What a better way to wave goodbye to 2016 than with just one more talking point in Formula 1 (always, inevitably, tied to Mercedes)? This time around, we have Susie Wolff, MBE to thank.
The response to Wolff’s being awarded an MBE has been a mixed bag. While some are ecstatic at the bestowal of the honor, many others are highly critical. Fingers are pointed at her lack of results, at a career influenced and impacted by her marriage to the executive director of a Formula 1 team. We have been not-so-gently reminded that Wolff hasn’t actually driven in a Formula 1 race, and that her most notable achievements have been the odd practice session behind the wheel. There are other drivers out there, they say, more worthy of an honor than Susie Wolff; and what about Bernie Ecclestone, John Surtees, Paddy Lowe?
Had the honor been awarded to Wolff for career accomplishments or performance, I would have been skeptical. My immediate predilection to wholeheartedly support women in motorsport doesn’t overshadow my ability to look at the facts: that Wolff’s career in motorsport – her actual results scored behind the wheel of a car – are not worthy of an MBE alone.
The MBE, though, was not awarded for her performance, but rather her service to women in motorsport. And this is an accomplishment I will stand my ground in defending.
Formula 1 is a notorious Boy’s Club, a place where The Powers That Be can still hold the belief that women are too weak to drive a race car and can get away with comparing them to domestic appliances. We can point out women holding positions as team principals, engineers, mechanics, and the like, but that doesn’t mask the fact that getting a woman into Formula 1 is difficult. The whole process is a vicious cycle, one that often results in disappointment, because at every step of the way, women are effectively told “Formula 1 is not for you”. And to reach the level of motorsport where Formula 1 becomes a possibility, a driver already needs to have significant funding. To gain that funding, s/he likely needs to find a sponsorship, potentially even while in the karting stages. And while sponsors take a number of factors into account before supporting a driver, gender can be a significant one.
Women are, as yet, a wildcard in Formula 1. In the entire history of the sport, only five women have been entered as drivers, and only two of them have actually qualified and started a race. Lella Lombardi, with 17 entries, 12 starts – less than even the rookie drivers of the 2016 season – and a highest finishing position of sixth place, is the most accomplished female F1 driver to date – and her career ended in 1976. Since then, three women have been entered in a total of 7 Grands Prix. None of them have started a race.
This is not to say that there have been no successful female drivers in other categories, or that other forms of motorsport have been as male-dominated. There have been incredible women like Shirley Muldowney and Janet Guthrie who destroyed preconceptions and opened up the possibility for women to take part in their respective sports. But with Formula 1 as the highest class of international motorsport, the championship that all eyes turn to all across the world, it can become easy for sponsors to see the glaring lack of a female presence behind the wheel and choose to fund a safer option.
Without funding, then, it can be difficult for young women to get started in the motor racing world, and it can be easy to become discouraged. Lacking the funds to advance has put an end to many a career (both male and female), which in turn further reduces the ability of women to participate in motorsport, which makes sponsors hesitant to support them, which makes it more difficult to find the funds to advance. A vicious cycle indeed.
Enter: Susie Wolff.
Yes, Wolff’s Formula 1 career is difficult to label a ‘career’. Even her participation in other forms of motorsport pales in comparison to the achievements of women like Tatiana Calderón and Beitske Visser. But Wolff’s mere presence – what she represents – within the Formula 1 world is important, and her subsequent push to get more women into motorsport upon her retirement, even more so.
Susie Wolff was a visible female presence. She played key roles on the Williams team. And while perhaps one could argue that those roles were more for show than for actually having an impact, it is still huge in terms of visibility. Having Wolff out on track – seeing a woman don a helmet and compete with the best of the best, even just in a practice session – speaks volumes. She was not lightning-quick, nor did she work magic behind the wheel, but Susie Wolff showed that, yes, a woman can run with the boys. And even when she was not on track, simply seeing her in the garage or giving interviews, donning team gear with the words ‘racing driver’ beneath her name enabled Wolff to be the rallying point for countless young women and girls, both fans and racers alike. Here, finally, was proof that Formula 1 was not quite as unattainable as it sounded.
Even in retirement from racing, Wolff’s impact on the world of motorsports is significant – perhaps even more so than when she was still active. The launch of the Dare to be Different program is a landmark initiative. For the first time, young women looking to pursue careers in motorsport – be they drivers, engineers, or even journalists – are able to find a consistent, supportive backing. They’re able to find a sense of unity, to find a venue to showcase their talents, and to have a venue through which to form important connections with people who have a way to reach out. And that is huge. Who you know in motorsports can be just as – if not more – important than what you know.
These are the first steps to bridging the gender gap that still exists in the male-dominated world of motorsports, the first steps to inspiring young women and fostering their careers by providing the support and confidence that can be incredibly difficult to find in the more conventional sources. While the program is still in its fledgeling stages and will take a few more years to mature into its full potential and begin providing visible evidence of women who can point to it as a means to their success, it is already significant in what it represents. At the end of the day, Wolff’s honor is just an honor, but any exposure and credibility her endeavor is given now will enable the Dare to be Different program to take off more quickly, thus leading to a more immediate and higher rate of success.
So, yes – Susie Wolff deserves an MBE for her service to women in motorsport. More than anyone in the history of Formula 1, she has sought to create a way for women to unite, a way to support them, a way to nurture careers that could otherwise be nipped in the bud. She has done what no other person has dared to try, and she has created a way to unite women and foster their careers. We now have the possibility of a future where we have more than just a handful of women scattered throughout all forms of motorsport to support, where we can support them not simply because they’re women, but because they’re incredibly talented drivers. For the first time, it is possible to dream of a Formula 1 starting grid that includes a woman – one who was able to find significant and consistent sponsorship, who rightfully earned her place on the field, who was able to utilize resources to develop her talent without becoming discouraged by the barrage of obstacles placed in her path. For the first time, there’s hope.
And that is certainly deserving of an MBE.