F1 Academy: Austin preview
After a three month break, the inaugural F1 Academy season is about to enter its first title showdown, with three drivers still in contention. In a milestone event at COTA, F1 Academy will support F1 and will be televised for the first time. Here's our preview.
Three months have gone by after the penultimate round at Circuit Paul Ricard. The whole season has actually flashed by, after the first exciting weekend at Red Bull Ring followed by the two Spanish rounds in close proximity. The Zandvoort and Monza rounds in support of DTM and WEC gave further visibility and accessibility to the series in its inaugural season, before the Paul Ricard races, where a double win for championship leader Marta Garcia closed in on the title. The penultimate round is now three months away, and the 15 drivers of the inaugural season of the first ever F1-promoted female series are entering an exciting weekend with lots of new developments. The biggest one is likely the TV deals, as F1 Academy will be televised for the first time around the world, as it joins the F1 support bill at the US Grand Prix in Austin. This will therefore allow FOM to finally include F1 Academy into its broadcasting package, reaching over 100 territories through 18 broadcasters. Fans will be able to follow the live action for the first time, including the both qualifying sessions on F1's YouTube, X and Facebook channels and via F1 TV. The COTA season finale will effectively be an intro for the 2024 season, as F1 Academy already released its calendar for the second year, which features seven events all on the F1 support package. The US round will also be the first ever hosted outside of Europe for the all-female championship, with some of the drivers tackling the challenging Circuit of the Americas for the first time in their Tatuus F4 cars. Due to logistics, in fact, the collective test contested the week prior to the race meeting saw the 15 drivers familiarizing with the track in the Barber Racing School F4 cars rather than their usual F1 Academy spec machines. The 20 corner, 5.513 km long Circuit of the Americas has hosted the F1 US Grand Prix since 2012 and has become one of the most popular racetracks of the new generation. Its layout features truly challenging corners and sectors, elevation changes, as well as scenery. Since the booming of the F1 market in the US, it is also one of the fan favorites, with crowds in excess of 400,000. COTA has assigned the W Series title in the future and will be again the crucial round for F1 Academy, as the inaugural champion will be crowned in the upcoming days. Three drivers remain mathematically in contention for the coveted title: points leader Marta García, who enjoys a healthy margin of 48 points over second-placed Léna Bühler, currently at 187 points. After a remarkable weekend in Zandvoort, Hamda Al Qubaisi was looking like the strongest contender for the title, but unfortunate races at Monza put the young Emirati star on the back foot; with 179 points, she has a 56 point deficit to García.
All eyes will be on the top three, with 67 points still on the table in the final three races. With pole position paying 2 points each, the title fight will start to take shape already after the two qualifying sessions on Friday afternoon. With a race win in race 1, Marta García will have the chance to claim the crown already on Saturday morning; in case of an utterly dominant weekend from her closest rival - the Sauber junior Bühler - Marta could equally seal the deal with a second place plus fastest lap, or a third place and a pole position in the first race of the weekend. On the other hand, Hamda Al Qubaisi will have to either win or score a second place with a fastest lap to remain in contention. All three drivers had strong campaigns and would be worthy champions; García's strong start allowed the Spaniard to manage each weekend with smart driving, maximising every opportunity at every setback from her rivals. The Prema Racing driver never gave up the top spot in the championship and always climbed the podium at each round, even capitalizing on races where she didn't have as much speed as elsewhere - proving to be champion material.
At the same time, Léna Bühler had a superb second half of the season, with a streak of six podium finishes from her maiden win in single seaters at Barcelona to Monza race 2 - where she picked up another win after losing out to García in a photo finish in race 1. A retirement for a gearbox failure with a handful of laps to go at Barcelona could prove costly, but the Swiss racer has shown one of the most impressive consistency in F1 Academy and, having scored points in all the races she finished.
Part of the Sauber Academy, Bühler will race for the first time at COTA, unlike García who returns after a 2021 experience in W Series. It will be the first race at the Texan circuit for Hamda Al Qubaisi as well, who has been mainly competing in Europe and Middle East before. The Emirati understandably had a challenging start of the season, coming off a serious injury at her arm following a crash in the F4 UAE in Abu Dhabi. Only two months later - and against all odds - Hamda climbed the top step of the podium in Valencia, in what will be arguably one of the most incredible moments of the season. Hamda had battled through pain in pre-season testing and in the first races, but once her arm and wrist healed, she soon made clear that she would be in the title fight. strong runs at Valencia, another podium in Barcelona and, especially, an outstanding Dutch round established the MP Motorsport driver as García's top rival - before the unfortunate following races at Monza and Paul Ricard.
