Analysis: Why Wolff's retirement is not the end of female F1 hopes

The announcement that Susie Wolff will retire after this year is a blow to those hoping a woman would race in F1 soon, but it's far from the end for female F1 ambitions, argues Jonathan Noble.

Susie Wolff's decision to retire from motor racing at the end of the year may be a blow to hopes of a woman racing in Formula 1 in the near future, but it could yet prove the catalyst for it happening longer term.

Wolff, whose free practice outings with Williams helped resurrect the prospect of a female grand prix racer, says that her decision came after finally accepting that her F1 dream was not going to happen.

"I got oh so close," she wrote in a blog on the Huffington Post. "I wanted and fought very hard to make it onto that starting grid but the events at the start of this year and the current environment in F1 the way it is, it isn't going to happen."

But does her failure to make it mean the end of the road for female F1 ambitions? Not at all.

Opening doors

For although Wolff is clear in her belief that there will be no female F1 racer for a while, it seems her situation has made her even more determined to make sure that doors are open for the next generation of women racers.

"Do I think F1 is ready for a competitive female racing driver that can perform at the highest level? Yes. Do I think it is achievable as a woman? Most definitely. Do I think it will happen soon? Sadly no.

"We have two issues, not enough young girls starting in karting at a young age and no clear role model. Sometimes you just have to see it to believe it."

Wolff has talked about new grass roots initiatives and a personal crusade to make it happen, and she has the right kind of intelligence, contacts and feisty spirit needed to make things happen.

That is good news for the next generation of female stars.

Racing scepticism

Wolff's frustrations at trying to break into a male-dominated world are shared by Lotus development driver Carmen Jorda, who has faced her own challenges since she began.

Jorda's short-term ambition is to step up from a simulator to take part in a test for Lotus, although that is something that may well have to wait for another year.

However, right from when she began racing, she faced scepticism, even from her parents.

"Even when I was in go karts my dad said it was a really hard job for a woman," Jorda told earlier this year. "In tennis a woman has a clear route to go, whereas in racing you have to fight with the men."

Kimi struggles

The physical limits that women face have long been viewed as a factor in hampering their ability to compete on an equal footing with men. And the situation could get even worse in the future if F1 cars are made five seconds per lap faster.

Jorda has said that even below F1, difficulties are there for females, because of the absence of power steering and a lack of the kind of systems that make life easier for grand prix racers.

She cites the example of Kimi Raikkonen, who once tested the same GP3 car that she competed in.

"People not in F1, they don't know how tough GP3 and GP2 cars are to drive," she said. "Kimi did a test with the same team as I was in, and during the test he said, "What has happened to the steering? I cannot drive it. It is broken.'

"It wasn't broken, it was just how it is. It is really, really tough. So when physical issues start to get a problem, it gets really, really hard."

Role models

Perhaps ultimately though, the single biggest factor is that so few women make it up the racing ladder, because the pool of talent at the bottom is so small. It needs more girls setting out with clear ambitions of being an F1 driver.

One factor that holds back the numbers getting involved is that girls do not have many successful female racers to look up to. There is no women's world champion for example. That means young girls are less likely to get inspired to follow the path of their heroes.

That's why Jorda thinks Bernie Ecclestone's suggestion of a women's-only championship may be right. Not because of what it means for the current racers, but because it could spur on interest in future generations.

"If you think about a women's series, it would be great," said Jorda. "We are already quite advanced in other sports – just look how popular the Women's World Cup was earlier this year.

"In many other sports we have women competing at the highest level – and we deserve to do that because we want to be champions as well.

"I don't think a woman right now can win a race in F1 – because we are not there."

It's inspiration and role models that are needed to get girls starting out on the motor racing ladder. Get enough of them competing, then one will surely have what it takes to compete with the best men in F1.

Jorda added: "Look, it is difficult for a woman to be in a tougher series. Just think about putting Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova against Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal – they would never be champion.

"When Bernie was talking about a women-only championship I was defending it, and I don't think it is sexist.

"There is such a small number of women competing that people think we cannot race with the best. But I think there are enough women to be able to create a strong championship and make it a target for every woman to want to go to."

For Wolff, you sense that her frustrations at not making it to the top will simply act as a bigger motivation to ensure someone else does achieve it.

And that may well be the best news yet for getting a female on to the F1 starting grid again.

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Susie Wolff , Carmen Jorda
Article type Analysis