As we quickly approach the second round of the brand-new F1 Academy championship, here are some of the takeaways from the first weekend at Spielberg and what we can expect at Valencia.
One week after the first ever round of the all-female F1 Academy championship we are already packing up for Valencia, where the second round of the season will get underway.
The Austrian weekend was all about discovering the features of the new series, how the drivers would adapt to the new Tatuus cars and to their new teams.
And the opening weekend turned out to be a thriller, with on-track action, closely fought qualifyings and great battles for the race lead; Marta García (Prema Racing) became the first ever race winner in F1 Academy, bagging both the 30-minute races, while Amna Al Qubaisi - at her return to a full-time campaign in several years - drove spectacularly in the reverse-grid race to claim a dominant win.
Here's a few takeaway points from the weekend at Spielberg.
On the eve of the curtain-raiser, two drivers had really made their mark after testing: Abbi Pulling and Marta García. Both drivers were front-runners in W Series in the more powerful Formula Regional car, claiming podiums, pole positions and a race win (García, Norisring 2019). Inevitably, their names were associated to championship ambitions in the brand-new series and, at Red Bull Ring, they clearly confirmed this.
But what it was also clear early on from the practice sessions, is that the series is not going to be a 2-way fight for the crown. Multiple drivers have potential and pace to win races and will no doubt challenge for the title: the Al Qubaisi sisters have found at MP Motorsport a good environment to thrive and Amna emerged as the runner up in the drivers' standings after the first three races.
Her sister Hamda, a 6-time race winner in F4 before, struggled in pre-season testing, as she came to terms with a bad wrist fracture two months before the start of the championship. After a tough physical training and rehabilitation, Hamda showed in Austria that she will certainly be in the title fight: whilst not yet at 100% form and following a technical issue that forced her to start from the back of the grid, Al Qubaisi charged through the field, completed 26 overtakes throughout the races and battled for the win in race 3.
But one of the most exciting facts about the first round - partially observed also in testing - is how competitive the rest of the field is. 7 out of 15 drivers stood on the podium at Spielberg, and the midfield is often separated by thousands of a second in every sessions.
We're in for some great racing.
Abbi Pulling was notably missing from the podium in Austria, after a remarkably unfortunate round. Pulling had conquered two pole positions, but a technical infringement resulted in Rodin Carlin having all their three cars disqualified. From the back of the field, Pulling still made the most out of the situation and grabbed a fastest lap and two fourth places.
Carlin though, was not the only team incurring in post-inspections issues: Campos Racing's Nerea Martí was second in the inaugural race, but was also disqualified and lost a podium. According to the teams, both sanctions were due to non-performance-gaining infringements. The issues come from two teams that compete in other F4 championships, also using the same Tatuus T421 chassis: while the cars employed are in fact basically identical - except for a slightly different aero package - there are a few minor rule differencies in the technical regulations, designed to keep the costs down for teams and drivers.
While there was no performance gained, those differences in the procedures likely caught out those teams at the season opener, but as we approach the second round, everyone will be surely more aware and similar issues are less likely to occur.
Another difference from most F4 series is the amount of tyre sets allowed per driver: eahh car receives 3 and a half sets of new tyres – and is allowed to carry sets from the previous event. This is also likely to play a factor during the weekends, as we've seen at Red Bull Ring during practice, when teams such as MP Motorsport sat out entirely the first morning session to save a set.
Tyre strategies will play a major role on tracks like Valencia and Barcelona, and will reward drivers with the better management.
One of the single most important features of the F1 Academy concept is the amount of track time that allows drivers to develop.
A key example is represented by Bianca Bustamante, who made her single seater debut last year – straight in Formula Regional machinery – and had a difficult season of adaptation with limited track time and no testing allowed by W Series.
Having joined Prema, Bustamante started a testing programme with the Italian team, contested the F4 UAE season and, at the first round of the F1 Academy championship, the Filipina qualified on the front row for the first and the third race, showing a huge step forward in barely a couple of months.
As the season progresses and drivers continue to stack up precious mileage, we are certainly going to witness to the younger and less experienced drivers making leaps forward.
A driver that impressed with her progression was Carrie Schreiner. The 24 year old German was making her return to single seaters after a seven year stint in GT racing – where she continues to compete – and had a whole new car and form of racing to re-learn. While Schreiner had a bit of a gap to close at the start of testing, coming into the first weekend she was already comfortably mid-pack.
At ART Grand Prix – a hugely successful team in junior formulae but at its first season working with Formula 4 cars – both driver and team are learning and progressing after each session.
The only rookie in race cars – British-Canadian Chloe Chong – scored points with a spectacular first race and confirmed her potential previously hinted in testing. Pace is there, as well as the reference from her fast teammates. With a few more races under her belt, it wouldn't be surprising to see the youngest driver on the grid break into the top five by the end of the season.
At the technical Circuito Ricardo Tormo of Valencia, two teams will have more references and data to rely on: Campos and MP Motorsport, as both outfits have been highly competitive in the Spanish F4 Championship.
In the pre-event test, in fact, Nerea Martí (Campos) and the Al Qubaisi sisters (MP Motorsport) topped the sessions.
Martí in particular is possibly the driver with the highest amount of kilometers completed around the Valencian track, as she literally lives in close proximity of the facility.
But she will clearly have competition also from another Valencian: two time race winner and current championship leader Marta García, eager to carry momentum at her home race.
The first practice session is set to get underway on Friday at 09:40 local time, followed by a second practice at 12:30.
The two qualifying sessions will set the grids with two 15-minute sessions at 16:25 and 16:45.