Susie Wolff will retire at the end of the season. By the manner in which this news has been greeted, one would imagine the announcement had been made by one of the all-time greats. There has been an outpouring of emotion, of platitudes and sadness.
But to pretend Susie Wolff’s career has been anything but ordinary, would be to serve the very cause she champions a disservice.
Susie Wolff had a dream. That dream was to drive a Formula 1 car. It is a dream she has fulfilled, and there are not many of us on this earth who can be as content as to say that we have achieved our life’s ambition. For that, one can only be happy for her. Susie is an incredibly warm and likeable person. She is sincere and charming and I would hazard has not a bad bone in her body. How can one not be happy for such a person achieving their dream?
And she did so nobly, not simply driving a Formula 1 car but taking to the track competitively in timed practice sessions, comparing favourably with team-mate and multiple race-winner Felipe Massa. While we will never know the difference in their programmes, and thus fuel levels the two were running, the history books will forever show she lapped within 0.2 seconds of the man who, for half a minute, was the 2008 Formula 1 World Champion.
Wolff’s very appointment, however, created controversy. When she first signed for Williams back in 2012, detractors of course pointed to the part ownership of the team of her husband Toto Wolff. Why else would a team with the competitive desires of Williams, employ the services of a driver who had, in seven years of competing in the DTM, finished in the points just twice, it was asked. Admittedly those two seventh place finishes left her ahead of Grand Prix winners David Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher in the championship table, but her junior career in no way merited a promotion to an F1 development driver role on skill alone.
Of course, Williams went to great lengths to point out that the board had approved Susie’s appointment and that Toto Wolff had removed himself from that particular discussion and vote. But to those looking simply at performance, her appointment simply didn’t make any sense when so many talented junior series champions and race winners had been overlooked.
Her appointment came not long after Maria de Vilotta had been announced in a similar role at the Marussia F1 Team. Women drivers were back en vogue in the F1 paddock and so naturally Susie’s appointment was seen as a good news story. At the time, one could not have imagined that her many hours spent in the simulator would prove so worthy to the team and would result in her getting actual track time. Nor could anyone have foreseen what a fantastic ambassador she would become not only for Williams, but for Formula 1 as a whole.
At the same time, she worked incredibly hard with the FIA on its Women in Motorsport programme, becoming a mentor to young girls coming through the ranks and sitting on influential panels at the highest levels of the governance of our sport.
But her very position at the table due to her Formula 1 seat is something which, if I am honest, I cannot say sat easily with me. For me to do so would be disingenuous.
She has been heralded as a ground-breaker, a pioneer and a role-model for women. A latter-day Nomex-clad Emmeline Pankhurst of sorts. But if one is to applaud her on track achievements so loftily, we must ask why we do so. We do not claim Channoch Nissany to be a pioneer of Israeli motorsport, nor Adderly Fong a champion for Hong Kong. Why then does Wolff deserve such praise? Like them, she achieved very little in an otherwise ordinary racing career, and yet had a light shone upon them when taking part in a practice session on a Grand Prix weekend.
If we laud her simply because she is a woman, is that not in itself incredibly sexist? Does that not defeat the entire purpose of the fight for equality? If we are ever to achieve a day in this sport where women compete on equal terms with men, then it follows that the barometer we use to judge success must also be equal.
Susie, whether we dare to admit it or not, formed one part of a triumvirate of women over the past 5 years who found a role in Formula 1 in spite of, not because of, the talent they had shown to that point in their careers. Maria de Vilotta, God rest her soul, should never have been put in a Formula 1 car. Carmen Jorda, after a year at Lotus, has thus far only been allowed to sit in a simulator.
If we take it back to a question of equality, would any young man with the racing pedigree of Maria, Susie or Carmen be looked at twice by a Formula 1 team? Our answer is clear. And is a definitive no. Unless, of course, they could bring either some form of substantial sponsorship or be commercially appealing to the squad in some other way.
Those who call for equality in Formula 1 and for women to be judged on equal terms as men decry the outdated use of promotional girls on the grid or the podium. But if someone like Carmen Jorda, with a pitiful junior racing CV, is appointed to a Formula 1 team to spend the majority of her time being filmed doing nothing in an F1 garage while wearing team kit, in between talking to sponsors in the Paddock Club, how far away is she from the promotional girls which those battling for equality in the sport wish to see removed?
And so we must ask… Does, or has, the promotion of these women to official driving roles at Formula 1 teams, in spite of the fact that their talent level in no way merits such a position, actually detracted from the fight for women to be seen and to be judged as equals in the sport? Because if they truly were judged as equals, one could argue they wouldn’t be there.
The irony is that there are women out there who are good enough and who could and perhaps by now should have been given a chance not just to test, but to race in Formula 1. It is very easy to pour scorn on the idea, but Danica Patrick is an Indycar race winner, she led the Indy 500, and ten years ago would have been worth giving a shot. Simona de Silvestro is a Formula Atlantic Vice Champion and an Indycar podium finisher. Sadly, she became caught up in Monisha Kaltenbourn’s 2014/2015 driver pool of madness and lost out in the biggest possible way having put her Indy career on hold to follow her F1 dream.
Alice Powell is a multiple championship winning racing driver, who has, through lack of funding, had to turn her sporting attentions to hockey, whilst assuaging her thirst for speed with a Bob Skeleton.
But young women are coming through the junior formulae. Tatiana Calderon is just one name to keep your eye on. In Florida last year she took on the boys and won, in a field that comprised none other than F1’s man of the moment Max Verstappen. Just last weekend, she finished on the podium in three of the opening four races of the MRF championship in Abu Dhabi.
These are the achievements and these are the kind of racers we should be championing. And it is worth pointing out that Tatiana Calderon is just one of the drivers to have benefitted from Susie Wolff’s commitment to the future of women racers through her work at the FIA.
Susie Wolff achieved her dream of driving a Formula 1 car. Her time at the Williams F1 team went far beyond the vast majority of expectations in the ultra-critical world of the Formula 1 paddock. I’d wager it probably exceeded hers, too. For the position in which she now finds herself, is a far more important one than the role of which she dreamed as a child.
And as such, we should perhaps hold back on lauding her career just yet.
For if we do so on the basis of her achievements as a driver, and we do so in glowing terms, we are being false to ourselves, false to you and potentially detrimental to the perception of women in motorsport and the pursuit of equality.
When we first see a woman climb to the top step of a Formula 1 podium, or clinch her first F1 world championship… and we will… and in her post race joy she talks about watching Susie Wolff at Williams and how it inspired her to follow her own dream, then we can praise her achievements with sincerity.
But not today.
Susie’s calling has only just begun.