F1's Susie Wolff on how to succeed in 'a man's world'

The former test driver shares the challenges of climbing the ranks and why performance is power.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 11 Apr 2016

More often than not motorsport is considered a male-dominated world, but former Williams F1 test driver Susie Wolff is adamant that's not the case.

‘There are lots and lots of brilliant women in motorsports; they just don’t have the spotlight shone on them – they’re not out on the racetrack,’ she said, speaking at MT’s Inspiring Women conference in Edinburgh. And Wolff would know. She’s carved out a career – working her way up from karting to Formula Renault and Formula Three, before moving to compete for Mercedes-Benz in the DTM. In 2012, she was signed to work as a development driver for the Williams Formula One team.

‘I’d love to tell you it was a seamless journey to the top, but it was tough, it was really tough. And there were more tough days than there were good days,’ Wolff explains. ‘The harsh reality of sport is that at the end of the day it’s only about one winner.’ And to date, there hadn’t been many women, which threw up other challenges. An example Wolff gives was at the age of 18 and ranked 15th at the World Championships in karting.

‘I wasn’t on the podium, but I was called to come up to the ceremony from the tannoy. I was invited to collect an award for the best female driver in the world and I remember being totally embarrassed,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t there to be the best female – I was there to be the best, that was the first moment I realised this path might be slightly different to what I’d envisaged.’

It was moments like this, she says, which gave her a steely determination to succeed. She completed a year at Edinburgh University because ‘there was a certain pressure’, and soon realised that wasn’t what she should be doing. ‘Forget plan B. If there’s no plan B you’ve got to do everything to make sure plan A works,’ Wolff says. She secured a job as a marshal and ‘could barely afford to pay the rent, but I was chasing my dream’.

She was making her way up the ranks when a broken ankle threw a spanner in the works. ‘Those were some of my darkest days. When you’re an athelete and lose momentum it really holds you back,’ she says. Other setbacks followed, including being told she wouldn’t be supported for a full season because a sponsor had miscalculated its marketing budgets and she ended up having to find £250,000 in two weeks.

Wolff’s big break came with Mercedes-Benz in Germany, but again ran into trouble as they hadn’t had a female team member. While Wolff says there are many women within motorsports, there aren't great a numbers on the front line, so to speak. She faced a great deal of ‘I don’t know how to train a girl so I’m not doing it’, despite Wolff driving the same car, being on the same team as all the male drivers.

So she put her foot down and said she’d do the same training as the men. ‘The first thing on the agenda was a five hour mountain climb. After ten minutes my face was like a tomato,’ she says. The group pushed ahead, but kept checking back and saw she kept going. ‘I think that moment of me showing them I wasn’t a diva, that I didn’t expect to be treated differently, that I was willing to push hard to find and earn respect from them, meant that I was welcomed into the team.’

Finally her determination and hard work (not to mention skill) paid off when she joined Williams Formula One as a development driver, before hanging up her helmet last year. She’s since launched Dare To Be Different, an initiative to inspire more women into motorsport.

So what were the big lessons she’s learned from battling adversity and treading a successful path in a widely male-dominated field?

1. Find your passion in life. 'If you find the thing you love, the tough days become that little bit easier to deal with. The truth is you’re never really working because you love what you do.’

2. Follow your gut feeling. 'We all have it, you need to give it time and listen to it. It won’t always send you on the easiest path but I’m a great believer that it will lead you to the one of greatest contentment.'

3. Dream big. 'We all need to know where we want to be, what we want to achieve, where do we want to be in five years. Dream and dream big but always realise that a dream without a plan on how to achieve that is just a wish.'

4. Performance is power. 'As long as you’re doing a brilliant job, nobody else will be able to have that power, regardless of the environment.'

We're tweeting along with the Inspiring Women conference from @WhatCeiling. Join in with the #InspiringWomen hashtag.

Missed out on Inspiring Women Edinburgh? There's still time to get tickets to our Birmingham conference on 21st April - check out the programme here.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

How to use workplace conflict to your advantage

But beware the festering feud.

Efficient chickens, less stuff, more optimism: The real way to address climate change ...

What is dematerialisation, and why does it matter?

The 5 behaviours of charismatic leaders

How to become more inspirational (without having a personality transplant).

When should you step down as CEO?

Bob Iger's departure poses an unpopular question for bosses.

The death and resurrection of the premium customer

Top-end service is no longer at the discretion of the management.

What HS2 can teach you about project failure

And how you can prevent projects going astray.