DUBAI: Not many drivers in motorsports have CVs that can match Susie Wolff’s.
She was named British Woman Kart Racing Driver of the Year in 1996, aged only 13. She was the top female kart driver in the world, with a professional racing career in the British Formula Renault Championship, claiming three podiums and two nominations for the British Young Driver of the Year award. She had a stint in Formula 3 and huge success at Mercedes-Benz in DTM, the German touring car championship, between 2006 and 2012. The highpoint of her career was joining Formula 1’s Williams Racing, first as a development driver, and then in 2015 as a test driver.
And, from 2018, she has been team principal of Formula E’s ROKiT Venturi Racing.
“I think I was incredibly lucky that I chose to stop my career; I’d come to what I felt was the end of the road,” said Wolf. “I’d always known that I was going to take the decision to retire when I felt that I couldn’t go any further. And I wanted to make sure there was something else in my life. I didn’t want to be known just as an ex-racing driver. I’m very ambitious to make this team successful.”
On Feb. 26, the 2021 Formula E season kicks off with Diriyah E-Prix - organized by Saudi's Ministry of Sports - on the outskirts of Riyadh, and Wolff is looking forward to a successful start to the campaign.
“We saw from last year it was a fantastic event and this year it’s going to be more of a spectacle because it’s a night race,” the Scot said. “It’s a double-header, so a fantastic way to kick off the season.”
Wolff calls the track “challenging,” leaving the drivers with no room for error in their exclusively electric cars.
“How the track develops from the first time they drive to the point where qualifying and (the) race come, there’s a huge development on the speed of the track,” she said. “With it being a double-header, the drivers will have that extra challenge but it’s been so long since we’ve been racing, and I think everyone is very eager to get there and to get the season started.”
Like all sporting competitions, Formula E was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, with the organizers still facing challenges that other motorsports do not.
“Formula E has certainly been hit harder with the pandemic because of the fact that we race in city centers,” Wolff said. “It makes it more challenging to get a calendar set because obviously we’re not racing at a purpose-built site, which can be quite isolated. We’re actually in city centers, and I think that’s an important part of what Formula E is — we bring the races to the people.
“But I think Formula E have done a good job, I look forward to the second half of the calendar and being announced,” she added.
ROKiT Venturi Racing had a poor end to the truncated 2020 Formula E season, eventually finishing 10th out of 12 teams. Wolff, however, has high ambitions for the team this time round with the duo of Edoardo Mortara and Norman Nato, who replaced former Formula 1 driver Felipe Massa, in the driving seats.
“We didn’t perform well at the end of last season in the six races in nine days, which in the end dropped us in the team table,” she said. “But we have a new driver line-up this season, and we don’t underestimate the challenge ahead of us. Formula E is very, very competitive, and unlike other championships it’s very close. We know if we do a good job on any given day we have the chance of a podium if not a win. It’s about minimising the errors and maximising the opportunities.
“Certainly we’re going to Riyadh very determined to show what we’re capable of, but also realistic that in order to be successful at the end of the season in the team championship you simply need to be consistent, you need to be scoring points at every race, and not making mistakes,” she added.
Wolff believes that the next few years are crucial if Formula E’s profile is to continue rising to the point where it is attracting some of the best drivers in the business. Any comparisons with Formula 1 are, for now, too early.
“What I love about Formula E is that we are racing with a purpose,” she said. “We are showcasing new technology in the automotive industry, and the automotive industry is going through a huge change, one that doesn’t happen very often. We’re moving into electrification, we are at the cutting edge of that technology. The championship is only six years old, and what they’ve achieved in six years is to be respected, but we need to develop in the next few years. We’re attracting top drivers, we’re attracting larger audiences, we’re racing in iconic cities. You’ve got to keep that development curve.”
Having been in the driving seat herself, Wolff says she is determined to help more female drivers make the grade, but only on merit.
“In the end it comes down to performance, about finding the girl that is able to perform out on the track, because everything in motorsports is about performance,” she said. “Performance is power. And I think I’m passionate about making sure we get more talented women rising up the ranks because if the talent pool is bigger, you get women rising up to the top.”
Physicality will always be a major factor in motorsports, and while Formula E is less demanding than Formula 1, it remains hugely competitive in its own right.
“In my first season in Formula E, there were nine different winners from 14 races and it’s just very, very tight, which means the driver makes a huge difference,” said Wolff. “Every team will make sure they have the best driver line-up they could possibly have. For me, it’s not about picking a woman because she’s a woman, it’s about picking the best person to go in the car. In order for that to be a woman, we need to make sure that talented young female drivers are rising through the ranks and getting the opportunity to join the very top of the sport.”
Similarly, she believes that producing young talented drivers in the Middle East is a long term project. Several initiatives she is involved in, as well as the hosting of major events in places like the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, will no doubt help the process as the emergence of one Saudi driver has already proved.
“You have one very prominent female driver, Reema Juffalli, who I’m supporting and I’m quite close to,” Wolff said. “I think definitely these things take time. I started ‘Dare to be Different’ which is now the FIA Girls on Track Initiative, to inspire the next generation and get more women into the sport, not just on track but off track. It was never going to be a project that was going to take one, two, three years. In order to see real change you need to wait five, 10 years because these sporting events can inspire, they can create role models.”
Wolff has several busy weeks ahead of the season’s start in Saudi Arabia. Her role at ROKiT Venturi Racing means that she has barely missed driving since her retirement.
Being on the track come race day still brings a rush of adrenaline and Wolff considers herself lucky to experience the benefits of everything she loved about racing.
“When I see the challenges in Formula E, I sometimes look at my drivers and think I’m really happy I’m not in the car today. So from that perspective, no I don’t miss driving at all. I had a great career that I’m very grateful for but I’m happy with my new challenge.”
No doubt when Mortara and Nato take to their cars at Diriyah, they will be just as happy knowing Wolff is watching over them.