Female drivers: Formula One remains largely a man's world
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- From the moment Susie Wolff first got into her Williams car, she heard the snickers from those questioning whether women belong in Formula One.
There were more than a few cynical looks from teammates before the development driver completed 100 kilometers (62 miles) of Silverstone's international circuit last year. And more recently, the series' only female driver has been the target of Stirling Moss, who suggested women don't have the mental aptitude to compete at the highest level.
Rather than let the doubters discourage her, the unflappable Scot said she is focused on achieving her dream of becoming the first women on the grid in more than three decades.
"You can let it bother you or you can carry on and don't pay much attention to it," Wolff told The Associated Press.
"I chose the second one," she said. "There will always be the comments. There always will be stereotypes that women can't drive. When I hear the comments, it just makes me more determined to prove them wrong."
Danica Patrick's high-profile role in IndyCar and NASCAR, where she became first woman to win the pole at the Daytona 500, has spurred expectations that Formula One would follow suit.
But it hasn't happened, partly due to what Wolff and others said is a more conservative attitude about women in motor sports in Europe and the big financing needed for a driver to succeed. Wolff also said Americans "love to see the underdog do well, love to cheer someone on."
Still, Wolff is being billed as the best chance for a woman to break a Formula One drought that dates to the 1970s.
Italy's Lella Lombardi was the last woman to race in F1, finishing sixth at the 1975 Spanish GP, which was shortened due to a fatal accident. The first woman to race was another Italian Maria Teresa de Filippis, debuting in 1958 and taking part in five races.
Several others since then have been signed by teams but never made a start.
Maria de Villota, a Spaniard who drove for Marussia, was the sport's last full-time female driver since Italy's Giovanna Amati was with the Brabham team in 1992. But de Villota's career ended prematurely in July when she crashed into a team support vehicle in her first test of the team's MR-01 car. She lost her right eye in the accident and has not returned.
The absence of women in a sport that otherwise has plenty of diversity has been the talk of the paddock in recent weeks after Moss suggested they weren't cut out for F1 racing. The 83-year-old Brit won 16 Grand Prix races and raced against de Filippis.
"We've got some very strong and robust ladies, but, when your life is at risk, I think the strain of that in a competitive situation will tell when you're trying to win," Moss told the BBC. "`The mental stress, I think, would be pretty difficult for a lady to deal with in a practical fashion. I just don't think they have the aptitude to win a Formula One race."
Three-time Formula One champion Jackie Stewart said Moss was wrong, telling the AP that women have the mental and physical skills to succeed in F1 - just as they do in tennis or swimming. He said it would be "fantastic" to see a woman on the starting grid, especially in terms of attracting a new audience for the sport and sponsors that cater to women.
But he said there just aren't enough women getting into the sport.
"There are a huge number of boys who are karting week in and week out. The number of young girls doing the same is a fraction of the number of boys doing it," Stewart said. "There is no single driver in F1 today who has not spent the early part of their life in karting. Now, if you very conservatively have a million karting who are male and you have got 10 or 20 or 30 or even 100 women, the batting average would tell you there's not a big chance of them getting through to be the extraordinary talents that take a driver to Formula One."
Wolff, who started racing at the age of 8 after her parents bought her and her brother karts, was often one of the only girls on the track for most of her career.
"I realized at 13 or 14 when I said, OK, I wanted to be professional racing driver, there wasn't anyone to look up to that I could aspire to or get inspiration from," said Wolff, who is now 30. "That somehow didn't stop me. I just figured I would do it because it was my passion. I wasn't on a path to prove a point about women drivers."
Her early success led her to Formula Renault, the British F3 Racing Series and then, in 2006, she joined Mercedes-Benz as one of its drivers for the German Touring Car Championship. Her high point in DTM came in 2010 when she became the first woman in 20 years to finish twice in the points and ahead of colleagues and former F1 drivers Ralf Schumacher and David Coulthard.
Even with her success, Wolff was constantly reminded that she was a woman in a man's world.
One of her favorite stories involved an award in which she was up against five other men. Stewart, who was presenting, came to her and asked where the sixth male driver was. He was taken aback when he learned it was Wolff.
And then there was the pink car she drove for Mercedes-Benz.
"It was marketing ploy I wasn't complete happy with. Blond girl in pink car is a real cliche," she said. "But there was a positive in that a lot of little girls started watching racing and came to the race track to see the pink car. For all the negatives, at least there was one positive that came out of it."
When she joined Williams in April 2012, some critics seized on the fact that her husband, Toto Wolff, was an executive and shareholder with Williams. He has since left for Mercedes but there are those who still suggest she got the seat because of their relationship.
Through it all, Wolff hasn't let the off-track chatter rattle her. She has helped by what she said was widespread support up and down the paddock, especially from her team which is one of only two with a female executive, Claire Williams. The team has extended her contract through this year and promised her a bigger role this season.
Williams, the daughter of team founder Frank Williams, said she is seeing changes.
"I have noticed an increase in women in the paddock," she said. in an email interview. "Williams takes gender equality seriously - the fact that I am now in this role, that we have Susie Wolff on our driver roster and that 50 percent of our executive committee is female is an indication that things are changing. I think having more women in more prominent roles helps highlight that these jobs are here for both men and women to aspire to."
The challenge now for Wolff is to show she belongs. She rarely gets track time and must make due proving herself in simulators and doing data analysis for the team. She doesn't yet have an F1 super license, hasn't done a pit stop or started a race in an F1 car.
"I haven't put myself at the level where I would be ready to do a race," she said. "You have to be realistic. You would never put someone in car who wasn't ready to deliver the best performance."
Still, she doesn't want special treatment. She dismissed suggestions that F1 should be doing anything to make the path toward the grid easier for women and said she won't try her luck in the United States.
"It doesn't matter about my gender or how tough it is away from the race track to cope in a male environment. It comes down to showing performance," she said. "I'm very much on a path. I followed my dream as a child and I'm loving every minute of it."