Convincing pace for Abbi Pulling in British F4 opener despite unlucky races
Abbi Pulling's 2021 British F4 campaign has been off to a bumpy start, but the 18-year old's qualifying pace and an outstanding recovery in Race 2 prove that she will surely be part of the title hunt.
18-year old British racing driver Abbi Pulling is certainly among the most promising female racing drivers competing in junior single seater categories right now and her second season in the British F4 championship will surely continue to attract the interest of the industry's stakeholders.
After a remarkable debut in formula cars in 2020 – where she claimed four podium finishes and just narrowly missed out on her first victory – Pulling wisely opted to return to the championship with title ambitions.
“I am confident in myself and I learned a lot in the winter." – said Abbi before the 2021 season opener at Thruxton. The youngster, who is coached by W Series race winner and elite racer Alice Powell – immediately proved to mean business in testing, where she constantly positioned her JHR Development Mygale F4 car at the top-end of the time sheets.
"The team is doing a great job and I think we can be at the front," she continued.
"It’s obvious I am going for the title. I am firing on all cylinders and I don’t think people are ready for what they’re in for, so I think it will be a good and successful year."
The first race of 2021 – contested at the fast Thruxton circuit in Hampshire – was familiar ground for Pulling, who had secured one of her podium finishes in the series in 2020.
“We start at Thruxton, which is a circuit I am confident at and I got my best finish there last year. It won’t be easy and there’s lots of work to put in, but if we keep it at a high level behind the scenes, I think it will be a good first round.” – she added.
And indeed the weekend started in the most positive way for the young driver: in a JHR Developments 1-2-3-4 (and testament to Alice Powell's coaching abilities), Pulling was second fastest in a rain-affected qualifying session. Matthew Rees snatched pole by 0.106 and thus lined up alongside Pulling on the front row of Saturday afternoon's first race.
“Qualifying couldn’t have been much better." – she commented. "I’d have liked to have taken pole but having the team 1-2-3-4 is awesome. I know I had the legs on my team-mates in certain areas, so I was quite happy. I haven’t been to the track in over a year and a half in the wet, so I think we’re in a good place."
The weather conditions were again the main talking point in Race 1, as the 16-car field went on the grid on still a very wet track and teams had to gamble on tyre strategy: JHR opted for the wet-weather tyres, while drivers starting further behind took a chance and went for slicks.
When the lights went out, Pulling fired into the lead, ahead of Rees, Loake, Bilinski and Crosswell, who had a slow start off the line.
JHR's choice seemed to have paid off when Pulling was able to extend her lead by over one second on the opening lap – but as the track progressively dried, the drivers on slicks started to emerge. Bilinski was on the move – the returning driver made up two positions in one corner as soon as on the second lap. But it was circuit-specialist James Hedley (Fortec Motorsport) to ultimately prove what the right tyre choice was: Hedley gained seven positions in one lap and advanced into the lead with a 4-second per lap pace advantage.
Pulling tried her best to defend, but she was quickly down to seventh when Zagazeta, Granfors, Taylor, Coseteng, Gray and Bilinski also overtook her.
Hedley – who took three victories at Thruxton in 2020 – was unreachable, but behind him a good battle for the runner-up spot saw Granfors and Zagazeta swapping places. Coseteng tried to take advantage from the battle ahead and closed in, but settled for fourth.
In the final laps, Granfors tried to put some pressure on Hedley: the Swede got closer to his Fortec Motorsport's teammate, but not enough to challenge him.
Hedley took his fourth consecutive win at Thruxton, 1.4 seconds ahead of Granfors and almost 3 seconds clear of Matias Zagazeta (Argenti Motorsport). Coseteng and Taylor rounded out the top five.
On almost destroyed grooved tyres, Abbi Pulling dropped all the way down to 12th.
“In race one I got the jump on Matthew [Rees] at the start, and I ended up pulling over a second in the first two laps, but we made the wrong tyre choice. You can’t put too much blame on the team because no one knew what was going on, but sadly we went the wrong way."
In what was British F4's first reverse grid race, Thomas Ikin (Arden) started from pole and shared the front row with Eduardo Coseteng (Argenti Motorsport).
