W Series: Round 4 - Drivers' reactions
The battle is on, with two drivers separated by just one point for the championship fight at the halfway point; a new rookie podium finisher; a tricky circuit – here are the biggest stories of the fourth round of the W Series season and what the drivers had to say.
And so, in the blink of an eye, the first half of the 2021 W Series season has flashed by.
Two years separated the last – historic – season finale to the following race, then four races went by in a little over a month's time.
After this weekend's Hungarian GP at the technical and twisty Hungaroring, the title fight looks like a clear two-way battle, with reigning champion Jamie Chadwick trying to hold off the charge of Alice Powell.
Chadwick, after a season spent in Formula Regional European Championship with top team Prema Powerteam, has collected invaluable experience and track time at the wheel of the Tatuus T318 F3 car, also taking a podium at her series debut. The Briton has additionally raced in the Asian F3 championship, where she claimed victories and battled at the front among a very competitive field – so her presence at the top of the 2021 W Series championship is certainly no surprise.
To find Alice Powell up there is no surprise either. A massive talent since her Formula Renault days, a hiatus from single seaters in 2020 could have hampered her chances against some of the newcomers, but Powell has been able to pick up where she left off in 2019 and was fast from the get go. After all, Alice would have been in contention for the title in the W Series inaugural season if it wasn't for a series of unfortunate incidents mid-way through the season.
At the Hungarian racetrack, the two main protagonists of the season eventually emerged, for the first time this year alongside each other on the front row of the grid – like in a movie scene with close-up shots of their focused gazes behind their visors, seconds before the lights go out.
Having taken a career-defining victory at her home race in Silverstone two weeks before, Powell was back ahead in the championship standings – in a race where Chadwick simply wasn't able to challenge either Powell nor Wohlwend for the victory. In Hungary, it was Jamie's turn to respond, like in a game of chess that is starting to get interesting.
And, when the lights went out on Saturday, the reigning champion made the winning move, firing into the lead and remaning unchallenge throughout the day; since Friday practice, Chadwick was in a league of her own, with Powell struggling to find the right setup on her Racing X car.
“What a weekend. I knew we’d be in the mix here in Budapest but I didn’t expect that result." – said Chadwick after the race. "Alice drove brilliantly and she pushed me all the way. This sets us up for a great battle in the second half of the year with just one point between us." – she added.
“It’s the perfect way to sign off before the summer break, I’ll take some time now to relax and prepare to attack these next four races head on!”
The title battle will inevitably also become a psychological matter. Chadwick now leads by one point at the half-way point, and knows she will have to be as consistent as possible, in what is a really competitive field.
"This year, it’s difficult to be as consistent throughout the weekend with so many great drivers on the grid and the races coming thick and fast, so you have to be able to bounce back quickly from disappointment." – Chadwick explained. "That’s the nature of this championship and when you have the chance to score big points you have to take it, so I’m super happy with today and really excited for the second half of the season.”
"We went the wrong way on the set up and struggled for pace." – commented Powell.
"It was good to come home with some good points as the car was quite a handful at the end, but hopefully that will all be sorted for the next race at Spa."
"We didn’t do any racing last year, so to come back and be fighting at the sharp end of the field is great." – she said, aware of the advantage that the extra mileage gained some of the new protagonists. But Powell is used to long breaks and she will surely not miss the opportunities that she will encounter on her path in the second half of the season.
"There’s a bit of a break now and I’ll come back stronger in the second half of the year", she concluded.
But the half-way point of the W Series sophomore season also marked the arrival of some undeniably stars of the future – Academy rookies Nerea Martí and Irina Sidorkova above all.
Marti, with her first podium in Hungary, just fired herself up to third place in the championship standings, as her teammate bounced back after a difficult weekend to finish just outside of the podium positions.
