Earlier this year, we were delighted to host an event with keynote speaker Susie Wolff MBE, the former British racing driver and newly appointed Managing Director of the F1 Academy.
Susie's journey within F1, and her experience as Team Principal and CEO, were truly inspiring. Her story is one of perseverance and resilience; as Susie rightly pointed out, "Nothing beats hard work."
Her message of focusing on performance and not being deterred by noise, as well as her emphasis on widening the talent pool to enhance diversity really resonated with us.
We're thrilled to share some of the key lessons from her keynote and Q&A. We hope you find it as insightful and thought-provoking as we did!
The beginning: Overcoming challenges:
“Many people assume I got out on track and I was a clear talent of the future, but I can share with you all that the opposite was the case. I wasn't very fast, and to make matters worse, as people passed me, they were bumping into me. I came back into the paddock, and my Dad said to me; “We've got two options, we're going to put the cart back in the truck, and we head home, or you're going to go back out there, you're going to try and go quicker and when they bump you, you're going to bump them back twice as hard.” You can all guess which option I went for…”
“Never once did I realise I was doing something unusual for a girl. I'm lucky in my sport; we wear helmets, and the athlete isn't visible. All that matters is performance. For those of you who are not into motorsport, there’s Formula One, Formula Two, and Formula Three - it's a ladder system up to Formula One. There was a young British driver called Jenson Button, who won that day and went on to become a Formula One World Champion. That's when everything changed for me; the light bulb went off in my head that I could turn my hobby into a career. I carried on racing, making it to 15th in the world championships. To my surprise, I was called to the podium ceremony at the end of the competition and promptly called up on stage to receive an award for being the top female in the world. I wasn't there to be the top female in the world, I was there to try and be the world champion. But it was the first recognition for me that I was viewed as something different, so that result gave me the springboard to move into single-seaters.”
Following the passion:
“I came to start my second year at university, and I sat in a huge economics lecture, thinking, what am I actually doing here? I'm a sheep who's following the flock. I'm here because everyone tells me I should be here. I wanted to be a racing driver, so I left the lecture. One week later, I had all my worldly possessions in a golf TDI; I was driving down to Silverstone. I rented a room in a little old lady's house, and fully focused on my racing; I didn't have a lot of money to my name; I worked as a marshal, the one waving the flags at the track, to make enough money to pay the rent. My full focus was on my racing. I had some good results; I stood on the podium with Lewis Hamilton; I got enough podiums and enough recognition that I was nominated for British Young Driver of the Year, which was quite a big thing because a female had never made the final.”
Facing adversity & seizing opportunities:
“And then I broke my ankle very badly and needed ten pins. It was one of the darkest times in my career. I lost my race license, I lost my sponsorship, I really lost all my momentum, and I was out for five months. Something inside me told me to keep going, and I remember saying to my Dad, “What am I going to do?” And just at that moment, a German number was calling my phone. I picked it up, and the gentleman said, “What do you think of German touring cars?” I said, “I think German touring cars are fantastic”. He said, “Well, what are you doing tomorrow?” I said, “Funnily enough, tomorrow just freed itself up.” He replied, “Get yourself out to Barcelona; we want to test you” So I raced home, got myself to Barcelona and was met at the airport by three of the Mercedes team. Having been dropped by Renault, 24 hours later, I was testing for Mercedes in Barcelona. I knew I was pretty quick because I could obviously judge from the times of the other drivers. I did not leave the phone out of my sight for 10 days. Finally, that German number called, I was called into the boardroom and promptly offered a one-year contract to become a Works Mercedes Benz driver. I thank my lucky stars to this day. That was my big break. I got my foot in the door. The one-year contract turned into a seven-year contract, but my dream was Formula One, and as a sports person, you only have so long and at the beginning of 2012, I handed in my resignation to the shock of everyone at Mercedes. It was such a strong feeling within me that I had to push myself out of my comfort zone again. I had to move on, and my journey unbeknown to be at the British round of German touring cars in August of that year.”
