British F4: Abbi Pulling back on the podium with drive of the year from last to third
"I feel like I’ve found my feet again" – after two unfortunate rounds, Abbi Pulling had not capitalised on her pace yet in her second season of British F4. With two podiums and an outstanding recovery from last in race 2 at Brands Hatch, the 18-year old Brit is back in the mix.
British up-and-coming racing star Abbi Pulling was back on the podium at Brands Hatch after two promising weekends in Thruxton and Snetterton, but where she could ultimately not capitalise on her speed and had missed out on her first podium of the year. 18-year old Pulling, mentored by Alice Powell, is a returning driver in British Formula 4 and has her eyes set firmly on the title chase in 2021. With three podiums in 2020 - her debut season in race cars after a stunning career in national karting – Pulling was close to her first victory in the series and opted for a sophomore campaign in F4 despite having had the chance to test F3 machinery in the Formula Regional championship. Pre-season testing confirmed Abbi as one of the potential title contenders, but at the season opener at Thruxton, a series of unfortunate events including changing weather denied the British lady of her first win. With a fifth place as her best result of the weekend, she described the first round as "disappointing results-wise", but she added that the shown pace was encouraging. At Snetterton, Pulling's weekend was hampered by a difficult qualifying that forced the JHR Developments driver to do some extra work to recover to the positions at the front. She would ultimately score a P5 and P6 – not quite what she expected, but still good points for the championship. Strong of her new role as W Series reserve driver – secured after the Anglesey test – Pulling headed to Brands Hatch for the third round of the British F4 championship. On the shorter 'Indy' layout, she had stepped on the podium in 2020 and was probably the closest to a race win. The weekend started off on the right foot for Pulling, who topped the second practice – just as her racing mentor Alice Powell was claiming her first pole position in W Series in Austria. In Saturday's qualifying sessions, Matthew Rees and McKenzy Cresswell took a pole position each, in one of the closest fields to date. The pair was splitted by 0.011 seconds in the timesheets valid for the second race starting grid, with Cresswell turning the tables in the second-best lap times that would give him the best starting place for Race 3. Another few thousandths of a second adrift were Matias Zagazeta, Eduardo Coseteng and Joseph Loake – making it 5 drivers in less than a tenth. Just two tenths off was Abbi Pulling, but the compact field meant that she had to start from eleventh and ninth place. “We ended Friday on a quite a high after topping FP2 but coming into qualifying we struggled for pace." – she recalled. "We were only two tenths off, but it put me down the field for the races, so it was a massive drop mentally." Race 1 Reverse grid front row starters and Arden Motorsport's teammates Thomas Ikin and David Morales went side by side into the first corner – but from the battle emerged Zak Taylor, who seized the opportunity to grab second place. Ikin held on to his lead, but not for long: on the second lap, Taylor launched his attack at Druids and the lead of the race traded hands. Taylor would build a comfortable gap in the first half of the race. Behind them, there were positions changes throughout the field and Abbi Pulling, eighth on the grid, started her charge to regain the head of the pack. But the race really came alive after a Safety Car interruption mid-way through the competition: an accident involving Morales, Coseteng and Flack wiped away some of the leading protagonists of the early stages and the neutralization gave the opportunity to Dougie Bolger (Carlin) to move into third place. At the restart, Taylor pulled away and never looked back, as Ikin was also a safe runner-up. Unlike them, Bolger was really under pressure from championship leader James Hedley (Fortec Motorsport), who had made the most out of the Safety Car and was up to fourth from the fifth row of the grid. Hedley attempted a move but couldn't make it stick – giving an opportunity to Abbi Pulling to dive on the inside and grab fourth at Hailwood Hill. Soon, Hedley had a charging group of cars right behind and lost positions to Ollie Gray as well – with rookie driver Aiden Neate also closing in. The two tangled at Graham Hill bend and Hedley went off – in a dramatic turn of events for the championship. He was able to rejoin but he was out of contention for a point-scoring finish. Not satisfied with fourth, Pulling attacked and passed Bolger on the final lap, finishing third by two tenths. In doing so, she secured her first podium of the year. "I got a really good launch in the reverse grid race but there was a bit of drama at the start." – she said. "I think I maintained position, but it was a case of chipping away." "When the Safety Car came in, we only had a few full laps of racing, so it made the job harder from where I was in fifth. Going into the final corner on the final lap, I had to avoid hitting the car in front but then I got a really nice cut back on him and it was a drag race to the finish line." "We’ve been fighting to get some points, so it was nice to finally make the podium!" – added the young driver, who surely got a big morale boost after her difficult previous rounds. And, coming into the second race, it would be another outstanding drive to define her weekend.