Anyone that followed the 2019 Spanish F4 championship will agree that Martí – as well as Belén García – was among the most exciting prospects coming into the season. Even more impressive, she did not race in F3 machinery prior to her W Series debut. But Nerea has prepared extensively and scored her first top-5 at Silverstone, where she expressed optimism in keeping the growing trend into the next rounds. And that's what she did in Budapest, with a third place in qualifying then converted into her maiden podium finish after a remarkable drive.
“I’m super happy with my first W Series podium as I have worked really hard for it and now I have to push for more as I feel like I am improving all the time." – she said.
Her W Series Academy teammate – 18-year old Irina Sidorkova – was disappointed in her performances after the British round two weeks ago. With a long post on her social profiles, she identified the causes in her lack of experience on fast tracks like Silverstone, as her racing career had mostly seen her battling on short and twisty tracks. The young driver from Karelia, Russia, competed in the SMP F4 championship in 2019 and was back in touring cars in her home country in 2020.
On the karting-like Hungaroring, Sidorkova was, in fact, back in contention for a podium spot and had an outstanding race – holding off the pressure of a world class-driver like Beitske Visser – and of the Hungarian heat – for the entire duration of the race.
"This round was very hot for me: the temperature was +35°C during the whole weekend, with the asphalt reaching over 70. But nevertheless, despite the conditions, I tried to push as much as I could from the first practice session and tried to show my pace." – explained Sidorkova after another very positive weekend.
"The track here was not so fast – there are some fast corners, but are mostly slower [compared to Silverstone]. I also managed to show good pace in qualifying, and qualified in fifth place." – she recalled.
"In the race I got a great start. I had a couple of moments with Beitske [Visser], but I managed to come out in fourth place. Of course, it was a little short of the podium; I would have liked third place, but the speed was not enough, and of course, there is still something to work on."
"Nevertheless, I am glad that I scored points", continued Sidorkova. "Since the fight for the championship is getting very tight, I now need to focus on a good result in Spa and prepare as much as possible to get there onto the podium."
Beitske Visser – incredibly – scored her first points at Silverstone and was back at the top-end of the timing sheets in both practice and qualifying, but the Dutchwoman saw her race taking a wrong turn at Turn 1, when she got stuck behind Sidorkova and couldn't find a way around the Russian, who deserves all the praise for not cracking under pressure. Yet, Visser will have to find that extra edge in qualifying in order to return battling with Chadwick and Powell in the second half of the season. The most experienced racer on the grid – Ecurie W's Emma Kimilainen – is used to long hiatuses followed by remarkable comebacks. In 2019, she returned to racing after giving birth to her daughter – but an injury at the opening round would cause her to miss half of the season. In the remaining three rounds, the Flying Finn was probably the most impressive driver and took podiums, a victory and fastest laps. The further pandemic-induced stop in 2020 has probably played a bigger role than expected in Kimilainen's first half of the season: if Emma continues to be one of the fastest drivers of the grid, a few technical issues and setup difficulties prevented her from fighting consistently for the positions where she belongs to. Yet, starting eighth following a difficult qualifying, Kimilainen recovered two places on the notoriously difficult track to pass on, grabbing sixth in an opportunistic move on Marta García on lap 10. "We managed to improve the car a lot from practice to qualifying but didn't get the balance right for qualy either" – she wrote on Friday. "Got some decent and important points for the championship battle" – she then added after the race. "Tough weekend overall, but lots of information gathered once again."
It was finally a fresh start for Marta García after the rough start to her season. The 2019 Norisring race winner was back in the top-five in practice and continued to show speed throughout the weekend. Only a small mistake in the latter stages of the race when the tyre degradation started to play a bigger role would hand Emma Kimilainen the chance to move into sixth, but García finally scored her first points of the season and now looks ahead towards a better second half of the year.
"Points. I think this was probably the target for this weekend. And we made it." – she said.
"It’s been a really difficult start of the season but I feel I’ve made a good step towards the right direction. We know where we have to work on and that’s what I’ll be doing until Spa."