Making tough decisions:
”Frank Williams was due to attend because two of my teammates were two of his former drivers. I was introduced, and he couldn't quite get over this young Scottish girl racing because, in his day, the woman made the team the coffee or took the times. I explained to him that I'd been driving for Mercedes for a number of years, but my big dream was to drive in Formula One. After the race, as I went to say goodbye to all the other drivers, he looked me in the eyes and said, have you got 25 laps? I knew what the expectation was for my performance, and I was given the best possible preparation. Because I did the test, I went quicker than the engineers had set me as a lap time, and that led to Williams asking me to join them as a development driver. After one year, I was promoted to test driver, but after four years, I had another two years in my contract. But again, I realised after four years on the sidelines I wasn't ready to jump in an F1 car anymore because I had spent too long on the sidelines, and my time was up. Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa were driving for Williams at the time; there was no way they were going to dump one of those drivers to give me a chance. And I felt that my time was up; the decision was very easy.”
Embracing new opportunities:
“The months after were not too easy. I'd spent 25 years with a sole purpose and focus every morning when I woke up. Those were difficult months; as much as it's exciting to have a blank sheet of paper in front of you, it can also be quite daunting. So I was looking at investment in fashion and investment in wellness and very quickly realized that I didn't know anything about those industries. Then a gentleman I had come across in my recent career contacted me to say, “What do you think about Formula E?” I was one of the early cynics, but he kept calling. I started hearing that Mercedes were very much looking towards electrification in the future. Then everything sped up in terms of the electric revolution, and so I took on the role of Team Principal.”
“I've got to put my money where my mouth is; if I talk about diversity, it is up to me as a leader to prove that diversity works. Formula One came calling, and I said no, it's time for me to look at something else outside of motorsport, but as the conversation developed, it became apparent to me that it was a huge opportunity to change motorsport for the better, to make it more diverse. What is Formula One Academy? It is a series only for women, the sport isn't segregated, but we financially support the young woman at the Formula One Academy level. But on a much wider scale, we aim to use the star that's Formula One to make the sport more diverse. For me, it's very clear that to increase the talent pool, you've got to get more women entering on track, but also off track and all the different professions in the industry to make sure that the very best is going to rise to the top. If there's one thing I realised in my career, and to all the young women that sometimes reach out to me, just focus on the performance, don't get lost in the noise of sometimes being the only woman or one of the very few women in the room. Because if you perform, you have power; performance is power.”
Lessons learned and the power of dreams:
“I will always be so thankful that I found my passion in life so early, and even if I hadn't gone on to a career in motorsport, it taught me so much about life. There are tough days, but having that enjoyment in what you do makes success a lot easier. The second topic is, of course, following that gut feeling. And the gut feeling doesn't always jump out. But I could sense when it was time to move to the next chapter, and I knew I had to close one door before the next one opened. But it was that feeling inside that pushed me out of my comfort zone; it pushed me on my journey. It's about having short, mid-long-term goals, but also having that visualisation of where I want to be in three years, where do I see myself in five years? You can always shift what the goals are. And my dream to Formula One; I made it there as a test driver, but I didn't make it onto the grid. I wanted to win a world championship at Formula II, so I became vice world champion. I didn't always hit the target, but I at least knew what the target was. But one thing I cared about very early on is to dream, and dream big, but always remember you've got to have a plan of how you're going to achieve that dream. Because a dream without a plan is something very different, that's called a wish and dreams and wishes are two very different things.”
Q. Where were you born?
SW: Orban, a small town on the west coast of Scotland. It has great whiskey!
Q. Where did you study?
SW: I tried to study in Edinburgh.
Q.Where do you live now?
SW: Monaco? Cliché!
Q.What car do you drive?
SW: Mercedes, but I love classic cars. I bucked the trend in Monaco by driving in 1972 Pagoda. Everyone drives around in their supercars and I bounce along in my vintage Mercedes.
SW:In the Austrian Alps skiing.
SW: A travel steamer
SW: My husband hates my tastes and music. Michael Jackson, Madonna, all the old ones I love.
Q. What are you reading at the moment?
SW: I was reading Believe it or not by Marcus Rushford. I'm not big into football, but I wanted to understand a bit more around football, etc. So that was the first of the football biographies that I bought.
Q. Favourite film or boxset?
SW: Favourite film, Shawshank Redemption or Count of Monte Cristo.
Q.What was your first ambition?
SW: It was to beat my brother at whatever we were doing, and then to become a racing driver.
Q.Who do you admire most in life and why?
