Susie Wolff: A female F1 driver is still eight to ten years away

18th July 2023
Ian Parkes

Susie Wolff is pragmatic in her appraisal when she claims it is going to take another "eight to ten years" for a female to reach Formula 1. Coming from the managing director of the new F1 Academy, she concedes it is a painful comment to make, and she is also acutely aware it will be especially difficult for the women currently competing in the series to hear, because reaching F1 is their ultimate ambition at present.


"There are a lot of young girls racing now who might be good enough, but we have to be realistic with our expectations," said Wolff, in an interview with this writer.

"This is definitely a long-term project, and that's why it's so important Formula 1 is behind this for the long term because we will see and reap the rewards, but it's going to take time."

It is now 47 years since a woman last competed in F1 when Lella Lombardi finished 12th in the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix. Wolff came close to ending that wait by taking part in practice sessions for the 2014 British and German Grands Prix in her role as a development driver for the Williams F1 team.

Photo by Alex Caparros - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

Photo by Alex Caparros - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

She is proud to cite the fact she finished little more than two-tenths of a second behind then-Williams driver Felipe Massa in the FP1 session at Hockenheim, with both on near-identical run programmes, albeit utilising different set-ups. Unfortunately, that was as close as Wolff came to a breakthrough, and here we are, a further nine years on and one defunct W Series later, and still the wait continues.

The F1 Academy at least has the power of F1 firmly behind it courtesy of CEO and president Stefano Domenicali who conceived the idea. W Series was noble in its concept but it has now become apparent it was clearly flawed in its business model as it bore the brunt of all the competing costs for the female drivers, and offered $500,000 (roughly £380,000) in prize money to the champion.

Even though interest grew over the three years of its existence, television and commercial deals were signed, and the races featured on the undercard of F1 grands prix, the series went into administration in June.


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Photo by Alex Caparros - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

Photo by Alex Caparros - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

The writing was on the wall towards the end of last season when it was unable to complete a full campaign, leaving Jamie Chadwick crowned for a third time but no nearer an F1 seat than when she started in 2019. The 25-year-old from Bath is currently competing in the Indy NXT series with Andretti Motorsports, lying 17th in the standings after seven races.

The downfall of the W Series has pushed F1 Academy to the forefront of women's racing, which has adopted a very different model. For the seven-round, 21-race season, each of the 15 drivers has been provided with a budget of $160,000 (£122,000), which they must match with their own sponsorship. Five of the best junior teams in motorsport are in support – ART Grand Prix, Campos Racing, Rodin Carlin, MP Motorsport and Prema Racing – with the winner of the series promoted to Formula 3.

Another crucial difference between W Series and F1 Academy is the latter's desire to also promote women into senior positions across motorsport, and is not solely aiming for the holy grail of finding the next female F1 driver.

Photo by Adam Pretty - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

Photo by Adam Pretty - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

"We're in this really super moment where there's a growing female fan base, a lot of interest in the sport," remarked Wolff.

"The concept of F1 Academy wants to create a platform where women can be nurtured to progress further up the ladder, but it can also inspire the next generation and create opportunity, not just on track, but also off track.

"We're not just focused on finding the next female Formula 1 driver, we want to become a movement, which actually has impactful change in the sport and increases diversity in every area.

"Obviously, we've got to get it right. The fact we have the five best junior teams on board, they are going to nurture the drivers in a way that progresses them in the best possible way, to achieve more in the sport.


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Photo by Alex Caparros - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

Photo by Alex Caparros - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

"I would say our viewpoint is much more than just being a support series for 15 young female drivers.

"We want to have much more impact and our vision is much bigger, and that's something which I think has got so much momentum already, not just within the F1 paddock, but also the wider industry.

"People see this has the potential to create real change, and a lot of people in the sport want to see that change happen now."

For many aspirational women, Wolff is an ideal role model given her fine career in motorsports that not only embraced the junior categories and rise through to her position at Williams, but also her roles as Team Principal and Chief Executive of the Venturi Formula E team from 2018 to 2022.

"Where I feel I can bring more is the fact that I'm very passionate about helping the next generation," she said.

Photo by Eric Alonso - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

Photo by Eric Alonso - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

"I'm a big believer in women supporting other women, and I'm a big believer that women can compete at this level, whether it's as an engineer or a driver.

"We just need to create the awareness and have more entering the sport, and if I can be a small part of that inspiration, then that's great.

"I also love the fact that for those drivers that we have in F1 Academy, I know what they're going through, and I can relate so much to the tough moments they're facing.

"In the same respect, when I speak to all of the team principals, I also understand from their perspective what it means to run an F1 Academy team, and what their challenges are.

"So I feel like this is a great role for me because I can give something back but also be impactful at the same time, and with my experience, that will be helpful."


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Photo by Eric Alonso - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

Photo by Eric Alonso - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

For this first season that began in April, F1 Academy has so far flown under the radar, quietly going about its business in ensuring it can walk before it can run. The final round of the season at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin will feature on the F1 undercard for the first time, affording it the opportunity to showcase itself to a much wider audience. Beyond that, going into season two next year, further building blocks will be added as part of the long-term goals, as mentioned earlier by Wolff.

"We see ourselves as the bridge that allows the nurturing of the talent and the progression further up," said Wolff.

"We have no interest in, let's say, becoming our own series which doesn't allow the integration back into the sport. We're simply an accelerator of talent."

Top image courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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