Abbi Pulling: "The expectation is to be competing at the front"
On the eve of the first ever F1 Academy championship, Alpine Academy driver Abbi Pulling is ready to take on the new challenge as one of the big names of the series.
One year ago, Abbi Pulling was gearing up to make her full-time W Series debut, after half-a-season that was enough to grasp her talent. Pulling, a fast rising British racer mentored by another British superb talent – Alice Powell – had already turned heads in her rookie British Formula 4 campaign in 2020, where she immediately proved to be a podium contender. With the realistic aim of battling for the title in her sophomore campaign, Pulling opted to stay in British F4 in 2021 – and she soon stepped back on the podium. Unfortunately, budget constraints would halt her season after the summer break. Luckily the hurdle was a temporary one, as W Series stepped in and gave Pulling the chance to prove her speed mid-way through the season; the British driver would pay them back with her first podium and a pole position, which put her in the top eight of the drivers standings, thus securing the seat for the following year. In 2022, Pulling continued to impress, claiming two more podiums and running in the top three in the drivers' standings for most of the season – eventually finishing just behind her mentor Alice Powell. With the launch of the brand new F1 Academy series – a F1-supported effort aimed at maximising the opportunities for female drivers in the single-seater ladder – the 20-year-old driver seized the opportunity and is ready to start the inaugural season as one of two drivers also supported by an F1 team academy.
Pulling has in fact been promoted to the Alpine Academy after a year as Affiliate driver, and will represent the Enstone-based team in the F4-level series which has just completed its collective tests at Circuit de Catalunya and Circuit Paul Ricard. The new series is designed to ramp up track time for its drivers, for a highly competitive budget compared to other F4 championships, as F1 itself will subsidize half the cost of each seat. "I think it's great that there's been a spotlight on females", Pulling tells us regarding this new opportunity. "Obviously it's helping our development, we got more seat time and that is almost priceless." "Even for the young girls watching, hopefully it will inspire them to get into the sport. I've got into the sport through my family" – Abbi explains, having caught the racing bug from her motorbike racer father. "If it wasn't for my dad probably I wouldn't have had interest in it. So I think this [series] is big for future talents, to get that number as high as we can and give us more opportunities to climb the ladder."
The decision to enter the series – albeit one that could initially feel like a step back, as Powell, who now manages Pulling, tweeted – goes in the direction of a project to secure a FIA F3 seat, as it will be of crucial importance for F1 Academy to ensure that its drivers can progress up the single seater pathway – with F3 and F2's CEO Bruno Michel also in charge of the all-female championship.
Undoubtedly, Pulling enters the series as one of the title contenders: "I don't hide the fact that the expectation is to be competing at the front, I have the capabilities to be a front-running driver and I have the team behind me. They're notorious for developing young talents.", she says. "I'm just looking to better myself" – she explains, for the first time in the position of being the most experienced driver within her team. "That's a learning step itself, helping the team as a whole. So I'm quite looking forward to having a role like that." "I enjoy being the more experienced driver in the team. I wouldn't say it's pressure but it's a learning curve and I'm constantly learning. But it's nice to explore the boundaries – I'm confident that I can be on the limit of what the car is capable of. There's a little bit more in myself, but I'm really happy that I'm driving at the moment. As a team we'll work together and try to be as good as we can, cohesively." Pulling is returning to Formula 4 machinery after 2021 – but she found a very different car in the new Tatuus T-421 car compared to the Mygale she drove in the British series. "The Mygale is very different - from the tyres to the actual chassis and the engine as well" – she explains. "You use a lot more engine braking, and even the brakes are a lot softer. And also compared to last year it's a much different car and I'm quite enjoying it so far." Just like in W Series – which employed specific setups that made the Tatuus T318 car different from the car used in Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine for example – the F1 Academy cars will feature certain differences to the traditional F4 cars used in the Italian and Spanish series. The most visible one is a new aero package, with updated front and rear wings – inspired by the new F1 regulations – as well as certain set up parameters. Drivers got for the first time in the F1 Academy spec cars at Barcelona, stacking up 1,881 laps combined. "At the end of the day seat time is so important – that's why the F1 Academy is so good", Abbi says. "It's cheaper and you've got very good teams with important backgrounds and the championship as well, what they're pushing for is very good." The season will kick-off at Red Bull Ring in exactly a week's time – following four day of collective testing. For Abbi Pulling, it will be her first race at the Austrian venue. "I've never been to the Red Bull Ring – I think we've got a test day before and then two official practices on Friday. The track is probably not the hardest one to learn, it's quite straight-forward".
The F1 Academy calendar includes some of the top European racing tracks, plus a one event in conjunction with F1 – the US Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas, where Pulling secured her first pole position and podium in W Series. "Then I've been to most of the others, I've been to Austin - that's going to be a big one that a lot of people haven't been to, and I performed quite well there", she smiles. "I did quite a lot of simulator work with Carlin – I've been spending time at the factory before the season, just making sure I know what to expect." As part of the Alpine Academy, the British driver's car will sport the iconic bright pink BWT livery, unmissable on track. At the start of the season, Abbi Pulling will be one of the big names under the spotlight, but she approaches the new challenge with her usual attitude: hard work, attention to detail, and her peculiar friendliness. The support of the whole Alpine team has been a further step forward in her preparation. "It's a privilege, it gives me more tools", she says confidently. "I've got extra help, they're giving me support technically and, by being in the ops room, I've had very insightful discussions with the engineers. It's the little things, even the communications between the drivers and the team, I pick up on things and try to apply that when I'm in the car."
Pulling has also taken physical training to the next step at the Alpine facility, as well as she can count on Gazing Performance Systems to maximise mental performance, another crucial aspect in the sport. "It's about making sure you're mentally prepared to be in a situation and how you react. I think that will be a big point this year as well, as sometimes people overlook the mental side of things." With now the collective tests in the books, the five teams and fifteen drivers will have a better understanding of the main areas to improve before making the highly-anticipated debut at Red Bull Ring, for the first historic triple-header of the championship. The driver line up features some very interesting contenders – such as some fellow former W Series racers as well as a few drivers already with victories in F4 machinery under their belt – but Abbi Pulling is undoubtedly going to be one of the names to watch when the lights will go out for the first time on 28-29 April.