Abbi Pulling, Hamda Al Qubaisi, Nerea Marti and Chloe Chambers completed the second edition of the women-oriented FIA Formula 3 test at Magny-Cours: here are their reactions on the car and their hopes to step up to the series.
Four of the most promising female single-seater prospects were given the chance to test the Dallara F3 19 – the car employed in the FIA Formula 3 Championship – as part of an effort from FIA F2 and FIA F3 to facilitate a pathway for women in F1's top feeder series. The initiative was launched in 2021 by Bruno Michel, CEO of F2 and F3, in response as the lack of female entries in his championships. Tatiana Calderon raced in F2 in 2019 – and has returned this year for the final four rounds of the championship - while Sophia Floersch was the last woman to enter F3 in 2020. Only 7 women have raced in the series since its inception (under the brand of GP3 Series) in 2010. Without a woman on the F1 grid in almost 50 years, calls for a diversified talent pool started to be more vocal. Furthermore, as W Series became part of the F1 weekend format, it became paramount for the series' champion to find a path to move up the ladder. So far, despite W Series' unprecedented prize money structure, its champion has struggled to find a seat in FIA F3 due to the skyrocketing budget required for a seat in the top teams. The FIA F3 female-oriented test is an important first step that allows four selected women to have a first taste of the car, understand the machinery and the challenges of the series. In its first edition in 2021, two W Series drivers and two drivers from the Iron Dames roster took to the track at Magny Cours: impressive W Series Academy rookies Nerea Marti and Irina Sidorkova, alongside Maya Weug and Doriane Pin. Three W Series drivers were invited to the second edition: Abbi Pulling, Chloe Chambers and Tereza Babickova. The Czech driver, unfortunately, was unable to join the test after she was injured in Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine the week before, and was replaced by Nerea Marti - who would thus return behind the wheel of a F3 for the second time. Also invited was Hamda Al Qubaisi – the 20 year old Emirati driver that is contesting her rookie campaign in FRECA, possibly the closest and most competitive championship to FIA F3. The two-day test was held once again at Circuit Nevers Magny-Cours, former home of the French GP until 2008, with FIA F3 champion Victor Martins to set reference lap times, with ART Grand Prix operating the cars and helping the drivers getting up to speed with setups. The goal was in fact very much a preliminary approach to the car's setups and the Pirelli tyres, which are increasingly important to understand in any feeder series on the path to F1 – especially in qualifying. But freshly-crowned champion Victor Martins – as well as Magny.Cours Racing School's instructor Julien Gilbert - revealed to be invaluable assets and coached the four drivers throughout the two days. On Friday, Hamda Al Qubaisi and Alpine Academy associate driver Abbi Pulling, while Chloe Chambers and returning driver Nerea Marti hit the track on Saturday – with each driver completing a total of 50 laps. Following Martins' reference laps in the morning, the two drivers went out to learn the car, in a series of installation laps, short runs and data analysis sessions. In the afternoon, they were put to test with two qualifying simulations on new Pirelli tyres, followed by a race simulation of 12 laps on higher fuel load. This also gave them the chance to test DRS for the first time, with two zones activated.
