Matters of Moment, June 2016

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You’ve spent your life working towards one goal: Formula 1. If you make it, you cling on for as long as it will allow. Sometimes it’s all too brief. But if you’re lucky – and good enough – it could be years. 

Then there are those who don’t make it, who barely touch the hem. They know they are in the majority, but that’s of little solace. There comes a time of realisation, perhaps even a kind of mourning, and then, hopefully, acceptance that it’s time to move on.
But to what? Are you hungry to continue racing and find fulfilment in something else? Or do you step away from the cockpit completely and discover a new purpose?

It’s an inevitable crossroads for a racing driver, one that is familiar to sportsmen and women in any discipline at any level: when to stop and what to do next.

Susie Wolff reached that point relatively early, at just 33. For her, the F1 goal had been tantalisingly within reach. She never quite made it over the line and on to the starting grid, but she got closer than most. Her years as a test driver at Williams at least allow her to look in the mirror and recognise her capabilities. There’s much to be said for that.

But what now? Media work was an obvious route and she’s a comfortable fit within Channel 4’s F1 coverage – but that’s clearly not enough to satisfy her. She has much more to give.

“I knew I wanted to do something after I’d hung up my helmet to help the next generation,” she says. The result is a new campaign, launched in partnership with British motor racing’s governing body, the MSA. It’s called ‘Dare to be Different’ and it aims to encourage more women to consider motor sport as a career choice. 

“The background? I was asked to feature in Harper’s Bazaar in an article titled ‘Dare to be Different’,” she explains. “I said although I was flattered, I hadn’t dared to be different – I’d just followed a path.” That was true. Susie Stoddart, as she was before she married Mercedes F1 team principal Toto Wolff, never thought of herself as different to any other ambitious young racer. If anything, she dared to be the same as the male rivals she came up against. Equality was all she expected.

But as the magazine team pointed out, to the wider world a woman in motor racing is different. That’s the perception, despite the increasing number of women employed in high-profile roles. Few of them would consider themselves so, but the tagline stuck in Susie’s mind.

“So I rang up [MSA chief executive] Rob Jones and the stars aligned,” she says. “He’d just returned from a European karting event where there’d been 200 participants and out of that number, just four girls were huddled together. So we decided to join forces and find out what we could do.”

The mission statement is ‘driving female talent’ – and not just behind the wheel. Wolff is at pains to stress this isn’t about finding a female world champion, although inevitably the old questions about the capability of women racers continue to linger. “There’s no reason why women can’t perform, but there are not enough trying for that many to break through,” says Wolff on cue (she’s discussed this more than a few times over the years). “If you have 100 boys and only a couple of girls it’s always going to be a struggle for the few to rise to the top.” The stats back her up. Of the 30,000 racing licence holders in the UK, about 1500 are women – only five per cent.

Wolff waves away Bernie Ecclestone’s typically enlightened comments on the subject, which ruffled headline writers recently following his ‘car-crash’ interview with Sir Martin Sorrell. “What Bernie said was taken out of context,” she says. “When I was driving I made a point of not getting involved in politics, but now I felt able to call him up and speak to him about it. Very quickly I realised we’re actually aligned in our thinking.” The 85-year-old is now signed up as a ‘Dare to be Different’ ambassador.

In other sectors of society, stories are rife that sexism remains malignant, whether it be the quality of jobs female graduates can secure to the salaries they can expect to earn. In the weird world of Hollywood, the divide is infamously wide and outdated. So how does a supposedly testosterone-fuelled business such as motor sport compare?

“The opportunities are out there,” says Wolff. “Unlike a creative environment motor sport is performance based.” She highlights another of her ambassadors Ruth Buscombe, who is chief race strategist at Haas. The Cambridge graduate, who has a First Class Honours degree in aerospace and aerothermal engineering, has played a key role in the new team’s flying start in F1. Buscombe says: “It’s so important that we fight the archaic stereotype that women and motor sport ‘don’t go together’ to prevent misinformation and dogma prescribing a subset of career choices for girls.”

That’s at the heart of ‘Dare to be Different’. “Being a woman is secondary,” says Wolff, “and there’s a new generation that accepts that, without preconceived ideas of it being otherwise: people like Claire Williams and my husband. It’s happening organically.”

The semantics of the tagline can be argued (and has been among women who work in racing). But the ambition is bang on. Post-retirement, Wolff has found her new purpose and is daring to make a difference.

***

Should we be in or should we be out? The ‘Brexit’ referendum facing the UK on its future in Europe offers a thorny challenge, its complexity matched only by the last time we were called to the polls on this subject in 1975.

Whether we choose to believe the scaremongering coming from both sides is purely personal, of course. But what’s the view in the thriving business of UK motor sport, I wondered? Chris Aylett, chief executive of trade body the Motorsport Industry Association, has an answer after conducting a survey of his members.

“Seventy-five per cent want to stay in, which is on a par with other business surveys,” he reports. “The commercial world sees the value in staying in a ‘reformed’ EU.” That highlighted word is key, he says. “The view is that it’s better to stay and reform from within rather than standing outside complaining.

“That is the considered opinion of the head, if not the heart.”

How much effect being in or out would have on trade is entirely debatable, like everything surrounding the EU. Predicting a Le Mans winner is easier… But Aylett says: “Europe and America are the two largest groups of economic activity in world motor sport, and the UK is the dominant force in Europe. In terms of sales value, Germany, France and Italy are only collectively at the same level as the UK. Our relationship with this mass market is vital to our industry and we are closely engaged in trade, in both directions, with that market. 

“Being outside would make this relationship more complicated.”

***

We welcome Nigel Roebuck back this month following his recent illness. As you’ll see on page 17, our editor-in-chief is in typically fine form as he reflects on F1 past and present. We also rub our hands in expectation this month ahead of another Le Mans 24 Hours. Our ‘bumper’ issue looks ahead to what we consider the biggest race of the year, and naturally casts a glance back at some key races from the past. To mark how special Le Mans is to us, we’ve produced three covers for this edition, all of which are available, featuring overall race favourites Porsche and Audi, plus the comeback story of the year – Ford and its new GT. Which one did you get?

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