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Chloe Chong: Meet the youngest driver on the F1 Academy grid

"For me the main thing is that I improve every time I go out in the car" – At 16 years of age, the youngest driver on the F1 Academy grid is making her formula racing debut in the all-female championship. With time on her side, Chloe Chong might just surprise a few people in her rookie season.


Photo by: Racers - Behind the Helmet

When the all-new junior championship F1 Academy was announced, the set mission was to "develop and prepare female drivers to progress to higher levels of competition", positioning itself at Formula 4 level in order to aim for younger drivers at the first stages of their single-seater careers – and providing them with a pathway to the upper steps of the F1 ladder. No better driver fits that target than Chloe Chong, 16-year-old racer who will make her formula racing debut in the inaugural season of the all-female championship directly promoted by F1. When announced as one of the drivers for Italian powerhouse Prema Racing, Chong was fifteen – and having just turned 16, she will be by quite some margin the youngest driver on the grid. She is also the only driver making the step from karting to formulas, taking the opportunity offered by F1 Academy of an affordable F4-based series. F1 Academy is in fact designed to maximise track time, with 15 collective testing days, seven rounds on some of the most iconic racing circuits and triple headers – for a fraction of the budget compared to other F4 series: F1 itself will in fact subsidize half the costs per each car. The inaugural season has attracted the interest of some high profile drivers, from former W Series racers, as well as young women with experience of Formula Regional and F4 machinery. Chong is one of the two athletes that rose to international attention after being selected among the finalists of the FIA Women In Motorsport-supported 'Girls On Track - Rising Stars' programme, which saw four up-and-coming talents assessed at Maranello, for a spot on the Ferrari Driver Academy.


Photo credits: FIA Women In Motorsport / FDA

“Last year obviously the Girls On Track - Rising Stars was a great experience, and this year I'm doing the F1 Academy because of the experience I got from the Rising Stars, so it was a really good way to step up in motorsport.” – Chong tells us. At the five day selection at Circuit Paul Ricard, in the South of France, Chong was again the least experienced among the Senior candidates – a group of elite karting drivers from the age of 14 to 16. Yet, the young British-Canadian offered a glimpse of what she's capable of. A quiet, polite and very intelligent young woman, Chloe took in all the precious feedback and improved significantly day after day. With no prior experience of Formula 4 machinery, Chong progressed at impressive pace, showing great attitude and receptivity in between the sessions. With her very analytical approach, Chloe proved to the jury – overseen by representatives of the FIA Women In Motorsport Commission, Iron Dames, Ferrari Driver Academy, Winfield Racing School and training specialists 321 Perform – that she deserved a place among the finalists.

“It was such an emotional five days at Paul Ricard", Chloe recalls. "Everyone learnt a lot, everyone was passionate about this, everyone wanted to improve."

"It wasn't just about getting through to the final, it was all about picking as much information as you can up. But at the end of the day everyone wanted to make it to Maranello, because that's truly magical."


Photo credits: FIA Women In Motorsport / FDA

Chloe Chong is someone who's extremely easy to root for: she's friendly, humble, but also very focused and bright - as well as supportive of her colleagues. “I think the other girls were really helpful; they gave me a lot of tips and they helped me get more used to it", she says, as we recollect the moments she moved her first steps in a single seater. "It made me feel more comfortable in the car, because it was a bit daunting at first. The other girls are so friendly and so nice, and it was great to get to know them and for them to help me find my steps in the car. So I think yeah it was a really good experience.” "What I learnt from this is that you can't give up and you just have to keep going", she had told us at the end of those August days in the South of France, which eventually further fueled her dream. "Some days it can feel like everything is really bad for you, but you do get rewarded."


"To be selected after such a hard day in the car – it was my first time in F4 machinery – and coming away with a spot in the final really changed my approach to racing. What I learnt is like stuff that I'll never forget in my future career.”

Photo by: Racers - Behind the Helmet

Unlike many young drivers coming up the ranks of the sport nowadays, Chloe Chong does not come from a racing family. She's making her way up with the support of her family, but there is no set path of ready-made connections. Every step is her own conquest. “I'm not really from a racing family – my dad used to race quite a bit in rental karting, which sparked my interest, as well as watching F1 on the weekends with him as a little kid", she says about the origins of her passion for the sport. "I guess it led to the point where I was begging him to just have a go in a go-kart, so on my sixth birthday he took me go-karting for the first time and it just started from there – I've never lost interest or passion for the sport.” From there, her rise in national karting was steady. “From the age of 6 to 13 I did a lot of club racing within the country of England and then when I was 13 we reached out and did the British Kart Championship in Minimax, where I finished ninth in my first season – which I was fairly happy with, though we had a really bad last round." "After that, we did Junior Rotax in the Rotax Euro Trophy and the British Kart Championship", she adds. "I think I finished 22nd or 23rd in the British kart championships, so my first year wasn't too bad but we had quite a few unlucky rounds, getting crashed out.” “In the Euro Trophy we only did three rounds and we made really good progress, so we're quite happy with that. At the end of 2021 I did the IAME Ladies Cup in France for the first time, and this was my first experience with the X30 engine in a senior category. It was good because all weekend we made quite a bit of progress. Unfortunately it rained and I had no experience in the tyre – it was quite hard, but by the end of the weekend we finished with the fastest lap, so it turned out to be a really good weekend I think.”


