The retirement of Susie Wolff will bring a smug “told you so” smile to the chauvinists in the Formula One paddock, where she badly wanted to be a star with Williams. Sexism abounds in racing, where rather too many people will tell you women make better pit girls than drivers.
There were plenty of smiles at Silverstone in July when, before the British Grand Prix, Sir Stirling Moss talked about his green and black scrapbooks. “Green ones are for racing, black ones are for crumpet,” he said, grinning. Two years ago Moss argued women did not have the mental aptitude to compete in motorsport. Moss is 86 but many younger men subscribe to his views.
Wolff deserves better than this, for the 32-year-old was very good. And there were traces of bitterness in her departing words, when she said she did not expect to see a female driver on the F1 grid in the near future.
The paddock opinion, stripped of the machismo, was she was not quite good enough – and ultimately she was not quite young enough. Formula One drivers make their debuts in their early to mid 20s and, increasingly, in their teens, not in their early 30s. Her time had passed.
Her retirement comes at a time when women are less physically disadvantaged than they once were. Formula One drivers are built like jockeys but (like jockeys) they are mostly very strong; Lewis Hamilton is a smallish man but it is difficult to shake hands without wincing in pain. Driving an F1 car at 200mph requires less brute strength than it once did, even though many drivers are reluctant to admit it.
Other observations about why there have been so few women in F1 (only five) are likely to get you into Moss-like trouble. It has been argued women are less innately aggressive and more risk-averse. Insurance companies, who charge cheaper premiums because women have fewer serious accidents, would seem to agree.
But there are always exceptions. Five women have entered at least one grand prix, although only two have qualified and started a race. The Italian Lella Lombardi made 17 entries and 12 starts. She was sixth in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix. The real reason why so few make it to F1 is that so few want to – among aspiring drivers the number of girls is small.
Wolff said: “At 13, the dream and the goal became Formula One. I got so close. I wanted and fought very hard to make it on to that starting grid but the events at the start of this year and the environment in F1 the way it is, it isn’t going to happen.
“My progression into Formula One came to represent so much more than a driver simply trying to reach the pinnacle of the sport. It was also the hope that finally there may again be a female on the starting grid. I rode the wave, was energised by all the support and fought hard. There were those who wanted it to happen. Those who didn’t.
“I can only tell you, I gave it my all. Do I think F1 is ready for a competitive female racing driver who 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 and no clear role model. Sometimes you just have to see it to believe it. My gut feeling tells me it is time to move on.”
Wolff, who is married to the Mercedes motorsport director, Toto Wolff, became the first woman to take part in a Formula One race weekend in more than two decades in first practice at last year’s British Grand Prix. She also took part in practice for the German Grand Prix last year as well as sessions in Spain this season and again at Silverstone.
She competed in Formula Renault, Formula Three and the German DTM series before entering F1. She was appointed Williams’ development driver in 2012 and was promoted to test driver this season.
Her hopes of becoming the first woman to start a race since Lombardi in 1976 looked remote, though, when Williams signed Adrian Sutil after Valtteri Bottas was injured in qualifying for the season’s opening grand prix in Australia.
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