Susie Wolff has spent her career fighting to infiltrate a man’s world. In 2014 she became the first woman in 22 years to take part in a Formula 1 race. But the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is where the chequered flag finally came down.
For Susie Wolff, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was the end, the opportunity to bid farewell to Formula 1 and a trailblazing motorsport career, the weekend she officially hung up her racing overalls for the final time.
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March was the first inkling it was the beginning of the end for the Scot when the Williams test driver was told rather publicly she would not be considered to stand in for Valtteri Bottas if the Finn did not recover from a back injury for the Malaysian Grand Prix.
It was the first time the fire that had burned so brightly ever since that eightyear- old blonde with the tight bunches first took the wheel of a kart in her native Scotland had been extinguished.
Having become the first woman to compete at a Formula 1 weekend since Giovanna Amati in 1992 when she lined up to test at last season’s British Grand Prix, her career ends with her not having quite attained her ultimate goal.
Over and out. Thank you. pic.twitter.com/bRiNt09g9v
— Susie Wolff (@Susie_Wolff) November 21, 2015
“The goal was to get on the starting grid,” she admits. “I got oh so close and part of me would still love to get on the grid. But I can look back and say I gave it my all, I didn’t leave any stone unturned.”
In the months on from March with the partial rejection from Williams and no other race drives coming her way, it became clear to her that she had taken herself as far as she was ever going to ever go in motorsport’s higher echelons.
“As much as you can be ambitious and ruthless you have to know when it’s not going to be achieved,” she says. “It became clear that it was going to be incredibly difficult to carry on and get more than I had this year.”
There is no shame in that, far from it. Her career CV might be missing that F1 race drive but hers is a career of firsts: the first woman to score points in the DTM (German touring cars) for two decades and the first to compete at the prestigious end of season Race Of Champions.
And there is no denying she was quick. I had first-hand experience of her race craft strapped into the passenger seat alongside her at the aforementioned Race Of Champions in Barbados last year where she proved a match for former F1, Indy Car, Le Mans and rally winners.
Among those was the former F1 driver David Coulthard, who explained the issue thus: “She’s talented, she’s got speed. The difficulty, which is the same as any other racer, male or female, is that being good isn’t enough – being exceptional is what Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso are. That’s the big challenge.”
“It’s emotional but it feels like the right time to stop on my own terms. It actually feels good” – Wolff
Wolff’s own decision to walk away was made two months ago after lengthy discussions with her husband Toto Wolff, the executive chairman of the Mercedes F1 team, but not announced until early November.
Having had time to digest the decision, she says: “At the beginning of the year, I had the harsh reality of what it looks like in F1 next year. So I said to myself, ‘I’ve got as far as I can get and I’m not willing to just drive the car a couple of times’.
“It felt right, I’m glad to move on. It’s emotional but it feels like the right time to be able to stop on my own terms. It actually feels good.”
There is no bitterness towards Williams, who gave her the F1 chance after all but deemed her unworthy to race.
Instead, she says: “That was a tough moment but you need to have tough times to see the reality.
“I realised the chance of a race drive wasn’t going to come. It was a hit in the face but you have to see both sides.
“They felt at the time they had a car capable of the podium possibly even a win and there was a driver that had never done a race before. It wasn’t good for my ego obviously but you can see their perspective.”
While there might be a modicum of ‘oh so close’ on her sporting epitaph, Wolff’s impact may not actually be felt for some years hence.
“We have to stop this stereotype that for girls it’s about being in pink and horse riding. We need to teach kids to think outside the box, to dare girls to be different,” she adds.
For the most part, Wolff was the archetypal girl growing up. She too loved pink and playing with her Barbies, she also just happened to share the family’s motorsport passion – her mother Sally met her father John when she walked into a shop to buy a motorbike.
— AbuDhabiRacing (@AbuDhabiRacing1) November 29, 2015
Her actual racing farewell came the weekend before Abu Dhabi at the Race Of Champions in London and, after that, she has other plans most of which will be announced in due course. One is to work with the Motor Sports Association to get more girls into motorsport, and family plans are also in the pipeline at the age of 32.
She is adamant that the latter subject was not part of her thinking in retirement but always knew that becoming a parent was not going to be possible while racing.
“The reality is that family is on the cards in the future,” she says. “But you know in motorsport if you take yourself off to have children, you won’t come back, partly as you’re quickly forgotten in this sport. But I wouldn’t compete at this level with children.”
From a Formula 1 perspective, she hopes simply that she has “paved the way” for someone else to follow in her footsteps and possibly take things that step further and follow her mantra and number one strength in her career.
“For me it’s about determination, refusing to give up until the last door is closed,” she says. For Wolff, that door has now closed but, in all likelihood, she has opened one for many to follow.
