Susie Wolff says a new programme she is spearheading will have “huge impact” in increasing the number of girls and young women entering motorsport – at the same time as being absolutely necessary “because without it we are going to run out of young women entering the sport”.
Wolff, who raced in the German touring car championship and became a test driver for the Williams F1 team, says that despite a marked increase in female interest in F1 in recent years, the perception that it is a male-dominated world remains a problem when it comes to participation – both for aspiring drivers and in off-track roles.
“The fastest-growing fan demographic is young females and we need to capitalise on that,” Wolff says. “We need to make sure that the next generation is understanding that motorsport is an option.”
She tells a story about a recent event at her son’s school.
“There was this little boy who was really into F1 and he was asking for an autograph,” Wolff says. “And this girl from my son’s class was standing there and her mother said, ‘Oh, you know, Susie used to race.’ And she was like: ‘What? You were a racing driver? But girls are not allowed to race.'”
What is the new scheme?
F1 Academy Discover Your Drive aims to identify promising talent at a young age and smooth a path into competitive karting, where nearly all F1 drivers first cut their competitive teeth.
The programme, run in tandem with British governing body Motorsport UK, will be rolled out this year at six of the 35 indoor karting venues operated across the country by TeamSport UK – in Leicester, Manchester, Eastleigh, Newcastle, Mitcham and Reading.
There will be scouts at each karting track. Drivers showing promise will be nurtured, put in a racing academy and supported on a journey towards competing in the British indoor karting championship.
The programme will be expanded to all TeamSport UK’s venues in 2024, and at the same time run events across the globe at all grands prix where the Academy is a support series.
Wolff says: “The most talented [will be] supported as they progress their journey through the ranks of karting. I am not going to just let these girls win and then go and fight for themselves. We are going to try to help the progression all the way through their journey. But obviously it will come down to performance and talent.”
Widening the talent pool
Wolff, who in her junior career shared a Formula Renault podium with Lewis Hamilton, is a lifelong believer that women can compete against men at the highest level in motorsport.
“The sport is not segregated,” Wolff says. “So you could argue, well, why are we segregating one area? We are actually segregating the hardest part of the journey for a young driver.
“That move from karting into single-seaters is a huge jump up in financial means that are needed – makes it very difficult for any young driver. It was very difficult also for me to make that transition to single-seaters.
“And because we are taking the financial burden out of that move to single-seaters – putting it on the F1 platform, giving them exposure, nurturing their talent in the five best junior teams – means we are really accelerating that progress.”
Hugh Chambers, chief executive officer of Motorsport UK, says: “Sports such as football and rugby have invested heavily in developing junior female talent at entry level and the respective programmes are now yielding fantastic results, with UK athletes competing and winning major accolades on the international stage.
“We hope to show young girls that motorsport is accessible and fun and support them on their journey, whether to compete in motorsport or to follow a professional career in multiple disciplines.”
Wolff says: “So many young girls and women reach out to me. How can I get into the sport? How can I become an engineer? We just have to break down that inaccessibility.”