After making Formula 1 history, Susie Wolff is paving the sport’s on-track gender revolution: ‘I live with my elbows out’

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There’s no rule barring women from competing in Formula 1, but you can still only count on two hands how many times a woman has sat in the cockpit of a car boasting to be the fastest of any in motorsport.

First, there was Maria Teresa de Filippis, the first woman to race in F1 when she finished 10th place in 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 last woman entered in an F1 World Championship in 1992.

Then there was Susie Wolff, who helmed the FW36 car during a practice session of the German Grand Prix in 2014 and was the last of her gender to take part in a prestigious F1 race weekend. Her fastest lap time was only two-tenths slower than teammate and 11-time grand prix winner Felipe Massa.

Wolff hung up her helmet in 2015 after she conceded she’d never be an F1 driver, but her racing state of mind hasn’t left her. The former racing driver—who’s competed in single-seater championships like Formula Renault, Formula 3, and Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM)—is now the managing director of F1 Academy, an all-women racing series started in 2023. With 15 women drivers competing on seven circuits over the course of the season, F1 Academy has the opportunity to flood the male-dominated sport with true prospects for F1’s first woman world champion.

This weekend, F1 Academy will race as a support series to F1’s Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona, with F1’s event expected to bring in about 280,000 attendees across the weekend. Not only will the all-women racing series be putting the talent of up-and-coming racers on display; with women composing 40% of F1’s fan base, F1 Academy is creating a new blueprint for generations of racers to come.

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

First gear

Racing is in Wolff’s blood. Her parents, who raced motorbikes, gifted Wolff her first bike when she was two. By the time she was eight years old, Wolff had traded two wheels for four, racing karts competitively.

“I simply had a huge passion for the competition, the speed, and the adrenaline,” she said.

The passion was there, Wolff remembered, but her talent didn’t come as naturally. She remembered being at a karting competition and begging her father to take her home after being unable to keep up with other kids and getting jostled around on the track.

“We've got two options now,” Wolff remembered her father saying. “Put the cart back in the truck and we hit home, or you go out there you try and go faster. And when they hit you, you're going to hit them back twice as hard.”

Wolff’s gender became the frequent talking point for press and competitors as she climbed the ranks from karting to eventually becoming Williams F1 Team’s development driver in 2012. While she understood herself to be in the minority, Wolff didn’t want it to be a talking point.

“It doesn't matter in motorsport what your gender is because you're wearing a helmet,” Wolff said. “All that matters is you are on track, and you perform.”

It’s the philosophy she’s brought to F1 Academy, where the goal is to create a pipeline of women athletes to join the wider racing world, not just for an all-women racing series to gain popularity. But while performance is a necessary part of becoming a competitive athlete, it’s only one piece of the puzzle in F1.

Motorsports have a high financial barrier to entry, requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars to even be considered a seat. For women, who are under even greater pressure to secure financial partners to support their careers because of the relative dearth of opportunities available to them, money is even more of an issue. F1 Academy has addressed this through its swath of high-profile partnershipsPuma, Tommy Hilfiger, Charlotte Tilbury—that help to subsidize a driver’s entry fee into the series. Instead of a knee-buckling 600,000 euros, entrants need only pay 100,000 euros.

Stalled engines

Some problems in the world of motorsport regarding gender equality Wolff just can’t solve.

“There are definitely some days where I feel like the doors are getting slammed in my face, where people tell me, ‘Well, you need to get your elbows out,’” she said. “But it feels like I live with my elbows out.”

In December 2023, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), motorsport’s governing body, said it was investigating Wolff following conflict of interest allegations against her. Wolff’s husband Toto is the team principal of Mercedes’ F1 team, and the FIA said it was “aware of media speculation” the two exchanged confidential information. The FIA ended the investigation 48 hours later after personnel from F1’s nine other teams denied lodging complaints to the organization.

Wolff then filed a criminal complaint against the FIA in March about the statements made about her, saying, “There has still not been any transparency or accountability in relation to the conduct of the FIA and its personnel in this matter.”

Lewis Hamilton, the Mercedes driver and F1’s winningest racer who is also the sport’s only Black driver in its 74-year history, commended Wolff: “It is still a male-dominated sport. And we are living in a time where the message is: ‘If you file a complaint, you will be fired,’” he said. “And that is a terrible narrative to be projecting to the world, especially when we’re talking about inclusivity.”

Then there’s the matter of how 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 repeatedly denied the accusations, even after a trove of nude photos and illicit texts were leaked that contained alleged conversations between him and the Red Bull employee.

The investigation, though concluded and clearing Horner, was still top of mind during F1 Academy’s inaugural race a week later, which coincided with International Women’s Day and F1’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix: “After recent news stories and headlines,” F1 commentator Laura Winter said in a broadcast, “it’s not been easy being a woman working in Formula 1.”

Wolff did not comment to Fortune about her complaint or the allegations against Horner, but she has thoughts about the challenges of being a woman in the boy’s club of F1.

“There were certainly moments where I got frustrated, always being asked about being a woman in motorsports, joining all the panel discussions,” she said. “I felt I was seeing the same thing over and over again. Diversity was something people love to talk about. But very few people actually did anything about it.”

Full throttle

Even previous all-women single-seat racing series have been unable to generate enough money and influence to stay afloat. F1 Academy’s previous iteration, W Series, went into administration after three seasons in 2023. It failed to generate money, and races went unwatched by motorsport fans, even those in support of more women drivers, because they weren’t widely streamed.

F1 Academy has rectified some of those woes. In addition to being a support series for F1, with each F1 Academy race hosted during an F1 race weekend, 10 of the series’ 15 drivers race with a livery corresponding to an F1 team. Drivers are also given more super license points for competing, a necessary currency to become qualified to climb the ranks of motorsport and eventually drive for F1. Its races are available to stream on social media and on F1’s streaming platform.

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

“I can see the impactful change we're having,” 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 women drivers, announced in April it would support 2023 F1 Academy champion Marta García and current F1 Academy driver Doriane Pin as its first ever entrants into the Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine. Earlier this month, Jamie Chadwick, three-time W Series champion, became the third woman to win an Indy NXT race.

When Wolff stepped away from the F1 cockpit in 2015, she admitted it was unlikely a woman would drive in an F1 championship any time soon. She’s since changed her tune.

“There's lots of great talent out there,” Wolff said. “And if we can nurture that talent in the correct way, give them the opportunity, then, let's hope in the next five, six years.”

Correction, June 22, 2024: A previous version of this article misstated the outcome of Red Bull's investigation.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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