This Sunday on BBC2 at 5.30pm a documentary called ‘Driven: The Fastest Woman In The World’ will be screened. The documentary charts the rise of Susie Wolff in her attempt to become the first Formula One racing driver to compete in a Grand Prix since 1976.
Susie Wolff has always had a fascination with speed and competing, starting her career in karting, the first in a series of stepping-stones towards competing in the more illustrious realms of high-octane motorsport. It has certainly been the case for Susie, who then moved on to race Formula Renault, the next logical step towards the holy-grail, before progressing onto Formula Three.
Susie has now been with Williams Formula One since 2012 as a development driver. The development driver programme could perhaps be seen as similar to a football club having a rich youth policy, the likes of Ryan Giggs and David Beckham probably being the most famous products of this investment in the future.
While there has been criticism in some quarters of exploiting the drivers with relatively low pay and contracts that are disproportionately long, it is hard to argue against the smooth path to success that this route can provide to a talented youngster, where fame and Formula One success can bring much wealth and a lifestyle which most of us would envy. With the development driver programme, the fledgling racers are given the chance to learn their trade and mature through the Formula 3 Euro Series or even stock car racing.
Susie Wolff was born in Oban in Scotland in 1982 and first took up karting in 1996 where she was named British Woman Kart Racing Driver of the Year, an accolade she would be given again in 1997. In 2001 Wolff took the next big step in her steady progression towards the top. Formula Renault was to provide her with more success as a single seat racer racing for Motaworld Racing until 2004.
By now Susie Wolff was a name that was being recognised in the world of motorsport, and her progress up the ladder was becoming as fast as the cars she was being given to race. Formula Three was the next step in 2005 where she raced for Alan Docking Racing, but this wasn’t an entirely happy period due to breaking her ankle after just 4 races.
This could easily have been a career end as the building momentum was dramatically halted. But luck remained on Susie’s side as she was contacted by Mercedes-Benz who offered her a once in a lifetime chance to try out for DTM.
Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters is what it sounds like, the German Touring Car Masters. This was the big time. Driving a C-Class Mercedes-Benz Coupe Susie competed for Mücke Motorsport until 2011 achieving a best finish of 9th overall.
Now the focus for Susie was for the top, Formula One loomed ominously on the horizon, and in 2012 she took her current role as development driver for Williams. F1.
If you need any more clarification as to what a big moment for female racing this is, then it’s worth pointing out that only 5 female racing drivers have made it in the past 62 years of the World Championship. Now compare that to the contrasting figure of 822 men.
The last female racer, Giovanna Amati while racing for Brabham, failed to actually qualify on several occasions before being sacked and replaced by Damien Hill. Susie knows that the next step is the biggest of all, actually getting onto the grid where only 24 spaces are available – and that’s not counting the fact that very few of these actually become vacant spaces to be filled each year.
Add to this the special qualities that you need to overcome the male-dominated world of F1 where Bernie Ecclestone feels he can comfortably say ”if Susie’s as quick in a car as she looks good out of a car then she’ll be a huge asset.” and you begin to grasp the magnitude of the task ahead.
To my mind, a perfectly innocent comment but dangerous in the present climate of having to be oh-so painfully politically correct 24/7. The comment was noted and taken out of context in the media at the time, but hey, we are talking about a wider industry where beautiful women are uniformly draped across car bonnets, so lets keep some perspective.
It is that particular image that goes hand in hand with motorsport and new car launches that Susie Wolff must not so much fight against, but overcome. I think she has the quiet strength of character that will indeed see her past the final hurdle to becoming the first woman to race Grand Prix since 1976. Watch this space.
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