Valtteri Bottas believes that if Williams is to return to the winner's circle it needs to learn from its mishaps and failures, and raise its game in all areas.
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The Finn concluded his 2015 campaign fifth in the driver's standings, 15 points in front of his team mate Felipe Massa, achieving his best result of the year in Canada and Mexico where he scored on both occasions a third place podium finish.
Williams looked set to challenge Ferrari for a runner-up spot this season behind the untouchable Mercedes Silver Arrows of Hamilton and Rosberg.
But the British team's progress stalled in the later part of the year, and with it Bottas' competitive edge decreased. A decline partly pinned on Williams focusing its efforts on next season's car.
"There were lots of good moments, like a couple of podiums and successful races for us," Bottas said.
"But there were a lot of disappointments too, that we need to learn from, like I said before, because this is not the best we can do – we can do much better like this as a team.
"We have to remember the good moments more, of course, but what is the main thing is to learn from the disappointing moments."
At times, Williams appeared relatively weak in the pit stop department, but Bottas believes improvement must be sought in all departments if the Grove outfit it is to become a viable race winner.
"If we want to win we have to raise our game in all areas. For the last race of the year, the pace wasn’t there, and we need to make big gains over the winter if we want to fight with Ferrari and Mercedes again. And we also need to minimise the number of mistakes – that’s a fact."
Sebastian Vettel has no major holiday plans this winter but is looking forward to Ferrari’s Christmas party where he’ll be celebrating a promising first season with the Italian team.
The four-time world champion, who made the switch from Red Bull to Ferrari end of last year, believes his team made “miraculous” progress throughout the 2015 season and has complete faith they can catch up with Mercedes in the future.
Ferrari finished second in the constructors’ championship, 275 points behind Mercedes, while Vettel claimed third in the drivers’ standings, 103 points adrift of first-placed Lewis Hamilton.
Despite the big gap between Ferrari and their German rivals, Vettel is proud of what he’s accomplished with the Prancing Horse this year.
“Of course it’s always the most difficult one to equalise or go in front,” Vettel said on Sunday of the challenge of beating Mercedes.
“I just had one of our guys coming in, he was one of the first guys I met last year at the test, where I didn’t drive but I got to know the team for the first time and if I think back from that time to where we are now, it’s a miracle.
“It’s a miracle where we started off in the winter, setting fastest times but knowing that in Australia obviously getting the confirmation that we’re a long way behind.
“Then I haven’t seen any other team making that much progress throughout the season.
“So obviously we had upgrades on our engine, we upgraded our car and naturally that brought us closer.
“Not close enough yet to really fight and put them under pressure but I have 100 per cent belief that they are beatable, especially when you put pressure on them.
“I think our strategy has to be to focus on ourselves like we did the whole season, work on ourselves.”
Vettel is the only non-Mercedes driver to win a race this season, triumphing in Malaysia, Hungary and Singapore and making 10 more podiums. He admits that while finishing in the top-three is nice, he did not enjoy being 30 or 40 seconds behind Mercedes in some of the races in 2015.
The German finished a respectable fourth in Abu Dhabi, having fought his way through the grid after starting in 16th due to a calculation mistake from his team in qualifying. The 28-year-old currently has 79 podium appearances to his name, one behind his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, who recorded his 80th – tying the legendary Ayrton Senna – by taking third at Yas Marina Circuit on Sunday.
Asked if surpassing Senna and Raikkonen’s tally is something he looks forward to doing next year, Vettel said: “I have a little bit more time if you look at my date of birth. I think Senna is a great champion and Kimi is a great champion.
“Obviously Senna is a special champion because unfortunately he’s not around anymore, he will always be remembered in a very strong way. I feel very lucky that I have the opportunity to race with great teams and great cars to finish on the podium to match some of these great drivers. Right now it’s maybe not that important but when I’m a little bit older then maybe it’s a nice thing.”
With all the teams already kicking off their celebrations last night in the paddock, you’d expect most of the drivers to be thinking about their vacation plans but Vettel seems keen to keep up the good work he’s been doing with Ferrari and admits he has no lavish holiday arrangements this offseason.
“No holidays. A little bit but for now I think we all look forward to say cheers for the great season that we had. Enjoy that moment,” said Vettel. “On Tuesday we have a very important test for next year already (tyre test at Yas Marina Circuit).
“And then looking forward to the Christmas party with the team, it will be my first time to join that. And then to be honest the break isn’t that long.
“I think we already have a test in January, again for tyres, so I think with more and more years in F1, somehow the winter seems to get shorter and shorter. I’m just looking forward to spend the time at home and not travel for a change. No big exciting plans, I’m sorry. But I’m quite happy with my boring plans.”