Despite a trying start to the inaugural season of F1 Academy, Abbi Pulling remains positive and upbeat about her prospects for the rest of the year
Two podiums in the most recent round at Barcelona illustrated the progress made by the Alpine junior and her Rodin Carlin team since the previous outing at Valencia’s Ricardo Tormo circuit.
Heading to round four at Zandvoort, “a track that I absolutely love,” she aims to take advantage of her circuit knowledge to get back into title contention in the Formula 4-spec series.
During a hectic weekend in Catalonia, she sat down with Formula Scout to discuss her season so far, her involvement with the Alpine Academy programme, and the new opportunities opening up for women in motorsport.
“I’m quite happy with the progress that me and the team have made from Valencia,” she says.
In fact, the leap made by the team actually caught her out in free practice as “our tyres [had been] carried over from the race at Valencia and we made quite a big development on set-up since then [which] just goes to show how big of a change we’ve made and how much more it is working”.
Despite admitting that the team were still “scratching our heads” going into qualifying, she emerged with a third and fourth in the two sessions but was left frustrated that “I think I had the capability and the car this weekend to put it on pole”.
Candidly, she admits that “there was a little bit more in it, in myself, looking at the data, a few silly mistakes I made that would have gained me quite a lot of time.
“I was basically using the wrong gear in a couple of corners, so that will hinder you a couple of tenths. It was the gear that I was using on the older tyre, and I just didn’t put it together quick enough. So, my own fault.”
She followed up on second in race one with a third in the second race, a result which actually gave her greater satisfaction.
“Obviously, I got quite lucky with people having technical issues [but] P2 was a bit of a surprise. Race three was actually more satisfying than the P2 earlier on [as] I had to fight a bit more for the P3 and got a really good start off the line [which] made the race really.”
Fourth in the third and final race of the weekend gave her further points to lift her up to fourth in the standings after the first three rounds.
Coming into the championship as one of the title favourites, Pulling appeared to have established an immediate edge with a double pole in the opening round at the Red Bull Ring. However, a minor technical infringement, after a mix-up within the team over subtly different technical regulations in F1 Academy compared to Britain and Spain’s F4 championships, meant all three Rodin Carlin cars were relegated to the back of the grid.
Pulling is “1000%” convinced that the pace is there, but still needs to put it all together over a weekend. Barcelona, she believes, showed where “I could have been in all the race weekends, especially Red Bull Ring; it’s just not been in my favour [but] I think we’re finally kind of getting the momentum”.
She denies that being one of the title favourites has brought added pressure.
“I’ve got to do my best job every time I’m on track. And if I’m not then I need to do better and I think there’s a few times where I’ve maximised that, and it’s been barely even in the top 10.”
“I think I’m actually probably more proud of what I’ve done this year than if I was to come into the season and dominate it because mentally to have double pole taken off you and then having to come from the back in every race and then Valencia having your Q1 taken off you because of track limits.
“Every race that I haven’t started on the back row I’ve got onto the podium. Looking at it that way it’s not actually as bad. I think we can turn it around and I think it’s more impressive being able to turn a season around than to dominate the season, if that makes sense.”
For many, the move from the Formula Regional-spec W Series to F1 Academy looked like a step down rather than a career progression. Pulling herself does not see it that way. How do the two cars compare behind the wheel?
“To be honest, I wouldn’t say it [the Tatuus T-421] suits me that much. I think I’m suited to a higher downforce kind of car,” she says, describing her tendency going into “higher speed corners all guns blazing and then realising ‘oh, I’m in a car that hasn’t got much downforce!’”.
As a result, Pulling says she has had “to kind of rein myself back a bit, not barrelling so much into the corners”.
The plus side of Tatuus’s F4 car is its tendency towards oversteer rather than understeer: “You’re not waiting for the rotation. The technique you use in this car goes into other categories more. Last year I was always trying to fight the understeer whereas this is a much looser car [so] you can get the rotation.”
Adapting to Pirelli tyres also means a lot more learning takes place. “There’s a very definite peak on the Pirellis, whereas the Hankook [of W Series] just kind of kept getting better and better other than when we were in very, very hot places,” she adds.
Originally, her plan for 2023 had been to stay in single-seaters’ fourth tier, which is populated primarily by FRegional series, but the launch of F1 Academy caused a change of direction.
“Up until about Christmas, I thought I was doing GB3, actually. I did quite a good test with Carlin but then more started coming out about F1 Academy, about the budgets and things like that and it just kind of seemed a bit more realistic to get through the whole season in that budget-wise than it would be in a GB3 car.”
A second factor was “the seat time that this championship has to offer; last week I spent six days out of seven driving a car in Valencia”.
