Freshly-announced W Series reserve driver Abbi Pulling had a challenging round at Snetterton after a difficult qualifying hampered her weekend - but still scored a fifth place and good points for the table in her second British F4 campaign.
Having completed the five-day collective test at Anglesey with the all-female W Series championship, 18-year old British racing talent Abbi Pulling was announced as one of the 2021 official test drivers – after just one season in single-seaters.
The young driver – who is coached by fellow W Series racer Alice Powell – was among the main protagonists of the 2020 British Formula 4 championship: she scored podium finishes and marginally missed her maiden race win, attracting the attention of W Series – and of the whole motorsport environment, as she starts her second season in the series with the clear aim of fighting for the title.
At the season opener in Thruxton, Pulling had the pace to win but changing weather conditions and wrong tyre choices resulted in the JHR Developments driver scoring a P5 as her best result in a charging race 2.
“Overall, the weekend was disappointing results-wise." - she commented after the Thruxton weekend. "We’ve shown we have a lot of pace, but we’ve been so unlucky in so many circumstances."
Unlike the first triple-header at Thruxton, though, Pulling's weekend at Snetterton took a wrong turn during qualifying. She was eighth for Race 1 and sixth among the second-fastest lap classify that would put her on the third row for Race 3.
The qualifying order was also shuffled by a series of penalties, which were later restored due to a mistake in the reporting of track limits.
Ten drivers, including Abbi Pulling, were initially penalised, then had their lap times rainstated. Matthew Rees (JHR Developments) secured his first pole position and lined up on the grid alongside Oliver Gray (Fortec Motorsport). Behind them, it was another JHR-Fortec duo, with Cresswell taking third ahead of Hedley.
Pulling's weekend was ultimately hindered by the difficult qualifying, forcing the young driver to find ways to move up the order on a track not very easy to pass.
JHR's Rees had a good start and pulled away, taking a remarkable win from lights to flag. Thruxton's dominator James Hedley was second, as he jumped his opponents in the early stages. Rees, though, was unchallenged and built a gap when Hedley came under pressure from McKenzy Cresswell - who had also overtaken Oliver Gray for third.
The battle for the podium positions provided plenty of excitement: initially a three-way fight, front-row starter Gray gradually dropped down and fell into the clutches of Marcos Flack (Argenti Motorsport). In the final laps, it was this train of cars to heat the fight for fourth, with also Abbi Pulling joining the party, having made up two places from her starting position.
Flack seemed to have the upper hand at one point, but Gray responded back when the Australian had to watch his mirrors from Pulling. The latter, though, found herself in an almost-photofinish battle with JHR teammate Joseph Loake on the final lap and hanged on to sixth by two tenths of a second across the line.
Matthew Rees brought home his first win of the season with a comfortable 5.6 seconds lead over championship leader James Hedley and McKenzy Cresswell.
Pulling recorded the second-fastest lap of the race.
The second race, also contested on Saturday, featured the reverse grid and saw David Morales starting from pole alongside Thomas Ikin. Georgi Dimitrov and Kai Askey were third and fourth, while Pulling was further down the grid in P11.
On the first lap of the race, Ikin passed Arden teammate and polesitter Morales for P1, with Dimitrov also having a good run and advancing to second after a great getaway.
Askey, who was following closely, managed to get around Dimitrov and started to hunt down Ikin in the lead.
Around the mid-race mark, Dimitrov fought back and overtook both Askey and Ikin; the British-Bulgarian racer then extended his lead to over 5 seconds, as the duo behind him battled for second.
A more distant fourth was poleman David Morales; his race though, would be halted by an orange and black flag due to damage to his front wing that forced him to pit. Once in clean air, Zak Taylor and Joel Granfors quickly caught up with the front runners: Taylor passed Askey for third with two minutes left on the clock, but was not close enough to challenge his Arden teammate Ikin for second.
Abbi Pulling was again able to move up the order and gained two positions, finishing ninth. With the race awarding less points compared to Race 1 and 3, Pulling had opted to go out on old tyres, and was one of the fastest drivers on track not on the new rubber.
“Qualifying didn’t quite go our way and it put us P8 for race one." - explained Pulling after the first day of racing at Snetterton. "I finished P6 in the first race, so I gained places and that was a bit of a booster. In the reverse grid race, I started P11 and finished P9 but the positives to take are we were the quickest on the old tyres."
"It’s a half points race so some of the drivers opted to run old rubber as it’s a bit of a throw away race in a sense. We had the pace; I was two tenths off the fastest lap and the tyre graining this weekend has been so bad because it’s so hot."
Coming into the third and final race of the weekend on Sunday, Pulling had the best chances for a top-five, starting sixth on the grid.
Race 1 winner Matthew Rees got away from pole and led a JHR 1-2 with McKenzy Cresswell into the first corner - effectively securing victory at the race start. Argenti's Marcos Flack followed, with Hedley and Pulling behind.
On the fourth lap, Bilinski and Granfors collided - while the former managed to continue, the Swedish driver was out of the race and the recovery of his #5 Fortec Motorsport's car required the intervention of the Safety Car.
At the restart, Rees never looked back and extended his lead over Cresswell to over three seconds. Cresswell then had to focus his attention on the attacks of Marcus Flack and the Australian ultimately found his way around the JHR Developments driver in the final minutes of the race, clinching his maiden podium. Hedley was also ready to pick up the pieces from the battle ahead of him and the three just about managed to avoid contact when they went three-wide into Turn 4.
Not far from Hedley was Abbi Pulling, who was faster than his former teammate but had a fast charging Matias Zagazeta right on her tail and had to be extra cautious in attempting a move for fourth. Zagazeta, on fresher tyres, was glued to the #49 JHR car but couldn't find a gap and Pulling could keep the Peruvian driver at bay.
After 10 laps around Snetterton, Rees became the first recurring winner of the season and preceded Marcus Flack by almost four seconds. Cresswell was third, ahead of Hedley, Pulling, Zagazeta and Inthraphuvasak - all separated by a few tenths of a second.
Bilinski survived the crash with Granfors and finished 12th, one place behind Oliver Gray, who had stalled off the line at the start. Loake and Dimitrov both scored points despite starting from the back of the grid.
Pulling, now tenth in the championship standings, equalled her best finish of the season with fifth place - a result that surely doesn't satisfy the young Brit, but that nevertheless brings good points for the championship.
“Sunday was fairly average." - she said. "Fifth was my best result of the season which is a bit annoying but its points on the board which is the main thing."
"It was a close race and there wasn’t much more to it. The driver behind had brand new tyres on and I had the legs on the car in front but when you’re defending from someone who has the advantage it’s hard to overtake. Third might have been on the cards but points were the main thing." “I’m looking forward to Brands Hatch and want to pull it back. We’ll get the qualifying sorted and go from there.” - concluded Abbi.
The next British Formula 4 round will indeed see the drivers heading to the iconic racetrack in Kent, on the shorter Indy circuit on 26-27 June. One week later, she will make her first appearance as W Series reserve driver for the second race of the Austrian double header at Red Bull Ring.