F1 Academy chief executive Susie Wolff leads the fight for more women in Formula 1

There are no rules prohibiting women from competing in Formula 1, but we can still only count on two hands how many times a woman has sat in the cockpit of a car boasting of being the fastest in motorsport .

First there is Maria Teresa de Filippis, the first woman to race in F1 when she finished 10th at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1958. Lella Lombardi was the first woman to score points in the racing series in 1975 , and Giovanna Amati was the The last woman entered in an F1 world championship was in 1992.

Then there was Susie Wolff, who piloted the FW36 car in a 2014 German Grand Prix test session and was the last of her gender to compete in a prestigious race weekend of F1. His best lap time was only two tenths slower than that of teammate and 11-time Grand Prix winner Felipe Massa.

Wolff hung up her helmet in 2015 after admitting she would never be an F1 driver, but her racing mindset hasn’t left her. The former racing driver, who competed in single-seater championships including Formula Renault, Formula 3 and the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM), is now managing director of the F1 Academy, an all-female racing series launched in 2023. With 15 female pilots. Competing on seven circuits over the course of the season, the F1 Academy has the opportunity to flood the male-dominated sport with real prospects for F1’s first female world champion.

This weekend, the F1 Academy will take part in the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona, ​​with the F1 event expected to attract around 280,000 participants across the weekend. Not only will the all-female race series showcase the talent of promising female racers; With 40% of F1 fans being female, the F1 Academy is creating a new model for future generations of drivers.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to drive positive, impactful change in the sport,” Wolff said. Fortune. “It really felt like a moment where we stopped talking and actually took action.”

First gear

Racing is in Wolff’s blood. Her parents, who raced motorcycles, gave Wolff her first bike when she was two years old. By the age of eight, Wolff had swapped two wheels for four, racing karts competitively.

“I just had a huge passion for racing, speed and adrenaline,” she said.

The passion was there, Wolff recalls, but his talent didn’t come as naturally to him. She remembers competing in a go-kart competition and begging her father to take her home after being unable to keep up with the other children and being pushed around on the track.

“We have two options now,” Wolff recalled telling his father. “Put the cart back in the truck and we go home, or you go, you try to go faster. And when they hit you, you’re going to hit them back twice as hard.

Wolff’s gender became a frequent topic of discussion among the press and competitors as she rose through the ranks of karting, eventually becoming a development driver for the Williams F1 team in 2012. Although she considered herself part of ‘a minority, Wolff didn’t want it to be a topic of discussion. .

“In motorsport, gender doesn’t matter, because you wear a helmet,” Wolff said. “All that matters is that you are on track and performing well.”

This is the philosophy she brought to the F1 Academy, where the aim is to create a pipeline of female athletes to join the wider world of motor racing, not just for one race series exclusively feminine is gaining popularity. But while performance is a necessary element of becoming a competitive athlete, it is only one piece of the F1 puzzle.

Motorsports has a high financial barrier to entry, requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars to be considered for a seat. For women, who face even greater pressure to find financial partners to support their careers due to the relative lack of opportunities available to them, money is an even bigger issue. The F1 Academy has solved this problem through a series of high-profile partnerships – Puma, Tommy Hilfiger, Charlotte Tilbury – which help subsidize a driver’s entry fee into the series. Instead of 600,000 euros, participants will only pay 100,000 euros.

Broken engines

Wolff simply cannot resolve some issues in the world of motorsport regarding gender equality.

“There are definitely days where I feel like doors are being slammed in my face, where people are like, ‘Well, you need to get your elbows out,'” she said. “But I feel like I’m living with my elbows out.”

In December 2023, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), motorsport’s governing body, said it was investigating Wolff following conflict of interest allegations against him. Wolff’s husband, Toto, is Mercedes’ F1 team principal, and the FIA ​​said it was “aware of media speculation” that the two men had exchanged confidential information. The FIA ​​ended the investigation 48 hours later after staff from the other nine F1 teams refused to lodge complaints with the organization.

Wolff then filed a criminal complaint against the FIA ​​in March over the statements made about him, stating: “There has still been no transparency or accountability regarding the conduct of the FIA ​​and its staff in this matter . »

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes driver and F1’s winningest driver and also the sport’s only black driver in its 74-year history, praised Wolff: “It’s still a male-dominated sport. And we live in a time where the message is, ‘If you complain, you’ll be fired,'” he said. “And that’s a terrible narrative to project onto the world, especially when we’re talking about inclusiveness.”

Then there is the way F1 deals with allegations of sexual misconduct. F1 team Red Bull Racing launched an internal investigation into team principal Christian Horner in February after a female employee alleged “inappropriate behavior”. Horner has repeatedly denied the accusations, even after a slew of nude photos and illicit texts containing alleged conversations between him and the Red Bull employee were leaked.

The investigation, although concluded and exonerating Horner, was still front and center at the inaugural F1 Academy race a week later, which coincided with International Women’s Day and the Saudi Arabian F1 Grand Prix: “After the recent reports and headlines,” said F1 commentator Laura Winter. in a broadcast, “it hasn’t been easy being a woman working in Formula 1”.

Wolff has not commented Fortune about her complaint or the allegations against Horner, but she reflects on the challenges of being a woman in F1’s boys’ club.

“There were definitely times when I was frustrated because I was always asked if I was a woman in motorsport and I was on all the panel discussions,” she said. “I felt like I was seeing the same thing over and over again. Diversity was something people liked to talk about. But very few people actually did anything. »

Full throttle

Even previous all-female single-seater racing series failed to generate enough money and influence to stay afloat. The previous iteration of the F1 Academy, the W Series, was placed into administration after three seasons in 2023. It failed to generate money and the races remained unnoticed by motorsport fans, even those which supported more female pilots, as they were not widely distributed.

F1 Academy has fixed some of these issues. As well as being a support series for F1, with each F1 Academy race held on an F1 race weekend, 10 of the 15 drivers in the series race with a livery matching an F1 team . Drivers also receive more Super License points to compete, a currency needed to become qualified and move up the motorsport ranks and eventually drive for F1. His races are available to stream on social media and on the F1 streaming platform.

If frustration and frequent failure are one side of the coin of F1 series leadership, hope is the other.

“I can see the impactful change we are experiencing,” Wolff said.

F1 Academy championship leader Abbi Pulling made history in May as the first woman to win a British Formula 4 race. Iron Dames, a project supporting female drivers, announced in April that it would support 2023 F1 Academy champion Marta García and current F1 Academy driver Doriane Pin as the first participants in the European Regional Championship of Formulated by Alpine. Earlier this month, three-time W Series champion Jamie Chadwick became the third woman to win an Indy NXT race.

When Wolff left the F1 cockpit in 2015, she admitted it was unlikely a woman would compete in an F1 championship anytime soon. Since then, she has changed her tune.

“There’s a lot of great talent,” Wolff said. “And if we can nurture that talent in the right way, give them the opportunity, hopefully in the next five or six years.”

Correction, June 22, 2024: A previous version of this article misrepresented the results of Red Bull’s investigation.

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