Ahead of a critical step-up in profile in 2024, with support from all 10 F1 teams in backing a driver and branding cars, F1 Academy managing director Susie Wolff is crystal clear about one thing.
She says that long-term opportunities for females in motorsport may very well depend on the series succeeding in its mission.
“I’m very conscious of this just not being a flash in the pan, something shiny new, and then it just dies away,” she said ahead of the series finale in Austin.
“That would be a huge regret if that does happen. Because then there is no chance for wider diversity in the sport.
“I think, if this doesn’t function, nothing’s going to function.”
Wolff, who took up her role in March this year, thinks its success depends on it doing far more than just being a successful support series on the grand prix bill, and helping the fastest females it has right now get up the single-seater racing ladder towards F1.
Photo by: F1 Academy Limited
Marta Garcia, Prema Racing
Instead, Wolff believes F1 Academy’s very future depends on helping inspire and bring through the next generation needed to fill its cars for years to come. Otherwise, the risk is genuine of the series quickly failing.
“I would have loved the luxury of it just being a race series with 15 young drivers that could have existed and been rocket fuel to progression,” she said about the challenge she took on when signing up to help run the series.
“It has to be something much more because we will simply run out of drivers in a few years if we don’t do more than just exist as a race series.”
While Wolff succeeded in convincing all F1 teams to get involved in supporting drivers and putting their colours on a car next year, she confesses that there remains some scepticism about F1 Academy’s vision. This was rammed home to her in conversations she had with current F1 bosses.
“They’ve all taken a leap of faith to join us on this mission and we need to make sure that we are delivering a strong package,” she said,
“One team principal in particular said to me: ‘F1 Academy is just putting a plaster on the problem, are you actually going to try to fix the problem?’ Yes.
“We’re not here as a flashy series that is trying to just gain exposure and give 15 young drivers a limelight.
“I’ve been there, I know how tough it is, and I know how few women are participating at all the different levels.
“So, we need to figure out how we’re going to change long term, and that comes down to increasing the talent pool, it comes down to making the sport more accessible and inspiring the next generation to actually enter the sport.”
She added: “The overriding message when I met all the team principals was: ‘okay, we get why you’re doing this and how this can be impactful. But you’ve got to get it right because in the end W Series tried and failed.’
“We have to be more than just 15 cars driving, because that doesn’t fix the problem that there’s not enough participation.
“So, to just pick out those [15 girls] and try to help them, it doesn’t get to the root of the problem.”
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images
Marta Garcia, Beitske Visser at the start
Not a charity
F1 Academy was launched last year just as the all-female W Series collapsed in the wake of its financial difficulties.
At the beginning, there was some scepticism about why F1 and Liberty had thrown its weight behind an all-new category that did not appear to be doing anything much different to W Series – and was furthermore asking drivers to bring a sponsorship package with them.
Wolff insists, however, that there are notable differences between the two categories.
“I applaud what W Series achieved in a short space of time, but I think we’re approaching it in a sense that we’ve got the full support of the very top from Liberty and from F1,” she said.
“We want to build a financial business model. This can’t exist as a charity. This has to be something which can survive on its own in the mid to long term.
“At this stage, that is why we’ve got the 10 F1 teams on the board. And of course, being called F1 Academy, owned by F1, gives us the luxury of getting onto the F1 calendar with ease.
“Then on top of that, we’re not just going to make sure that our winner progresses. I want my winner to be graced with the best chance of success.
“That means get her into the right teams, make sure that we’re doing work in the background to make sure she has the best chance of success at the next level. The progression has to happen.
“Then obviously in terms of the pipeline, as much as we could be viewed as the same as W Series in being a race series, I think we’re doing a lot more below and above.”
Photo by: Erik Junius
F1 Academy is expected to announce next week the package that will be offered to its most successful racers in helping them move up the racing ladder.
While Wolff would not reveal any details just yet, she said: “We’ve done and I’ve done a lot in the background to make sure the driver is in the right team, and the category she is going to be racing in and she has a good chance of success.
“For me, it’s not just writing a cheque and saying: ‘okay, off you go.’ You need to be in the right team, in order to have the right amount of track time. And you need to be in a category where you have the best chance of success.”
The right moment for change
Wolff already sees the first shoots of the impact being made – in both F1 Academy itself and the wider world.
The grid spread inside F1 Academy has shrunk dramatically this year, showing clear progress among those competing.
“First qualifying of the year, we had the top 10 covered by two seconds; by race six they were covered by two tenths,” explained Wolff.
At karting level, as part of its push to create a Champions of the Future academy, Wolff says the number of girls trying to qualify for the British Indoor Karting championship has jumped from 18 to 65.
But while Wolff is not taking anything for granted just yet about F1 Academy being a guaranteed success, she thinks the elements are in place for it to be given a proper chance.
“I think the fact that we exist, and the fact that I managed to get 10 F1 teams on board, I think the world’s changed,” she said.
“Maybe the feeling in this paddock hasn’t changed, but we’ve certainly realised the world’s changed.
“Maybe it’s unfair to say the world has changed and that’s forced their hand, but there are some in the paddock that really believe in it, and that there had to be something done.”
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Marta Garcia, Prema Racing, is presented with a Pirelli F1 Academy Qualifying award from Esteban Ocon, Alpine F1 Team, Mario Isola, Racing Manager, Pirelli Motorsport