Originally published in the November, 2014 issue of DRIVENWORLD
October 7, 2014
Susie Wolff is a racing driver. In scarcely the time it takes to pleasantly say hello and sit down to chat about her role at Williams F1, this confident, focused, but pleasant professional commands attention with the lightest touch.
The F1 paddock, however, is not always the easiest place to keep one’s less contained emotions intact. No matter who you are, the company you keep, nor what you’ve accomplished in motorsport, someone will invariably, without warning, cross your path who has done it faster, better, bigger. Someone you’ve probably admired the whole of your professional life.
As I greet Ms. Wolff at Williams’ hospitality, such a personality steps in. Patrick Head. His eyes cut straight to Susie, his face lights up, yet he politely turns to me to ask that I excuse his interruption. “Susie, I thought you did a fine job at Hockenheim. I was very much impressed”, he says. Ms. Wolff smiles with unflappable, relaxed composure, thanks the legendary engineer, and returns her attention to our appointment. To remark that these individuals are professional to the core of their being would be an understatement.
In her role as a development and reserve driver at Williams, Susie is provided under F1’s stringent testing rules to drive the car during free practice at race weekends throughout the season. Wolff had her first opportunity to get behind the wheel of the very impressive Williams FW-36 at Silverstone. Indeed, hers was one of the first cars on track as the session went green. Unfortunately, Wolff’s first experience in the car ended almost before it began. Wolff had only just gotten the car up to temperature when an oil pressure problem arose, leaving her no choice but park the FW-36 at Club.
When one considers the time, effort, discipline, determination, and patience required to reach this this lofty perch in motorsport, it definitely draws contemplation on just how tough that moment must’ve been. F1’s current model limits testing as a manner of keeping expenditures in check, and in doing so creates unique challenges for those aiming for the opportunity to show what they can do.
Wolff, however, is philosophical; “F1 is the pinnacle of motorsport and to get to the pinnacle of any sport is very tough. Where F1 is even tougher is that there are only 22 cars on the grid of which let say six are top teams, and with the testing ban coming in, of course time in the car is the hardest thing for a rookie driver to get.”
“Hamilton, before he did his first race, did over 20,000 kilometers testing. These days you would never have a driver, a rookie driver, getting that much time in a car before their first race. It’s changed the way young drivers come into the sport, but we have simulators now which are fantastic preparation tools.”
“I could have never done the Friday sessions without all my work in the sim which got me ready for it. I think it’s incredibly tough for rookie drivers to get into F1 but I think that’s just part of the challenge, just now and there’s no point in complaining about it, because you can’t change it.”
Williams has been on the upswing this year. It’s been an exciting rebirth for one of F1’s most heralded teams, a team who once dominated the sport but have endured tough and challenging times over the past ten years.
“I think the big reason behind our comeback this year has a lot to do with the new technical regulations. Whenever you have a big technical regulation change in the sport it gives you a clean slate to start again and I think fundamentally we didn’t get the blown floor right with the old regulations. We switched to Mercedes Benz power, which without a doubt has given us an advantage this year, and we built a very solid car.
The FW-36 is indeed very competitive. Not only have Williams made use of the Mercedes power advantage, the FW-36 is clearly one of the two or three best chassis this season. Wolff has played a big role in developing the car, and considering that the car is clearly getting better, that’s impressive.
“We have very, very talented people within the team and we have new people joining. Without a doubt Pat Symmonds brought a lot to the team and I think all these factors combined meant that we were able to start the year from afresh and really make an impact and get back to scoring good points.”
Indeed F1 has become a game of development arcs. No team, no matter how strong they are at the start of the season, can afford to rest on their laurels. Not even for one grand prix. The technical war is never stagnant, with each car essentially a working test bay until the season is complete and the new chassis is debuted.
Relaying greater specificity on her role, Susie makes it easy to appreciate that being a development driver is much more demanding than simply driving the car.
“One of the main reasons I was doing the Friday session is because I do a lot of work in the simulator, and my work in the simulator has to be relevant and valid. If I haven’t driven the car, then how could I know what it’s really like compared to what’s in the simulator?”
Beyond simulator data, it is therefore the driver’s visceral on track impressions, and how they fit into the team’s objectives, which are most important.
“With all the sensors and analysis on the car, the engineers and team already get a lot of information, but it’s one thing reading figures, graphs, and tables and it’s another thing as to how the driver feels in the car, because the driver needs to have confidence in the car before he or she can push to get the maximum. So of course the feedback the driver gives it has to relate to what the data says but it has to be the first point of information that the team take in order to improve the car.”
Susie adds, “on a Friday morning when you have a driver in the car that’s not the race driver, you very much need that driver to bring the same data back as your race driver would, because otherwise you lose a session, you end up on the back foot trying to catch up.”
“I was very much on Valtteri’s program (at Silverstone and Hockenheim) and I knew what I had to do for the team so it wasn’t a case of going out and doing a quali run getting the best lap time. It was a case of doing what Valtteri would have done to give the information back to the team.”
Susie’s appearances in the FW-36 made her the first woman to participate in a F1 weekend since 1992. Her resume is impressive, with several seasons in the German Touring Car Championship, the British F3 Championship, and Formula Renault. She joined Williams in her development role in 2012, but the seat time did not come until this year. That said, she has clear insight on the challenges 2014’s F1 cars bring.
“The throttle pedal is a lot longer, because there’s so much more torque in the car. You need to be able to feed the power down much more sensitively than you did in the past and without a doubt that for me was the biggest difference between driving this year’s car to last year’s car.”
She elaborates, “Last year you would’ve just hit the power exiting a corner, this year you have to feather it in so slowly, upshift early, because as soon as you start to get too much power down you immediately get oversteer in the rear.”
Like all racing drivers, attention to fitness is critical and Wolff spends much of her energies focusing on those aspects that specifically benefit an F1 pilot. “I do a lot of heat conditioning. The main fact is that you can’t afford to bulk up and you can’t afford to put on extra kilos and muscle weight. It’s about being very strong but also staying very compact, which means you can’t bulk up. It’s a lot of neck and upper body, and I do a lot of Pilates and yoga just to open up my shoulders – I sit all the time like this – so all the muscles here become very strong, but the muscles in the back, to actually keep you upright, become weak because they’re not being used as much as the ones in the front, so (in training) it’s more a case of trying to balance out.”
F1 drivers rarely have the luxury of spare time, so we keep our meeting brief. In the span of less than ten minutes she’s relayed incredible detail about what it really means to serve as a development driver in F1 and the enormous responsibilities the role brings. Susie’s positive outlook serves as a good example for all, no matter how tall our challenges might be, “I think as much as people may think my role is frustrating that I’m not in the actual race car I’m also incredibly proud that I’m in the F1 paddock because there are many drivers that would love to be here and love to be driving an F1 car. I’m part of a brilliant team, a team with an incredible heritage which is on its way back to the front and to be part of that journey is something quite special.”
And her favorite circuit? “Silverstone! I love Maggots, Beckets in an F1 car, it’s phenomenal.”