An orange and black car with a driver in a green helmet fighting a red and black car with a driver in a yellow and black helmet. The orange car is attempting an overtake on the inside of the corner.

Has F1 Academy got the drivers it wanted?

With only a month until lights out in Austria, the 15-strong grid for F1 Academy’s inaugural season has been finalised. The driver line-up provides a first true glimpse into how successful the category is likely to be in nurturing promising female talent into Formula 3 and beyond. Has it attracted the right kind of drivers to do so? Feeder Series delves deeper.

By Charlie Widdicombe

The average age of the grid is 20, three years lower than that of W Series in 2022. Comparably, the average age of Formula 3’s 2023 grid, which has more advanced machinery than F1 Academy, is only 18.

Opportunities for female drivers have been far fewer than their male counterparts, and therefore it is not a shock to see this older age, but it is an indicator of the challenges that W Series and now F1 Academy are trying to address: a widespread lack of opportunity and funding for women at the forefront of single-seaters.

Securing the required funding, even with the $150,000 subsidy for each F1 Academy driver, was evidently still a challenge for even the more experienced and higher-profile drivers, as proven by Marta García’s GoFundMe page before she was confirmed with Prema. This is another stark reminder of the challenges female drivers still face to secure the required backing for seats.

The late launch of the series itself also left some scrambling for funding and teams with fewer options. Consequently, the range of experience between drivers is vast, with GT racing veteran Carrie Schreiner and single-seater newcomer Chloe Chong, who is 10 years her junior, on the same grid. As the series stabilises and finds it place amongst the junior categories in the following years, expect the driver line-up to become more conventional.

The W Series cohort: One step back, two steps forward?

For those drivers that have opted to move across to F1 Academy despite the lower-spec machinery, a number of factors have enticed them, namely a lack of other attractive openings, a chance to work with some of the best feeder teams in the business, a clearer trajectory into F3, a higher profile than alternative F4-level series, extensive testing, and subsidised entry.

Of the eight drivers aged 22 or younger who competed in W Series last year, five are now in F1 Academy. Bianca Bustamante, Marta García, Emely de Heus, Nerea Martí and Abbi Pulling move over, with Megan Gilkes also joining having participated in W Series back in 2019.

The four most successful drivers in W Series history – Alice Powell, Beitske Visser, Emma Kimiläinen and the dominant Jamie Chadwick, all aged between 24 and 33 – have moved on to pastures new, with F1 Academy appearing either too great a step backwards or less relevant to their goals at this stage in their careers.

Odd ones out?

Others who did not race in W Series but who have experience at the Formula Regional level are also stepping down to the new F4-level series.

The Al Qubaisi sisters line up together at MP; Amna, 22, and Hamda, 20, both come with experience in Formula Regional series in Europe and Asia. At the F4 level, Amna also competed in the Formula Winter Series this winter, while Hamda boasts six wins in F4 UAE from 2020 and 2021 – a series in which other F1 Academy drivers failed to make a significant impression more recently.

The two oldest drivers on the grid are ART’s Léna Bühler and Carrie Schreiner. Bühler, 25, only made her single-seater debut three years ago and has competed in both Spanish F4 and F4 UAE recently, though she also spent most of 2021 and part of 2022 in Formula Regional cars in Europe.

Schreiner, however, appears a mystifying choice, for she moved away from single-seaters seven years ago after a stint in British F4. The 24-year-old has been embedded in GT series since 2019; her readjustment will be watched curiously by many, but it’s difficult to see how she fits in with the stated aims of the series.

Natural progression

Several drivers are pursuing a more traditional trajectory and stepping up from less powerful F4 cars or from karting.

Jessica Edgar and Gilkes, both racing for Rodin Carlin, and Chloe Grant of ART all move over from the GB4 Championship, which uses the Tatuus F4-T014, the predecessor to the F4-T421 used in F1 Academy. All three drivers performed at a high level in GB4, finishing between sixth and ninth in the championship, and are likely to find themselves close together on track once again this season.

Campos’ Maite Cáceres and Lola Lovinfosse, meanwhile, ran partial campaigns in F4 US and Spanish F4 respectively in 2022 before uniting at Campos for two and one rounds each in the 2023 Formula Winter Series.

Whilst several young drivers aspired to make the jump from karting, including 18-year-old Norwegian Lilo Fyrileiv, only 15-year-old Chloe Chong managed to do so. She lines up with Prema.

This is a huge ask for Chong, who finished 32nd of 50 in the British Kart Championships X30 Junior Class. Plenty of F4 drivers step up at 15, the minimum age for most F4 series, but there remains a chasm in experience levels between Chong and the likes of García, Martí and Pulling. At Prema, however, Chong is arguably in the best environment to adjust and will hope to learn fast from teammate and W Series race winner García.

It is these drivers who appear to be the best fit for F1 Academy, which they can use to raise their platform whilst creating links with the best junior category teams around.

Header image credit: F4 UAE

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