Photo credits: Marc de Mattia / FIA WIM

While she is often her own critic, she is also always able to find the positives and build on that – a crucial skill for racing drivers. We ask her about the race that she considers her most successful so far, and she mentions a recovery drive where she had to react to changing conditions. “I think I don't have a single best race of my career – if I had to pick one, there was a race that I did before the British Championship in 2021, at Whilton Mill. They have random grids so they don't have a qualifying – so you'll do three heats, and you'll start in different positions. I had a really unlucky set of heats and I was starting 23rd for the final, when it started to rain and everyone panicked with the tyre choices."


"At the end of the day it was just about who drove the best in the emergency situation, and I managed to come back from 23rd to fourth in a national level championship grid. That was probably one of the best races of my career so far.” This quick adaptability to situations seems very much part of her personality, with a strong focus on an organic, progressive development.

“There is no goal", she says, when speaking of her expectations for her rookie season in F1 Academy. "For me the main thing is that I improve every time I go out in the car and I get more used to the car. If I feel like I've improved, this means we've done a good job."

Photo by: Racers - Behind the Helmet

"There's no pressure to be in the top five or the top three, because there are so many experienced drivers. If I get a top five or a top three that's great, because it means that I'm improving a lot – but maybe if I start further back and I improve every race and I reach the top ten mid-way through the season, I'm still going to be really happy, because I'm the least experienced and I've got time on my side, let's say.” Being the youngest and least experienced of the whole field, Chloe will go against drivers with already several years of formulas under their belt – some of whom have race wins to their name. “A lot of people may think that at the beginning it’s going to be tough – and yes, it’s going to be tough, but I also think it's an advantage to me", she observes. "Coming in as in my debut season in cars, especially with all the support given by F1, and the track time that we have, I think will be really useful for my development. Especially being with such a team as Prema, who I know can help me to develop and reach my fullest potential."


"Being the youngest is good because it means that I don't have any bad habits that I need to let go of as well.”

Undoubtedly, if there's a team able to help maximise a young driver's potential, that is the Italian-based team, one of the most highly-rated outfits in all junior motorsport and with an unsurpassed record in the top Formula 4 championships. Making the step from karting to race cars with such a team will undeniably make Chong an all-round driver in all aspects of the job.


Photo by: Racers - Behind the Helmet

Chong will share the garage with Marta García – one of the most experienced talents of the series and a race winner in W Series – and with Bianca Bustamante, also formerly in the all-female F3 championship. Chong has immediately found herself at home in the team, where she also spent her 16th birthday as preparations for the season were underway. “We’ve been doing a lot of prep work at Prema, so I've had quite a busy couple of weeks", Chloe says. Ahead of the first collective test in Barcelona, Chong has completed a couple of days in the F4 car in Italy, where she had the chance to reacclimate with the Tatuus T421 car and to work with her crew for the first time. "The aim for me was to get used to the team, setups and the protocols we usually follow." The progress continued at Barcelona, as the first round of the season quickly closes in. It will be a calendar of all-new tracks for Chong, who particularly looks forward to one specific round: “I’ve got to say the US", she smiles. "I think it's going to be an amazing experience, especially racing with F1." "The track looks great, me and my teammates are thinking about coming to the track in cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. I've never been to an F1 race so it's going to be a great experience for me and to race in America is great because the crowds are great, the atmosphere is great."


Photo by: Racers - Behind the Helmet

The F1 branding is likely to help marketing the inaugural season. With 15 exciting drivers on the grid – all of them with their peculiarities and personalities – the goal is also to inspire the next generation of young girls to take interest in the sport and, hopefully keep growing female participation. Inspiring figures can play a powerful role in sport. In a season of many firsts, Chloe Chong will also have the chance to share the track with one of the figures that inspired her while in karting – a driver just a few years her senior but that preceded her in the climb up the ladder: Abbi Pulling. "I was watching her when I was just in karting, in the junior TKM category – it's been a long time and it's such an honor to race against a driver that's been an inspiration for me. It's not going to make the racing any easier though", she laughs, "but I think it's going to be quite a lot of fun and I have a lot of respect for her.” When talking to her, it is soon clear that there's more than a determined racing driver behind the polite teenager from the UK: Chloe Chong outside of the racetrack has an artistic side and plays eight musical instruments. “Oh it's a long list!" – she jokes. "I play the piano, the guitar, the drums and the saxophone presently. Before, I played the violin, the ukulele, the xylophone and I also sing a little bit.” “I really enjoy artistic things, I really enjoy music, I have a passion for musical instruments. I enjoy basically anything in the arts, as well as a lot of sports. At school sometimes I play hockey, I play netball and I play cricket – I guess I have a lot of passion for sports in general.”


Photo credits: Marc de Mattia / FIA WIM

Education is something that she takes very seriously and as a 16 year old athlete now competing at an international level, combining school with a highly demanding career in motorsport will require some effort. “Thankfully my school's been super supportive", she explains. "We've always been in contact with them, especially starting from such a young age, we've had to always talk to them about the time that I'm missing and they've really helped me catch up on the work." "They've stayed quite supportive so it's been really good. But I think this year is a really big step up in terms of commitments, and it’s my GCSE year. When you turn 16 in the UK you have to take exams, and unfortunately I'm missing nine out of ten of the exams because of racing.” “If I feel the need to continue the commitment to racing, I can go into online school, which I know is quite reliable", Chloe continues. "The school has been supportive enough to make it really manageable for me, so it's not much of a worry.” While probably one of the dark horses ahead of the first ever F1 Academy season, Chloe Chong is set to surprise quite a few people. With time on her side, she might just be one of the best discoveries of the all-new female championship.


Photo by: Racers - Behind the Helmet

In cooperation with: Ben Schneider, the GRID Network

1 comment

1 Comment


tisign
tisign
Apr 17, 2023

Wow, great story!!! And good luck to Chloe Chong!🙏🏼🙏🏼

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