Susie Wolff's Silverstone Cameo: Story Behind Her Test and What It Means for F1

Neil James@NeilosJamesFeatured ColumnistJuly 11, 2014

Williams test driver Susie Wolff rounds the track during a practice session before the British Formula One Grand Prix at Silverstone, England, Friday, July 4, 2014. Wolff's bid to make an impact as the first woman to take part in a Formula One grand prix weekend for 22 years ended prematurely on Friday, when her Williams car, idled to a halt after only three timed laps in the opening practice. The British Formula 1 Grand Prix will be held on Sunday July 6, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
Jon Super/Associated Press

At the British Grand Prix, Susie Wolff added another chapter to the history of women in Formula One. When she left the pit lane in the first free practice session, she became the first female driver to take part in a grand prix weekend since Giovanna Amati in 1992.

Unfortunately, the chapter she addedlike the book itselfturned out to be a short one.

Wolff, then known as Susie Stoddart, began racing at a very young age, starting off in karting at the age of eight. She spent a decade in the karting world, progressing to the Formula A World Championships. She didn't win it, but in 2000 she was named the No.1 female kart driver in the world.

From there she progressed to proper single-seaters, entering the Formula Renault UK championship in 2002. She stayed there for three seasons, with a best finish of fifth in the championship in 2004.

An ankle injury ended her hopes of a full Formula Three season in 2005. She started only two races, scoring points in one. It was a terrible time to have her single-seater career interrupted, and the last time she raced an open-cockpit car.

Wolff's 2011 DTM Mercedes
Wolff's 2011 DTM MercedesOliver Pohlmann / Wikimedia Commons
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The following year she moved to the German DTM championship, one of the world's top touring car series. In six years of driving machinery that was always at least one year old, she scored just four points.

Her career was going nowhere fast until she married Williams director and shareholder Toto Wolff, now of Mercedes, in 2011. A one-off test with Williams followed soon after, but she did enough to be taken on as a full-time development driver.

Since then she has taken part in the 2013 Young Drivers Test and done thousands of miles in the team's simulator. At the start of 2014, the team announced she would drive in Friday practice at the British and German rounds of the championship.

Last week at Silverstone, the long-awaited dream became a reality when Wolff drove out of the garage and onto the circuit. But after just four laps, the car stopped out on the track with an oil pressure problem. Williams could not fix it in time, and Wolff's session was over.

It was a disappointing end to what had promised to be an interesting chance for fans at home to see her, probably for the first time, driving an F1 car.

But just by being there, and by doing those four laps, she did more for the future of women in F1 than anyone else has for decades.

Wolff exits her broken-down Williams at Silverstone.
Wolff exits her broken-down Williams at Silverstone.Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press

Wolff is never going to be a true F1 driver. She will never start a race.

I know that, you know that andthough she'll never publicly admit itshe probably knows it too.

If they thought she had even the smallest chance of racing one of their cars, Williams would at the very least have placed her in GP2 by now.

She hasn't raced competitive single-seaters since 2005, and that was two races in F3there's no way she'd be thrust onto the grid without any recent experience racing high-powered, low-weight machinery.

That she won't ever race isn't because she's a woman. On the contraryher gender is what has given her this opportunity, and any capable woman would be fast-tracked into a race seat quicker than you could say "equality."

No, she isn't going to be a race driver because, while she'd hammer the pants off you, me and plenty of professionals in other series, there is no evidence in her record, distant or recent, to suggest she is good enough for F1.

Felipe Nasr, whose record features titles and race wins, is the team's test and reserve driver. He'll be the man to step in when neededWolff's role is in development work only.

But her presence at Williams is far from a waste of time. Though there's no evidence she is good enough to race, she has certainly proved she is good enough to test.

And though the opportunity was handed to her for reasons other than her racing record, the fact she has seized it with both hands and made herself an integral part of an F1 team is doing great things for the future of women in motorsport.

F1's other female driver, Simona de Silvestro, testing for Sauber.
F1's other female driver, Simona de Silvestro, testing for Sauber.Marco Vasini/Associated Press

F1 is not a man's world. Women are welcomeWolff, Simona de Silvestro and Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn are proof of that. These women are not looked down onthey're looked across at.

But F1 is not the problem. The reason there are no female drivers in F1 is nothing to do with sexism or machismo at the highest level.

It's because, due to the pool of talent being so small, there are no women who are good enough. Out of each year's crop of young kart racers, only a tiny percentage will have the necessary talent, drive and financial good fortune to get anywhere near F1.

The likelihood that one of that tiny percentage will be a girl is minuscule, because so few girls enter at the lowest levels.

The only way female drivers will become a reality is if enough young girls turn to their parents one day and say, "I want to be a racing driver." And if enough parents respond, "OK, we'll support you."

Wolff is doing wonders for those girls.

Before she got into the car for the Friday practice session at Silverstone, she spoke to BBC Sport about this very thing. She said:

If there are just a handful of little girls who are there on Friday and see me driving and suddenly realise they could do the same, that is the biggest positive to come out of it.

It's not a man's world any more. It just needs to be shown that women can compete at that level and then you'll get more and more entering.

She is proving that a woman can make it and be accepted at the highest level. She is proving it to those girls, and, just as importantly, to their parents.

Parents who might otherwise have blanched and told little Elizabeth she should be playing with dolls and dressing up as a princess, not dreaming of tyre smoke and spraying champagne.

Traditional gender roles are, after all, still very much alive, kicking and ruining just as many dreams as their more well-known cousins in the world of discrimination.

A competitor in an Iranian female karting championship.
A competitor in an Iranian female karting championship.Vahid Salemi/Associated Press

Yes, Wolff got the opportunity for her first F1 test because her husband, Toto Wolff, was at the time a shareholder and director of Williams.

Yes, no man with her record would be allowed anywhere near an F1 cockpit unless he was changing the steering wheel.

And yes, there are undoubtedly quicker drivers with more potential who never get a fair crack at making it.

But Frank Williams is no fool. You could spend a week searching the F1 paddock without finding a wiser, more astute racer than Sir Frank. He knows that F1 testing does not necessarily require the same level of excellence as F1 racing.

He knows Wolff is a very good racing driver and he knows that she is capable of performing the task he has given her. Andthough it's unlikely Frank planned it this waythat task extends beyond the race track and into the minds of thousands of young girls around the world.

Beitske Visser, Formula Renault 3.5's only female competitor.
Beitske Visser, Formula Renault 3.5's only female competitor.Willtron / Wikimedia Commons

We're not going to see a sudden surge of women in GP2 or Formula Renault 3.5.

Any increase in their numbers will take time, because the inspired young kids who watched Wolff or De Silvestro and thought "I could do that" will have to first negotiate karting, Formulas BMW or Ford, Formula 3 and so on.

But hopefully 10 or 15 years down the line, the numbers game of the lower formulae will start to bear fruit; there will be women knocking on the door of F1.

And they won't be there because they provide a handy PR boost or because they know the right people.

They'll be there because they're good enough.

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