Mercedes junior Luna Fluxa was one of the highlights of the inaugural race meeting of the new Champions Of The Future Academy series, launched at Abu Dhabi. With two top 5 finishes in the finals, Luna battled for the podium and was among the fastest on track at the Al Forsan facility, which saw many female drivers across the categories.
The all-female F1 Academy championship announced a partnership with leading karting promoter 'Champions of the Future' for the new Academy Program, a new international series aimed at spotting young talents in a more accessible environment thanks to an innovative format and with particular attention to improving opportunities for young girls moving up the ranks of karting and motorsport.
With the aim of increasing female participation at the base of the racing pyramid, the COTF Academy Program has put in place a system of cost control, with limits on entry fees and an engine and chassis lottery that ensures equality of equipment in the spec series.
Unlike F1 Academy, COTFA is a mixed-gender championship, featuring three categories: Mini (8 to 11 years of age), Juniors (11 to 14) and Seniors (14 to 17). F1 Academy – which is aiming to use the new series as a platform to raise awareness on its talent identification initiatives – plans to support three female drivers in each category, by providing entry fees and by inviting the top three female karters in the Senior category to a F1 Academy test.
The Champions of the Future Academy program is scheduled to host six international events in 2024 – and launched its first ever event this week in Abu Dhabi, at the Al Forsan racetrack. 94 drivers across the three classes took to the Emirati karting venue, including 15 female drivers.
The opening event saw several female racers shine in their respective classes, competing for the top ten and some of them breaking in the top five across the qualifying heats and the finals. Practice and qualifying went underway on Monday, while heats and the first final were contested on Tuesday – and the schedule repeated on Wednesday.
One of the highlights of the week was 13 year old Luna Fluxa Cross, already a Mercedes-signed driver after remarkable results in the last couple of years.
Luna has made her debut in the Junior category this year with Prema Racing, and continued to impress at her first COTFA outing, with several top five finishes in the heats and often battling for a podium, including in the finals.
Fluxa qualified sixth for the opening day and was seventh in the first heat, having run among the front-runners in the early stages. She then had a stronger second heat with her first fourth place of the event, after battling for the podium. In the third heat she was once again in the top five - and aimed to continue the trend in the first final, where she had a great start and was up to fourth, before settling in sixth. In the closing stages, thanks to a series of fast laps and drivers battling ahead, Fluxa was able to get back into the fight for the podium, but an unfortunate contact in the closing laps meant that she crossed the finish line in fifth place - in yet another really strong race for the Spaniard.
On the second day, Luna qualified in eighth for the heats – but was once again fourth in the first race of the day, with clean and decisive passes and fast laps that defined her entire race week. In the third qualifying heat, Fluxa was even closer to securing a top three, but a contact on the final lap shuffled her down the order and would finish P15.
Nevertheless, her pace clearly showed a big potential and tried once again to snatch a podium position in the second final; Luna traded the fastest lap throughout the race with James Anagnostiadis and, running solidly in fourth, she closed in on the leading trio until making a move stick for third. Separated by tenths of a second, the leaders were engaged in a close fight until the final laps, where Luna Fluxa eventually lost momentum and dropped to fourth, completing a really strong round in the Champions of the Future Academy series at Al Forsan as the female standout. Luna is now fourth in the championship standings.
Also competing in the OK-N Junior category, 2022 FIA Girls On Track finalist Sara Matsui also enjoyed a great showing in Abu Dhabi; the Japanese driver had pace for the top ten and consistently battled her way up the order. After a P15 in the first heat on day 1, Matsui fought back in heat 2, where she gained one place from her starting position to finish eighth.
Despite a strong start, she was just outside the top-10 in heat 3 – then had her best race of the week in the first final, where she fought elbows out in eighth place, before taking the chequered flag in an outstanding sixth place.
On the second day, Matsui continued to run with the top 10 and claimed an eighth, and two seventh place finishes in Wednesday's qualifying heats, displaying consistency and patience in the races. From P7, Sara held position in the second final and brought home more valuable points.
The OK-N Junior class was one of the busiest ones for female drivers; Spanish racer Angelina Simons Torres – who made the step from the X30 Mini to the Junior class this year – had an equally positive round, frequently snatching great results: from a tenth place in heat 1, where she gained four positions from her qualifying spot, to a personal best of ninth place in the first final, Simons Torres secured another top 10 in the first heat on day 2, but couldn't then replicate the first day performance in the second final, where she held 15th.
Malaysia's karting hopeful Katrina Ee Wing Thung had some strong runs and always made up positions in each race. After qualifying 21st fastest in Q1, she moved her way forward in the heats, collecting two P16 finishes on the first day - but was unfortunately unable to continue the progress in the first final, where she had to retire on the first lap following contact. On the second day, the fast Malaysian had to make her way up from 23rd on the grid, but battled smartly and claimed several top-15s, including in two heats - where she gained 9 spots – and on the second final.
Part of the Alpine Rac(H)er programme – which supports some of the most exciting female prospects in karting under the expert mentorship of Alice Powell, Mariachiara Nardelli had the most unlucky week in the Emirates; the young Italian had shown good pace to battle around the top ten and had qualified in an encouraging 12th in Q1. After holding position in the first heat, she finished P13 and P11 in the following heats – which was a positive result ahead of the final. Unfortunately, Nardelli was out of the race on lap 6, and would have to fight back on the second day.
