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How Alpine’s F1 Academy star Abbi Pulling forged her career in motorsport

08th March 2024
Ian Parkes

It was a few weeks ago that Abbi Pulling learned just what it means to be an inspiring female in a male-dominated sport. Less than three years after making history by becoming the first woman to drive a Formula 1 car in Saudi Arabia, Pulling returned to the country earlier this year to talk all things F1 with a group of schoolchildren, a forerunner to this weekend's grand prix, with the all-female F1 Academy on the undercard to herald the start of a new season.

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When you consider that it was not until 2018 that women in Saudi Arabia were finally allowed to obtain a driving licence, it shows how rapidly times have changed in the Kingdom that just six years later now welcomes F1 Academy.

The significance was not lost on Pulling, who turns 21 later this month. "It's one thing driving a Formula 1 car for the first time and getting to experience that speed and the adrenaline behind it, it's another doing it to inspire so many young females," she said, in an interview with this writer. "The actual message behind it almost meant more given women only started driving there in 2018.

"I then went back to Saudi a few weeks ago to speak to a bunch of school kids, to talk to them about Formula 1, to get their insight and what they've learned, and they were so interested. They know so much.

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"I could go to a school in the UK, ask them the same questions about Formula 1, and they probably wouldn't be able to answer, yet these kids were so smart, and really attentive. They really wanted to learn more, which was so nice to see."

Pulling's journey to this stage began when she was just three, attending the paddock alongside her father Andy who competed at club level in motorcycle circuit endurance racing events around the United Kingdom.

In picking up the racing bug, to her dad's relief, she opted for four wheels, rather than two, turning to go-karts at the age of eight. She concedes that even as a young girl, she knew she was operating in a rarified air.

"I was one of the only females driving in go-karts, and we were a very rare sight, a rare breed," she said. "But I've grown up my whole life not really acknowledging the fact I'm a girl in the sport. I've never drawn too much attention to it."

By the age of 13, Pulling tasted success by winning the Super 1 National Junior TKM Championship in 2017, a feat she repeated the following year.

Transitioning from karting to single-seaters was, she recalled, "really, really tough", not least due to the level of funding required to make such a move. It is a leap beyond many whose fledgling motorsport careers often flounder when their days in karting come to an end.

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Pulling managed to compete in three rounds of the Ginetta Junior Championship in 2018 before stepping up to the more senior Ginetta GT5 category the following year. Then came the transformative move.

"My dad was then really keen to put me in a single-seater," said Pulling. "My dad's never been pushy, it's always been me wanting to do it, and that was all because the W series came about.

"Obviously, I wanted to go into single-seaters, but I just knew we didn't have the money, so I said to my dad that we didn't need to because it can become a bit of a rabbit hole. Once you get into it, it's then hard to know when to stop if you do get into a bad situation.

"But it ended up being one of the best things that has happened to me. We did a test in an F4 car and I was quick, and then it became like, 'Well, we've got to do it', and so I did a season in British F4, was sixth in the championship, and got a few podiums."

Unfortunately, in the Covid era at that time the fledgling W Series, the first all-female racing championship, was unable to conduct its selection process ahead of its second season in 2021, resulting in Pulling being placed on the reserve list and forced to do another year in F4.

That reserve role, however, was defining as a lack of funding resulted in her F4 campaign being cut short midway through. Without the W Series, Pulling has no doubt her racing career would have ended at that stage.

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Fortunately, Lincolnshire-born Pulling made it onto the grid in the W Series, competing in four of the eight rounds. Crucially, she scored her first podium in the final race in Austin where she qualified on pole and finished second.

The result was enough to catapult her up to seventh in the championship and earn automatic selection for the 2022 campaign, a year that began with a dream induction into the Alpine Academy. Pulling's alliance with one of Britain's top female racers Alice Powell led to the introduction into the Academy, allied to her drives over the season and a half she was involved in F4.

"I was hoping it would happen, but whether it would or not, was another thing," she said. "When I finally got the confirmation I was going to be part of the Academy, I was so, so happy, and proud that I'd done enough to deserve to be there.

"The support they've given me over the past couple of years has been incredible, from technical to physical, but also building myself as a person, going to some of the (F1) races, talking to new people, and learning the communication side of things.

"It's such a nice family, and it's really nice to feel so involved in it all, and so welcomed."

Sadly, the 2022 season proved to be the W Series' third and last as it declared bankruptcy ahead of the last of the eight rounds in Austin, leaving Pulling fourth in the standings after scoring two further podium visits en route.

Shortly after, the all-new F1 Academy series was born, overseen by Susie Wolff and with full support from F1 in its bid to finally end the nearly 40-year wait for a woman to again compete in the series. Concerning the demise of the W Series and the advent of F1 Academy, Pulling rightly noted that "as one door closes, another opens", a scenario she has stepped into with open arms.

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For this year, she will not only wear the Alpine colours in competition in F1 Academy, but additionally, she will dovetail that campaign with a full season return to the F4 British championship, supported in both series by the highly accomplished Rodin Motorsport.

"It's come full circle now, and I'm so lucky to have the support of Alpine, and Rodin, competing in a dual campaign, which is an absolute dream for me," said Pulling. "I wouldn't have ever thought I'd be competing in two championships in one year."

The motorsport scene since Pulling started racing in karts has altered dramatically over the past 12 years, to such an extent she wishes she was eight years old again and embarking on the ladder once more, recognising that in a further 12 years, the chances to succeed will be far more extensive than they were in 2012-13.

At least as far as Pulling is concerned, she appreciates the sliding doors moment that came with the W Series and F1 Academy at a time when she was carving a name for herself in the female motorsport scene.

Ahead of her second season in F1 Academy, after finishing fifth on debut last year, with podiums to her name – four times a runner-up, and three times third – she said: "For any racing driver, going up the ranks of motorsport is incredibly difficult, no matter your gender.

"I'm just very lucky that if it wasn't for some of the championships that have come along, like W series, and now the F1 Academy, my racing career, at least in single-seaters, would have stopped."

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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