But there will be battles all through the field, as positions remain wide open: seven drivers are in contention for the top five in the drivers' standings. Just behind the top three, Nerea Martí, Abbi Pulling, Amna Al Qubaisi and Bianca Bustamante are separated by only 55 points and will surely give their all to finish on a high. Martí and Pulling return to COTA after their W Series runs - which was particularly fruitful for the British driver: at Austin, the Alpine Academy racer secured her first pole position as well as her first podium, coming second only to Jamie Chadwick. "I am really looking forward to Austin", Pulling said. "I have great memories there. It is where I got my first pole position in single seaters, and it is a track that I really enjoy so I am looking forward to revisiting COTA." "Getting back out on track has been long anticipated with the break that we have had, but that has meant there has been a lot of time to work on the preparations ahead of the final round. I am feeling really prepared and I feel like I know the track well. We will get out there with the goal to end the season on a high."
Nerea Martí is just as focused to remain on top, having claimed her first win of the season before the break at Paul Ricard. With five podiums to her name, the Valencian has the opportunity to score more big points - as well as mathematically break into the top two or three of the championship standings. “After a long break since Paul Ricard, I’m looking forward to racing again this weekend", Nerea commented. "We have worked a lot focused on the season finale in Austin. Besides, to be joining the Formula 1 Grand Prix is exciting. It’s a great opportunity and we will give our 100% to be back on top.” Amna Al Qubaisi - who has been the master of the reverse grid race - and Bianca Bustamante aim to get into the top five - having won two races each. Bustamante has made good use of the summer break, having competed at COTA in the final round of the USF Junior series: albeit in different cars, the Filipina star was twice in the top ten. Bianca was meanwhile announced as the first driver for the 2024 F1 Academy grid, having signed for McLaren in an ART Grand Prix entry. Emely de Heus, Jessica Edgar, Lola Lovinfosse and Carrie Schreiner all proved to be podium finishers and could have strong runs at COTA: Lovinfosse - who just turned 18 on Wednesday - had a really positive weekend at her home race and will be looking to carry momentum. Megan Gilkes will be the only North American on the grid in Texas; the Canadian will have extra motivation, as she just announced that the 2023 season finale will be her final race in professional motor racing, having secured a full time job at Aston Martin F1 Team as trackside engineer.
Chloe Grant, Chloe Chong and Maite Caceres entered the season as the drivers with the least experience of single seaters but all made huge improvements through the year. Grant has a fourth place as best finish and, despite more than an unlucky race - including the scary accident at Monza - proved to have the speed to run at the front. Results don't fully reflect the progression of the youngest driver on the grid - Chloe Chong. At her debut in cars after graduating from karting, Chong signed for Prema when she was still 15 and went on to finish sixth in her first ever race. She would score points in two more occasions as well as a fastest lap and, with a season under her belt, she might be a contender for top positions if she can unlock her potential in a second season. Chloe will also sport two new sponsors on her livery this weekend - Mondrian Investment Partners and Howdy.
Similarly, Maite Caceres had a significant improvement in the second half of the season, with three point scoring results in the last three rounds. The Texan races will be a sort of home race for the Uruguayan, who has raced twice at the circuit before - both times claiming her best finishes in the F4 US Championship as well as in USF Junior in 2022. "It’s time for the season finale in Austin, in which I truly feel at home", Maite said. "I’m amazed to be racing at the same weekend as F1 does. It’s my very first time, so I’m looking forward to putting on track everything learnt this season.” No rain and warm temperatures are forecasted for the weekend, and the highly demanding first sectors - with fast direction changes - might result in tyre management being a key factor. Track limits are also potentially going to be a talking point, with wide, tarmac run offs in most of the corners. The first practice session is scheduled for Friday at 08:15 local time, before a second session at 13:55. Both qualifying sessions will also be contested on Friday - at 17:30 and 17:55 respectively, where the first points will be assigned. Race 1 will go green at 09:45 local time on Saturday, followed by the 20 minute reverse grid race at 15:30. The final race of the 2023 F1 Academy season is scheduled for Sunday morning at 09:40.