Susie Wolff: 'I want to make sure I inspire the next generation'

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Susie Wolff: 'I want to make sure I inspire the next generation'

To celebrate International Women in Engineering Day, we catch up with Susie Wolff and learn about her drive to inspire the next wave of women in motorsport

Susie Wolff: 'I want to make sure I inspire the next generation'

"When I was 13 years old, I had the dream of making it," admits former racing driver Susie Wolff inside a hanger at Templehoff airport shortly before the 2018 BMW i Berlin E-Prix. Making history in 2014 when she became the first woman in 22 years to drive in a Formula One weekend when she took part in Free Practice 1 at the British Grand Prix, Wolff had always dreamt of getting behind the wheel ever since she witnessed a youthful Jenson Button win in Formula 3 when she was just a teenager. "That's when I realised I could actually make a career out of racing and be a racing driver...the goal was really born in my head at 13."

Working her way through karting championships from a young age, just as any driver does, Wolff eventually made her way into single-seaters in 2001 with Formula Renault. Within just four years, she made the jump to the British Formula 3 Championship before getting her break into the German Touring Car (DTM) championship in 2006, just one year later. "That didn't just change the course of my career, it changed the course of my whole life," she admits.

Despite retiring from a successful career in racing in 2015, Wolff's work is far from finished. Joining the ABB FIA Formula E Championship in Berlin - her third E-Prix to date - the former driver has been busy inspiring the next generation of women in motorsport with her charity Dare to be Different (D2BD). Catching up with her at the charity's headline event, just meters from the Formula E track, we discover how she got hooked on motorsport at the age of eight, how D2BD is inspiring more girls to get into the industry and why we might be seeing more of Wolff in the future of Formula E.

What is Dare to be Different and how did it come about?

Dare to be Different is an initiative and a charity I founded when I stopped racing. I wanted to break that preconception that motorsport was just for boys. It was a sport that I'd been in for the past 25 years and one that I found success in and I wanted to make sure that I inspired the next generation, to make sure there would be enough women entering the sport, not just on the track but also off the track.

Why do you think there is a shortage of women in motorsport?

I think there's a shortage of women because there's not enough entering the sport. You need to have a big talent pool for the best to rise to the top and Formula E and Formula One are the pinnacles of motorsport, so to end up there, you have to be talented to come through the ranks. We just need to get more young women and girls entering the sport for the best to rise to the top.

Has the industry changed much in terms of the number of women working in it from when you started out?

I think we're making progress slowly but surely. Certainly, I found that during my time at Williams there were many successful women that I was working with, in everything from engineering, marketing and even Claire Williams leading the team, so I never felt that I was working in a very male-dominated environment. Sometimes I think it's just a preconception that there are very few women but the truth is, if you look hard enough, there are successful women and we need to take them and use them as role models to inspire more.

How does Dare to be Different aim to inspire a younger generation of women in motorsport?

What's happened today has been our first headline event in Germany, which means we've taken 100 schoolgirls and we have the educational based motorsport activities like the STEM challenge, the air quality challenge, the fitness challenge and the chance to drive an e-kart. It's all about getting the girls out of school and really opening them up to all the different possibilities. What was very special today was that they got to go down the Formula E pitlane, they got to see the cars up close, they got to meet Nico Rosberg, so it was a really fantastic day for them.

Sometimes for us, there's so much work in getting those events set up that it's only when you see those 100 girls arriving that you realise what you've actually done. At the beginning of the day, they arrive quite nervous, quite shy because they're not sure what they're doing at a racetrack and by the end of the day, there's so much energy and passion and the number of girls who couldn't wait to tell me that they'd met Nico Rosberg and that they'd driven the kart - it really shows that what we're doing is having an impact.

When you see that, can you put yourself in their shoes and imagine being that age again?

Absolutely. And I have so many very passionate women working with me who say, 'if only this had been there when I was younger, it would have given me so much inspiration to go into this environment earlier than I had done.' But in order to change this sport and get more women involved, you've got to do something. So for me, being able to put on an event like today is fantastic, when people are willing to support us and make it happen. Particularly Formula E who are so open to hosting us and help make it happen - that's how we're going to make an impact.

What got you hooked on motorsport in the first place?

