Susie Wolff: “Gender is irrelevant in motorsport.”

Susie Wolff didn’t choose to become a trailblazer of female rights. All she did was follow her passion and become a professional race driver – that’s how she ended up in one of the last bastions of masculinity. Last autumn, she broke another glass ceiling, becoming the first female team principal in Formula E.

It has been 100 years since some of the most advanced democracies such as Great Britain, Germany or the United States introduced the women’s right to vote. Nevertheless, a full century later, gender diversity still has a long way to go in many domains of our daily life. Motorsport is one of them. During the long history of car racing,  few women have made their mark in the macho world of speed, adrenaline and champagne-soaked podium celebrations. Names like Michèle Mouton, Jutta Kleinschmidt, Danica Patrick or Simona de Silvestro have been the exceptions that confirm the rule. When it comes to Formula 1 – (still) the pinnacle of motorsport – the air gets even thinner. Since the start of the championship in 1950, only two drivers have made it into a regular Formula 1 cockpit: the Italian Maria Teresa de Filippis, who had three starts in the season 1958-59, and her compatriot Lella Lombardi, who competed in 12 races between 1974 and 1976. 

Formula 1 dreams
One of the last female drivers flirting with a Formula 1 cockpit was Susie Wolff. In 2014, after two years working as a development driver for the Williams F1 Team, Wolff had the opportunity to prove her speed in a free practice session for her team at the German Grand Prix. She finished 15th out of 22 cars, just two tenths of a second behind teammate Felipe Massa. Even though she was promoted to become a regular test driver for Williams in the following season, the dream of many Formula 1 fans to see a woman on the starting grid would – once again – not materialise. In 2015, Wolff decided to retire from motorsport and dedicate her energy to launching her own initiative. Its goal: encouraging more girls and young women to embrace motorsport.

13-year-old girl starts racing career
“Dare to be different” – the name of the initiative – sounds like a life motto of the Scotswoman, born Suzanne Stoddard in 1982 in the small resort town of Orban on the Scottish coast. “I started racing karts when I was only 8 years old. At 13 I decided that I wanted to make a career out of it,” she recalls her first unconventional career moves. “It was my passion, it was this thing that I loved doing the most.” Stoddard proved to be  competitive. At 18, she made the move into single-seater racing – first Formula Renault, then Formula 3, – before ending up in DTM, the German Touring Cars series, where she competed alongside male teammates such as Pedro de la Rosa, Gary Paffett or Mathias Lauda. 

It’s the performance that counts
Being the only girl in the field during most of her career wasn’t an issue for her. “In my opinion, gender is irrelevant; performance is the key factor of every individual within the paddock.” This iron law of any competition also applies to Susie’s latest challenge: for the current 2018/2019 season, she assumed the role as a team principal of the Venturi Formula E team. Once again, she was not afraid to explore new territory and pave the way for other women to follow. Although this new role means a very bold step in her career, she is not completely alone: with her husband Toto Wolff, head of the Mercedes Formula 1 Team and winner of won five consecutive world championships, Susie has a very seasoned mentor at her side. 

Bring your husband to work
“I was able to watch my husband over the years and see how he built a structure, how he found that success,” Susie says about the man she married in 2011. “I’ve taken some lessons from him, but at the same time I have to stand on my own two feet and have to find my own way and my own style.” The degree to which this has  already become a reality became obvious during the second Formula E-Prix of the current season in Marrakesh. When the TV cameras showed Toto Wolff, as he watched the race from the garage of the HWA Mercedes team, the title displayed below him was “husband of Susie Wolff, Team Principal of Venturi.” 

This funny reversion of traditional role stereotypes sparked some ironic tweets, including one from Toto Wolff’s own Mercedes F1 Team: “When it’s ‘bring your husband to work day,” an inspired social media manager wrote, proving that at least in electric motor racing, gender diversity has already moved a tiny bit towards becoming the norm. 

The following interview with Susie Wolff was conducted during pre-season testing in Valencia back in October 2018.

After a 15-year career as a racing driver, you have decided to take on a new role as team principal of the Monaco-based Venturi Formula E team. Could this prove to be your biggest challenge so far?
Susie Wolff: I don’t think it’s my biggest challenge. There have been huge challenges along the way, including many disappointments. This is definitely a different kind of challenge, as it’s not me on my own in the car. But I’m incredibly lucky to be surrounded by brilliant people at Venturi, and so there’s much more a feeling of a team effort. I’m learning a lot every day and pushing myself out of my comfort zone, which is a great thing for human beings, because that’s where you can grow as a person.

How much does the fact that you have raced yourself help you in your new role?
My racing background is absolutely key to me being able to be successful as a team principal. I know what it’s like in the car, I know what it’s like for my drivers out there, I can understand the feedback that they’re giving the engineers, I can understand from the engineers what their perception is from the driving and from the on-track activities. My experience within the sport, my network are absolutely vital in order to make Venturi a team which can fight for podiums in Formula E. 

