F1 Academy’s Path to Getting a Woman on the Grid Is Just Getting Started

Now in its second year, F1’s farm system is off to a roaring start

May 28, 2024 6:47 am
Race winner Abbi Pulling celebrates her victory at FIA Formula Academy.
Race winner Abbi Pulling had a stellar Cinco De Mayo in Miami.
XPB / James Moy Photography Ltd

Abbi Pulling is smiling. On Wednesday, May 1, a few days ahead of race weekend, the young driver is on the field at LoanDeport Park. Far away from the track at Hard Rock Stadium, she’s about to do a jersey swap with former Marlins second baseman Luis Arráez (now a member of the Padres)  before one of his final games in the city where the heat is on. From the moment Pulling stepped onto the field, she was excited and thrilled about what was unfolding around her, taking it in as any other average 20-something would. On our way out of the clubhouse, I snap an illuminated Marlins logo for the memories and when I look at it immediately after, I notice Abbi Pulling’s sneakily photobombed it — wide smile and all. 

Pulling has plenty to beam about outside of a jersey swap, too. She’s currently atop the Championship standings as part of the Alpine and Rodin Motorsport team for F1 Academy. The all-women driving series, fully supported in every aspect including financially by every F1 team and dedicated to providing a clear progression and pathway to land a female driver in the big leagues, is in its sophomore season with no signs of slowing down. Out of Miami came the news that Reese Witherspoon’s female-focused media company Hello Sunshine is partnering with Netflix for a docuseries about the program in the style of Drive to Survive. Combine that with the growing interest in women’s sports, and F1 Academy is poised to make real traction.

F1’s historical track record regarding women drivers isn’t strong. Susie Wolff, the managing director of F1 Academy, served as a development driver for Williams and drove four laps in a practice session nearly a decade ago at the 2014 British Grand Prix before an engine issue sidelined her run. She was the first in 22 years after Giovanna Amati. Only five drivers — Maria Teresa de Filippis, Lella Lombardi, Divina Galica, Desiré Wilson and Amati — have entered at least one GP, with only two, Lombardi and Wilson, qualifying and starting a race. To this day, Wilson is the only woman F1 winner ever with her dub at the 1980 British Aurora F1 Championship. 

Driver Abbi Pulling of Great Britain.
Abbi Pulling did Great Britain proud at Miami International Autodrome.
Pauline Ballet – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty

A staggering 22 years between women drivers in F1 is too long. However, the hope for F1 Academy is to change that in the immediate future. The program is situated under the larger F1 pyramid, functioning as a feeder system, with drivers graduating from the Academy to move up the ladder from F3 to F2 and onto F1. The system is already working; last year’s champion, Marta García, drives for the Formula Regional European Championship. While that’s not technically F3, it is above Academy, showing the system is working and providing a more straightforward progression ladder for talented drivers when they show they can win. 

Critically, stakeholders around Formula One are on board. “F1 is not a male sport. It’s just a sport,” Alpine F1 driver Pierre Gasly told InsideHook at a roundtable interview in Miami. “[In] Formula One, you want the best 20 drivers you have in the world. Whether they’re female or male, it doesn’t matter. It’s only about the performance…I definitely see it going that way, which is good. If one day we get a woman skilled enough to be part of the 20 best, I’m sure she’ll get the opportunity.” Alpine Team Principal Bruno Famin echoed the sentiment, adding, “Academy is a very strong asset for developing new, young talents [and for] developing diversity and inclusion.”

Outside of a splashy Netflix doc and more internal team pushes, what does 2024 look like for Academy drivers themselves? “What they’ve done with F1 Academy and bringing that to light — it’s been incredible and opened up so many opportunities,” said Pulling. She immediately recognizes the value and possibilities of the impending doc, saying a series (which wasn’t announced at the time of our interviews) would allow viewers to see “every aspect of their life, go to their home with them, go to race on the simulator and so forth. It gives you a big sneak peek.”

Abbi Pulling on the track in Miami.
Abbi Pulling is hoping to be a trailblazer in women’s racing.

That sneak peek will likely drive more interest, which can lead to young girls getting into karting, feeding up into more motorsport and then into Academy itself. Even after year one, there’s already an increased interest. Pulling noted the final race of the 2023 calendar took place in Austin to “four full grandstands” and that each race feels like an F1 event unto itself. That assessment jibes with what it was like on the ground in Miami.

As Pulling prepared for her first of two races, a decent crowd swirled outside the paddock gate like you’d see at any other Formula One event. Down paddock, Camila Cabello posed for a photo. Next to Abbi’s prep area, ESPN’s Elle Duncan interviewed Charlotte Tilbury of the titular makeup brand, who also just so happens to sponsor driver Lola Lovinfosse. Across the way, sisters Amna and Hamda Al Qubaisi prepared to get into their cars. I glanced over at the crowd and saw a father put his daughter on his shoulder so she could see into the area better.

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Pulling isn’t smiling. At least not as she focuses on suiting up, very clearly locked in and ready to go when she first emerges in the paddock area. Even then, that focused exterior isn’t too steely to prevent her from bopping inside her car to the strains of “Tainted Love” as they pour out from a nearby speaker and camera crews from Hello Sunshine circle around her like sharks. I can’t see her face through the helmet, but she’ll soon have a reason to dance and smile further as she handily wins both races. She’s roughly five seconds ahead of her opponents on Saturday and just a hair under four seconds ahead on Sunday. With about 30% of the calendar done for 2024, Pulling is pulling ahead in the Championship, where she’s in first place over Mercedes driver Doriane Pin by 34 points.

When Abbi walks through the main paddock later on Saturday alongside her fellow podium winners, all clad in bright purple Pirelli winner hats, there’s a bit more commotion. The buzz is certainly more immediate attention than when Kevin Durant, who, despite his height, managed to slink through the paddock without getting swarmed by photographers just before Pulling and Co strolled through. Flanked by cameras from Hello Sunshine, you could feel the energy shift as the trio walked by, all smiles. 

That shift was felt all weekend, where the races appeared to be just as well — if not more — attended than Austin. An impending Netflix boost will soon propel F1 Academy forward, garnering new fans ready to engage meaningfully with women’s sports. Who knows? Maybe next year, the grandstands will be sold out. And maybe, sometime after that, a woman will be one of the 20 best drivers in the world. Maybe that driver will be Pulling. Either way, that’s an idea bound to put a smile on anyone’s face.

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