Home Featured The women racing male rivals on equal terms in Italian F4

The women racing male rivals on equal terms in Italian F4

by Roger Gascoigne

Photos: ACI Sport

There’s been a lot of attention on the launch of the F1 Academy series for aspiring female drivers, but three women have chosen the traditional path in F4 that they hope will take them to the sport’s highest levels

Aurelia Nobels, Tina Hausmann and Victoria Blokhina are competing in this year’s Italian Formula 4 championship, following in the tracks of Formula Regional driver Maya Weug and the Al Qubaisi sisters Amna and Hamda, both of whom are now starring in the F1 Academy series.

Formula Scout caught up with the three Italian F4 contenders as they began their season at Imola last month. While none of them were making their racing debut, the large field allied to tricky weather conditions early in the weekend made for a challenging start for the inexperienced trio.

Born in Boston to Belgian parents, Nobels races for benchmark team Prema under the flag of Brazil, the country where she grew up. “I went there when I was three years old, so I think it’s my country,” she explains.

The 16-year-old Ferrari junior qualified 10th in her 19-car group, setting a laptime 1.021s off the group’s fastest driver.

A coming-together with Hausmann at Tosa in race one put Nobels out of contention, but in race two she came home a creditable 11th. In race four, which featured the whole 36-car field, Nobels started 21st, dropped back to 25th mid-race and then recovered to 17th. Blokhina finished two places behind, and Hausmann was an immediate retirement.

“It’s my first year in the Italian championship so I’m here first of all to learn,” Nobels told Formula Scout.

“The first race was really good and I managed to be on the goals they set for me – just one second off and then P10 in my group in qualifying. We learned what to improve for the next races. It’s hard with the drivers who just did the UAE championship, they [already] drove a lot.”

Out on track there were plenty of indications of her underlying speed – her fastest lap in race four was within 0.18s of team-mate F4 UAE champion James Wharton’s, and quicker than the highly-rated duo of Tuukka Taponen and Enzo Deligny.

She continued her qualifying form at Misano, going 11th and 12th fastest in the two sessions, within 0.57s of pole in both.

Having retired from race one while running 13th, she unfortunately had to sit out the rest of the weekend after breaking her wrist in a pitlane incident involving multiple cars ahead of the second race.

“It’s hard to accept but this is also part of the game,” she said afterwards, expecting to be able to return for her home round in the series at Spa-Francorchamps. However that hope has not been realised, and Prema has drafted in their F1 Academy driver Bianca Bustamante to replace her for this weekend’s races.

Nobels secured her place in the Ferrari Driver Academy by winning last year’s FIA Women in Motorsport Commission’s Ferrari-affiliated Girls on Track Rising Stars programme, seeing off competition from several drivers now in F1 Academy.

With the provision of a budget in excess of €1.2 million, the FIA’s “flagship talent detection programme” aims to develop a pathway for 10 to 16-year-old female competitors to reach the top levels of motorsport.

“It was a huge opportunity,” Nobels remembers. “I saw Maya winning the first time and it was something I wanted to follow, and I saw her improvement with Ferrari. When I had the chance to participate, I worked really hard for it.”

Despite being understandably nervous to start with, she “just focused on the driving and the physical part and it all went very well”. For a childhood Ferrari fan too, even down to her bedroom decoration, “it was really a dream to become part of Ferrari”.

“I really realised in the training camp we did that it is really a big family. We did a lot of really hard activities and whenever there was a driver who was a bit behind another driver would help.

“Everyone is there for each other, helping, although, of course, on track we are against each other.”

Weug in particular has been around to pass on her experience.

“Before the beginning of the championship, I didn’t know how it was going to happen, even with the tests, so she helped me a bit. It’s really helpful to have another girl with experience,” said Nobels.

As well as membership of the prestigious FDA, Nobels’ success earned her an F4 seat with Iron Lynx, which metamorphosed into a Prema drive once Iron Lynx and Prema aligned their multidisciplinary racing programmes.

Nobels came into the season having already gained some F4 race experience in three different championships.

“I did one Spanish round [at Spa] and four races in Brazil [finishing 16th in the championship for TMG Racing]. This helped me quite a lot, giving me a bit of experience although less than the other drivers, but it was really useful,” she said.

The Tatuus T-421 is used in Brazil, Italy and Spain, with the first two series running on Pirelli tyres while Spanish F4 utilises Hankooks. Danish F4 races with “a completely different” previous-generation Mygale car, and Nobels did a round at Jyllandsringen in that series to gain “experience of the starts and the racing”. It resulted in a best finish of seventh.

Swiss karting graduate Hausmann was also making her Italian F4 at Imola, remaining with the AKM Motorsport team for whom she made two appearances in Spain’s Formula Winter Series. Her car racing career began there with a podium in the opening round at Jerez, picking her way through from fifth on the grid to finish third.

