From the F4 setback to a F1 Academy contract: the rise of Abbi Pulling
Abbi Pulling is about to start her first full season in W Series, with a fresh contract in a F1 team junior programme. Here’s how she returned to dream big after having to halt her F4 journey in 2021.
"I have to end my 2021 campaign early due to lack of funding. Due to this, I’ve had some really hard days." – This is what Abbi Pulling, 18, posted on her social media accounts last September, announcing she would halt her British F4 season.
"I’m absolutely heartbroken that this is the outcome, as I thought this year would play out much differently", she continued, having entered her sophomore season with championship ambitions.
Six months later, she is about to start her first full-time campaign in W Series with winning potential and with a F1 team's Driver Academy contract in the bag.
The British driver – a multiple national karting champion – moved her first steps in car racing in the Ginetta Junior, one of the most popular forms of racing for youngsters in the UK. She then moved up to British F4 in 2020, where Pulling immediately proved to be a podium contender in her rookie season.
Pulling started a fruitful collaboration with Alice Powell as her mentor and driver coach which brought the JHR Developments driver to four podiums and 20 top ten finishes in 2020, as well as a one-off round in Formula Regional European Championship that gave Abbi the first taste of F3 machinery.
With the realistic aim of clinching her first win and fight for the title, Pulling opted to stay in British F4 for a second season in 2021. The speed was there, and she soon stepped back on the podium – but a few unlucky circumstances made her life extra difficult, denying her of that title contender status she had hoped for. It all went wrong after the summer break, when Pulling announced she would be halting her campaign due to financial difficulties.
What could have been yet another sad story of a lost talent along the cruel path of the overly-expensive single seater ladder, turned into one of the great stories of 2021 thanks to W Series – the free-to-enter championship for women.
Pulling had in fact been invited to pre-season testing at Anglesey and impressed the W Series organization, which decided to add her to the reserve driver stable.
In a March 2021 interview with Racers, Pulling commented on the possibility of one day racing in W Series and sharing the track with her mentor Alice Powell – a scenario that both looked forward with mutual respect yet playful rivalry: "Imagine a double AP podium!" joked Abbi. "I'd be first obviously, but I'd consider letting her win".
"From a professional point of view, it would be a great stepping stone for her to progress", added Powell. "And then from a non-professional side, I'd try not to embarass her too much".
"We're both extremely competitive, but at the same time we help each other and push each other along" – continued the W Series runner-up. "I think I could still learn stuff from Abbi and vice-versa, either on and off the track".
Pulling made her W Series debut at the British GP at Silverstone, finishing eighth after an impressive race in the PUMA car. But, when she was left without a seat, her priority changed.
"I was committed to British F4 because that was the championship that I thought I would do the full campaign of, and I thought I could be at the front", she recalled.
"Pace-wise I could be, but something just didn't fall into place last year and it was a bit of a downer." W Series then stepped up to give her a second chance – even though, for Pulling, that meant quickly having to adjust her preparation and approach each weekend with a race-by-race mindset.
"I wasn't doing the same level of prep as I was for the F4. It was Thruxton and then Zandvoort straight after – and I hadn't done too much for Zandvoort because I was focusing on Thruxton."
"Learning that I wasn't doing the championship anymore was a low point in the year".
"I had to get on a flight the next day and go to Zandvoort and do all my prep there for the next four days and then get in the car", Pulling recalled.
"The F4 is significantly lighter than the W Series car – it's down to the power and the weight and it's quite tough to jump from the F4 to this, so it has been a lot about getting stronger to get the most out of the car because it can be a limiting factor every now and then. Also, Zandvoort was the most physical track on the calendar last year, so I was limited in the aspect of strength at that circuit, but I was very pleased about how I qualified, even though I didn't get the maximum out of the car in some areas of the track."
Pulling had driven on the Dutch track in the Ginetta GT5 before, albeit on the older layout prior to the circuit renovation and the addition of the banked corners. Still, she could see some similarities with Oulton Park – which she describes as one of her favourite tracks – and had the chance to study some data from the Formula Regional European Championship's races in June.
Despite the little preparation, Pulling was again in the points, and among the few drivers able to make up positions in the race after a great battle with Belén Garcia.
But, as she approached the season finale at Circuit of the Americas, she knew she had a big task: getting into the top eight and securing a spot on the grid in 2022, despite only having entered half the season.
"It was quite hard in that aspect, but when I had the time to prepare for COTA I knew what was going on – and it was just W Series [on my mind] and I showed the level of prep that I put in into the results." – Pulling told us.
