Motorsport can give the highest highs and lowest lows, and ART’s F1 Academy driver Léna Bühler got a taste of both at the championship’s third round in Barcelona. Two front-row starts, one maiden victory, and one race of heartbreak punctuated the 25-year-old hopeful’s trip to the Catalan track. Feeder Series spent time with Bühler every day to see the inside workings of a weekend of redemption.
By Jim Kimberley
The Swiss racer had gotten close to the top step in the opening two weekends at Spielberg and Valencia, claiming two P2 finishes in each event’s reverse-gird Race 2. Yet Bühler’s pure speed at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya meant she was the quickest and most-consistent driver of the 15-car field all weekend.
2023: a different kind of year
It begins in the ART motorhome, just behind the team’s garage for the weekend. Formula Regional European may also have shared the track, but it seems that having ‘F1’ in the championship’s name lends itself to some privileges among the junior series, with FRECA relegated to awnings in the car park.
Lena opens the door to join us as she walks away from her ever-present entourage of supporting family with a smile, already suggesting she’s in a good place after getting some Free Practice laps in.
We start at the beginning of 2023, talking about joining F1 Academy, particularly with ART breaking the silence to announce Bühler as the very-first name in the championship back in February.
“ART called me to do a meeting, and we signed maybe one month later, I think.
“I was surprised, to be honest. Some [other] teams also contacted me… PREMA and Campos. And, yeah, I also signed with Sauber Academy, so the right choice was to sign with ART.”
The surprise came from ART reaching out rather than Bühler having to hunt for a seat. The connection becomes clearer, however, when you consider F2’s Theo Pourhcaire also wears both ART and Sauber colours. And how does Lena reflect on that support from an F1 team?
“I think it’s a big opportunity for me to be part of Sauber because they help us in all parts, like physically, mentally, with [the] simulator and, yeah, everything.
“Also, they fixed some goals for me, so it’s more pressure. I need to be calmer when I speak, you know? I need to manage [it]…
“It’s big things. It’s not easy when you have some pressure behind your back. It’s a lot of work, and you need to manage the stress.”
Judging by the results we saw, her stress management tactics are working well.
A Barcelona rollercoaster
Bühler later qualified on the pole position, her first in the championship, and in P2 for F1 Academy’s two 30-minute races that start and end its racing action. A lightning start from the front row in Race 1 meant she snatched the lead from polesitter Emely de Heus by Turn 1.
The changes to the last corner, where the circuit replaced the low-speed chicane with a sweeping right-hander, didn’t generate any more overtaking than usual, aiding Bühler to keep the lead relatively unchallenged until disaster struck with three laps remaining.
“The gearbox broke, so I get nothing,” explained the visibly upset Swiss driver after some moments with her team and family. “I was managing the tyres… I was also [using] old tyres with the car behind me (Emely de Heus) on new tyres, so yeah, I had good pace.
“It’s a shame because the gearbox broke when I was still in front, but I will fight for the next race.”
Even though she was understandably disappointed, Bühler retained full faith in ART to fix the issue before the day’s second race a few hours later. When asked if the car would be ready for Race 2, there was an immediate ‘Yeah’ as though the thought hadn’t crossed her mind before saying,: “I will start P7, so… let’s see if I stick a good start and I can get some places.”
Bühler jumped from that P7 start to P4 in Race 2, just shy of the podium positions.
Overcoming the odds
Perhaps it’s the local knowledge from racing in Spanish F4 in 2020 or her 2021 Formula Regional campaign, but something clearly clicked for Bühler in Barcelona. However, as she points out to us, she’s no stranger to any of the circuits aside from the season finale.
“I also [have driven] in FREC, so I know all the tracks except Austin. And, yeah, I think it’s an advantage when you know the track.
“Also, we have a lot of testing here, so if you’re a good driver, you need some laps to adapt… it’s all about you and the team, the setup, and everything.”
One thing that might not be apparent when considering ART’s racing pedigree is that F4-level racing is new to the French outfit, so the F1 Academy results show impressive adaptability from both Bühler and them with the Tatuus F4-T-421.
“I think we need to do more work than the other teams because we are the only team who started F4 this year. Because ART is not in F4, so I think it’s it’s a big challenge for us and for me also…
“My goal was to always be in the top three. To finish in the top three and to win the championship. But, yeah, when we started the testing… some sessions we struggled, some sessions we were very, very good.
“So we needed to adapt the setup, the pressure of the tyre… It’s not easy sometimes, but I’m happy to get some podiums.
“And, yeah, I also want to get some victories because that’s my goal!”
Fortunately, that goal soon followed.
The taste of victory
After Race 1, where Bühler led all but two laps, and the positions gained in Race 2, getting to the top step of Barcelona’s podium from the pole in Race 3 seemed an achievable task. Yet the way the win materialised had F1 Academy’s latest race-winning driver succeed without breaking a sweat, such was her advantage.
“I just [wanted] take a good start, and after, I knew I would have the pace [to] control the race. I was not pushing [in] the last four laps, so I was just driving to save the tyre.
“I had a bit of tyre degradation in the five last laps. It’s why I stopped pushing 100%. I think we lived with quite odd pressure, so I had a bit of degradation on [the] tyre.
“I’m happier today. A bit disappointed for yesterday because I was supposed to win the race and I lost a lot of points, so I’m a bit disappointed with this.
“But I’m really happy with the pace today and to win the race, and I will keep pushing for the next race.”
It’s quite the warning shot that the ART ace could ease to victory without pushing at the end and might suggest that Marta Garcia might not quite have one hand on the championship trophy yet. Had Bühler’s car survived Race 1, she’d have 108 points and sit within one race win of Garcia’s impressive tally instead of 52 points adrift.
Still, with over half the season remaining, a title push is not out of the question.
“I will do all my best to win this championship, but I need to come back with some points… let’s see.
“We do a good job with the team. We progress every race… every time we are on the track, so I’m confident for the next race.”
From what we saw over these three days in Spain, we can see why, Lena.
F1 Academy returns on 24-25 June in Zandvoort.
Header photo credit: Feeder Series
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