SW:A charity we support is UNHCR, Toto and I went out to Syria to a camp - we were out in Poland when the Ukraine crisis head and the incredible people there are the unsung heroes that we never read about, who are doing so much to help others. Those are the people that I massively look up to, and quite often with all the people I meet, and it's not just the famous names, quite often they're not people we read about, but there are so many extraordinary people out there who do incredible things. We’re just lucky that in our sport, we get a lot of attention, but there are so many very special people out there and that team at UNHCR, for me, are unsung heroes.
Q. You talked about how you got into motorsport and that journey of it. But what inspired you? Where did that inspiration for getting into motorsport come from?
SW: Growing up around motorbikes meant that it was natural for me to have a motorbike and to think that was an option, but when I look back, what had a huge influence is the fact that my parents had such a great balanced relationship and that's what I've tried to create with my husband. My mum had her own dress shop, which she then sold to work with my Dad. She was a big achiever and a great role model for me, and she still is to this day because she had her dreams and ambitions but still managed to be a fantastic mother. They instilled in me this idea of hard work, and thank goodness they did because I was never the most talented, but I was willing to work hard, and that's what got me to achieve what I did.
Q.You made history in 2014 when you became the first woman in two decades to complete a Formula One race over the weekend. How did that experience change your perspective of the sport overall when you achieved that goal?
SW: It was a big pressure moment because I took the seat from Valtteri Bottas for the first practice session, and I had to make sure I was incredibly quick because the world was watching. I was very focused on what I had to do, there were a lot of people expecting me to fail, and I think that's normal in life; you have those that are for you and those that are against you. Without a doubt, if I have someone tell me I can't do it, it makes me even more determined to do it. Thankfully, that is my character trait.
Q.One of the things I was really interested in is the transition from driving to leadership. How did you find that transition? What were some of the key learnings you went through on that journey from driver to leader?
SW: It was really interesting because one of the big advantages I had was that I'd watched my husband, who had by that time won four World Championships. We obviously share the same passion, so I learned so much from him. He came from a private equity background, which meant he was combining the world of finance and business with motorsport, so I learned so much from being in the room with him very often, listening to his calls and understanding the business side of the sport, and when the opportunity came up, he immediately said, you've got to go for it, you can do that I know you can. It was definitely a baptism of fire initially, and I do remember a couple of evenings thinking what have I got myself into? I just focused on performing, and suddenly, we won our first race the following year, we won more than one race, and then suddenly, we were fighting for a championship, and nobody ever asked me about my gender anymore. Nobody ever asked about being a female team principal; I had earned my place at the table, and that's a game just for me was the reiteration of chess performance, and everything else faded away.
Q.You've talked about the importance of mentorship. Who else has been your mentor? And have you valued having external mentors to support you on this journey?
SW: Sometimes we often think that mentors are rigid people that are always there for us to bounce ideas off, but there were just individuals, powerful individuals in the sport that the FAA president, Fred Foster, who's now head at Ferrari, was always very supportive, and not because they wanted to give me a leg up, but because they respected my input. And when I reached out to them, they would always give me very direct feedback, and they will always give me the time. Quite often, with mentorship, it's just about reaching out to those people.
Q.Formula 1 has pledged to become net zero by 2030. What are your thoughts on sustainability initiatives, and how do you think they will shape the future of the sport? Do you think there's going to be a point where Formula One will become so sustainable that it eradicates the need for Formula E?
SW: I think the two can coexist because Formula E is showcasing the technology of the future. Because of the energy crisis, which has led to the lack of infrastructure, electrification has probably not kept up the momentum that it initially started with. It has its place, whereas, with Formula One, they're saying there are 3 billion combustion engines in the world; what are we doing to make those more efficient because they're not all going to turn electric within the space of five years? So they've gone down the route of sustainable fuels, which I think very much has its place, and I think the two can absolutely coexist. And I think it's important that Formula One are setting the standard of what's possible in sport in terms of sustainability.
Q.You co-founded Dare to be Different. It's a nonprofit organisation aimed at inspiring and supporting young girls and women coming into the sport. What inspired you to take on this position, and what are you looking to achieve with it?
SW: When I hung up my race helmet in 2015, I realised it only ever done one interview where I wasn't asked about my gender, and I felt that to the sport that has given me so much, I wanted to give something back. I wanted the next generation to learn from the things I did well but also from the mistakes I made along the way. I wanted to inspire them to believe that as much as motorsport looks very male-dominated from the outside, it's actually got a lot of opportunities for talented women. I think we can really drive change within the sport and, in the long term, make it more successful.