The ultimate female team: how Abbi Pulling & Alice Powell are ready to disrupt motorsport
10 years of age apart, racing star Alice Powell and promising talent Abbi Pulling are working together to disrupt the motor racing industry. We had a chat with the 'AP squad' as they get ready to tackle the next British F4 championship title.
When she joins our little Zoom call, instead of the pixelated square that we have now become so familiar with in the past 12 months, we get a white text on a black screen – Abbi is Awesome. "Are you gonna say your camera doesn't work?" – jokes Alice Powell, her coach and mentor. "It's my Zoom name", she chuckles, as she explains that her computer "just had a heart attack" and had to join on her phone.
Abbi Pulling is not your typical 17-year old and she is indeed quite awesome. Her confidence and light-heartedness is only matched by her talent behind the wheel of a race car. That exuberance, quintessential trait of her teenage years, quickly turns into a fully professional tone when the conversation steers towards her career. After all, motor racing at her level is serious business.
"We are serious when we need to, can I just please point that out?" – she says, having recalled some of the most hilarious moments and pranks that the two British drivers had been playing to each other during the past season in the British Formula 4 championship.
At 16-year of age, Pulling had in fact just been brought under the international spotlight thanks to a remarkable debut season in single-seaters, which attracted the attention of many – and certainly of elite racer Alice Powell, one of the leading names among women in motorsport, who took on the role of Pulling's coach mid-way through 2020.
"I knew Abbi a little bit from karting, just because there are so few females around in racing, and especially in go-karting." – explains Powell. "I knew about the success that she was having. We crossed paths and had chats, but I actually started taking a real interest when she signed for JHR Developments". Powell had in fact an established working relationship with the Derbyshire-based team, which competes in both the British F4 and F3 championships.
"They asked me what I thought about Abbi, and I said that being a two-time British champion she wasn't going to be slow." – she continues.
"I couldn't make the first couple of races, but then I ended up working with her and it went from there."
Prior to her break-through season in formula cars, Abbi Pulling's name was indeed already circulating within the industry, as she had established herself as one of the most exciting up-and-coming talents in national karting competitions.
"I got into the professional level in Cadets and I did the British championship. I got a feel for what was the big deal about racing at a high level and then I made the step to Junior TKM. I instantly began getting pole positions at quite big events, at the age of 12 and against quite older guys." – recalls Pulling. "It started off really well and I just kept progressing from there."
Abbi ended up Vice-Champion in her first full season in the British Championship and then went on to win the following two years out right.
"I was breaking a lot of records – I think I was the first person in TKM to win the championship twice, not just the first female. So I can say I was quite successful in my early days".
Starting at eight, Pulling's progression was very natural: "I always enjoyed racing. When I was eight, I did it because I enjoyed it, it wasn't because I wanted to be world champion. I just turned up, me and my dad and just kept progressing, entering more serious championships."
"Then there is a stage when you know you can make the next step and challenge yourself even more - and I think that after the success in karting, that's when I wanted to go even further." It can only seem fitting now, for Pulling, to team up with Alice Powell, another record-breaking woman that had been climbing that same ladder a few years earlier.
I first met Alice in 2012 – the year that Pulling moved her first steps in go-karting – as she contested her first season in GP3 Series, the now rebranded FIA Formula 3 championship. Then 18-year old, she would make history at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, when she became the first ever woman to score points in the series. I remember standing in the pitlane and taking a slightly blurred picture on a now-outdated phone of that young lady, thinking that I had just witnessed something special.
Powell kept racing and winning in F3 machinery at national level, before a budget-imposed five-year hiatus forced her to put her racing dreams on hold.
Things changed when the revolutionary all-female F3 championship W Series made its disruptive on-track debut in 2019. Among the most experienced drivers in single-seaters, Powell secured a seat in the free-to-entry series and quickly proved to be a title contender: she finished on the podium in every race that she completed, adding a victory to her name at the season finale at Brands Hatch, her home race.
Making the most out of the W Series success, Alice landed a seat in IMSA – North American's premier sportscar championship – and in the Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy.
Alongside her revamped racing career, Powell had meanwhile managed to prove her crystal clear talent as a driver coach as well, an activity that she started in 2011.
"I can't even think of the number of drivers that I helped, especially in cars" – she says.
"When I started working with Abbi we clicked straight away, we get on extremely well. I've had these sorts of connections in the past, but never to this extent" – she adds, and it is evidently clear that their bond resulted in a fruitful professional relationship.
