Smith: Despite never racing, Susie Wolff’s impact on F1 is undeniable

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Today’s news of Susie Wolff’s retirement has caused quite a stir in motorsport circles, reigniting the debate about women in racing and equality.

In a statement issued by Williams, the team for whom Wolff has worked in a development and test role over the past three years, it was confirmed that the Briton would be calling time on her racing career following this December’s Race of Champions in London.

Wolff became the first woman in 22 years to take part in a Formula 1 race weekend during practice for the 2014 British Grand Prix, with three more FP1 outings following over the next 12 months.

Despite never racing in F1, Wolff has left an indelible mark on the sport that has done wonders for women in motorsport and, one would hope, aided equality in a male-dominated world.

It’s not possible to dress up Wolff’s on-track achievements as being anything more than they were: average. Wolff never won a major championship, only scored four points across seven seasons in DTM (Germany’s premier touring car series) and never appeared to be in serious contention for a seat in F1.

News of her retirement does not come as a surprise. Back in May, Wolff hinted that she did not want to keep buffering against a ceiling in her career – if she could not advance from her role as test driver, to her, there was little point wasting time by standing still.

The response to Wolff’s announcement has been highly mixed. Indeed, such an announcement is very odd for a driver that never started a grand prix. As one journalist put it today: “Can I say I’m announcing my retirement from heavyweight boxing? Oh hang on, I’m not actually a heavyweight boxer.”

And to some extent, this analogy is true. Wolff’s retirement from racing comes with her having technically ‘raced’ just a handful of times over the past few years, and never at a high level.

So why is there such a hubbub and interest around her decision to call it quits?

Put simply, it is hard to think of a woman has done more for female involvement in F1 racing than Susie Wolff over the past two decades.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Wolff back in February one day after her run-out for Williams in pre-season testing, where she had crashed with Sauber’s Felipe Nasr. Given that cars are very rarely close together on track in testing, it was an incident that perplexed many.

In winter testing, there is no TV feed like there is over a grand prix weekend. Instead, the media is reliant on CCTV cameras as used by race control which are sporadically switched on only when there has been an incident.

When the red flag was shown following Wolff and Nasr’s clash, it took a couple of minutes for us to see that both cars were in the gravel with damage.

“She didn’t check her mirrors,” came one quick quip. “Oop, female drivers”; “Bet she couldn’t parallel park.”

It was only when we came to meet with Wolff at the end of the day that we saw the incident for ourselves. She had filmed a video showing the collision as caught on another CCTV camera on her phone, which she showed to the group huddled around her in Williams’ hospitality tent. Quite clearly, Nasr to blame for the crash.

The immediate comments and attribution of blame to Wolff speak volumes about the mentality of the F1 paddock. It remains a big boys’ club. It is still a sport dominated by men in all aspects.

More and more women are coming through – Claire Williams and Monisha Kaltenborn both enjoy senior management positions with teams – but the idea of a female driver is still something out of the norm. That is hardly surprising given the 22 year gap between Giovanna Amati’s failure to qualify for three races in 1992 and Wolff’s first practice session.

Throughout my interview with Wolff, the biggest thing that came through was her infectious positivity. In spite of the accident the previous day, she brushed it off, saying: “It’s history now”.

After the interview, I was somewhat puzzled. “How do you manage to stay so positive?” I asked, having dealt with many a fuming driver after similar incidents. “It’s the way you have to be,” Wolff smiled back. Sound advice indeed.

Wolff herself has admitted before that being a woman has helped as well as hindered her throughout her racing career. With such average results through her career, it can be argued that she only got her role with Williams because of her gender. That said, her first test with the team was always a one-off – she did enough with this opportunity to secure further run-outs.

“What many people don’t realize is that it was just a one-off test at Williams,” Wolff told me in February. “There was never a plan for more. That one test went well and led to another test, which went well and then led to being a development driver, which went well and then led to test driver.”

So something must have gone right.

Regardless of how the position came about, it is what Wolff has done with this role that has seen her leave an indelible mark on F1. As noted above, she was the first woman in 22 years to take part in a grand prix weekend, and even managed to lap within two-tenths of a second of seasoned driver Felipe Massa in the same car.

Wolff did. She didn’t talk about driving an F1 car. She did it.

What makes Wolff a role model is not her on-track pace, but the very fact that she broke ground and ended the 22-year drought. She is seen as a driver and an ambassador for women in motorsport; a figure for young girls dreaming of being racing drivers and making it in a man’s sport to look up to.

With Wolff’s departure, Carmen Jorda now assumes the role as the most prominent female driver within F1. Jorda has never driven an F1 car, and her greatest exposure over a grand prix weekend comes from regular TV shots of her standing at the back of the Lotus garage, the team for whom she is a test driver.

Young girls watching F1 will not see Jorda as a role model simply being there at the back of the garage. It is not evidence of a woman making it in a man’s world.

Wolff may not have overwhelmed the F1 paddock with her practice displays, but on a number of occasions over the past two years, she has been out on track with 19 men. She has pitted herself up against the big boys’ club, and unless you knew it was Wolff by recognising her helmet or seeing her race number, there is no way you could tell what the sex of the driver was in that car.

And her feats are already inspiring future generations of female racers.

“I already get really positive messages from little girls dressed in race suits saying they’re going to school as Susie Wolff,” Wolff told me.

“That’s really positive, but I also say at the same time that I’ve got a lot more to achieve. They think I’m on a good way but there’s still a lot more that can be done.”

Even in retirement, Wolff will be pushing the envelope for women in motorsport – and her F1 foray gives her the perfect platform to do exactly that, even if she never started a race.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”