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Opinion

The F1 Academy front-runner eager to prove a point on home turf

OPINION: The F1 Academy opener was very encouraging for Rodin racer Abbi Pulling. She heads into a busy season that includes a return to British F4 keen to tackle the unfinished business of her last appearance in the TOCA supports paddock three years ago.

Abbi Pulling, Rodin Motorsport

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Leading the F1 Academy standings after the opening event. Setting fast times in British Formula 4 winter testing. There are clearly some encouraging early-season signs for Abbi Pulling this year.

But things have not always looked so strong for the Rodin racer. Just two-and-a-half years ago, she feared for her career after her British F4 budget ran out. And even last season she endured some wildly varying results.

But now, Pulling believes she has turned a corner. Putting the highly rated Mercedes-backed Doriane Pin under pressure in the Saudi Arabian F1 Academy opener was very promising. And things got even better when she inherited the race-two win thanks to Pin being penalised for not slowing down after failing to see the chequered flag. Pulling believes a fresh mindset is key to that improved performance.

“Me and Rodin Motorsport have put in a lot of work over the winter – I think they’ve done an incredible job and I’ve really enjoyed working with my engineer,” she explains. “It’s just been about going into the season feeling weightless.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself and I’ve tried to have a mentality of getting the monkey off my back and just being focused on the process. I’m not focusing too much on, ‘I need to finish here’, or on the expectations, but more on how to get the outcome.

“Last year I’d reset myself really well going into a race weekend. I’d let everything go and then something else would happen outside of my control and I would let that get to me. Motorsport is so unpredictable and so many things out of your control can happen. It’s about focusing on the controllables.”

Pulling (left) was the closest challenger to Pin in Jeddah and holds the championship lead after the Mercedes driver's penalty in race two

Pulling (left) was the closest challenger to Pin in Jeddah and holds the championship lead after the Mercedes driver's penalty in race two

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

Now Pulling is determined to put that theory into practice during a busy 2024. Alongside her Alpine-supported F1 Academy drive, she is also planning to contest the non-clashing British F4 rounds. More seat time is an obvious benefit for a driver wanting to improve, especially as she is relishing the prospect of being back in a mixed field of male and female competitors.

“I’m probably the most experienced driver on the [British F4] grid this year but, when I was in the championship in 2021, my biggest issue was always seat time,” Pulling acknowledges. “Even in 2023 I did seven race weekends, and it was three 30-minute sessions. So I had barely done 10 hours of driving – and that’s not including red flags – in a year.”

Pulling does however caution that although both Formula 4 series she’ll contest in 2024 feature the same engine, they’re not as similar as they seem on the surface.

Inconsistency was evident in her previous British F4 outings, but the refreshed Pulling is eager to demonstrate she has tackled that weakness

“They’re more different than you expect,” she says. “Although the tyres are from the same manufacturer [Pirelli], they’re a different compound. So it’s a different warm-up process. The F1 Academy races are also much hotter and F1 rubber is down.

“The brakes are also different. That’s the start of the corner, so if the brakes are different, that makes everything else in the corner a bit different. Then the clutch is different, so I’ve got to do a different start procedure for each.

“The cars do handle quite differently. It’s not like I’m driving a GT [going] to a single-seater, but it will be a little bit of adapting. It’s fine-tuning and I need to be hyper-aware of what I need to do for each car.”

So far, Pulling has only completed a handful of test days with Rodin’s British F4 team, having previously focused on Saudi preparation with the F1 Academy operation. But she is confident of being able to switch between the different machinery with ease. That will certainly need to be the case if Pulling wants to tackle the “unfinished business” she feels she has in British F4 – including scoring that elusive first series win – after the manner in which her 2021 campaign abruptly ended.

Although F1 Academy remains the priority, Pulling will also seek to impress in her return to British F4 for the first time since 2021 with Rodin

Although F1 Academy remains the priority, Pulling will also seek to impress in her return to British F4 for the first time since 2021 with Rodin

Photo by: JEP

But F1 Academy very much remains the focus as Pulling seeks more consistency than she achieved last year when, for example, she went from being disqualified at Paul Ricard’s final race to finishing runner-up in Austin’s opener en route to securing fifth in the final standings. Such inconsistency was also evident in her previous British F4 outings, but the refreshed Pulling is eager to demonstrate she has tackled that weakness.

Now she is expecting a hard-fought battle with Pin but feels she has all the ingredients in place to emerge triumphant.

“Doriane’s an extremely talented driver but I also think I can push her pretty far, if not be better,” states Pulling. “I think we have a really healthy and fun rivalry and it’s been nice to push each other on. I think throughout the year we’ll be constantly trying to have one up on each other.”

Being able to go toe-to-toe with her French rival over the remainder of the F1 Academy season would certainly be a major accomplishment for Pulling and a true indication of her ability on the single-seater stage. Yet achieving British F4 success could be just as important. It would also be a perfect riposte to her 2021 disappointment, proving all the hard work over the winter has helped Pulling head in the right direction.

Pulling will be among the most experienced drivers on the British F4 grid as part of Rodin's four-car line-up with team-mates Alex Ninovic, James Higgins and Jack Sherwood

Pulling will be among the most experienced drivers on the British F4 grid as part of Rodin's four-car line-up with team-mates Alex Ninovic, James Higgins and Jack Sherwood

Photo by: JEP

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