Susie Wolff is a former Williams test driver. She is also a guest presenter and analyst on Channel 4’s Formula 1 coverage. sportscotland chatted to susie to find out more about her journey to becoming one of motorsport’s most recognisable women, and why she is now encouraging more girls to follow in her tyre tracks.
What prompted your decision to retire from Formula 1?
“It came from a gut feeling which just told me it was time to move on. I felt I’d got as far as I could in Formula 1 and, as a sports person, you always have to know when your time is up. For me, I was ready for new challenges and wanted to try something different.”
You grew up in a relatively rural area of Scotland. Was that ever a barrier to achieving your ambitions?
“Absolutely not, I was incredibly lucky to have parents who deserve a gold medal for all the driving they did over the UK, both for the British Championships and latterly Europe for the European World Championships. I’m very thankful to have had the childhood I did — to grow up in a picturesque town and have parents that made sure I got out and saw the world.”
Scotland has produced a host of talented drivers, from Jim Clark and Sir Jackie Stewart to Colin McRae and David Coulthard. Did any inspire you growing up? And did you have any female role models?
“Unfortunately, I was the wrong age group growing up to have them as role models, but I’m very proud of what we’ve all achieved as Scottish drivers. For a small country, we’ve had huge success and it’s inspiring for everyone. I suppose I admired different traits from different sports people, but there wasn’t one key person.”
Your parents met when your mum bought a bike from your dad. Did growing up in an environment where bikes and karting were never ‘just for the boys’ help your career?
“Without a doubt. One of my grandfathers was an engineer for Rolls-Royce and the other was a motocross rider in the ’50s, so it was in the family. Being open to that environment, where I was able to ride little bikes from the age of two, let me find my passion and come up with the dream of trying to make it to Formula 1.”
When your sponsors gave you a pink car, did you wonder if you were there on merit, or as a marketing gimmick?
“The pink car definitely wasn’t my first choice, but you don’t make it to that level if you’re not good enough. In motorsport it’s about performance — you’ve got to go out onto that track every time and perform. You don’t drive for Mercedes-Benz if you’re not good enough, so I was never worried about not being there on merit. Motorsport is a business and you need money to race, but the sponsors wanted the car pink. It was a terrible cliché — blonde female driver in a pink car. The big advantage was I was in the car, so I couldn’t see the colour!”
As a woman in a male-dominated sport, did you ever feel you had to work harder?
“It’s very hard to judge because I only have my experience — I was just a racing driver trying to make my way. I do think that I had to work harder on the fitness side of things because men do have more muscle than women but, overall, it’s a very performance-based environment. There’s a lot of pressure whether you’re male or female, but I probably got a lot more attention being female — which had both its positives and negatives.”
The likes of Deputy Team Principal Claire Williams and broadcaster Lee McKenzie have also made a big impact on the world of motor sport. So are things changing?
“They are, but not just in motorsport, it’s society in general. Women are given more opportunities and support each other more, and I love to see other successful, inspirational women. Motorsport is changing organically. No one put any quotas out there or said they needed more females — they’re there because they’re the best for the job. It’s changing in a positive way, and these women at the visible end of Formula 1 can inspire the next generation.”
What’s the driving force behind your new venture, Dare to be Different?
“It aims to open up the world of motor sport and ensure that the next generation of girls knows it’s an option for them, both on and off the track. We’re starting it here because that’s where my network is, but long-term we want to branch out into other professions and tell the next generation: ‘You can dare to be different and you don’t have to follow the stereotype or prejudice of a career path. Even if a career is seen as male dominated, there’s no reason why you can’t be successful.’
What do you hope to achieve?
“We know we’re not going to change things overnight, but it’s a long-term UK initiative in partnership with the MSA motorsport governing body. There are headline events where we get girls to the racetrack, probably some of whom have never been before. We hope to change perceptions and inspire, making sure the next generation know there are many opportunities out there for them if they just dare to be different.”
And how can girls get involved?
“The best thing girls can do is join our community at http://www.daretobedifferent.org. Everyone that joins up is helping this initiative and, ultimately, our mission to drive female talent.”
Best sporting event you’ve been to?
“The British Grand Prix, when I first drove in the free practice. That was the first time as a British driver, I was driving for a British team at the British Grand Prix — it’s still very special to me.”
Chocolate or cheese?
“That’s easy — chocolate all the way!”
Most interesting place you’ve been with your sport?
“Tokyo – it’s my favourite city in the world.”
Finish this sentence: I wish I could tell my younger self…
“...believe in yourself and go for it.”
Describe yourself in three words:
“Tenacious, loyal and focused.”
Favourite sport to watch, apart from motor sport?