Susie Wolff will be back at the wheel of a Williams Formula One car at the Circuit de Catalunya on Friday.
Susie Wolff will be back at the wheel of a Williams Formula One car at the Circuit de Catalunya on Friday.
Wolff will test in Austria in June and drive again in practice at the British Grand Prix in July.
Wolff will test in Austria in June and drive again in practice at the British Grand Prix in July.
Lella Lombardi, the first and only female driver to score in a Formula One race.
Lella Lombardi, the first and only female driver to score in a Formula One race.
Maria Teresa de Filippis, the first woman to race in the Formula One championship.
Maria Teresa de Filippis, the first woman to race in the Formula One championship.

Barcelona, Spain - Susie Wolff will be back at the wheel of a Williams Formula One car at the Circuit de Catalunya on Friday with little in the way of fanfare but a clear aim in mind.

Last year, the 32-year-old Scot made plenty of headlines in a similar practice session at Silverstone when she became the first female driver in 22 years to take part in a Grand Prix weekend.

This time, her presence at the Circuit de Catalunya comes 40 years after the only F1 race in which a woman has finished in the points - Italian Lella Lombardi's sixth place at the shortened 1975 Spanish Grand Prix.

If Wolff has made it less of a novelty to see a woman on track along with the men in F1, at least on a Friday, her dream of becoming the first woman Grand Prix racer since 1976 remains tantalisingly out of reach.

"I have performed in the car, I have shown I am capable, I'm in a very competitive team, I drive a car that's capable of podium positions," she said, "so I do feel very, very close but in the same respect very far away.

"Because when they announced Adrian Sutil as the reserve at Williams, that was a clear sign that 'Yes, you're close but you are also still very far away'."

Williams started the season without a reserve but with Wolff, whose husband Toto is head of Mercedes motorsport and a Williams shareholder, as development driver with young Briton Alex Lynn.

When Finland's Valtteri Bottas injured his back in qualifying and missed the Australian season-opener, the team appointed Sutil - a veteran of 128 races - and not Wolff who has only tested and taken part in two practice sessions so far.

TAKING A CHANCE

She will test in Austria in June and drive again in practice at the British Grand Prix in July, following a fixed programme and putting in the laps.

It is important work, with Friday set-up vital for Sunday's race, but Wolff wants more and time and circumstances are against her.

"We've made such big strides forward and that's a lot down to the team giving me the chance," she said. "They took a risk, took a chance and it worked out, so we're making strides forward but I still feel we've got a long way to go."

It will not get any easier, with a new points-based super licence system due to come into force next year that will make it harder for those who have not won junior or qualifying championships.

Wolff, who has not raced single-seaters for a decade and would have no points, said it will be tough for any driver and not just women.

"To find the budget to go through all those formulas, to get into the right team so that you actually win the championship in those formulas, that is a huge task for any driver regardless of gender," she added.

"I hope it will get tweaked and adjusted; love it or hate it, motorsport is not purely talent. It never has been and never will be."

While Lotus has appointed Spaniard Carmen Jorda as a development driver, she has yet to test a Formula One car and her role is seen within the sport as primarily a publicity ploy.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, currently in European F3 with the Carlin team, looks the most promising of those on the horizon.

Wolff, who has faced mutterings that she owes her place in the team to gender and connections, said performance has always been what matters.

"It's all very well to talk about how it would be great to have a woman driver, a woman with sponsors and marketing, that's all great but to get into that drive you have to perform."

TAPPING THE FEMALE DOLLAR

When Claire Williams was appointed vice-principal of the Williams Formula One team in 2013, she hoped her promotion and Wolff's presence as test driver might open the door to an untapped market.

With women making up some 40 percent of the audience, it seemed a good time to approach brands more interested in female consumers than the average petrolhead.

The response was hardly deafening: "I said to the marketing people 'Let's go out there, let's really go hard at female brands'," said Williams. "And not one of them was interested."

Formula One has become more inclusive - about eight percent of Williams' engineers are women - and has come a long way from the days when the sport was sponsored by oil, beer, cigarettes, men's magazines and condoms.

