Point-scoring debut in race cars for Chloe Chong
"We just really need to start learning how to put it all together in the races" – At her single-seater debut, the youngest driver on the F1 Academy grid had a highly promising first race, scoring great points to build on in the next rounds.
Scoring points at racing debut is certainly not something we get to see every day in the sport. When the driver is the youngest on the grid, making their step up from karting and in a field of colleagues with multiple years of experience in F4 or even Formula Regional machinery - and said driver is only half satisfied, knowing there is more to come, you know you're witnessing something special.
Chloe Chong, 16 year old British-Canadian, completed her very first weekend in car racing with a seventh place finish at Red Bull Ring, which gained the Prema driver her first six points of her career.
Chong joined the Italian team as one of the dark horses of the all-new F1 Academy season, the female-only championship promoted by F1 with the aim of creating a pathway for up-and-coming talents up the ranks of the single-seater ladder. Selected for last year's edition of the Girls On Track - Rising Stars programme, Chong went on to advance up to the Ferrari driving camp at Maranello, as one of the four finalists. Being the least experienced of the lot, in fact, never scared her: Chloe is a fast learner and continued the positive trend during her first tests in F4.
Having signed with one of the top teams in junior formula racing, Chong showed improvements at an impressive pace.
“There is no goal", she had told us last month, ahead of the first collective tests. "For me the main thing is that I improve every time I go out in the car and I get more used to the car. If I feel like I've improved, this means we've done a good job."
This mentality really allowed her to start testing with no set goals - and the stopwatch rewarded her. She was quickly in the top ten, and kept getting closer to the top five especially on race pace. A truly outstanding progression for a rookie.
At the same time, she knew that the first round of the season at the Red Bull Ring would bring a whole new set of different challenges compared to testing: she would need to learn to maximise her potential in qualifying, battle wheel-to-wheel in the races, overtake. And manage the pressure of a racing weekend.
In the pre-event test on Thursday, Chong was second fastest, in yet another stellar performance for the British teenager. Pace was clearly there.
The very cold temperatures on Friday morning made the official practice sessions quite tricky as well as not extremely useful, given the tyre set limitations and the changing weather conditions for the afternoon. And indeed rain came for the two 15-minute qualifying sessions, which meant that Chong went out for the first time in the wet.
While she was on a very good lap towards the end of Q1, Chong unfortunately made a small mistake and went off at the final corner, leaving the Prema #14 in tenth place on the grid for race 1 and last on the grid for race 3.
With a brilliant first race, though, Chloe cut her teeth in the extremely close battles in the midfield, made some good passes, gained places and finished sixth – in a superb single-seater debut. A few post-race shuffles eventually resulted in Chong being classified in seventh, which takes nothing away from her achievement.
In the second race of the weekend, Chong again had some good fights in the mid-pack, but was hit with a few track limit penalties that limited her chances to progress.
In race 3, she rounded out her weekend with another strong performance: from last on the grid, Chong traded positions with Gilkes, De Heus and Lovinfosse, showing good racecraft. She crossed the finish line in P11, just outside the points-paying position.
"First weekend in cars obviously, so I just wanted to put it all together, learn a bit about the racing - because we've already proved that in the tests we have top five pace quite easily, so we just really need to start learning how to put it all together in the races because that's the main point of where I struggled this weekend", Chong commented.
"Especially in qualifying in the wet for the first time", she continued, summing up her first weekend in race cars. "We can't control the weather, so there's not much we can do about that – we know that the pace is there, we just need to keep chipping away with the team, because they're doing a great job and I know that we can get there."
Chong has the mindset of a driver that knows she has the potential to do well, and is always aiming a bit higher. It's a winning approach that pushes her further each time she gets in the car and, with a good foundation to build on, there is no doubt she will continue to impress.
"I look forward to next week, because I know that I can take the stuff that I learnt here to Valencia and hopefully we can see a bit more points, because I'm not done with just these points this year!"