“It does get a bit samey when you’ve done that track so much,” she admits, but “it’s only positive being in a car that much and that’s just what I’ve always struggled with, getting seat time”.
With plenty of time on track, she is looking to build momentum and iron out weaknesses in her driving.
Pulling is cagey on specific numbers but being a member of the Alpine Academy obviously helps financially.
“I can quite confidently say I probably wouldn’t be racing this year without their support, so I owe Alpine a lot and I want to try and get some good results for them,” she says.
The support is naturally much greater than budgetary. “They wholly support me the being in this championship and they’re really supportive of females in every aspect with their Rac(H)er programme. They’re really pushing for me and they obviously want me to be at the front so that’s what I’m striving for.”
For 2023, Alpine promoted Pulling from affiliate status to full membership of their Academy. The initial contact with Alpine back in 2020, Pulling’s first year in single-seaters in British F4, came through Pulling’s mentor and coach Alice Powell, who “introduced me to the boss of the academy”.
“Alice had been going to the gym there since she was 16 and she kept telling me that I need to do more gym, so she took me to the Alpine gym [in Enstone]. She lives close by and I trained with her a few times and that just put me in in front of the right people.
“I think they watched me through 2021 when I ran out of funding in British F4 and then jumped in to the W Series as a reserve driver.”
When Pulling was called up from reserve duties to race in W Series, she claimed a pole position and a second place from her four races. Pulling was announced as an Alpine Academy affiliate in March 2022, then embarked on a first full W Series campaign. She came fourth in the standings with two podiums and two fastest laps.
As with all aspiring racers, physical and mental preparation is as important as on-track development. Pulling admits that she still needs to work on her physical training.
“At this level, I’m focusing quite a lot on my physical strength because you’ve always got to be training for the next step. The most important thing right now is making sure that that I’m fully capable of driving a bigger car on the absolute limit because I’ve been hindered in the past physically, by not being able to get the most out of a car because I physically couldn’t turn it,” she explains.
Pulling concedes that she underestimated the importance of the physical side of driving.
“I started training so late,” she says. “I didn’t start working with Alice until halfway through my first year of single-seaters was when I was 17. Alice was like, ‘mate, you need to sort yourself out, you need to train more’.”
Previously her gym sessions consisted of doing “my own thing, I could never afford a trainer so I didn’t really know how to target a programme or anything like that”.
Now under the direction of Alpine’s head of human performance Dave Thompson, who “trains all the junior drivers” and ensures fitness is paramount, means she is in the team’s gym “every day,” she laughs.
“[Alpine works with me] to understand how a female needs to train and it’s different obviously for every individual, male or female, but from male to female it is different. So, they’re doing a lot of work for me to see what needs to be done and what they can do with the younger Rac(H)er drivers.”
As a fully-fledged Academy member, Pulling’s role with the Rac(H)er programme is more as an unofficial mentor, “encouraging the younger females and giving them advice if they’re ever at the factory or if I’m at a karting weekend, and they’re there,” she explains, adding she has paid particular attention to 11-year-old Sukhmani Khera’s exploits in UK karting.
“I think it’s great and I wish I was eight years old again, you know. When I was in karting, winning races [and] winning championships there was nothing really like this. So, I think it’s a great time to be a female coming into the sport.”
For 2024, Pulling has her eyes set on moving back up the single-seater ladder, “whether it be like GB3 or, I’d like to say, an FIA F3 car,” she adds with a smile.
Though nothing is set in stone, Powell has already hinted on social media about her charge’s F3 plans.
“I’d like to progress and I think that’s what the [F1 Academy] championship is there for, to help the drivers progress into mixed [gender] competition. I’ve raced in mixed competitions before and got podiums, I think I’m capable of doing it.”
And of course, Alpine will have a strong word in deciding “what the best career step for me will be”.
Alpine has already given her the chance to drive a Lotus E20 Formula 1 car in a demonstration run around the streets of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia in March 2022 followed by another run in the car at Silverstone ahead of that year’s British Grand Prix.
She laughs that “everyone said ‘congratulations on your test!’. It wasn’t a test but thanks”. But concedes that “the photos do look good”.
Pulling’s involvement with the F1 team is primarily in working with the operations (“ops”) team at the team’s Enstone base, although she has had the chance to spend the odd race weekend with the race team.
“Dom is one of the engineers that I sit next to and kind of pick his brains throughout a race. He works a lot with the test team, so I actually probably do more with the test team in the sense of the ops room,” she says.
“When I did the filming of A League of Their Own [for Sky TV] and the filming in Riyadh I was with the test team, so I get on with them all very well. Some of them I actually know from either karting or previous championships, and they’re the nicest bunch ever.”
And though she hasn’t had a chance to try out the F1 simulator yet, it is something which is very much on her wish list – “nothing planned, but I hope I will”.