British F4: Mixed weekend for Abbi Pulling at Knockhill
As British F4 reached its mid-way point at the Scottish venue of Knockhill, Abbi Pulling came home with a fourth place after a mixed weekend hampered by a grid penalty from the previous round – but has pace to consistently finish in the top-5.
In its annual trip to Scotland, BTCC and British Formula 4 returned to the track two weeks after the Oulton Park round, as it approached the half-way mark of the 2021 season. After a remarkable debut in 2020, Abbi Pulling has certainly launched herself as one of the most promising female talents in feeder series: at the wheel of the JHR Developments Mygale and with coaching from elite racing driver Alice Powell, Pulling was four times on the podium in her first season and, having evaluated her options for 2021, opted to stay in British F4 and attempt to battle for the series title. During pre-season testing, Pulling confirmed her outstanding pace and led the field on multiple occasions. At Thruxton - the opening round of the season – the 18 year-old driver was again in contention for victory and continuously showed speed for the top-three, but a combination of bad luck and weather conditions denied her of her first victory. The first half of the season, though, had not been what Pulling was expecting: the young Brit was fast in every round – and claimed two podium finishes at Brands Hatch – but bad luck, unfortunate contacts and wrong tyre choices hampered her run so far. At Oulton Park, Pulling also had to re-adapt to the F4 car after making her W Series debut in Silverstone - where she is holding the role of reserve driver - a transition that she overcome without issues: "we got used to it quickly and was at the front right away", she said. Unfortunately, a difficult qualifying in mixed weather conditions resulted in the JHR Development driver starting towards the back of the field once the others switched to rain tyres and improved: "I couldn’t tell where the crossover was, but a few people came in for wets and instantly went two seconds quicker." In race 1, Pulling was out due to a contact that knocked out her steering wheel and broke her front wing. In the reverse grid race, she was confident about a recovery from sixth on the grid, but she was taken out by Joel Granfors and still finished fourth. In the third race, Pulling had tyre disadvantage and was again caught in the contacts at the back of the field, which dropped her to 16th. "I go to Knockhill a long way behind in the points and will do whatever I can." – she said prior to the Knockhill round. "I have nothing to lose and know I have the pace. I drove well and haven’t been rewarded which is heart-breaking and frustrating.” The Knockhill racetrack, a fast hilly 2.0389 km-long in Scotland, thus hosted the fifth triple-header of the season, with Abbi Pulling immediately proving to be back in contention for the podium in Friday practice: she finished second by 0.088 of a second in FP1 and fourth in FP2, just over a tenth adrift the pace-setter. On Saturday morning, Pulling was sixth in qualifying, as Matias Zagazeta claimed pole position ahead of Joel Granfors. Matthew Reece (JHR) and Eduardo Coseteng (Argenti) secured a start from the second row, with Pulling lining up 11th due to a 5-grid slot penalty to be served following a contact at the previous round in Oulton Park. “I qualified P6 so there were a few expectations." – commented Pulling. "We thought a top three was in the bag, but we ended up with a five-place grid penalty for an incident from Oulton Park that was unavoidable and didn't even affect the other driver, so we always knew that the first race was going to be hard." Race 1 When the lights went out, Zagazeta held on to P1, while Bolger was off in the gravel and dropped to 14th place. Pulling made up one position and advanced to tenth in the opening corners. In the first lap, second-placed Granfors also made a small mistake that cost him a second to the Argenti Peruvian driver; at the same time, he also had to defend from Rees, now right in his clutches. Starting from last due to a qualifying issue, championship leader James Hedley struggled to recover and continued to run at the back. Pulling launched an aggressive attack on Zak Taylor on lap 4, who went off at the hairpin and had to be avoided by Arden teammate Morales – who also dropped down. Pulling picked up front wing damages and, when the Safety Car freezed the action as Marcos Flack went off at Clarks corner, she pitted under the race neutralization. Thanks to the amazing job by the JHR Developments crew, Abbi rejoined the pack without losing a lap and was back into the mix when the race restarted on lap 11. Pulling continued her race-long battle with Taylor and could make the move stick on lap 12, moving into 14th place. The race would be red flagged soon after though, when Neate and Inthraphuvasak found the gravel while fighting for position. With 2 minutes left on the clock, the race was not restarted - granting Matias Zagazeta his second victory of the season, ahead of Granfors, Rees and Coseteng – who equalled his best result in the series. Joseph Loake (JHR Developments) made it up to fifth and Abbi Pulling was classified in 13th place. “I made a decent start to race one – I think I made a place up – and the pace was looking really good." – explained