She went on to score her first pole position and a podium – ultimately finishing seventh in the standings and securing a race seat.
"Going into the weekend there were no expectations really, it was just focusing on the prep work that I had been doing and just do what I can. The expectations came with the qualifying results", she explained. "Race 1 was a bit disappointing, but I learned a lot in the aspect of the tyre evolution and I took that into the second race. It was just about maintaining the gap behind to Emma [Kimiläinen], and it felt amazing to be on the podium."
"I learned a lot as well in mindset – going into it focusing on the preparation and the outcome would come in itself."
This is a crucial approach that Pulling is looking forward to applying throughout 2022, her first full season as a W Series racer.
"I went into last year with expectations and I knew that I was quick – but that is not always the case. There are so many factors. I kind of got myself in a knot at one point, whether it was my fault or not, the stars just didn't align."
"Going forward, the mindset now is more similar to what I had at COTA: just preparation and outcome."
Along with her W Series chance, Pulling did get to share the track with her coach, in a peculiar working relationship that is continuing into 2022 despite the drivers now being effectively rivals.
"I've been very lucky to have Alice" – Abbi told us. "She said to me before that she sees some potential in me. Last year we worked really closely together – even in W Series, we were still walking the track together, we were cross-referencing our notes and things like that. We were still our AP Team; it's not really differentiated much over the winter. We realized it's gonna be tough, because we are racing each other and we're close friends."
"We are rivals at the end of the day now, but I think we have that mutual respect for each other that we wouldn't do anything stupid; if one of us outraces the other is fair enough, you deserve that. We know how good each other are and how we work. It'll be an interesting year, but I don't think there will be any love loss – no matter how we finish in the championship."
And that mutual respect and genuine friendship is always present in the words of both drivers. Powell – a clear title contender – would often mention her protegé as one of the drivers to beat this year – with authentic pride about her progress rather than rivalry.
Powell, though, is right: Abbi Pulling has the potential to start winning races in W Series – and the youngster has a clear plan to start off where she left in Texas: all preparation and no expectations.
"[Thinking] race by race is probably the best for myself", she explained. "I think different people have different ways, but it's about consistency in the long run for me. I think it would be the best way to challenge for the title."
"Even last year, Jamie [Chadwick] fell out of the top-five at one point – and so did Alice – they both had their one-off round where they didn't quite perform or they had a problem. It's just about always being there and I think I don't want to have expectations – I just want to focus on myself and on what I can do on track, and then the rest will follow. I just have to stay in that mindset and not stray from the path."
At the three-day collective test at Barcelona, Pulling was announced as part of the Racing X team - the outfit that brought her mentor to the Vice-Champion title in 2021. In the #49 dark grey and orange car, Abbi was back in the rythm and collected valuable data for the season.
"The test was good, I learned a lot. Obviously it's useful being around this circuit, you can test the amount of things you can change on the setup" – she said. "I think we got a better understanding of what to do and how the tyre ages and things like that. I had a really positive race run and I'm quite happy with where I stand – and quite excited for Miami."
The third on-track season of the all-female championship is in fact about to get underway in less than two month's time at the brand new Miami street circuit, in support of the first ever Miami Grand Prix. With W Series expanding to a more international operation, the event is certainly among the most anticipated of the season.
To complete a phenomenal year – made even more dramatic by its highs and lows – Abbi Pulling was announced as the first female driver in the Alpine Academy, becoming the third W Series driver with ties to a F1 team. From halting her F4 campaign to a F1 young driver programme: despite some criticism for the return of two-time champion Jamie Chadwick, W Series proved its point with Abbi Pulling.
With support from the Alpine Affiliate programme, now Pulling can return to dream big.
"In the future, obviously F1 is the direction that I want to go in and I've made that quite clear", she explained. "I want to move on from W Series. I love W Series and I see it as a stepping stone to progress your career, to get that kind of exposure as a female."
"They're giving us this experience around global tracks – which is vital in our careers, moving on."
"If I go to FIA F3 we might end up racing in Miami or Austin or Budapest again. I want to continue down the single seater ladder and it was something that was only a possibility because of W Series."
Abbi Pulling belongs to the first generation of drivers starting their journey in single seaters with the option of W Series as a viable path – and, while long term results might still be difficult to predict, the increasing female presence at F4-level is undeniably an encouraging sign. "I wouldn't have gone into F4 if W Series didn't come around" – Pulling agreed. "The aim was always to get into W Series and then, hopefully, use that to progress in my career."
Whether she will be the one to finally shatter that glass ceiling we don't know. But surely the higher and higher level of W Series rookies, ahead of the new season, couldn't be more exciting.