"Hamda was getting closer and closer, but I wanted that win." – The F1 Academy first ever race winner and current championship leader talks us through the highs and the challenges of the Austrian weekend, ahead of her home race in Valencia.
Marta García made history on Saturday morning, becoming the first ever winner of the brand-new F1 Academy series – a F1-supported F4 championship aimed at maximising young female drivers' track time and opportunities to move up the single-seater ladder.
The Valencian took victories in both race 1 and 3 – the highest points-paying contests – and now leads the drivers' standings over the Al Qubaisi sisters Amna and Hamda, as well as Alpine Academy's Abbi Pulling. García secured her second and third victories in formulas, after winning in dominant fashion the 2019 W Series Norisring round.
At the inaugural weekend of F1 Academy, the grid of 15 up-and-coming female talents turned out to be a lot closer than initially imagined, with several drivers able to contest for the win on pace, as well as an incredibly tightly-fought midfield all the way down the order.
Abbi Pulling and Marta García were looking strong candidates after pre-season testing, and certainly confirmed their speed at Red Bull Ring - but Amna and Hamda Al Qubaisi are clearly in for the title fight.
Pulling and García went heat to head in qualifying – with a technical issue taking Hamda Al Qubaisi out of contention for pole position – and while Pulling took the top spot in both sessions, a technical disqualification for team Rodin Carlin put the British racer at the back of the field and the Spaniard in the best position possible for the races.
García went on to battle for the first, historic win with her compatriot Nerea Martí in race 1, before opening a big gap and cruising to victory.
"[The beginning of] race 1 was okay, I had a normal start, but Nerea then overtook me at the exit of turn 3 because she had a better flow", Marta explained, summing up her first race. "But I overtook her again at the next corner. We had the safety car and I was first."
"At the restart of the safety car I took a bit of a gap but then I had a problem on the straight when my limiter came in. It was a bit scary, because I thought that something was happening, but then it was okay again. Nerea, though, was P1 again - she overtook me on the straight line - and I had to recover again."
"I thought let's see where I can overtake her, and I passed her again for P1."
While the weather had managed to stay dry until the final laps, the closing stages brought yet another challenge to the drivers, who had to figure out the changing conditions to the chequered flag.
"At the end of the race, when I took a gap, it started to rain and it was really tricky conditions", she continued. "I managed it quite well and extended the gap."
With no mistakes, the 22-year-old Prema driver bagged the first win of the season: "It was really good, I'm happy with that", Marta said.
The shorter 20-minute race 2 set the starting order based on the top-8 from qualifying 1 in reverse order. García would thus line up in eighth place, forcing the race 1 winner to make up ground.
"In race 2 we started P8 and we didn't want to risk too much, because we obviously wanted to try to get the win in race 3 from pole", García explained. With such a condensed schedule with three races over Saturday, bringing the car home was the main goal to capitalize on points in race 3.
"I was like keep calm, try to have a good start but don't go too crazy. So that's what we did, I was quite conservative, maybe too much, but it was okay though."
García finished seventh, one place ahead of Abbi Pulling, who had to start from the back in all three races.
"The last race was quite tense to be fair. I lined up P1 and the start was good - I even took a big advantage from the other drivers because they were fighting a bit, so for me it was good", García told us. "But car-wise, it was a bit more difficult – I had more understeer and was struggling a bit. I was on new tyres, but apparently I got to a point where I was struggling and I knew Hamda was coming back quite fast from behind."
Al Qubaisi, who started last after sitting out qualifying due to a technical issue, was charging through the field with great pace.
"We thought that she would catch me with one or two laps to go, because it was a big gap [to close], but she was quite fast and she caught up earlier." "I had a problem with the limiter again on the straight and I was so scared – I thought oh my God this can't be happening. Hamda was getting closer and closer, but I wanted that win."
"We deserved the win after all the work, so it was all about defense, defense, defense. That's what I did, mostly at turn 1, 3 and 4, where you can actually overtake. I did quite well, I'm confident in defending."
After superb performances, both drivers had a clean, exciting duel in the final laps but Marta García never put a foot wrong and crossed the line three tenths ahead of the Emirati racer, thus claiming two wins out of three in the F1 Academy season opener.
"I'm really happy with the weekend – the last one was a tough race and it felt even better, as the first one was a bit more 'chill' let's say", Marta commented. But now it's already time to look forward. "We have to keep working – next week we have Valencia, which is my home race. I will also have some family and friends coming to see", she said, yet remarking the fact that the focus will stay on the race track. "I know the track quite well and we're hoping for a good weekend there as well."
Leading the standings with now 58 points – 22 points clear of Amna Al Qubaisi – García was the most consistent driver throughout the weekend, from two second places in practice and just thousandths behind Pulling in qualifying. The Spaniard capitalized on the tough weekend of Abbi Pulling – whose weekend was hampered by the qualifying penalty. "For me it's okay championship-wise, but I feel like it's a shame because obviously she was fast all weekend and she could have had much better results", Marta told us, genuinely feeling for her competitor. "Shit happens, and anything can still happen to anyone."
"I think the next race will be even tighter, because if everything's fine, we will be fighting again for the top positions."