Bianca Bustamante clinches double Top-10 at USF Juniors return
Philippine's star Bianca Bustamante made her return to USF Juniors and scored a pair of top ten finishes at COTA in just as many races started, at her first visit to the Texan track that will host the F1 Academy season finale.
F1 Academy star Bianca Bustamante made her return to USF Juniors - the series where she contested her first single seater race of her career in early 2022 - and scored a pair of top ten finishes at COTA, at her first visit to the Texan track.
A couple of months ahead of the F1 Academy season finale at Circuit of the Americas, Bustamante took the opportunity to familiarize with the current home of the US Grand Prix with a one off appearance in the USF Juniors championship, taking advantage of the three months' break in the F1 Academy schedule. Bustamante therefore joined the ranks of Exclusive Autosport for the final round of the series which is part of the Road To Indy program, and featured the largest grid of the season with 18 entries.
The two-time F1 Academy race winner has been making impressive progress over the last year, racing in a variety of competitive championships such as W Series, Indian Racing League, F4 UAE, F1 Academy and Italian F4. With a top ten at debut in her first ever race in USF Juniors in 2022, Bustamante was eying further improvements in her return to the States.
"My main focus is making use of the track time, learning the circuit, and continuing to progress", Bustamante commented at the announcement of her participation. "I'm grateful for this opportunity and looking forward to racing alongside this tough grid of drivers."
Her weekend in fact focused on learning the 5.513 km-long track - which features fast direction changes and technical sections - as well as the Tatuus JR-23 machine, significantly different from her usual Tatuus T421.
After the practice sessions - two tests as well as the official practice, where she had to get up to speed with the car and the tyres - Bianca ran just outside the top ten, making time improvements by over a second.
"Really long circuit with 20 corners and over 2 minute lap time here in Austin", she wrote after the day at COTA. "Was a great day learning this new car and track but honestly struggling quite a bit in the new environment I have to adapt in."
"The driving technique required is very different, as well as getting used to the Cooper Tires", she added, as temperatures close to 40°C made for an extra challenge.
Despite a further 1.3 second improvement in qualifying, Bianca's 02:15.546 lap was enough for P15 on the grid for the first race of the weekend, as Jack Jeffers edged Max Taylor for pole position.
At lights out, Jeffers and Taylor battled for the lead, as positions continued to change throughout the field; Bianca Bustamante had a good start and gained two places over the first lap. She followed Carson Etter - then passed Connor Roberts and moved up into P12, before battling for P11 with Joey Brienza. The Filipina gained another spot on lap 6, but fell back to 12th one lap later, as Aidan Potter recovered from a contact.
Bustamante set her fastest lap on lap 10 and, when Potter passed Roberts, she had the chance to attack the driver of the #46 DC Autosport machine. A last lap accident for Potter and Roberts allowed Bianca Bustamante to grab tenth place at the final corner, completing a very strong recovery drive. A post-race penalty for Carson Etter meant that Bianca was promoted to ninth place, which resulted in a 6 place improvement from her starting position as well as her best ever finish in the series.
The Filipino star was eager to resume her on-track battles on Sunday morning, but a technical issue before race 2 ended in an unfortunate DNS for the #95 Exclusive Autosport machine. The issue was fixed in time for the start of race 3 later in the afternoon, where Bianca once again lined up in P15.
In a messy start, Fecury and Schotten collided at turn 1 and a separate incident Giovanni Cabrera was also involved in a crash at turn 11 which triggered the safety car. Bianca Bustamante managed to avoid both incidents and moved up to P12, gaining three positions on the first lap.
The race went back to green on lap 3 and Jeffers took the lead from Giaffone, while Taylor dropped down the order after an unscheduled pit stop. Bianca made up two more places and brought herself up to tenth place. The Filipina was the second fastest driver on track at one point and passed Connor Roberts on lap 5, before Dane Scott and Aidan Potter went off and triggered another full course yellow.
Jeffers and Giaffone hit each other at the restart, which enabled race 2 winner Jimmie Lockhart to take over the top spot, ahead of Armstrong and Schwartz. Lockhart therefore scored back to back wins, after Giaffone dropped down the order with front wing damage and Jeffers was handed a penalty.
Bianca Bustamante was the protagonist of great battles in the midfield and had good pace; while she temporarily fell to P11, she claimed back tenth place on the final lap and was then once again up to ninth after the chequered flag - scoring her second top-10 in just as many races.
"Had a great weekend here in Austin!" - Bianca commented. "Learned alot over the 3 days and progressed each and every session in COTA. Had a blast in the races, battled hard every single lap to bring home two hard fought P9 finishes starting from P15 in Races 1 & 3."
Bustamante's return to USF Juniors proved that with some experience of the machinery, Bianca could potentially be a front runner in the series. But now her focus will switch back to F1 Academy, where she will aim to apply the experience to round out the season on a high.
"I love racing in the US and really look forward to being back in COTA at the end of September for a two day test with F1 Academy, followed by the season finale in October during the US F1 Grand Prix."