"It was just about putting everything together." – Chloe Chong returned to the point-scoring positions at Paul Ricard after a rollercoaster weekend that rewarded the perseverance and fighting spirit of the youngest driver on the F1 Academy grid.
Chloe Chong, the youngest driver on the F1 Academy grid, has shown a lot of promising speed in her rookie season in race cars. 15 years of age at the time she was announced at the start of the inaugural F1 Academy championship, the now 16-year-old driver graduated from karting in a highly competitive environment but is taking every opportunity to learn, laying the foundation for a bright career in the sport.
Having joined Prema Racing – one of the top junior teams across the European single seater ladder – the British-Canadian teenager has been put to the test immediately, going against drivers with years of Formula 4 and Formula Regional experience. Yet, Chloe instantly found herself running well within the top ten in pre-season testing, with several sessions where her pace looked strong enough to contest for the top five.
On the eve of the curtain-raiser at Red Bull Ring, Chong impressed with a superb pre-event test – and then carried that speed into her first ever race weekend: despite a challenging practice, hampered by limited set of tyres, Chloe put on a fantastic drive to finish sixth, in a truly remarkable performance. Under the podium while celebrating the victory of her teammate Marta Garcia, Chong was happy but not fully satisfied: she knew, as every special racing driver, that there's always a bit more to extract.
She would again come close to a point-scoring finish in the third Austrian race, before repeating the achievement in Valencia, with another sixth place in the shorter race 2 which therefore awarded less points – but that didn't take away from the accomplishment.
As every racing driver will have experienced in their career, Chong's season was also one of highs and lows. A challenging weekend in Barcelona was followed by another 11th place finish at Zandvoort in race 3, again barely missing out on the top ten. Every weekend, though, brought learning opportunities and Chloe continued to shine in testing - proving that the raw potential was always there.
Coming into Monza, Chong knew she had the chance to get back where she belongs and had an encouraging qualifying at the Temple of Speed, with race pace to make up for a few positions. After scoring the fastest lap in race 1, the Prema driver made her return to the top 10 in race 2, with a hard-fought ninth place in a battling midfield that did not award points but was a positive sign after what Chloe described as a "a tough month mentally".
As teams headed to Circuit Paul Ricard for the final European round of the season, a two-day test highlighted once again Chong progression: she would set the third fastest time at the end of the first day, as she returned to the track where, less than one year ago, she had been selected among the finalists of the Girls On Track programme.
"Sometimes I need to take a moment to remember just how far we’ve come", Chloe wrote. "What happened in this past year I never even thought was a possibility till now. I live a new adventure everyday and I can’t thank everyone involved enough; it’s been a rocky journey so far but this is just the start."
The sixth round of the season confirmed that Chong has the speed to fight in the top ten. The data collected in the test days left Prema confident enough to limit its drivers practice laps in an effort to save sets of new tyres – which are limited to four in F1 Academy.
In one of the most-competitive qualifyings to date, Chong was 12th fastest in Q1, barely three tenth off pole position. A grid penalty that she carried over after a contact in Monza's final race, though, meant that she had a mountain to climb in race 1 – on a track layout that proved to be difficult to pass on.
“We struggled in qualifying after showing a good pace in practice, and that made it definitely difficult for the races", she explained. "Unfortunately, I just lost a bit of feeling for the clutch, and that made me struggle a bit at the start, with two stalls."
The issue at the start resulted in a difficult charge from the back, with almost 20 seconds to make up for. In a race that saw no safety car interventions, Chong managed to close the gap to the rest of the pack, running fast laps and eventually clocking the eighth fastest time of the race. Once back in the mix, she finished P12, ahead of Edgar, de Heus and Bustamante.
"Actually, the pace overall was really really positive, I was happy to see that I had a 20-second gap to the car in front in race 1, and I made that gap plus a position", Chloe commented. "The pace was definitely there overall throughout the weekend. It’s a shame that we made some mistakes during qualifying and had some problems at the start."
A start from the pit lane in race 2 was in fact yet another challenge for the driver of the #14 Prema, as she had again to catch up. Chloe never gave up and showed her determination, once again closing the gap to the cars ahead and battling for positions.
But the result that gained her one more point would come in race 3, when another start from the back translated in a tenacious drive that saw the up-and-coming racer putting everything together, from a good start to a few decisive overtakes in the opening stages.
"In race 3 I focused on the start and then I put my head down after that. I made a couple of overtakes and stayed really consistent" – Chloe said. Positions from sixth down to last were separated by the smallest margin, and Chong made her way up to tenth place – in a strong recovery that rewards her perseverance.
"Last weekend was quite good I think, it really paid off everything we put into practice in Monza. After just missing out on points in Monza, to have points in race 3 this weekend is really fulfilling", she recalled.
"We had the test last week and we knew we had the pace for top eight, definitely. It was just about putting everything together."
As the inaugural F1 Academy season is set to resume in three months time after a long summer break for its season finale, Chloe Chong will be aiming to finish on a high her first year in race cars; with such valuable experience under her belt, she might be one to watch in a potential sophomore campaign.