F1 Academy: Hamda Al Qubaisi scores convincing race 2 win in Austin
Emirati star Hamda Al Qubaisi converted pole position to a convincing victory in Race 2 at Circuit of the Americas, returning to the top step of the podium for the fourth time this season - as she now focuses on the battle for the runner up spot.
Hamda Al Qubaisi has returned to the top step of the podium after her dominant weekend in Zandvoort, where she had closed in on points' leader Marta García and was looking strong for a recovery in the second half of the season. Unfortunate circumstances prevented the 21-year-old from Abu Dhabi from fighting for the title until the end, but Hamda made a statement in the second COTA race, comfortably winning from pole ahead of Léna Bühler - now her main rival for the runner up spot.
Coming into the season finale with a 56 point gap to García, Al Qubaisi had little chances to keep the fight alive and, after a win from pole for the Spaniard in race 1 that handed the crown to García, Hamda switched her focus on maximizing the final two races, in a duel for second place in the standings.
All the MP Motorsport cars struggled in qualifying and Hamda couldn't finish higher than eighth, which still bagged her the reverse grid pole for the 20 minute second race on Saturday afternoon. In the morning, Hamda had still managed to gain one position, finishing seventh in race 1 - where she battled Jessica Edgar in the closing laps for sixth.
The younger of the Al Qubaisi sisters therefore shared the front row of the grid in race 2 with Chloe Chong - who had completed by far her best qualifying of the season with two seventh places in Q1 and Q2. Just behind them, the Prema of Bianca Bustamante preceded Jessica Edgar, who had proven to be very quick all weekend.
At lights out Bustamante and Amna Al Qubaisi - who started from P12 - had issues and were luckily avoided by the rest of the field. Hamda had a great start but had to defend from the outstanding Chloe Chong, who had a perfect getaway. After turn one, though, Chong already had Léna Bühler in her mirrors, after the Swiss driver had started from fifth. Nerea Martí had also made up ground - just like her compatriot Marta García, who moved from eighth to sixth on the opening lap.
Having cleared Pulling as well as Lovinfosse - who had shown great pace in practice but had to climb the order after a challenging qualifying - the newly-crowned champion soon joined the group of front-runners.
Towards the end of the first lap, Bühler found a way past Chong at turn 12 - as the two were trailed by Jessica Edgar. The Race 3 pole sitter made a move for third on the second lap and Chong had to defend from Martí. Right behind them, García was catching up quickly - but the championship winning Prema car picked up front wing damage after a light contact with Jessica Edgar.
Once in clean air, Buhler set the fastest lap and tried to hunt down Hamda Al Qubaisi, who had opened a small gap. A big train of cars followed the top three; García and Pulling battled, but the Spaniard had lost a bit of front downforce due to the wing damage.
Nerea Martí overtook Chong on lap 4, but the British-Canadian driver brilliantly responded with a great pass at turn 12. Martí then came under pressure from Pulling, who was eventually able to demote the Valencian to sixth. Having completed the move off track, though, Pulling was instructed to hand back the position one lap later.
García, meanwhile, was called back into the pits following a black and orange flag for the broken front wing and recorded her second DNF of the season.
After stalling on the grid, Bianca Bustamante had a spectacular recovery and climbed the order up until eighth place: the Filipino star had passed Gilkes, Caceres, Schreiner, De Heus, Grant and chased Lovinfosse - as the latter was also catching the fight for the top five.
The midfield was in fact separated by a few tenths of a second and battles were alive throughout the order.
In an exciting wheel to wheel duel, Pulling eventually got up to fourth and passed Chong, who tried to brake later but ended up a bit deep into turn 12 and lost fifth to Marti as well in the process. While Chloe couldn't eventually hold on for fifth, she had shown great, clean defensive driving and good racecraft.
Never under threat, Hamda Al Qubaisi set the fastest lap and extended her gap to Buhler by almost two seconds; after 8 action-packed laps, the Emirati claimed her fourth win of the season - and her first reverse grid one. Hamda gained three points over Bühler, who was second at the finish line. The Sauber Academy driver is on her fourth consecutive podium and continues an uninterrupted streak of 13 point scoring finishes.
In arguably her best weekend of the season, Jessica Edgar clinched her third podium of the season; the result will be a great morale boost for the 18 year old British racer ahead of her first start from pole position tomorrow.
Abbi Pulling made up three places to finish fourth, ahead of a very solid Nerea Martí, as they battled for fourth in the championship standings. Chloe Chong equalled her best result of the season - a sixth place also conquered at Red Bull Ring and Valencia; Chong has scored points in the last three races, as a further proof of the potential of the youngest driver on the grid.
Bianca Bustamante was ultimately able to overtake Lovinfosse and crossed the finish line in seventh place, completing one of her most impressive drives of the season.
Mercantile Campos Racing's Lola Lovinfosse collected the final point of the shorter race with eighth and preceded Chloe Grant and Emely de Heus, respectively ninth and tenth.
Not far behind were Schreiner and Caceres - the latter having made big improvements throughout the weekend. Despite the unfortunate accident in race 1, in fact, the Uruguayan ran at a particularly competitive pace throughout the second half of the race.
Megan Gilkes finished P13 and preceded Amna Al Qubaisi, who unfortunately couldn't catch up with the pack after a technical problem at the start.
20 races are now in the books - and one more to go: the 15 F1 Academy drivers have put on a show in front of the F1 audience at Circuit of the Americas, having put their names out there on the biggest stage to date. Race 3 will wrap up the season on Sunday morning at 09:40 local - but the all female series is just getting started.