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Female Leaders: Susie Wolff

Words by Rebecca Small

Susie Wolff, began her competitive motorsport career over twenty years ago, starting out as so many of her racing contemporaries did, on the karting track. After cutting her teeth in karting, Formula Renault and DTM for Mercedes-Benz, Susie went on to make history at the 2014 British Grand Prix by becoming the first woman to take part in a Formula 1 race weekend in 22 years.

Following her retirement from driving in 2015 and as part of her commitment to fostering positive change within the sport, in 2016 Susie launched Dare to be Different, a call to action aimed squarely at driving female talent by inspiring the next generation and increasing female participation in all levels and aspects of motorsport. In 2017, Susie's hard work was formally acknowledged when she was awarded an MBE for her services and contribution to women in sport.

Was there a particular experience that ignited your passion for motorsport?

There wasn’t one defining moment, I grew up in a very motorcentric environment, admittedly more focused on two wheels than four - my father owned a motorcycle dealership and my grandfather, David Tye, professionally raced motocross. My Mum actually met my Dad when she went to his shop to buy her first motorbike, they still run that same shop 40 years on. I think my parents recognised my desire to compete quite early on and I received my first kart on my eighth birthday. I had found my passion and was pretty unstoppable after that.

You have previously said you are very ambitious, determined and hard-working. Where did your ambition and confidence come from, and have you always had that drive?

I’ve always had that drive. My confidence comes from my family, my parents instilled in us from an early age that we could achieve anything if we worked hard and that’s very powerful for a child. But I’m also a naturally driven and competitive person by nature, I’m very goal orientated, once I’ve set my mind to something, I’ll give it everything I’ve got. I thrive in challenging situations so if it hadn’t been motorsport, it would have been some-thing else.

You retired from motorsport in 2015 - what inspired that decision? What did you do next?

It was a really easy decision to make. I’d been competing for over twenty years and I knew it was time to move on. As a sports woman, you always know the day will come when you have to stop and I always wanted to be in control of that situation and stop at the right time.

Now I have taken on the next chapter of my career as the new Team Principle of the Venturi Formula E Team. For me it was important to find the next challenge and not just be known as an ex-racing driver.

At The Female Lead, one of our key values is ‘Daring to be Different’ which aligns with your foundation, Dare to be Different. What made you set up this foundation and what does it mean to you?

When I took a step back from racing I decided that I wanted to to give back and do good with my experience in motorsport. I recognised that whilst there were some good women in the industry, there were no where near enough of them. With the support of the UK Motor Sport Association, I launched Dare to be Different in 2016. The initiative represents a call to action aimed at driving female talent in motorsport by inspiring the next generation and ultimately increasing female participation in all levels and aspects of the industry. It’s a grassroots legacy project and with incredible support from the global motorsport community we are ensuring that girls and women of all ages are aware of the opportunities available to them. In just two years we have already connected and showcased some fantastic future and current female talent across the motorsport world.

You have previously said that there is huge misconception that motorsport is a male-dominated environment. Have you seen any major changes over the course of your career in terms of what it’s like to be a woman in the motorsport industry?

I totally understand why people feel it is a male-dominated environment because statistically there are far more men than women. Historically the sport has been dominated by men but in my experience motorsport has the capacity to operate much more meritocratically: everyone should be judged on one factor alone, their ability to do the job. Frankly I’ve never seen my gender as holding me back in my career; if anything it’s been the opposite. When I was driving, I wasn’t aiming to be the fastest woman on the track, I wanted to be the fastest full stop and I think you can apply this to women in different jobs throughout the sport.

The FIA Women in Motorsport Commission, under the charge of Michèle Mouton, is also doing great work to raise awareness of the role women have to play within the industry and fostering change to ultimately level the playing field. I’ve seen plenty of evidence in recent years that this is happening and as the new Team Principal of the Formula E team, VENTURI, I’m personally fully committed to ensuring that we have the best team of talent in place regardless of gender.