Abbi Pulling had a clear view of the whole field ahead of her and started down in P15, on the last row of the grid.
Conditions, though, were finally dry and the driver of the #49 JHR Developments car quickly gave everyone a demonstration of her potential: after a great start, Pulling moved into 11th position on the opening lap, navigating through the field one pass after the other.
Race 1 winner Hedley was also on the move and recovered four places from eighth on the grid.
Flack and Coseteng made contact at the final chicane and spun, but both were able to rejoin. Pulling managed to advance into ninth, but got stuck in a battle behind Rees and Bolger. She kept it on track after a nudge by one of her competitors, but had to rebuild her recovery from eleventh.
Meanwhile, Hedley was again the new leader once he had passed Ikin – the latter also coming under pressure from his Arden teammate Taylor.
The midfield was on fire and, despite her blistering pace, Pulling was cautious yet determined in the many battles. In a few laps, she completed clean passes and moved into eighth, before also clearing her JHR teammates for sixth.
In an equally breath-taking fight for position, Granfors, Taylor and Inthraphuvasak chased podium glory – leaving Hedley to a solitary run for the victory. The Fortec driver crossed the line first, over 7 seconds clear of Granfors, Taylor and Inthraphuvasak.
Pulling shook off Cresswell and caught up with Ikin on the final lap, grabbing fifth in a remarkable second race that saw the young lady gaining 10 positions.
“The reverse grid race was awesome." – she said. "We knew we had the pace, so it was about coming through. I knew I could do it and made sure I did everything we’d talked about in the pre-season."
Unfortunately, the second race at the "fastest circuit in the UK" would remain the only trouble-free of the weekend for Pulling.
Starting from fourth on the grid, hopes were high for another clean race and her first podium of the season. When lights went off, Rees led Loake, Cresswell and Pulling. The latter initially held off Bolger and then proceeded to attack her JHR teammates.
A huge crash at the final chicane then brought out the red flag and halted the action: Hedley clipped the back of Askey's car, with both cars going hard into the outside barrier and collecting Zagazeta and Inthraphuvasak. Everyone was unhurt, but the lengthy recovery forced the series organizers to postpone the restart of race 3 – already shortened to 15 minutes due to a red flag in BTCC's second heat – after the British Touring Car Championship final race of the weekend.
The delay meant that the F4 drivers had to face another wet race, as the rain had returned to the Hampshire venue.
It was a JHR 1-2-3-4 at the restart, with Pulling third having made a great pass around the outside of Rees.
Flack and Granfors spun at the chicane but both rejoined; Hedley, who was back in the race after unbelievable repair work by the team, was also making his way up the order. In no time, he was back to fourth.
Suddenly, Pulling's pace disappeared into thin air and she tumbled down the classify. Rees, among the fastest on track, caught up again with the leading duo, while Bolger and Gray also jumped ahead of the #49 JHR car. Pulling found herself P12 in the final minutes, as she visibly struggled for grip.
Loake took a convincing victory ahead of Cresswell in a JHR 1-2, with James Hedley ultimately able to snatch third from Oliver Gray. Zagazeta was the only retirement, while Thai racer Inthraphuvasak was disqualified for ignoring the black and orange flag.
“Overall, the weekend was disappointing results-wise." – said Pulling, who crossed the line in P12. "We’ve shown we have a lot of pace, but we’ve been so unlucky in so many circumstances. I got up to third in race three, but I had no front left grip and we’ll have to investigate why the car lost so much pace. I couldn’t drive it any better, especially for the last five minutes."
“Well done to Joseph [Loake] and McKenzy [Cresswell], they did great, it’s just a shame it was our car which didn’t finish where it should have, and I am hoping the bad luck is out of the way this weekend." – she added.
Abbi Pulling's current championship position after the first round is in no way representative of her pace and true potential, and she is confident that the next round can bring her back where she belongs.
"The championship isn’t won first at the first round, it’s a long season, and I am confident in myself and the team. It’s annoying Snetterton is a month away as I want to redeem myself! I definitely had the pace for a win this weekend and things didn’t quite go right.”
The second triple-header of the 2021 British F4 championship will be contested on 12-13 June at Snetterton, Norfolk.