What else have you done to get prepared for this new role?
The first priority was making sure that the right people are in the right places, because I’m a great believer that everything starts from the energy within a team. We already had some fantastic people on board and we’ve simply strengthened that team and made sure that everybody is in the right place. We have defined a three-year-plan for the team, so success is not going to happen overnight. It’s important that we keep making progress, keep making small steps, keep being clear what our goals are and keep fighting for those goals without being distracted.

How has the team received you?
I certainly feel absolutely at home in the team. We have a great team spirit and atmosphere within Venturi and I was really pleased to see the passion within the guys and girls at Venturi, their loyalty to the team and their absolute desire to turn into a front-running team. In that perspective it’s been like joining a little family and I think from their side they have had to accept quite a lot of changes. But we are on the right path and I think everybody shares that one common goal and that’s the most important thing. 

How would you describe your management style?
It’s an interesting question. I’m somebody who believes in an absolute open communication and honesty and trust. I think that’s the key pillar. You need to be able to work closely together as a group. I’m somebody who tries to get the best people around me and then empower those people. And that’s something I’ve definitely learned from my husband. He’s won five world championships in Formula 1.

Being married to another ex-driver and now team principal – are there other topics in your family than racing?
(laughs) I think our marriage would be in pretty bad shape if we had no other topics than racing. We are very much a team and I can learn so much from him, he absolutely inspires with what he has achieved. He is somebody who supports me a lot and pushes me to be the best version of myself. So from that perspective I have all the support I need from home, but yes, we do have other topics than just racing.

What can you as a team principal contribute to form a winning team?
I don’t think that I can contribute more than any individual in the team. It’s a collective effort, it requires the best of each individual, and ultimately we have to provide our two drivers with a car that’s capable of winning the races. They have to go out and execute on the final stage to get the points. 

Is it an advantage to have an experienced driver like Felipe Massa on board?
It’s a huge advantage and I think we have one of the strongest driver line-ups in the paddock, which makes me very proud. Felipe is someone I’ve known since our Formula 1 time at Williams. He’s someone with such a wealth of experience within motoracing. And Edo [Edoardo Mortara, Felipe’s teammate] on the other side is someone who I rated hugely in his DTM career. And he already has Formula E experience. I am glad to see how well the two work together. That’s absolutely vital for us as a team. 

Formula E is not only about racing, but also about pushing sustainability. How does that motivate you?
I think this platform is breaking new ground. It’s a platform which is showing off the technology that will all come to our streets within a few years – that’s why you see so many big brands and manufacturers who want to be represented here. It’s very relevant. For me as a motorsport fan it’s opening motorsport up to a new audience. We are going into city centres and attract families, young children, who normally wouldn’t travel out to a racetrack or wouldn’t afford the expensive tickets of other series. 

In Formula E, the car chassis and the batteries are equal to all teams, limiting the innovation to the powertrain. How exactly can a team make a difference in Formula E?
You can definitely make a difference. First and foremost, it’s about your execution. It’s a one-day event, you need to arrive, have a slick, efficient operation, that doesn’t allow mistakes, so that you are able to capitalise on every session and every moment out on track. Secondly it’s about making sure that your powertrain is energy efficient. Thirdly it’s about making sure that your drivers have full confidence in the car, particularly on a street circuit, where it’s easy to be in a wall with a small mistake. And lastly, it’s about optimising the car setup.

What is more important to success – technology or the human factor?
That depends on who you ask. I think if you asked my engineers they would undoubtedly say it’s the technology factor, it’s  the car that makes a difference. I personally believe it’s the humans that make the difference, because if my engineers are in a good place, motivated and have good energy, they’re going to  do a better job on the car; and my two drivers, if they are in a good and happy place, they are going to do a  better performance on track. So I believe much more in the human factor, but obviously no matter how good you are as racing driver you need the right car below you in order to win the race.

You have for many years been the only female driver in your competition. Now you are the only female team principal in Formula E. What does that say about gender diversity in motorsport?
Of course our sport is not as diverse as it should be. Therefore, it’s still a topic – a topic that I’m happy to speak about and to promote. That’s why I founded my own initiative – “Dare to be Different” –- which aims to get more girls and women into the sport. The more women and young girls we get into the sport – on track and off track – the more diverse our sport will be. It would be then in a stronger position in the years to come. If meeting me on the road here as the team principal can inspire more young girls and women to think “ok, that could be a possibility for me”, then we have already achieved something positive.

Could Formula E do more to boost diversity?
It is actually already doing a lot. The Formula E organisation has been 100 per cent supportive of my initiative. We’ll be doing events before some Formula E races. Formula E is very passionate about trying to become more diverse and I think that’s absolutely the right approach to have. So it’s been a very, very pleasant surprise to me coming into this world, this Formula E family. 

What would you tell other young women who want to follow your example?
I would tell them to be have a clear goal of where they want to end up, and then make it happen. Work hard, have the passion, make sure that you put yourself in the right place, that you scream loud enough to be heard – and absolutely go for it. There’s nothing to stop you achieving, whatever you put your mind to.

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