"Having this kind of connection and trust between each other is really important." – continues Powell. "I've worked with drivers that work extremely hard and Abbi is in that bracket as well. You can have laughs but at the same time you can be very serious – which is what you need to be when you're fighting for a championship."
In this sense, Alice and Abbi are remarkably similar. Both extremely determined and ambitious women, focused on their goals, yet at the same time always ready to crack a joke.
Under Powell's mentorship, Pulling claimed four podium finishes in her rookie campaign, with victory only marginally slipping away from her towards the end of the season. Her transition to single seaters – after some experience in the Ginetta cars – was impressively smooth. "I took to the single-seaters a lot quicker than I did the Ginettas", recalls Abbi.
"It was a lot to take on, there was a lot to learn and to improve on, but it was actually a good starting point. Compared to other drivers that had a lot more seat time, I was beating them in some of the races. I got a podium in my second race meeting, so it felt almost natural and really enjoyable for me."
Awarded with the Joe Tandy Memorial Trophy in recognition of her achievements in her rookie season Abbi Pulling was sixth in the drivers' standings in 2020, effectively putting her on the list of the most exciting young talents to watch for the near future. But when I ask her to rate her first year in formula cars, she stays grounded: "Looking back at it, I've seen so many things that I can improve on. When I look back at my videos, I ask myself why I didn't do this or that. In my mind that wouldn't be a high score, because I'm my biggest critic".
But it's Powell that puts things in perspective: "I wouldn't say that anyone's first season would be a 10/10, unless you dominate straight away. I would say that it was a very solid start for her, considering the limited testing she had as well. I would say a 7 or 8 out of 10."
"I didn't really start working with her properly until later on in the season, at round four. A lot of people said that she improved a lot in the second half of the year, she realized that it's a lot different from karting and there's a lot more preparation. But she had a very good debut and she's looking to build on that in order to have a great season this year."
Towards the end of 2020, Abbi had a last minute opportunity to race for the first time in a F3 car, as the Formula Renault Eurocup series supported Formula 1 in its return to the iconic Imola racetrack.
"The opportunity came through one of Alice's contacts. I was hesitant to take it, because I had never driven the car, never been in a car that big and never been at that track before" – she says. "It was kind of a big task, but at the end of the day it's experience. It was like everyone watching my first ever car test drive basically: I had 45 minutes to get used to a bigger car and learn the track and then straight into qualifying."
Despite the odds being against her, Pulling's progression throughout the weekend was impressive and, by the final day, she had dramatically improved. As the series used the same Tatuus F3 car which is employed in the all-female W Series, no one better than Alice Powell could help the young driver through that challenge, which also presented some form of stage-fright: "Obviously I raced on a F1 weekend before, so I remembered from my first such experience just how exciting it is", Alice comments.
"So I knew exactly how Abbi was going to be feeling: I knew she was gonna be nervous."
But Pulling took on the challenge with a significantly more demanding car in terms of power, weight and physical aspect.
"I think I was heavily restricted in my pace due to my physical aspect, which is not what a driver wants" – Abbi acknowledges.
When she had the chance to climb back in the F3 car in mid-December for more testing days, her hard work with Powell and with a new fitness trainer allowed her to reap the rewards: "It was like night and day", comments Powell. "nothing compared to when she raced in Imola. She worked hard to get fitter and in terms of pace she was right up with someone who finished in the top-three in the championship."
Fitness had been in fact one of the main areas the two had been focusing on during their first season of partnership.
"Preparation was the main thing that we sort of kicked in to, and then the fitness side and nutrition were probably the next ones." – says the coach. "She now has the same trainer that I have, which is Sarah Harrington."
Powell was introduced to Harrington through the W Series, where the trainer worked as part of the partnership with Hintsa Performance. Since then, she has helped both Powell and Pulling to be on top of their game and worked on extremely specialized routines.
"Abbi is obviously on a slightly different level than me" – says Alice. "I started training for racing when I was about 16, so of course I've got a few more years of experience, but when we get to the training camps together, it's motivation for both of us, because obviously I want to beat her in whatever."
There is a palpable respect and mutual admiration between the two drivers, and I ask them to identify a feature they admire of the other.
"Her willingness, determination and work ethic." – says Abbi promptly. "Because sometimes I do become a teenager again and I get a bit lazy, but she kicks me in the bum".
"She really takes attention to detail with all kinds of things", follows up Alice.
"Her determination is slightly different from mine: you just want to win all the time. I also want to win all the time, but I play the long game a little bit", she adds.
