The international racing series is changing the look of motorsports with an all-women series, which just completed its first season of events
Former professional driver Susie Wolff wants other women to know there is a place for them in motor racing, particularly Formula 1, the popular and glamorous international racing series historically associated with dashing, daredevil male drivers.
And with the F1 Academy, that is all about to change.
Founded in 2022 by Formula 1, this all-women series kicked off this year with seven events around the world, with the final race on Sunday, Oct. 22 at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.
"We've been given this great opportunity by Formula 1 to create something which can drive impactful change in this industry," Wolff, 40, tells PEOPLE. A former racer and test driver who made history as the first woman to participate in a Formula 1 race in 22 years in 2014, the Scottish native first started racing karts at 8 years old against now-greats, like Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, before later becoming the managing director of the Academy after she retired from the sport.
Featuring five teams and fifteen women from all over the world ranging in age from 16 to 25, the F1 Academy was created "to develop and prepare young female drivers for higher levels of competition — including W Series, Formula 1, Formula 2 and Formula 3," the racing series announced in November 2022. In terms of experience, the drivers are classified as Formula 4 level, with hopes of rising to Formula 1, which is the top level achievable in the sport.
Now, with the Academy, Wolff says, "We are trying to change the perception of this being a very male dominated environment."
However, contrary to what many people may think, Formula 1 has always been open to women. "It's not segregated," Wolff says, explaining, "It's one of the few sports in the world [that isn’t]."
In fact, the first woman to drive for Formula 1 was Maria Teresa de Filippis, who competed from 1958 to 1959. She was followed by Lella Lombardi, Divina Galica and Desiré Wilson in the '70s and '80s, with Giovanni Amati the last woman to compete in 1992.
But when Prema Racing's Bianca Bustamante, an 18-year-old driver from the Philippines, is asked who her role model is, she excitedly says Niki Lauda, the three-time Formula 1 World Drivers' Champion. "I grew up watching him, he was to me the epitome of a champion. He was skillful, he was witty, he was incredibly talented," she says.
To that point, "there are a lot of very successful women in this paddock. It's just that they're not camera facing," Wolff says of their effort to raise the profile of female drivers.
And Bustamante, who made her debut during F4's Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Italy this past May, could become one of the new generation of female drivers young girls – as well as fans all over the world – look up to.
"I found my calling in life very early," Bustamante says, revealing that she was in her very first kart at the age of 3. And, "by the time I was 5, I was already competing and had gone on to win national titles."
Growing up, while her dad was away, it was up to her mother to help keep her dream alive. "My mom had to take care of me, but not just me, she had to take care of a driver as well. So, she would push me to go to the gym. She was like, 'I'm tough on you because the world's gonna be even tougher, so I want you to get up there and face the world without fear,' " the driver recalls. "And because of that, I became fearless."
Living a disciplined life, Bustamante spends most of her time working out, studying engineering or driving, explaining that, the "days that you're resting, your competitors are working hard."
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Now, Bustamante's one of the participants in the F1 Academy. She, as well as the 14 other drivers, were among those who competed in Austin.
Bustamante's goal, she tells PEOPLE, is to make it to F1 "purely because I have the speed and I have the talent and hard work to make it there," while acknowledging that "it's a long journey." And so far, she’s on track to achieve that, having just been named the newest member of the McLaren Driver Development Program and will represent the British team during F1 Academy's 2024 season.
As Bustamante and others continue to rise through the ranks with the F1 Academy, Wolff says now "is a moment in time where women's sport is really gaining momentum," while adding that she's hopeful for "a catalyst to nurture talent and help it on its way."
That turning point may not be far off, especially now that the F1 Academy drivers seem to be getting support and attention from within the sport and in Hollywood.
During the Circuit of the Americas, Hamilton was seen in the women’s paddock area and later congratulated driver Marta García on becoming the first F1 Academy champion while George Russell presented trophies for one of the races. Additionally, celebrities, such as Gayle King, Drew Barrymore and Chloë Grace Moretz, were all in Austin in support of the women's series.
Not only that, but their races will soon be seen on screen. However, it won't be part of Netflix's Formula 1: Drive to Survive, which often features Wolff's husband, Toto Wolff, team principal & CEO of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team. Instead, F1 Academy has inked its own deal with Reese Witherspoon's Hello Sunshine for an "adrenaline-fueled, story-driven docuseries follow[ing] all fifteen drivers across the five F1 Academy teams, offering exclusive, behind the scenes access," Formula 1 announced in May.
"F1 Academy is going to drive change in the motorsport industry as we create the best possible structure to find and nurture female talent both on and off the racetrack. We want to inspire women around the world to follow their dreams," Wolff said in a statement at the time, noting that the partnership with the Oscar winner's production company — which filmed the entire weekend in Austin — will allow them to "reach a global audience and empower the next generation of young women to break down barriers in motorsport and beyond."
While the F1 Academy has wrapped up their final event of the season, next year's series is not that far off, with them starting back up in Saudi Arabia on March 7. The schedule — which, according to the racing series, will "align with the F1 calendar, creating an opportunity for female drivers to participate in Formula 1 weekends" — will also include first-time stops in Miami, Qatar and Singapore, with Zandvoort and Barcelona returning for a second year for a mix of street circuits and traditional circuits.
Looking ahead, Wolff is focused on connecting more with local communities next season and how that will change the future of racing. "We're going to really do impactful work to make the sport seem more accessible and inspire the next generation of teammates," she says. "But fundamentally," she wants everyone to know, "there is a place for women in this sport."
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