I was very lucky in that I was one of these very competitive little girls that loved speed and competition! I had parents that had a background in motorsport - my dad was a motorbike racer and my mum met my dad when she bought her first motorbike from his shop, so it was in the blood. I was so thankful that I got to find my passion so early in life because I absolutely love racing and I was able to turn it into my career.

Can you remember what your earliest motorsport related memory was?

Interestingly, the first time I remember going on a kart track I was actually a bit frightened because everyone was a lot faster than I was and they were bumping me as they went past. My initial reaction was that this was too much but my dad said, 'okay, no problem,' so he put the kart away and we started heading home. so I said, 'no, no, no - let me have another try,' and that was my competitive streak and, from then on, I was just hooked.

At that point did you know you wanted to be a driver?

No, at the age of eight, I started racing at club level and it was very much still a hobby and it changed at the age of 13 when I was taken to watch a Formula 3 race at Donington Park. I remember Jenson Button won that day, which shows you how long ago it was! And that's when I realised I could actually make a career out of racing and be a racing driver and try and make it to Formula One. The goal was really born in my head at 13.

It's notoriously quite a challenging industry to get into - did you face many challenges?

Absolutely! To get to the top of any sport is tough and people must not underestimate that Formula E and Formula One are the pinnacle of motorsport and there are so many talented young drivers, gender aside, fighting to make it to the top, so the competition is huge. Unlike other sports where you just need a ball and a court to practice, motorsport takes investment to get a car, get a team and go testing. There were many challenges along the way but it was ultimately my passion for the sport that kept me going through the tough times.

Do you think you faced more challenges as a woman?

I can't judge that because I don't know how many challenges a guy faces. I would like to think no and I would like to think it was the same for every driver. The one advantage of our sport is that we wear a helmet on track, so you don't see the gender. Very early on in my career, I realised that because of the extra attention I was getting due to being a woman, I just had to focus on the performances. I knew that as long as I performed on track everything else would fade away, so that's what I tried to commit myself to - just performing on track and not allowing the noise of my gender to distract me.

If you had to identify one career highlight in your career - what would it be?

I would like to identify two because one wouldn't have happened without the other. The first highlight was my break to join Mercedes-Benz in the German Touring Car Championship - that didn't just change the course of my career, it changed the course of my whole life and I'm so thankful that the opportunity came because that led to me driving a Formula One car. I think that driving at the British Grand Prix for the Williams team was something very special and will always be remembered.

What would your three top tips for someone looking to get into motorsport be?

Be passionate about the sport because there will be tough moments - there can only ever be one winner.

Don't give up. There's going to be many obstacles, there's going to be many moments when you think, 'okay, this can't get any worse,' but, when the going gets tough, the tough get going!

And, the power of having dreams. When I was 13 years old I had the dream of making it to Formula One. So you need to know where you want to be, you need to know what you want to achieve - what your goals are - long term and short term. Where do you want to see yourself in three years? Where do you want to be in five years? You need to do everything in your power to make those dreams happen because someone once said to me, 'a dream without a plan of how to achieve that plan is just wishful thinking.'

Did your 13-year-old self ever think you'd be sitting behind the wheel of a Formula One car?

My 13-year-old self imagined I'd be in a Formula One car, so I think there's a lot to be said for dreaming and visualisations of where you want to be. But considering the obstacles I faced and the way to getting to that point, it was a very proud moment when I finally did achieve that dream.

And is this your first visit to Formula E?

This is not my first visit to Formula E, this is already my third E-Prix. It's a completely different platform and it's been very enjoyable to watch so far.

What do you think to the championship compared to other motorsport series?

For me, the huge difference is that this is all built up for a one-day event. With races in city centres, the locations are fantastic. The fact that it's attracting a whole new audience is amazing - it doesn't involve people having to travel to spend three days at a race track in the middle of nowhere, so I think that's fantastic for the sport. The racing is very close and the drivers have a huge challenge because everything is compacted into one day, so one mistake can have a huge influence in the running of your race day, meaning the driver needs to have a completely different way of approaching it.

And are you looking to get more involved in the championship?

Well, you'll just have to watch this space!

Don't miss out on the season finale of the ABB FIA Formula E Championship in New York City 14 and 15 of July. Click here to be a part of the action or here to find out how to tune in where you are.