Nevertheless, Wolff's dream of racing remains distant. Sauber, which was in desperate need of cash last year and also has a female team principal, had been grooming Simona de Silvestro for a race seat until the 26-year-old Swiss failed to find the necessary sponsorship.

De Silvestro, who has stood on the podium in the US IndyCar series and was Indy 500 rookie of the year in 2010, returned to America instead, in what was surely a missed opportunity.

GENDER ONLY GOES SO FAR

According to a motorsport marketing expert Zak Brown, who has brought numerous top sponsors into F1, the reason lies primarily in the nature of a sport where men still make up 60-70 percent of the audience.

"If you're strictly a female-directed product," he explained, "you're going to be wasting too much of your money talking to people that aren't your core consumer.

"If I've got a dollar to spend, 30 cents of it is working for me - but I'm wasting 70 cents, unless the product I have appeals to both men and women and I like the female angle.

"My wife buys my deodorant for me. I wear it, she buys it," he said as an example.

Williams has several such brands, including Rexona deodorant and title sponsor Martini, as well as others who use the sponsorship in education and diversity programmes and for whom Wolff is a definite asset - but gender only goes so far.

"I think it would be great to have a woman driver. But what's important is that you have a competitive one," said Brown. "At the end of the day, you've got to be successful to have a sustainable career."

He cited IndyCar and Nascar driver Danica Patrick, now 33, as the sort of person with the track record to create sponsor interest had she switched to F1 earlier in her career.

With limited seats available, Brown felt it might take a company such as Red Bull to bring through a woman on their production line of young talent.

"It needs someone with that same passion, desire and cheque book to make that type of commitment to go 'I'm going to find the next female Sebastian Vettel'," he said. "I think she's out there."

WOMEN IN FORMULA ONE

It has been 40 years ago since Italian Lella Lombardi became the first and only female driver to score in a Formula One race with sixth place at the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona. She was awarded just half a point, because the 27 April race on the now disused Montjuich Park circuit was cut short due to a fatal accident.

No woman driver has scored a point since then, with Lombardi's final appearance in 1976 still the last time a woman has started a Grand Prix.

Italian Maria Teresa de Filippis became the first woman to race in the Formula One championship when she started the 1958 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, after qualifying last, and finished 10th and last.

De Filippis had failed to qualify at Monaco earlier in 1958 and retired from the Portuguese and Italian Grands Prix that same year. In 1959, she failed to qualify for the Monaco Grand Prix.

Maria Grazia 'Lella' Lombardi, a butcher's daughter from a village near Turin, failed to qualify for the 1974 British Grand Prix but made her race debut in a March at the third round of the 1975 season in South Africa after qualifying last. She failed to finish.

Spain brought Lombardi her first finish, and the famous half point, in only her second Grand Prix, when the race on Barcelona's Montjuich Park street circuit was red-flagged after 29 laps.

A photographer, a fireman and three spectators were killed when the high rear wing on Rolf Stommelen's Lola Hill broke, sending the car over the barriers, with flying debris hitting bystanders.

Lombardi failed to qualify for the Monaco Grand Prix that year - as did Jacques Laffite and Graham Hill - but finished seventh of nine finishers in Germany - three places ahead of Mario Andretti, after starting 25th and last. She ended her F1 career in 1976 with a 12th place in Austria, and died of cancer at the age of 48 in 1992. In all, she started 12 races.

Britain's Davina Galica tried and failed to qualify for three Grands Prix, the 1976 British Grand Prix and 1978 Argentine and Brazilian races. The 1976 British Grand Prix remains the only race to have had two women entered.

South African Desire Wilson failed to qualify for the 1980 British Grand Prix in a Williams but did compete in the 1981 non-championship South African Grand Prix. Wilson won a non-championship British F1 series race at Brands Hatch in 1980.

Italian Giovanna Amati is the last woman to try and qualify for a Grand Prix, entering three races with the Brabham team in 1992 but failing to make the start in any of them. She was then replaced by future world champion Damon Hill.

American driver Sarah Fisher did a demonstration run in a McLaren at the 2002 U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis.

Several women have been appointed in testing roles at F1 teams; the late Maria de Villota was seriously injured in 2012 while straight-line testing for Marussia, and British driver Katherine Legge tested for Minardi in 2005.

Reuters