Do you think role models are important, and who inspires you?

Absolutely I do, and I really don’t think it matters what stage you are at in your life, it’s essential to have people who you admire and look up to. I have many who inspire me from incredible businesswomen and philanthropists like Oprah Winfrey who came from absolutely nothing and is now sat at the helm of a multi-billion dollar business to the awe-inspiring and fearless female rights activist, Malala Yousafzai - I admire their vision, honesty and bravery. Less known, everyday people can be equally inspiring for me, I really respect people who grab a challenge and go for it, people who can be emotionally honest and those who aren’t frightened to ask for help.

Your husband is also a former racing driver. What are the benefits and challenges of working in the same area as your husband?

I think the benefits are the same as the challenges, we always push each other to be our best. We support one another enormously, we make a formidable team but we also have very high expectations of each other. Easily the biggest benefit for me is having someone who completely understands your working environment and all the pressures and opportunities that can bring.

You are an Ambassador for She’s Mercedes; could you explain what this initiative is all about and why you’re passionate about it?

I began working with ‘She’s Mercedes’ in 2016. The initiative is inspired by Mercedes' ‘best or nothing’ mantra and takes on the form of a networking platform set up to inspire, connect and empower women to unleash their best. We host events and there’s a print magazine and digital hub for people to visit. The primary goal is to create and maintain a dialogue specifically amongst women. Leading ladies from different fields and industries give their personal insights into topics all around business and real life, as well as their views on how to success-fully balance the two. What I particularly enjoy is the opportunity to share some of my personal experiences and learn from others about how they took on their own challenges.

You were the first woman to take part in a Formula One race weekend for 22 years. What were your emotions before the session? How did you overcome any nerves?

Although it was a momentous occasion, I approached it in the same way to my previous race experiences and track time, I prepared as best I could mentally and physically. I had a great relationship with the team (Williams) and I wanted to make the most of the opportunity I had. I was aware of the hype all around but I just did my best to stay calm and focused. As a racing driver in that moment, all I wanted to do was show what I was capable of and do myself justice. I am very proud to have achieved the successes I did during my racing career.

‘Asking for Help’ is a key theme for the women in The Female Lead book. How have you gained strength from families, friends or mentors?

I lean on my family and my husband, they know me so well and they know the challenges I face and they know the environment I’m working in. My first boss at Mercedes-Benz Motorsport, Norbert Haug, was also a great source of support. His encouragement was invaluable, he pushed me forward and always believed in me. When it comes to traditional mentors though, when I was racing I didn’t really have one. There were simply no other women in the sport who had gone through what I was going through at the time.

Another key Female Lead theme is ‘Finding Strength in Setbacks’. Could you tell us about a setback you’ve experienced and how that’s shaped the person you’ve become?

I like to view setbacks as a reset and an opportunity to find your next challenge. In 2006 I’d just lost my cockpit in the World Series by Renault and got a call from Gerhard Ungar from Mercedes-Benz about testing their DTM (the German Touring Car Championship) car, in Barcelona. The test went pretty well, but I didn’t hear from them for ten days afterwards. I had no idea whether I would get my chance in DTM or not. When I did hear from them though, the feedback was very positive and the next thing I knew, I was flying out to Stuttgart to sign a contract to drive for Mercedes-Benz in DTM. With hindsight, it was the big breakthrough that influenced the direction that both my career and private life were to take.

At DTM I laid the foundations for driving a Formula 1 car, which had always been my ultimate driving dream. All in all those seven years shaped me and helped prepare me for the future so losing my Renault World Series seat was actually a blessing in disguise. Fundamentally I think failures are really important; they are one of the best ways in which we learn and improve.

What advice would you give to young women starting out their careers in sport?

Surround yourself with the best possible people. Believe in yourself. Trust your instincts, focus on your goals and put the work in. And don’t be frightened to ask for help.

To stay up to date with Susie, follow her on Twitter.

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