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.