There was no luck again for the young Alpine racer, as she dropped down the order in both the heats and then couldn't finish either the qualifying heat 3 as well as the second final, where she was out on the first lap, in a frustrating end to an otherwise encouraging week of good pace.
Ella Emilia Hakkinen is collecting experience in the category and had a character-building week following an unlucky qualifying that hampered her event: Hakkinen couldn't set a lap time in Q1 and was P22 in Q2, meaning that she had to charge from the back of the field in all races. The driver representing Monaco moved up the order on day 1, grabbing two top-20s, including a P18 in the final. With a P16 in the second heat on day 2, Hakkinen topped her best result of the week having gained six places - and was then protagonist of a solid recovery in the second final, when she salvaged a 17th across the finish line despite an issue at the start.
Singapore's Kareen Kaur, 13, has just started her international karting career after excelling on home soil; while starting from the back of the pack, Kaur ran smoothly and picked up places, finishing both finals in P19. Kaur had a particularly solid second day, as she claimed three top-20 finishes out of four races.
The Mini class was dominated by Swiss racer Dan Allemann – nephew of former female racing star and current TV presenter Cyndie Allemann, who raced in European F3, IndyLights, Le Mans 24H and Super GT, among the others. Dan had great competition from Belgian Priam Bruno, but managed to come out on top of all but one heat, and won both Finals.
Behind them, though, there were plenty of interesting stories, also including another prestigious name: Victoria Farfus showed good speed in all the heats and consistently battled in the top end of the classification, making good passes and overall displaying very promising pace. Farfus made up one position in the first heat on Tuesday to finish P15, but an unfortunate contact in the second heat resulted in a penalty that took her out of contention and proved costly in the starting position for the first final, where she would finish P30.
On the second day, though, the young Brazilian bounced back with a series of strong results; she was in the top ten in the first heat before being demoted to P14 following a 5 second penalty, and fell to 19th from seventh on the grid after an unfortunate second heat. She finally capitalized and claimed a positive seventh place in heat 3, having battled at the top of the pack for the whole race. In the final, Farfus was unfortunate and dropped down the order in the opening stages, eventually finishing P17.
Sofia Povazhnaia also qualified in the midfield but was often the protagonist of great charges through the pack. 16th in the first heat on day 1, she ended up with a penalty in the red-flag disrupted second heat, before also another challenging heat 3. In the final, though, she made up 8 places to finish P15, with strong pace and good battles.
On day 2, the young driver representing Italy carried momentum and was eighth from P11 on the grid in the first heat the day, before a breakthrough third place in heat 3. It was the only female podium of the week. In Wednesday's final, Povazhnaia had another strong showing: despite dropping down to the tail end on lap 1, she managed to recover all the way up to P16, clearly with top ten-worthy pace.
Also interesting was Ava Lawrence's weekend; the driver based in the UAE made consistency her biggest asset and kept climbing the order in both days, often finishing in the top ten. After qualifying P22, Ava gained 8 spots in heat 1 to finish P14 and as the best girl, then was again in the top-15 in heat 2 and did even better in heat 3, with a P13 that saw her gaining 9 places. Lawrence was again the top of the female racers in the first final with a highly positive P10 – which she topped with a P7 on the second day's first heat. Just outside the top-10 in the following heats, Ava started P11 in the last final and took the chequered flag in P13.
Also racing on home soil, Atiqa Mir had a highlight of 18th in the final heat of day 1, when she recovered 10 places from her starting position, echoing a P19 from 28th on the grid in heat 1. She was 24th and 28th in the two finals.
In the OK-N Senior category, which runs on identical Kart Republic powered by IAME engines like the OK-N Junior, the female highlight of the Al Forsan round was Elizaveta Kozlova, who often had pace to move up the order into the top-15.
The 15 year old was 24th in Q1, but could recover to P18 in the opening heat despite a 5 second time penalty for track limits. She then did even better in the following heat, where she was P15 after gaining 9 places. After a retirement in heat 3, Kozlova started 21st in the first final and would have finished again in the top-15, before a 5 second penalty for the front fairing. On the second day, Kozlova had stronger runs and gained 9, 8 and 7 places in the three heats, before securing a stellar P9 in the second final, thanks to a clean performance.
She now sits 13th in the drivers' standings with 8 points.
Moroccan talent Sofia Zanfari was also making up a great number of positions on Tuesday, despite a challenging qualifying that resulted in starts from 33rd on the grid. Her best results of the day were two P25, with a P27 in the final. The second day was off to a more difficult start for Zanfari, with two retirements on the first lap in the qualifying heats. She then recovered in the final - with a strong charge that saw the Moroccan finishing P22, having gained 13 places from the start.
Irina Kanina, 15 representing Kyrgyzstan, alternated good recoveries to unfortunate DNFs: she was out of the race in the first lap in four out of the 8 contests, but still salvaged two top-20 on the first day, including in the final, from 28th on the grid.
Ayşe Çebi, from Turkey, made good improvements throughout the week; her best results were a pair of P26 in the first heats of each day - the first coming from 35th on the grid and despite picking up a 5 second penalty for front fairing. She made up 26 places across the first day, and was on course to keep up the progress on the second day, but she eventually had to retire at the start of the second final.
While the Al Forsan double header allowed the drivers to get acquainted with the equipment and with the format, six more race weekends are now expected to be held in 2024, three of which will be contested in Europe and three outside of the European Union. The next round is scheduled for 27-31 March.