F1 Academy in Saudi Arabia 2024 | 6 talking points

11th March 2024
Simon Ostler

F1 Academy’s first race of the season took place in Saudi Arabia this weekend, perhaps intentionally as a showcase of the change that is well and truly underway throughout the world, both within motorsport and outside. Women were only given a right to drive in the Kingdom in 2018, so to have an all-female racing series hitting the streets of Jeddah showcases, despite the obvious questions of sportswashing, that progress is finally being made.

Progress that meant 16 talented racing drivers finally got their opportunity to showcase their speed in front of the most important paddock in motorsport. Doriane Pin in particular left little doubt as to her pace, if not her observation skills, but there were plenty of other highlight performances throughout the field.


1. A moment of madness for Doriane Pin

It was so nearly the perfect weekend for Doriane Pin. Touted as one to watch ahead of the season opener, with several high-profile performances in endurance racing with the Iron Dames, the Frenchwoman lived up to the hype as she took a double pole position in qualifying. Her two quickest laps in the half-hour session were 0.785 and 0.684 seconds quicker than Abbi Pulling’s two best efforts.

Race one went entirely to plan for the Mercedes F1 team representative as she dominated from start to finish. Seeing off the challenge of Pulling into turn one and from then on maintaining a gap of roughly one second all the way to the end.

The action in race two told a similar story. Pin led from start to finish, and looked absolutely untroubled as she navigated a handful of safety car restarts and rebuilt her lead time and time again.

She should have completed a perfect weekend when she took the chequered flag, but without notification from her team that she had sealed the deal she inexplicably continued pushing on at racing speed, unnoticed by her team as they celebrated on the pit wall. By the time her race engineer had got on the radio to tell her the race was over it was already too late. Pin had crossed the finish line for a second time, a transgression that earned her a 20-second penalty that dropped her to ninth in the final classification.

That moment of chaos was the only, albeit major, blemish on her weekend, and Pin has surely positioned herself as the early favourite for the F1 Academy title in 2024.


2. Abbi Pulling shows her class

Pin’s misdemeanour opened the door for Abbi Pulling to inherit a well-deserved victory in race two. She had been the closest challenger to Pin throughout the weekend, and generally was able to match the Frenchwoman’s pace in both races. The pair were very much in a class of their own ahead of the rest.

Her confidence in the car is obvious, and her message to her team during one of the safety car periods said it all: “I'm quicker than her, I just need a way past." She couldn’t make the overtake on the track, but put herself in the right place for circumstances to work in her favour.

The Alpine F1 representative leaves Saudi Arabia as championship leader with an 11-point advantage, a gap that Pin will feel plenty of pressure to close when the series reconvenes in Miami in early May.


3. Frustration for Lia Block

As one of the lesser experienced drivers on the grid when it comes to racing in single-seaters, Lia Block was something of an unknown quantity in the build up to this new F1 Academy season. Her first weekend in the spotlight proved she was worthy of her place on the grid, but her feeling coming away from Saudi will be one of frustration.

Her qualifying pace was a touch inconsistent, an impressive seventh place on the grid for race one was followed up by 13th with a second quickest lap that was 1.1 seconds slower, but her race pace was solid, and saw her competing strongly amongst the points paying positions.

Both of her races ended in frustration however. Firstly, an unfortunate spin on the penultimate lap saw her retire from race one. She looked to be distracted by a lock-up by Bianca Bustamante ahead of her and ran wide onto the kerb spitting her in the barrier on the outside. Block was taken unceremoniously out of contention by Lola Lovinfosse in race two. The Charlotte Tilbury driver had been spun around by Chloe Chambers in turn one, and in trying to rejoin she drove clumsily into the path of Block, who was able to continue via a trip to the pits for a new front wing.

A late safety car brought her back into the pack for the final few laps and she ended up just outside the points in 11th. No points scored, but plenty of respect earned for the Williams F1 representative.


4. More to come from Maya Weug?

It doesn’t matter which series you’re racing in, you can’t turn up in a Ferrari race suit driving a red racing car and expect to go under the radar. That’s exactly what Maya Weug did for the entirety of the weekend in Jeddah. While it was Doriane Pin and Abbi Pulling taking all the headlines at the front of the field, the Ferrari representative made herself very comfortable as best of the rest, running pretty much on her own for both races with not quite the pace of the leading pair, but plenty to keep herself clear of the midfield melee behind.

The first ever female member of the Ferrari Driver Academy has got plenty to live up to. Now in her fourth season of single-seater racing, Weug has the platform to showcase her talents on a global stage, ironically we hardly saw her on the world feed.

A pair of solid if unspectacular third place finishes (promoted to second after Pin’s penalty in race two) is a decent takeaway from the opening weekend of the season, but we’ll be interested to see whether she can claw herself into the mix for victories before long.


5. Juffali’s big wildcard opportunity falls short

Reema Juffali had the honour of taking the first wildcard seat of the season for her home race in Saudi Arabia, the first of a so far unconfirmed number of opportunities through the year that will see several local drivers join the grid for one-off appearances. As the first such driver of 2024, Juffali’s performance was of great interest.

She never quite hit the heights, but she did at least prove that her place on the grid was justified as she kept pace with the rest of the established field, and made the most of incidents going on around her to take an 11th place finish in race one.

Her weekend finished in clumsy fashion as she found the wall while trying to avoid Carrie Schreiner’s stranded car on the exit of Turn Two. Future incumbents of the wildcard seat will be hoping for more impressive showings as this will no doubt be a major proving ground for future members of the F1 Academy roster.


6. An excellent first step for F1 Academy

After a standing start in 2023 that saw F1 Academy take place largely away from the public eye, this second season represents the first proper step for the new all-female series to fulfil its role as an inspiration for future generations.

The F1 teams are onboard, the sport as a whole, media included, is paying attention, and suddenly women in motorsport have a genuine platform. Susie Wolff has reiterated that the first task for F1 Academy is to grow awareness, and there is no doubt that has already been achieved.

There is still a long way to go, though, and plenty of work still to be done to turn F1 Academy into a platform that might propel the best female talent into the higher levels of motorsport. From the perspective of the current cohort, there does still appear to be limited opportunities to progress up the ladder, and with each driver limited to just two years of F1 Academy competition, quite where they will all end up remains a mystery. 2023 champion Marta Garcia made the uninspiring move to Formula Regional for this year, will this year’s champion break the ceiling into F3? It’ll be interesting to see.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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