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‘I remember the pressure’ – Susie Wolff on her Silverstone FP1 debut 10 years on, and how F1 ACADEMY is powering change

F1 ACADEMY Content Editor

Hannah Prydderch
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As the last female driver to get behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car during a Grand Prix weekend, Susie Wolff understands precisely the barriers that women face in trying to carve out their own journeys in motorsport.

Now the Managing Director of F1 ACADEMY, she’s determined to use her experiences to help drive the next generation of young female talent, both on and off the track. Ten years on from her first free practice appearance at the 2014 British Grand Prix, Wolff speaks to F1.com about the story behind that historic moment and how change is already beginning to take shape.

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Named as a development driver for Williams Racing in 2012, Wolff’s role saw her undertake vital simulator and aerodynamic work back at base. Two years later, Williams announced that she would make her free practice debut in front of her home crowd at Silverstone that year – the first of her four Free Practice 1 appearances – and she became the first woman since 1992 to participate in an F1 weekend in the process.

“That was a huge moment for me, one that came with huge pressure but also huge opportunity,” Wolff reminisces. “I remember the pressure I felt to go out there and perform, knowing that it was my one chance to show what I was capable of. It was hugely challenging because I had literally 11 laps, two runs – one old set of tyres, one new set of tyres – and I wasn't in the car every weekend.

Motorsports: FIA Formula One World Championship 2014, Grand Prix of Great Britain, #41 Susie Wolff

Susie Wolff became the first woman since 1992 to participate in an F1 weekend as she made her FP1 debut in 2014 at Silverstone

“So, I was jumping in knowing that first and foremost, there's no way there was any chance I could crash or damage the car because I had to hand it back to Valtteri Bottas in one piece! But secondly, for my own performance, I wanted to be as quick as I could be to show that I was capable of driving at that level.”

‘There were definitely nerves but also adrenaline’

Outside the cockpit, Wolff acknowledged that many were questioning whether a woman had what it took to perform in a modern day F1 car. But, once the visor went down and with all eyes focused on her, she knew – as she had growing up – that her performance on track would do the talking.

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“I was incredibly lucky that my parents never made me think I was doing something unusual for a girl,” Wolff says. “My elder brother raced and, in my opinion, anything he could do, I could do. Let's not forget, when you're driving, you're wearing a helmet. Nobody actually sees the driver, so your gender is irrelevant – what matters the most is performance.

“There were definitely nerves, but also adrenaline. I do remember when I got into the car and there was just a sea of journalists at the front of the garage, all waiting to picture me in the car.”

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She explains further: “I think there was a huge amount riding on that test because being a woman back in a Formula 1 car on a Formula 1 weekend, there were a lot of people waiting to see, would I be quick enough? Would I be able to deliver? Would I be able to handle the pressure? As much as it was a big opportunity for me, I also knew it was a moment I absolutely had to deliver.”

She adds: “The interesting thing when I got in the car, that's the moment I loved the most because it all went calm. It was just me with the earpiece to my engineer. The minute the car started, I knew exactly what was expected of me, I did it so many times in the simulator.

“I definitely remember getting to Maggots and Becketts, which is the fastest part of Silverstone – and those that have driven the track will know exactly what I’m talking about. It's definitely one where you have to really have belief in the downforce of the car because it's just a small lift.”

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‘I know how intimidating the environment can be – I know how competitive the environment can be’

Now, Wolff has an undeniably vast mission ahead of her as the Managing Director of F1 ACADEMY – to champion the next generation of female talent both on and off-track and help change perceptions in the sport. Her ambition is matched by the determination and work that is already being done to affect change by “opening up the whole ecosystem of the sport”.

Susie Wolff before first practice ahead of the Formula 1 Spanish Grand Prix at Circuit de

Wolff has a vast mission to undertake in her role as Managing Director of F1 ACADEMY

While the participation of women in motorsport has never gone above 5%, it’s a challenge F1 ACADEMY is already working on addressing as it races as a support series to F1. Bringing all 10 F1 teams on board, each with their own supported driver and livery, opens doors for the drivers to harness their wealth of expertise, developing them into racers that have the tools to progress up the single-seater ladder.

Alongside subsided budgets for the series’ grid, financial barriers are being overcome at both a single-seater and karting level. F1 ACADEMY’s 2023 champion Marta Garcia graduated to the Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine with a fully-funded seat, while vice-champion Lena Buhler also stepped up as part of a deal that allowed the top teams to run a fourth entry for the top three drivers in the F1 ACADEMY standings.

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Of the current field, standings leader Abbi Pulling has already made history, as the Alpine junior became the first female driver to win a British F4 race.

Meanwhile, nine karters are being supported in the Champions of the Future Academy, with Luna Fluxa Cross currently leading the OK-N Senior standings by 48 points. This global series features cost control measures and a chassis lottery to decrease the financial requirements involved.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JUNE 22: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been digitally enhanced.) Race winner Abbi

Abbi Pulling is the current F1 ACADEMY standings leader

“I feel very lucky having the experience that I do in the sport now in my position as running F1 ACADEMY,” Wolff notes.

“I know what it’s like to be an eight-year-old jumping in a go-kart for the first time. I know how intimidating the environment can be, I know how competitive the environment can be, how tough it can be. There’s only ever one winner and everybody wants to win, so you need to learn to cope with failure.

“For me, it was hugely important for F1 ACADEMY to race alongside F1. That's where we can get the exposure and that's where we can have the impact for people to see what's possible – because sometimes in life. you need to see it to believe it.”

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‘F1 ACADEMY doesn't exist just to get a woman into Formula 1’

Fundamentally, the racing aspect is intertwined with off-track work to promote and support girls and young women to pursue a career in the industry. Through F1 ACADEMY Discover Your Drive, local STEM students in Jeddah, Miami and Barcelona have had the opportunity to explore various roles and gain hands-on experience within the paddock.

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“F1 ACADEMY doesn't exist just to get a woman into Formula 1,” says Wolff. “I think we're not a moment, we're a movement and we want to increase participation, increase the talent pool and make sure that we have more women entering our sport.”

With F1 ACADEMY in the middle of its sophomore season, Wolff’s work is still in the early stages. As her own achievements dispel the myths about whether a woman can race in F1, she knows that results won’t happen overnight. But even the smallest step will pave the way for the next generation.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JUNE 23: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been digitally enhanced.) A general view of

F1 ACADEMY is intertwined with off-track work to support girls and young women to pursue a career in motorsport

Wolff explains: “When people ask me ‘well, can a woman drive a Formula 1 car?’ – I drove it and I did a race distance here in Barcelona, 78 laps. So, anyone that says that a woman isn't physically capable, I've done it. I know that we’re physically capable and I know what the journey is every step of the way.

“Would I love to see a woman racing in Formula 1? Of course I would – and I'm not a very patient person on the best of days! So, it can't happen soon enough, but change takes time. By increasing the talent pool that's out there racing, I'm pretty sure that we'll see a woman in Formula 1. I can't tell you exactly when, but I hope ASAP.

“I'm at the beginning of my journey with F1 ACADEMY. I'm incredibly ambitious and we've got a lot of things coming, so please watch this space.”

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