Here's a few takeaway points after the second round of the F1 Academy season - and what we can expect from the third race weekend at Barcelona.
The brand-new all-female championship F1 Academy is about to host its third race meeting in four weeks – and it's going to be on one of the most well known tracks from all drivers and teams, as Circuit de Catalunya is frequently the home of pre-season and in-season testing for several series. While the previous round at Circuito Ricardo Tormo in Valencia in fact saw a couple of teams with previous experience of the Spanish F4 Championship having some more data compared to others, the Barcelona circuit will not be as enigmatic, as a two day collective test officially launched the series a little over a month ago. While the track layout has recently changed - returning to its original length of 4.657 km, without chicane – all drivers had the chance to learn the secrets of the new layout, which now features a faster, more flowing final sector after Turn 13. It will now be crucial to get a good exit out of the fast final corner to have a chance to pass at the end of the long straight into Turn 1, where traditionally the most overtakings take place.
Track limits were one of the big topics at Valencia two weeks ago, as the qualifying order was shuffled overnight after a series of penalties issued after the race direction had to analyze on-board cameras from all cars in order to ensure a fair monitoring. These issues are likely not to be a problem anymore at Barcelona, as the circuit has a state-of-the-art automated system of monitoring for track limits, which includes sensors and cameras at every corner. Track limits were not a big issue in testing as well, so we can expect cleaner sessions. What did emerge from testing, though, was that tyre degradation could be a factor: with each driver having 3,5 sets of new tyres per weekend, strategy could play a big role over the 2 practice, 2 qualifying and 3 race sessions. On the other hand, temperatures might be significantly different from last month, as well as weather conditions: so far, forecasts do show a high probability of rain, which would become a major element of the weekend. At Spielberg, during a wet qualifying, Abbi Pulling emerged as the reference in rainy conditions. The Alpine Academy driver had also set very encouraging lap times during pre-season and, despite two unbelievably unlucky weekends at Red Bull Ring and Valencia, we can expect a return to the front-running positions for Pulling, who claimed her first podium of the season in race 3 last time out. Another driver that has collected less points than expected is Nerea Martí: the Valencian has scored two podium finishes at her home track, but has also two empty slots on her points table, as she incurred in a DSQ at Red Bull Ring and a DNS in Valencia's second race, when an engine failure prevented her to start. Nevertheless, Martí is currently third in the standings – which shows how competitive the Campos driver can be on a good weekend. With some good records at Montmelo during her Spanish F4 days, Martí can in fact be among the favorites this weekend – also strong of a dominant performance in the two-day test at Circuito Ricardo Tormo after the race weekend. Drivers with good records at the track include Léna Bühler, who is looking to carry momentum after a positive start of the season. The Swiss driver – together with Marta García and Hamda Al Qubaisi – has the most podiums in F1 Academy so far, with two second place finishes and a third place finish. Bühler is now only two points behind Martí in the battle for third place in the championship; with four drivers already claiming victories, the next racer to become a race winner is possibly going to be either Léna or Nerea. At her single-seater debut in 2020, Bühler had a top five finish in Spanish F4 at Barcelona – and proved to be competitive in testing - the Sauber Academy driver will be eyeing more silverware at the third round. Particularly optimist about the coming weekend is Amna Al Qubaisi – who impressed a few people during testing with a very competitive pace. Amna, who says she likes the track, comes off a bit of an unfortunate round in Valencia, where she had a tyre pressure issue and lost a podium to track limits. "I'm quick at Barcelona – over there track limits are reasonable and already we weren't doing many track limits in the test so I think it will be much easier there", she told us. The Emirati has now dropped to 5th in the standings, but is only 4 points off third place, so she might well be back in the title hunt with a particularly strong third round.
The rain, though, might not be the best news for her sister Hamda, whose wrist had not fully recovered mobility and might struggle a bit more to catch back the car during sudden loss of grip. The one week break, though, might have played in her favor, as Marta García's main rival in the championship will have had some extra time to recover from her arm injury. Drivers that made significant steps forward from the season opener include Chloe Grant, Maite Caceres and Lola Lovinfosse. The young Frenchwoman might not have the results to show for it, but she was the protagonist of a really promising third race before her retirement, where she was battling for fifth place after a good recovery. Earlier in February, Lovinfosse took part in the Formula Winter Series round at Circuit de Catalunya - and had very solid races with good battles. Caceres – who also had some track time in the FWS weekend – had her first top-10 at Valencia and, by continuing the progression into what is now a bit of a home race for the Barcelona-based Uruguayan, she will be targeting her first points. Chloe Chong had an overall promising race pace in Barcelona, as the youngest driver on the grid will be targeting more point-scoring finishes. Sessions will get underway on Friday at 14:55 with the first practice session, followed by another 40 minute practice at 17:00. Both qualifyings and the first two races of the weekend will be held on Saturday, at 15:05 and 19:00 respectively, while race 3 will go green on Sunday morning.