With one year under her belt, Pulling will again enter the British F4 championship in 2021, aiming for the title. A few days after our chat, Alice and Abbi would in fact head to Brands Hatch, for the first pre-season testing. Finishing the day in second position, it was one more validation of their hard work, as Pulling tries to build momentum before the start of the championship in May at Thruxton.
"I'll just try to do my best every time I'm out there", says the youngster. "You don't really get an idea of who's going to be in the run for the title until the first round, and even so some of the rookies might be a bit steadier half-way through the season. I'm not going to underestimate anyone, but I just want to focus on what I'm doing."
I bring up the obvious question of W Series, and if that may be a path that she sees as a means to reach the echelons of motor racing.
"W Series is definitely an amazing platform for women and I think it would be a huge opportunity, because the seat time that is on offer there is so valuable" – she explains.
"I think what they're doing is great, to put women's names out there. It's not the end goal, but rather a stepping stone to the end goal."
Were she to join the women-only championship, she might be in the position to battle out on track with her mentor. "Imagine a double AP podium!" – Abbi jokes. "I'd be first obviously, but I'd consider letting her win", she says laughing.
Although she points out that it is not a scenario that she has thought of so far, Powell would clearly enjoy the competition.
"From a professional point of view, it would be a great stepping stone for her to progress. And then from a non-professional side, I'd try not to embarass her too much".
"We did some karting together and, as much as it's fun – and we do it to keep fit – there is obviously a competitive side. We're both extremely competitive, but at the same time we help each other and push each other along" – says Alice. "I think I could still learn stuff from Abbi and vice-versa, either on and off the track".
Ten years apart, Alice Powell and Abbi Pulling have a special bond which reminds me of siblings: there's more vital energy than a merely professional connection and, having a younger sister myself, I can see in Alice that nurturing drive whilst preserving your natural competitive nature.
"I used to call her my mom, but she wouldn't like it, so I call her my sister instead" – Abbi jokes. "That's because she thinks I'm really old", Alice replies.
I knew Alice Powell shared my childhood passion for Michael Schumacher, an unmistakable sign that shaped a generation of motoring enthusiasts. "Apparently I used to cry when he didn't win, that's what my mum said." – told me Alice.
So I ask Abbi about her sporting hero, probably in search of one more generational hint. Her answer, though, comes slightly unexpected, even though I quickly realize that there couldn't have been a better suited personality.
"It wasn't actually anyone F1-related, it was Valentino Rossi." – she says.
"What I loved about him was that he somehow does a bit of everything: from rallycross, to dirtbikes, and he's competitive in everything he does. Having that understanding of how any kind of motor vehicle works is admirable. And he has fun whilst he's doing it". she points out. "Obviously there's a professional side to it, but I do like to have some fun and just have a bit of a joke around. Oh, and Alice Powell is also a hero of mine!"
This powerful connection also makes sense to me when contextualized in the vast picture of their male-dominated industry: two trailblazers at the cutting edge of one of the most competitive environments, the 'AP squad' is a small representation of the whole female movement steadily making its way into the upper levels of the sport; a sign of a generation lifting the next one for a greater goal.
"I remember being asked where I could see women in motorsport in ten years time, a decade ago" – observes Powell. "I would say that I could see a woman racing in F1".
Famously, the last woman to enter a F1 Grand Prix remains Lella Lombardi, one of the only two female racers to ever take the start at the pinnacle of motor racing. Her last participation dates back to 1976.
"I don't want to say that now" – she adds, before being interrupted by Pulling: "Say it, because it's gonna be me." – the 17-year old states, with her serious-yet-lighthearted attitude.
"I hope it is!", continues her mentor. "But things are improving in general. With the start of W Series, I would 100% expect there to be more women in racing, and I would expect to see more women mechanics and engineers. Across the whole board it is increasing."
An array of talented young women are coming up the ranks of both F3 and F4 championships, as well as a vaster pool of brilliant karting drivers, and there is no reason to believe why Abbi Pulling might not be among the racers with a shot at F1 in the long term.
"A few years ago, if you had told me that I'd be on the single seater ladder and aiming at F1, I would have thought you'd be lying to me."
"When I first started in cars, I saw GTs as the more realistic route, if I tried hard enough. But at the moment I want to get as close as I can to Formula 1 as a destination. But I'm not tunnel visioning on that and I will keep my options open."
"I think Abbi is more than capable of reaching it." – echoes Powell. "We know how expensive that is, but on talent alone I personally think she would be competitive in F1. But at the same time you need to keep your options open."
With her second W Series season coming up, Alice Powell's adventure in elite motorsport is far from over as well. But, with her mentoring work, she may have added a vital step to her already big legacy to the sport.