The traditional British weather was the protagonist even before the race start: at the first spots of rain noticed, teams gambled on tyre strategy. The front row starters – Rees and Cresswell – remained on slicks, as well as JHR Developments teammates Loake and Pulling.
When the lights went out, it was clear that the best tyre was the grooved compound, as Eduardo Coseteng (Argenti) had a blistering start from fourth to grab the lead. Loake was also fast off the line and slotted into second and, as the latter tried to go for the move, it opened the door to Matias Zagazeta (Argenti): the Peruvian driver was finally up into the lead one lap later at Druids.
In the difficult conditions, Abbi Pulling was caught in an accident on the first lap and dropped to last.
Having scored zero points in the first heat, James Hadley was committed to make up for the lost points and had remarkable recovery, passing one car after the other on the rain-weather tyre. The championship leader passed four cars on the first lap, ultimately making a move stick for the lead on Zagazeta at Clearways.
But it wasn't a smooth run to the flag either, as mid-way through the race the drivers on slicks suddenly came back into contention. Among them, Abbi Pulling was surely looking the faster driver: she set the provisional fastest lap and, after the lap 1 incident, she overtook all her rivals to move up into third place – in one of the most remarkable drives of her career.
The better-placed driver on slicks, Matthew Rees, caught up with the race leader Hedley and swapped places with six minutes left. When he was getting closer to his third victory this season, the wet tyres 'switched on' again and Hedley returned to be the faster driver: the Fortec motorsport driver responded back, built a 6 second gap and took his third victory of the season in British F4 – ahead of matthew Rees and Abbi Pulling, who had found a way past Bilinski, Cresswell and Zagazeta on the final laps.
“I didn’t have any expectations going into race two." – stated Pulling.
"I think that the changeable weather kind of played in my favour as I’ve got experience around Brands Hatch. I got caught up in an incident early on and dropped back to dead last, but I didn’t give up."
"I kept pushing it to the limit and it was just such an amazing race. I came from dead last to third with some incredible battles along the way. There’s so much emotion behind that, I literally cried on the in lap. I didn’t win, but I feel like I drove some of the best laps of my career." – she noted. Approximately at the same time, Alice Powell was crossing the line to take her second victory in W Series after a dominant weekend.
From second on the grid Matias Zagazeta managed to beat pole-sitter McKenzy Cresswell on the run towards Paddock Hill Bend: the Argenti driver didn't put a foot wrong and masterfully managed the race from there, as he built a small yet safe margin of a little over two seconds from the closest pursuer.
JHR Developments' Cresswell was initially hunted down by teammate Matthew Rees – but the latter came under pressure by Carlin's Kai Askey. The two drivers traded places on more than one occasion, handing the opportunity to James Hedley and Joel Granfors to join the battle: Hedley launched an attack to title rival Rees, but the gap closed and he had to clot back behind.
Starting from ninth on the grid, Abbi Pulling was up for another charge but, crucially, her used set of tyres meant that she had to settle for the most amount of points possible.
She gained positions and was at one point up to sixth; in the closing stages, she chased her teammate Joseph Loake, who could ultimately survive the pressure from Pulling.
Matias Zagazeta took his first win in the series with a controlled drive, also giving the first win to the Argenti team. McKenzy Cresswell was second and preceded Kai Askey to round out the final race podium in Brands Hatch.
Rees could hold off Hedley by a couple of tenths, with the two championship rivals finishing fourth and fifth. behind them were Granfors, Loake and Pulling – eighth across the finish line.
Aiden Neate had a very positive single-seaters debut and finished ninth, ahead of Coseteng in P10. Bulgarian Georgi Dimitrov was the only retirement of the race.
“Going into race three, having come from the rear in the first two races, I wanted to do it again!" – said Abbi Pulling, to round up her weekend. "We didn’t have the tyre advantage, but it was some more points in the bag, we moved from tenth to sixth and were right behind third and fourth and well within arms’ reach."
“The potential this weekend was amazing. If I got the qualifying sorted, I’d like to think that I’ve have been even further up in those two races. I feel like I’ve found my feet again and I’m going to be ready for full send at Oulton Park!”
The two podiums put Abbi Pulling back in the mix. She is now sixth in the standings, with James Hedley having extended his lead over Rees by 20 points.
The next British F4 round will take place at Oulton Park from 31st July to 1st August, but Abbi Pulling will now head to Red Bull Ring, Austria, for her first weekend on reserve driver duties in W Series.