After an impressive debut at Red Bull Ring, Belén García established herself as one of the best rookies, but encountered a series of technical issues in the following rounds that prevented the Catalan to score the amount of points that she could have.
In Budapest, Belén finally had another positive weekend, despite the difficult tyre management influenced by the high temperatures.
García initially struggled in practice but, once she got used to the track, she fought back and finished ninth fastest in qualifying. With a good start, she jumped ahead of Tomaselli at Turn 1 and, despite good battles with compatriot Marta García and Emma Kimilainen, she settled for eighth.
"I think it was a good start and I was able to get alongside Marta and pass Bruna before turn 1. It's a pity that I wasn't able to overtake Marta there, but with this car we don't have as much cornering and I couldn't carry the speed on the outside." – she explained.
After a close battle with Kimilainen at Turn 11, she maintained a solid pace and added four valuable points to her tally. “I'm leaving with better feelings compared to what I had on Friday in free practice and qualifying, but it's still not where we want to be." – explained Belén. "Of course, I am satisfied with these four points, which add up to the overall standings, and I am sure that better days will come."
"I would also like to congratulate Nerea, who has had a great race and has achieved her first podium in the W Series ”, concluded classily García.
Another really impressive rookie has been Veloce Racing's Bruna Tomaselli. The Brazilian has proved great qualifying skills, as she managed to start on the second row in Austria and on the third row in Hungary - also thanks to a clever strategy – but a slower start prevented her from collecting more points during the race.
“It was great to pick up some more points, but still a little disappointing to lose those positions at the start." – she summed up. "I definitely had the pace to run in the pack and hold my position but these things happen sometimes."
“Once I settled into a rhythm I started to put the pressure on Belén [García], but she drove well and I couldn’t get the job done. We had a good race and I enjoyed the weekend as a whole – the Hungaroring is a great track." – continued the only South American on the field, who reported a general lack of traction during the race.
“The car slipped too much and I ended up having a very bad start. Then the race was uneventful, with no major opportunities. A little upset as I could have accumulated more points," said Chadwick's teammate, who is now tenth in the championship.
“I will stay focused. I'll take advantage of this break to seek all possible information about the next two European rounds, since I don't know both tracks either” – she concluded.
She entered the fourth round of the season with zero points, at the bottom of the standings: Jessica Hawkins had finished two times in the top-10 but penalties for contacts had always denied her those points – until this weekend, when she finally had a cleaner race and scored a tenth place that leaves the Briton with high hopes for the next rounds.
"Finally, a point that I can keep" – she joked. "Never thought I’d be pleased with P10 but it is great to come away with a point, even if it is just one! Hopefully a turning point in the championship for me" – commented Hawkins, who also had a difficult first part of the season in 2019, but got in the rhythm and started to close in on the top-five as the inaugural season progressed.
Newcomers Ayla Agren and Abbie Eaton weren't as lucky, as they both finished just outside the points-paying position at Hungaroring, in P11 and P13 respectively.
Agren was optimistic for the remainder of the season, especially as she had a good start for the first time this year. "So close! Not there quite yet, but good things are in the making" – wrote the Norwegian. "Can’t say I am happy with P11, but I will keep working and keep learning".
Abbie Eaton, on the other hand, was coming from a very strong weekend at Silverstone and left Hungary disappointed. In qualifying, she couldn't get the best out of the tyres' performance but was more confident about her race pace on used rubber.
While she looked set for a 12th place finish, Eaton saw the return of Miki Koyama and the two had an exciting battle.
The quick Japanese driver – who had her previous races heavily affected by technical issues - charged through the field and passed Sabré Cook, then closed in on Eaton and, after a nudge into Turn 2, completed a bold move at Turn 4. While Eaton wasn't particularly impressed by the contact, the two provided some good racing and the British racer is continuing to collect experience in single-seaters in what has been nonetheless a strong debut for the Ecurie W driver.
