Susie Wolff: We will see a female F1 driver in the next 10 years
"In the next 10 years.. I'm going to be punchy and say yes," said Wolff. "But I think with F1 Academy we are creating such a strong pathway that, when the first one comes, more will follow. That's the plan."
Speaking at the Financial Times Business of F1 Forum in Monaco, organised in conjunction with Motorsport Network, the former Williams development driver delivered her vision for the series that is the brainchild of F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali, with significant funding from F1's parent company Liberty Media.
"There aren't a lot of role models, which means there's just this perception in society that motorsport is for men. We really need to change that, " Wolff told the audience of business leaders ahead of the Monaco GP.
"I can say quite confidently that we are going to do everything we can to change the situation. And I think having the support we have, means we have a much better chance of success. Please don't look at this as a woman's thing run by a woman.
"This F1 Academy is for the greater good of Formula 1, our sport. And we all need to be on this journey. The decision-makers are all men at this stage, or 95% of them and they need to be on a journey with us because they are the ones that can help create lasting change in our sport."
Domenicali announced the creation of the F1 Academy at the end of last season and Wolff took over as Managing Director in March. She presented her vision for the programme to Domenicali last month and is now pressing ahead to put the longer-term project in place.
"F1 Academy has to be much more than just a support series. In the end, if we're only providing a platform for 15 young female drivers, we will run out of drivers pretty quickly, because there's simply not enough participation in the sport, " said Wolff.
"But we don't want to just focus on finding the next female Formula 1 driver, we want to be something much wider. On the Formula 1 platform, which has such a huge global reach, we want to make sure that, as much off track as on track we're really inspiring the next generation, creating opportunities, increasing the talent pool so the most talented can rise to the top. This is not just about putting a quota system in place where there's more women in the sport. It's about recognising we need to increase participation with the most talented to rise to the top. You need to be good enough."
F1 Academy will operate as a development series for girls at the crucial inflection point from karting to single seaters, so the youngest participants will be 15 years old. This is the stage of driver development which girls who excel in karting have typically found hard to navigate.
Five of the teams competing in F2 and F3 have been recruited to run three drivers each, with funding coming from F1, meaning that the girls need just €150,000 in sponsorship to take part, a similar level to European level karting.
In addition to 21 races over seven weekends, they each get 15 test days, critical because once drivers move up through F3 and F2 testing is strictly limited by regulation. The idea is for the girls to compete equally with men from F3 onwards.
This season is a foundation year with just the round in Austin, Texas taking place on the F1 support bill.
Only highlights packages of the races are being aired this season, alongside other social media output, but for 2024 there will be 21 races at seven grand prix venues and many of the major F1 broadcast partners, like Sky Sports, will show all the F1 Academy races live, as they currently do F2 and F3.
There will be education programmes and outreach programmes at every grand prix venue F1 Academy attends, using educational facilities close to the racetracks to inspire girls and women to see there's a lot more to racing than just being a racing driver. Wolff has had the ingenious idea of situating the F1 Academy paddock in the F1 Fan Zone, so it's accessible and arouses maximum interest.
"If people ask me, 'What's your clear goal?' In 10 years, I want to walk into the F1 paddock and see much more diversity, 20% minimum. And I want those women in that paddock to say, 'Well, I'm here because of F1 Academy,' either because 'they gave me the opportunity', or 'inspired me' or 'created a pathway that allowed me to enter the sport.' And I think that accessibility is the key part. We have such a growing female fanbase in Formula 1 right now, but it still seems so inaccessible."
Wolff's mission will undoubtedly be helped by the surge of popularity in women's sport globally.
The recent Six Nations women's rugby final between England and France drew a crowd of 58,000 at Twickenham, while Arsenal women filled the 60,000 seat Emirates stadium as women's football has developed a major following on TV and in stadiums.