While there was a lot to process for such a single test day, each driver felt they had learnt a lot, as Abbi Pulling explained after her runs: “There was a lot to learn today, not only about the car, but also about myself. I came here with a big smile on my face. I really enjoyed it a lot. It’s been really amazing to work with the F3 team. It’s been a productive day." For all drivers, the main focus points revealed to be understanding and extracting the maximum out of the Pirelli tyres while managing degradation – as well as coming to terms with the huge amount of downforce that the Dallara F3 car produces. "The first outing, I was shocked with the speed and the downforce." – said Hamda Al Qubaisi. "I am amazed how it works." "Step by step, I was getting more confident in the car, I tried to improve my laps and my driving. I’m really happy with how the day went. I think it is a really good step forward, and I had a really good feeling with the car." The biggest challenge for me was the aero, the downforce is massive." – Pulling echoed. "To get your head around it at first was a lot. Once you realise that when you go faster actually you get more grip, it’s better." "It was the biggest thing to adapt to, getting the confidence to not put your feet off the throttle and just keep it in really, especially entering the fast chicanes, to get the aero to work, you have to turn in flat. It’s different from what I am used to." Interestingly, Pulling – who is part of the Alpine Academy programme since 2022 and is at her first full season in W Series – was the only driver that had driven even more powerful cars, as she had the chance to taste F1 machinery on two occasions: a demo run in Riyadh and one at Silverstone. For Chloe Chambers, it was the third F3 car with very different specs to learn in less than a year: the American, coming off a season of F4, tested the Formula Regional Americas, before moving to the W Series Tatuus Formula Regional – and now the more powerful Dallara. "I definitely learned a lot, I made some improvements, and it was good to just experience this, especially in a car that’s so different to everything else I’ve driven." – she said. "It was good to get a taste of it." “The most challenging thing was trusting the grip of the car. I’ve never driven a car with this much downforce and these soft tyres, especially compared to the W Series car, there are huge differences in how much lateral load you can put onto the tyres. That’s something that I need some time to get used to." As Hamda Al Qubaisi explained, Victor Martins was always ready to offer his advice and guide the four drivers through the data, as they learned to carry more speed into the corners. “Victor helped a lot." – Hamda continued. "His advice is very straight-forward and clear. He helped me a lot with understanding the car. He’s the one who told me you don’t really know how much speed you can carry in the high-speed corners until you do it. So, he’s a big help. To have the FIA F3 Champion coach us, and he was very humble and kind to us, it was great to have him with us. His approach was really good.” "You think you’re fast, but then you go faster on the next lap and realise that the car is stable, so there’s always a big margin, especially in the high-speed corners. I think that is one thing I noticed a lot in this test." – the Emirati racer recalled.
With big fields of over 30 cars separated by hundredths of a second, qualifying performance is such a crucial moment in a race weekend; that often comes down to the driver's understanding of the tyre. The Hankook tyre used in W Series, is often described to have less peak of performance compared to the Pirelli, but is more stable and has less degradation. “The tyre warm-up procedure is quite different from what I am used to." – Pulling said. "The tyre degradation, in the morning, after the few short runs we did, you could feel it creeping in. It gave you an idea going into the race simulation how the car would react and how to drive around it." For Nerea Marti, at her second time behind the wheel of the FIA F3 Dallara, it was all about discovering the progress made over one year. "Compared to my test last year, I made a lot of improvements." – the Spaniard commented. "This year, I learned more on extracting the best of the old tyres. With new tyres, I need to put everything together because the Pirelli tyres are tricky to master. But I’m very happy, I think I gave my all." “I improved a lot in the fast corners and the braking", she continued. "I now brake later and harder, and in fast corners I could see that what I was doing was very close to what Victor [Martins] was doing. I improved throughout the day." Braking was also another big topic – with brake pressure having to be readjusted from the Formula Regional cars: “The biggest lesson I learned today was the braking", said Al Qubaisi. "You really have to put really high pic pressure in these cars, and I wasn’t used to it. I had to focus on brake pressure and trying to get that pic." On the other hand, Pulling was quickly feeling at ease with braking: “The thing I liked the most about the car was the braking, I like the brakes!" – she said. "You can really put your whole body behind it and the car really stops." "I learned so many things from this test to take away, more than anything I’ve probably ever learned. I want to take that with me for the future and to hopefully be in the Championship one day..." Ultimately, all drivers invited are aiming to step up to the international FIA F3 series, one day. Initiatives like this are certainly helpful in order to help them learn quicker, with proven coaches of the likes of Dennis Hauger (2021) and Victor Martins. This test, all the drivers agreed, was an important first step. "I think for the future, this test will help a lot. This is a taste of what an FIA F3 car is" – said Hamda Al Qubaisi. "To have this feeling is important for my future. If I am to step up to this Championship, I would say today really helped me a lot." And indeed, as Hamda highlighted, track time will be a big factor: "The more I run with the car, the more confident I would be, and the high-speed corners would come naturally with more mileage in the car." Hopefully, the several initiatives announced by all the players in the sport in order to work towards a better access of female entries in the near future will come together and bear their fruits, as it is clearly vital to create a viable pathway to break the current glass ceiling.