The only American on the grid, Bunker Racing's Sabré Cook, was once again on the move in the race and was the biggest mover: by gaining four positions, Cook finished 14th from the back of the grid. The race is where Cook shines, but a series of difficult qualifyings has so far prevented her from scoring points.
To make everything more difficult, Sabré had both her wing mirrors collapsing in the early stages of the race, which resulted in the Colorado-native losing a place to Koyama in the midfield battles after she had fought her way up to P13.
Finding speed from the get go in the weekend will be where Cook will focus on after the summer break, but learning new tracks on a single 30-minute practice session has proved challenging for many.
Sarah Moore had a really challenging weekend at Hungaroring and couldn't finish higher than 15th – thus resulting in the British driver losing the third place in the standings.
Moore was the only driver to finish both the Austrian races in the top-10, and added a seventh place on home soil to her impressive run this season. Unfortunately, the fast Brit wasn't able to replicate the same performances last weekend, but she remains fourth in the standings, just one point behind Martí.
Vicky Piria had scored her first point of the season at Silverstone following a challenging season opener - and things were looking good for the Italian after a very encouraging qualifying in P11. Vicky's engine issues from free practice seemed fixed and points were definitely on the table for the Sirin Racing driver.
A problem on the grid on Saturday, though, forced Piria to recover from the tail-end of the field – in probably the least suitable track to do so.
"What happened yesterday is probably one of the biggest nightmares for a driver, so I managed just P16." – she wrote. "Things seem just to not be working up to now, there are always good things but then always something goes wrong." – continued a disappointed Piria.
"Luck isn’t simply on my side, now we have a little break to look into things and understand how I can be where I am meant to be for Spa."
With reserve drivers alternating in the driving seat of the second Puma entry, we had the chance to see Australian Caitlin Wood back in action over two years after her last race in single-seaters. Caitlin was one point short of securing a grid slot at the end of 2019, but shone in pre-season testing and gained the chance to enter the 2021 reserve driver pool.
With Tasmin Pepper still unable to join the grid, Gosia Rdest raced in Austria, followed by Abbi Pulling at the British GP. It was then Caitlin's turn at Hungaroring – a track where she had already raced in GT4 machinery in 2016.
Her racing return on Friday was very promising: an eighth place in practice, with pace for a comfortable top-10. A rear suspension issue in qualifying, though, turned around her weekend and she had to start from the last row.
"Hard pill to swallow as to how the weekend turned out." - said Wood. "We showed great promise in practice considering the lack of seat time and jumping in half way through the season. Qualifying just wasn't meant to be with our technical issue and since Hungaroring is such a qualifying specific track, we struggled to come through in the race after lap 1 chaos." "There are always positives to take away, we know we have the pace so we'll put our head down and keep pushing!" - she added, as she hoped to get back behind the wheel later on in the season. "I leave the weekend with unfinished business but still extremely grateful for the opportunity from W Series and Puma." Rounding out the classify in Budapest was Fabienne Wohlwend: from almost race winner in Silverstone to early retirement at Hungaroring, the last two weeks have been a rollercoaster of emotions for the fastest driver in Liechtenstein. A contact at the first corner would require the Bunker Racing driver to pit for a new front wing, but the damage picked up in the incident would subsequently require the unlucky Fabienne to retire. "Heartbreaking race that started with a car stalling right in front of me and then the incident in turn 1 is what ultimately forced me to retire." - she summed up. "We are now at the halfway mark in the season and there have been so many strong points so far so I won't let one race bring me down! We learn from it and come back a lot stronger in three weeks time at Spa", Wohlwend wisely added, as she indeed seems one of the most probable new race winners coming into the second half of the season. With 5 drivers in four points in the positions immediately behind Chadwick and Powell, everything is to play for and W Series is expected to provide more nail-biting action in four week's time, on the legendary Spa Francorchamps circuit.