When you walk between the garages and the club lounges at Circuit of The Americas, you can practically cut the testosterone in the air with a knife. The pit crews are male; the owners are male (with one exception); the drivers are male…well, mostly. Over the years, women have had a small presence in Formula One, and the Williams F1 Team has led the charge. Recently, they added Susie Wolff as their team development driver.
Wolff came up through the motorsport ranks. “My father had a motor bike shop,” she said in a phone interview. “I grew up mostly with boys; my brother is 18 months older, and I always thought, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’” Her father raced bikes and encouraged the two kids. “My mother never said, ‘Oh, no—you can’t do that,’” she laughed. Wolff also grew up downhill skiing and, at the age of 8, added karting to her activities; by the time she was 14, she had been named the British Woman Kart racing driver of the year (for the first time—she would gain this recognition four times). In 2000, Wolff was awarded the title of Top Female Kart Driver in the world.
From karting, Wolff moved to Formula Renault (2001–2004), then Formula Three (2005), and on to DTM (the German Touring Car series), where she gained valuable experience as well as awards and recognition. In 2012, she made the move to Formula One, joining the Williams F1 Team as their development driver. If she continues on this path, she’ll be applying for her F1 license, though she hasn’t done so yet; Wolff’s 2014 program is still up in the air, and she’s waiting to see what regulation changes will be made this year.
Right now, she is spending time in the simulator, providing valuable information for the Williams F1 team drivers, Pastor Maldonado and Valtteri Bottas. Bottas replaced Bruno Senna in 2012, who was dropped by the team (as of July 2013, it was rumored that Senna’s considering testing for NASCAR). There were also rumors at that time that Wolff would be named as driver. That move didn’t happen, though the suggestion garnered some commentary. British racing legend Sir Stirling Moss seemingly harrumphed the notion and was quoted as stating that women do not have the mental aptitude to compete in Formula One. Wolff certainly disagrees but, rather than debate, turns the conversation back to racing. She doesn’t think in terms of gender but rather of competition: In a BBC interview she stated, “When I have my helmet on, no one knows if I’m male or female.” Wolffe looks to her performance to speak for her capabilities as a driver.
Perhaps the statement that best sums up Wolff’s outlook on her role in F1 is that “the stopwatch has the last laugh.” She works hard to be the best driver she can be, keeping her skills fresh by driving in the DTM when her schedule allows and maintaining her fitness. This year, she participated in the Young Driver Test at Silverstone, which is a tough track. She described it as “fast, with lots of Gs”; considering she had not raced since October 2012 and that her role at Silverstone was primarily to test new tires, she performed well—only .04 seconds off Daniel Juncadella, who also drove the Williams-Renault FW3, and 1 second off of the Williams’ team driver, Pastor Maldonado.
Some question whether women are physically able to handle difficult tracks like Silverstone. Wolff works out to make sure that she’s in the best physical condition to wrangle that horsepower. “I do a lot of upper body work and neck exercises,” said Wolff, which is what male drivers do. She has a trainer and works out four days a week, which includes endurance circuits. Wolff does a lot of high-intensity training and uses exercises at body weight to keep lean; in addition, she mixes in Pilates and yoga to help stay flexible after all the time spent sitting in a car. She explained that being a woman doesn’t afford her a weight advantage, but her lighter weight does allow the engineers to place ballast in the car where they’d prefer to have it. For her upper body, she includes press-ups and shoulder presses along with time on a neck machine—drivers can experience 24 kilograms (53 pounds) of force while driving, not to mention the constant vibration of the vehicle.
Wolff spends quite a lot of time in the simulator, which is what development drivers do; this allows her to test out different aspects of the car, note changes in performance, and report back to the engineers. There are simulator programs for each of the various Grand Prix locations, so Wolff is very familiar with the tracks even though she’s not driving. Her work provides invaluable information, though it’s nowhere close to the thrill of actually racing. She’s looking forward to returning to Austin in November for Circuit of The Americas. “It’s a great track,” she recalled. “It produced a fantastic race last year.” When she’s not testing and driving, she’s acting as an ambassador for the Williams Formula One team. Wolff takes those duties seriously. “It’s a fact of life,” Wolff stated. “Racing drivers represent sponsors, and that goes for male and female drivers.” She explained that she’s worked hard to find a balance between “looking good and looking like I mean business. I’m not just a doll to dress up,” she laughed when asked about using her beauty to gain further recognition as a driver. “The men go through the same stuff. It’s part of the job.” You can find Wolff being glamorous in the pages of the June 2013 issue of Vogue in the aptly titled article “Fast and Fabulous.”
Although she may be beautiful, what truly makes Wolff fabulous is her skill on the track and her completely charming and forthright delight in what she does. She’s looking ahead to her Formula One career with the Williams F1 team. “I’m a great believer in the future,” she said. “Don’t sit back and wait for opportunities; create opportunities.” Wolff will surely create opportunities on the track, and Austin can welcome her back this November 15–17 at Circuit of The Americas.
Karting in Austin
Susie Wolff, like most of the Formula One drivers, got her start in karting as a kid. Although this gateway to motorsports originated in southern California in 1956, Europeans have truly embraced it. These are not the go-karts found in amusement parks; those puppies putter along at speeds of about 16 mph (25 km), whereas racing karts, such as the Superkarts, can reach speeds of up to 160 mph (260 km). There are different classes of karts with different speed ranges, with younger drivers at the wheel of slower karts. If you’d like to get your kart on, try out these locations in Austin and the surrounding area.
The Driveway Austin
8400 Delwau Lane
On Sundays, from 12:30–5 p.m., the Driveway Austin opens up for drivers to take one of their Birel N35 racing karts out on the track. These vehicles can reach speeds up to 60 mph, thanks to a 9.5-horsepower Honda engine. Helmets are available for loan; all drivers must have a valid driver’s license, be at least 5 feet tall, and wear close-toed shoes.
2500 McHale Court
This is Austin’s only indoor kart racing facility. The karts are 20-horsepower electric karts; there are a variety of racing packages as well as an “arrive and drive” option. Height restrictions apply: Drivers must be 58 inches tall for the adult kart and 48 inches for the junior kart.
Hill Country Kart Club
Off I-35 in New Braunfels, Ruekle Road (exit 184)
This karting club has been around for 25 years and boasts a facility with grandstands, snack facility, and karting classes. Races are the second and fourth weekends each month (although there are no races in December). Driving classes are available for enthusiasts as young as 5 years of age.
Hill Country Kart Club is the home track of several IKF national championship winners. Spectators can come out to see future champion drivers getting their start in karting as well as watch experienced drivers hone their karting skills and stay fit. Spectator seating is free, although pit passes ($5) to enter the pits, see the karts, and talk with the teams are available for purchase.