Abbi. "I went for a move and the driver just kind of turned into me and we both ended up worse off, so I had to come in for a front wing change under the Safety Car. Once I got going again, I think I was the second quickest person on track with a broken car, so we knew the pace was there." Race 2 Due to the full reverse grid format from the qualifying order, championship leader James Hadley was set to start from pole position, but his Fortec Motorsport car was brought back in the paddock just before the start due to a mechanical issue. That left McKenzy Cresswell with a clear view at the start, ahead of Morales, Taylor and Flack. Starting from eleventh, Abbi Pulling lost two places at the start, before she started to log a series of fast laps that brought her right behind Race 1 podium finisher Joel Granfors. The nature of the reverse-grid race meant that the action was non-stop all the way through the field: Askey battled Inthraphuvasak and, despite a short trip to the gravel, he rejoined and managed to overtake Flack. The latter dropped 5 positions after a mistake, while Zak Taylor passed David Morales for second place on lap 11. Abbi Pulling had a remarkable race and passed several competitors and found herself battling with Zagazeta and Bolger with six minutes to go. The Peruvian, winner of Saturday's race, passed Pulling when she attempted a move on Bolger, but the young lady fought back with a stunning pass. With another sensational move on lap 21 on Dougie Bolger, Pulling made it to P8 after a charging race, despite a developing problem with the car. “Race two I started P11 for the reverse grid race. I got a good launch but got squeezed onto the grass a little bit, the gap closed on me, and I lost a lot of places." – said Pulling. "I fought my way back up to eighth and we were quick with the worst tyres on, so I was quite happy with the result." McKenzy Cresswell took his second victory in the championship after a commanding race, 2.2 seconds clear of Zak Taylor. Kai Askey took third in the closing stages as he overtook Morales, who ultimately finished fifth behind Tasanapol Inthraphuvasak. Race 3 The final race of the weekend at Knockhill provided Pulling with more chances to score points – in a weekend where once again she couldn't convert her pace into podium finishes for a series of unfortunate circumstances. The JHR Developments driver started from sixth place, as Zagazeta and Granfors once again shared the front row of the grid. With his best qualifying of the season to date, Aiden Neate lined-up in third, alongside Matthew Rees. It was a clean start for the whole pack and Pulling made it to fifth one lap into the race - with very heated battles involving the drivers from the third place all the way to seventh. Loake and Taylor collided at the hairpin on lap 3, but both rejoined – despite Loake having to make a visit to the pitlane to change his front wing. Granfors closed in on Zagazeta in the lead, but the Peruvian left no room to the Swede and continued his run unchallenged. Abbi Pulling chased Dougie Bolger for the whole first part of the race, but she struggled to find her way past the Japanese as she missed some straight-line speed due to the ongoing technical issue.
On the penultimate lap, Abbi went for a more aggressive approach at the hairpin and then capitalized when Bolger made a mistake and ran slightly wide on the final lap, securing fourth place across the line. After a lights-to-flag win, Matias Zagazeta led once again Joel Granfors under the chequered flag - the leading duo preceding Matthew Rees, who now leads the standings following James Hedley's nightmare weekend at Knockhill. Abbi Pulling came home with another fourth place as best result of the weekend and moved into seventh place in the overall standings. “We knew that race three was our best chance at a good position because we were starting P6 and had almost brand-new tyres on all on all four corners. I was very confident going into that race." – recalled Pulling. "I got Aiden [Neate] for seventh early and then the whole race I just sat in fifth. We had a problem with the booster in race two and it fed into race three, so we were lacking a bit of straight-line speed." “I had a clunking problem at one point so that was a bit distracting, but I kept fighting through to the end of the race and managed to get close to Dougie Bolger. I challenged him on the last lap, put him under pressure into turn one to make him completely miss the next corner, and then I got the inside into turn three, so it ended up being a decent result and it kind of made up for the heartache that we've had in previous races." The series - which has recently announced that will move to the Tatuus second-generation F4 chassis from 2022 - will now head to Thruxton for the second time this year: at the season opener, only the adverse weather conditions could deny the young lady of a victory, which is clearly an encouraging sign for the sixth round in 2 week's time. “Hopefully we can consistently be in the top five for the rest of the season." – she said. "Coming up is Thruxton where I qualified P2 earlier in the season and in the races, we were quick, so I'm confident moving forward." "With Alice [Powell] and Gazing Systems I've got a preparation plan in place, and I don't think we're changing it anytime soon.”