Susie Wolff's F1 rise is not tokenism – but a triumph over the odds

She wouldn’t be in the car if she were not seriously quick

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The Independent Online

So Susie Wolff edges closer to her dream of racing in Formula One following Friday’s promotion from Williams’ development driver to their official test driver for next season. About time. Inevitably for athletes such as her the focus is less on the attributes she displays than the place of women in the sport she has chosen. It must drive her mad.

I interviewed her a decade ago, when she was a determined 21-year-old about to make the leap from Formula Renault to British Formula Three. Then, as now, the issue took on a sociological perspective that she kindly tolerated, rattling out the reasons why women had thus far failed to make an impact in this particular man’s world.

It had, she argued, nothing to do with the physical demands that towing four times your body weight around corners placed on the female frame. It was simply a numbers game. Not enough girls are attracted to the sport or motivated to care about it at an early age.

The reasons for that are plain. There are no positive role models, no messaging that encourages girls to ask their parents for a crack in a kart, no cultural imperatives pointing them at speedos. Indeed casual sexism dealt the female of the species an enduring blow with all that  clichéd nonsense about “women drivers”.

Wolff, nee Stoddart, spent her youth in Scotland competing against boys, not girls. As the only girl in the class, so to speak, she was by definition the only possible female graduate, and the situation will not improve until the base of the pyramid broadens to allow more girls and young women to hone their skills in a competitive environment.

 

Wolff can handle the g-forces as adequately as men. She can’t bench press 300 kilos, but neither can Lewis Hamilton. She is as strong as she needs to be, well within her fitness capability, and that is the point.

It helps her cause, no doubt, that she is married to an industry leader in Toto Wolff, who still owns 16 per cent of the Williams team despite his role as CEO and shareholder of the rival Mercedes grand prix team.

But this is not a case of nepotism, just politics. Besides it beats posing on the bonnet of a car in a leather cat suit unzipped to the waist, which has been the standard method of dressing up interviews with Ms Wolff. Nothing like sexualising the product to get ahead, eh? A racy pic for a racy gal, etc.

This is the kind of rubbish through which women routinely wade, the dumbing down of their talent in exchange for exposure. Of course, she is not the first ambitious woman forced to look the other way for the sake of a leg up the ladder.

Whatever method she adopts to gain traction the point remains she wouldn’t be in the car if she were not seriously quick. When Wolff appeared in Friday practice in Germany she closed only a couple of tenths behind Felipe Massa, a veteran of 210 grands prix and 11 race wins.

Now she gets a regular shot on Fridays, will drive in two tests and might even progress to being the team’s reserve driver. Glory be!

All of this must be sweet music to the ears of Formula One’s commercial guru Bernie Ecclestone, not someone you might ordinarily associate with a PC nudge in any direction. You would be wrong.

There is no sharper commercial brain in sport than Ecclestone, who would love nothing more than to see women on the grid. It would be better were they American, Chinese or Russian to tap into those vast markets, but he will work any angle he can in order to turn a profit. And it is entirely fitting that the powerbroker throwing her the keys to a grand prix car is also a woman, Claire Williams, daughter of eponymous team founder Sir Frank.

Like Susie, Claire has worked her way through the ranks, knows the business backwards and is acutely sensitive to accusations of tokenism. It doesn’t work. Were Wolff to trawl around the circuit well off the pace it would serve the interests of none. 

“Susie continues to impress us with her strong technical knowledge, the feedback she delivers and the performance when she drives the car both on the track and in the simulator,” said Williams, who operates as the team’s deputy team principal.

“She has steadily increased her time behind the wheel since she joined us in April 2012 and her appointment as test driver was a natural progression.”

There will always be those who look at Wolff’s CV and sneer at her failure to win any of the junior championships in which she competed. They will also sniff at the historic attempts of Wolff’s sisterhood to make a career stick. That is no sort of argument. The wonder is she and her predecessors forced their way on to the grid at all.

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