W Series: Chadwick leads opening practice, Powell slowed down by engine issues
The Austin season finale kicked off with Jamie Chadwick leading the first practice, as title rival Alice Powell was slowed down by engine issues. Abbi Pulling never fails to impress and was second fastest, preceding Beitske Visser and Sarah Moore.
Ext - Austin, Texas. Day. The W Series season finale might look like a script from a movie, with the two main contenders – with different characters but just as equally fast and talented – going head to head in the final weekend, tied on points after an action-filled and dramatic season. When the F1 calendar changed, moving the Mexican round one week ahead, the F3 championship for women-only W Series - at its first season on the supporting bill of F1 – reacted quickly and announced a change in the format of the US GP, effectively making it the first double-header and season finale. Round 7 and 8 will thus be contested over the course of the same weekend, with one qualifying session that will set the starting grid for both races (as the drivers' second fastest lap will shape the grid of Race 2), a race on Saturday evening and the final race on Sunday morning, when the 2021 W Series champion will be crowned. Alice Powell leads the standings by one more second place finish compared to defending champion Jamie Chadwick, both at 109 points. But you never want to count out Emma Kimiläinen, the Flying Finn that has made comebacks her specialties: it sure will be an extraordinary difficult task for the Ecurie W's driver, but with 50 points still on the table, Kimiläinen could potentially still clinch the title. After announcing that the Top-8 drivers in the championship will get automatic entry on the 2022 grid, battles are expected to be fierce throughout the field. Every driver is still in contention, with 22 points dividing Belén Garcia - currently in 8th place – to the bottom of the classify. Only Gosia Rdest - who scored points at the season opener, but is competing in Alpine Europa Cup in Portugal this weekend – and Irina Sidorkova are not in COTA, fighting for a seat in 2022. The 18-year-old Russian was in fact denied the US visa and will have to sit out the last two races, but already has a spot on the grid as part of the W Series Academy project. In Sidorkova's place we therefore find Caitlin Wood: the Australian reserve driver, despite a lack of track time, showed great speed in her previous two appearances in Budapest and Spa Francorchamps, where she finished fifth. Caitlin will not be the only reserve driver on track: having halted her British F4 campaign due to a lack of funding, Abbi Pulling was called back in the seat of the second PUMA car, alongside Marta Garcia. In another change of the weekend format, cars will hit the track for two 30-minute practice sessions before qualifying – like in 2019. At 10:20, the green flag marked the start of the first session and, after 7 weeks of simulator work, drivers accelerated uphill towards Turn 1 at Circuit of the Americas. Young British talent Abbi Pulling was among the early pace setters and led the way at the 10 minute mark, before Emma Kimiläinen set the exact same time. When times started to drop, Marta Garcia and Fabienne Wohlwend went on top – only temporarily beaten by Jamie Chadwick before the Veloce Racing driver had her lap time deleted for exceeding track limits at Turn 9. Eventually, Chadwick completed a clean lap and slotted into first place, ahead of Wohlwend, Pulling and Ayla Agren – who had a great start to her home race. The Norwegian driver had in fact moved to the US to pursue a racing career on the Road to Indy program and lives in Texas. Bruna Tomaselli (Veloce Racing) is also no stranger to racing in the US, having competed in the American-based USF2000 championship until 2019. The Brazilian was fast straight from the opening minutes and moved into second place, 62 thousandths of a second adrift her teammate Chadwick half-way through the session. The Veloce Racing duo was then topped by the two Racing X drivers - but both Alice Powell and Jessica Hawkins had their laps disallowed for track limits. Fabienne Wohlwend brought out the first yellow flag of the day when she hit a bump at the Esses and spun. A few seconds later, Kimiläinen also went around at the final corner, and most of the drivers pitted before the final 10 minutes. Title contender Alice Powell, though, didn't get the chance to go out on track again, having reported engine issues. In the final minutes, Marta Garcia was faster than anyone in the second sector and advanced into third place, just ahead of the quick Abbi Pulling - before being displaced by birthday girl Sarah Moore ,who went second with less than a minute left on the clock. It would be Pulling to improve once again and finish runner up, as no one could beat Jamie Chadwick's 2:06.429. "Good start of the weekend – obviously first time here and it's a really tricky track, so it's just about learning constantly." – commented Chadwick. "There's still a lot there, but obviously it's a positive start." Reserve driver Abbi Pulling, in her return to the car after Zandvoort, was second, just marginally ahead of Beitske Visser – who improved across the chequered flag to break into the top-3 for the first time since the Hungarian GP qualifying. "It was a pretty good first session – everyone is now learning the track" – said Pulling. "I feel like I've had a good amount of time in this car now to get going. I'm following Jamie and managed to pick up some things. P2, I can't really complain". "[It was a] good session", added Visser. "Very cool track and very bumpy – which makes it tricky, but so far I'm enjoying it and I'm looking forward to FP2". Sarah Moore finished fourth fastest and Jessica Hawkins was once again in the top-5. Bruna Tomaselli had a very positive session in P6 and Fabienne Wohlwend improved in the closing stages to move into seventh. Nerea Marti and Marta Garcia were solidly in the top-10 – the latter having to battle to get into the championship's top-8 after a challenging first half of the season. Alice Powell, 10th in FP1, hopes the engine troubles will be fixed in time for the second session. Emma Kimiläinen, who is working with a new engineer due to a clashing round with another series, was only 13th fastest. Caitlin Wood struggled with brake issues and could not set a competitive lap time throughout the first half of the session. She moved into P16 in the final minutes, with issues hopefully fully fixed in time for FP2 - which is set to go green at 16:35 local time (23:35 CEST).