get this far, she and her husband, the Mercedes team’s executive director Toto Wolff, have delayed plans for a family.
As well as sexism towards her, she has also had to deal with suggestions of nepotism – Wolff was on the Williams board when his wife was first signed by the team.
He left the boardroom when any discussions turned to his wife, and she says: “I’m a racing driver and he’s a private investor so there’s no conflict of interest as they’re completely different roles. Rather than it being a difficult situation it’s a huge advantage. He understands what I’m up against in the world of F1.”
On the rare weekends they have away from the F1 circus, they like to go ice racing, the result normally being that the loser sulks for the evening.
But it is Wolff’s husband who has truly given her the self-belief to continue with her quest in F1. “He said to me: ‘Don’t care what anyone says, you have to walk into the paddock with your head held high. You make sure you look good and you do a good job in the car.’ That freed up a lot of things for me.”Reuse content