Hausmann started racing in the Swiss Rotax championship, “then I moved to CRG Holland and last year I did some races in the Deutsche Kart Meisterschaft and some ADAC Kart Masters races”. Her first experience in a F4 car came in post-season testing, “two times with Van Amersfoort Racing and then with AKM”.

She remained with the Antonelli family team, which “I love” as she committed to Italian F4, arguably the most competitive entry-level single-seater series on the planet.

“[AKM] is like a big family. I feel confident and happy with everything. It’s not easy to be the only woman in one team but they respect it very well and I feel like the others.”

Hausmann had a difficult start to the season, with a best finish of 19th at Imola. She was frank with her assessment of it.

“It’s always a tough start into a season because you see where you are, before it’s unclear,” she explained. “It’s a big field but you learn from the best here. You race against the best which makes you a very good driver. We didn’t have any expectations for this race at Imola. We just tried to perform, do our best and keep working.”

Her luck did not improve at Misano where she was pitched into a dramatic roll in race one, escaping with a sore shoulder, and consequently was also absent from the weekend’s other two races. Now her schedule for the rest of 2023 looks uncertain although she is confirmed for Spa.

“We don’t know yet the plan [for the season], maybe [I continue here], maybe not. We take it step-by-step and see how it goes.”

In her rookie season, the goal is “to make good progress, to develop step-by-step and in the end to be able to look back and say, ‘I made a big step’. It’s all about finding a few tenths, making progress and feeling more confident in the new car.”

Blokhina is the most experienced member of the trio, with a full Italian F4 season and two F4 UAE campaigns behind her.

Like Nobels, she reached the final four of the FIA WiM GoT Rising Stars programme, although she was beaten to the top prize by Laura Camps Torras in the initiative’s second year.

After finishing 29th in WSK’s Champions Cup in her first full season in senior karting in 2021, Blokhina made her single-seater debut in F4 UAE in 2022 with 3Y Technology by R-ace GP, before switching to her current team PHM Racing for Italian F4, where she took a best result of 12th.

Though the Russian, who races under an Italian licence, says that “now my results are not so good; I haven’t had any tests here so I’m just trying to improve myself,” she made steady progress during the Imola weekend.

PHM’s F4 team manager Mikhail Aleshin, a fellow Russian who was Formula Renault 3.5 champion in his junior career and later raced in IndyCar and made the overall podium of the Le Mans 24 Hours, is confident “that she will achieve promising results in the championship [having] already improved a lot last year”.

Blokhina appreciates the contribution the PHM squad has made to her development as a driver. “The team has grown a lot from the previous year. It starts to be bigger and better and has helped me a lot with the coaches and with the engineers. They just focus on the drivers and the experience.”

For the rest of the season her aim is to “at least to get in the points and to be the fastest woman”.

The Italian F4 championship awards separate classification trophies for the top three rookies and the top three women in each race. Nobels was able to savour the Brazilian anthem from the top step of the podium twice at Imola, but as a result of her and Hausmann’s misfortunes since it’s Blokhina who is points leader within the women’s classification.

Naturally, the aim for all three is to score well in the overall standings but nevertheless, taking home a trophy is always special and Nobels says “because we are only three girls out of 37 drivers so it’s important to show everyone we are doing well.”

Below is a table showing the trio’ average gap to the absolute pace (100%) in qualifying compared to three of their forerunners in Italian F4.

Driver Season First 2 rounds First full season
Aurelia Nobels 2023 100.72% n/a
Maya Weug 2021 101.08% 101.17%
Tina Hausmann 2023 101.12% n/a
Amna Al Qubaisi 2018 102.18% 102.07%
Victoria Blokhina 2022 102.91% 102.28%
Hamda Al Qubaisi 2020 103.11% (2019) 102.57%

Do the women find themselves being treated differently because of their gender? Nobels says that the other drivers respect me “as they respect the boys with no differences”.

For Hausmann: “The only difference is that I get my own changing room so that I can change alone without the boys in the room. Otherwise, I’m treated like all the other racing drivers, and I think that’s what you have to do.”

In the past, leading female drivers such as Sophie Floersch have been critical of women-only series. While F1 Academy boasts the support of Formula 1 itself, it is harder to follow for fans than Italian F4 is, and Nobels, Hausmann and Blokhina – while very positive about F1 Academy – are aiming to show there is another route.

“I think [F1 Academy’s] a very good idea to support women but I want to improve here in the Italian championship and work from here,” said Hausmann. “It’s a nice championship, the F1 Academy, so well done to them that they do it. Maybe in the future – we never know.”

To achieve the goal of encouraging more girls into motorsport at the lower levels, support is needed from F1, the FIA and other young driver programmes.

Nobels is positive that “they’re doing quite a lot now with the F1 Academy and they really want to see as soon as possible a woman in F1, so I hope it increases”.

“I hope that I can inspire others who have the same dream: it’s hard at the beginning but just don’t give up and keep working really hard and you can do it.”