Six key takeaways from F1 Academy’s full-time F1 debut

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F1 Academy’s first full-time season on the Formula 1 support bill kicked off in Jeddah with a clear favourite established and a post-race controversy that’s thrown a spanner in the title fight.

With all 10 F1 teams now involved and both races and qualifying live-streamed for free on YouTube and X, the spotlight on F1’s all-female feeder series has never been bigger.

Here are our main takeaways from the opening round on the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix undercard:

Lessons to learn from a controversial penalty

Mercedes protege Doriane Pin was the star of the weekend, controlling both races despite great pressure from Alpine junior Abbi Pulling.

Pin appeared to complete back-to-back victories on Saturday when she took the chequered flag ahead of Pulling in race two – but the problem is she didn’t stop there.

While her Prema team was celebrating a second victory on the pitwall, Pin was completely unaware the race was over and was driving at full speed on the cooldown lap, pushing for another fastest lap, having just set one on the actual final lap.

A radio message was played of Pin asking ‘How many laps to go?’ on the cooldown lap and no answer was given. She only knew the race was over when race control showed the red flag after she’d passed the chequered flag twice.

“Doriane, what are you doing? It’s chequered flag,” she was asked over the radio. “Sorry you didn’t tell me,” came the reply.

It appears there were radio issues that prevented Prema from informing its driver that the race was over. The chequered flag was also obscured behind a board, so only visible to Pin for a brief moment, and no signs or flags were displayed to her the lap after taking the chequered flag.

The stewards took a dim view of the incident and handed Pin a drivethrough penalty, converted to a 20-second time penalty that dropped her from first to ninth.

It was a potentially dangerous situation given Pin was going at fastest-lap-challenging speed when the race was over, but many felt it was a harsh penalty given the radio issue and the lack of any red or chequered flags shown to her when it was clear she didn’t know the race had stopped.

However, the stewards clearly felt whatever radio issues there, this was worthy of a hefty penalty.

It’s unlikely to set much of a precedent in that it will probably not happen again all season, but it certainly has already had an impact on the early title race because…

Pin is the clear title favourite

Post-race drama aside, Pin followed up her pre-season title-favourite status by topping every on-track session. From more or less the word go she looked the most comfortable and committed driver in the field, despite having never raced in the series.

Taking pole position by a whopping 0.785s in a spec series is a huge statement and her F1 Academy form appears to be a continuation of her and Prema’s strong campaign in the mixed-gender Formula 4 UAE series earlier in the year, where she won a race and was a regular frontrunner.

If anything, this weekend proved Pin might be overqualified for F1 Academy but this year will provide essential learning for her before Mercedes inevitably moves her up the ladder.

To make it all the more impressive, this was the first time Pin has raced on a street track and she had to contend with multiple safety car restarts.

This was the only tiny chink in Pin’s armour as she was occasionally almost caught out by Pulling. After race two, Pin identified “doing some work on safety car restarts” as one of her key goals before the next race in Miami in May.

Leading safety car restarts will be something Pin becomes very familiar with, if the marker she laid down in Jeddah is anything to go by.

Yes, her post-race-two penalty means she doesn’t lead the championship, but the 20-year-old remains the clear title favourite.

Pulling has taken a step – but is it enough?

Pin’s penalty did at least give Pulling a well-deserved first win in single-seaters, having shown frontrunning pace in British F4, W Series and F1 Academy since 2020. Whether you agree or not with Pin’s penalty, Pulling makes for a worthy winner having been denied a victory shot by misfortune herself many times. She certainly wasn’t deserving of some of the abuse she received after the race for a stewards’ decision that had nothing to do with her.

This felt like one of the most complete weekends of Pulling’s career thus far and she was comfortably Pin’s closest competition. After a fast but largely inconsistent inaugural season with Rodin last year, this was exactly the kind of weekend Pulling’s championship aspirations need.

The question is whether the step she’s taken over the winter will be enough to take on the behemoth of Prema and Pin over the course of the whole season. Rodin struggled to be consistent across the whole calendar last year, and fixing that will be key when Pin’s unlikely to leave many points on the table.

Next up for F1 Academy points leader Pulling is the first round of the British F4 season at the end of April. One week later she’ll be swapping Donington Park for Miami – a track she raced on in W Series – and her mission to beat Pin will continue.

The rest have work to do

Any other driver wanting to be a factor in the title race will have to find something between this weekend and Miami.

Perhaps the most likely challenger will be Maya Weug, who didn’t seriously challenge Pin or Pulling but was a clear third-best in Jeddah and is second in the points by virtue of Pin’s penalty.

In racing in F1 Academy, Ferrari junior Weug has stepped back to F4 – a level she raced for two seasons before stepping up to Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine (FRECA), an intermediate step between F4 and F3.

Perhaps slightly more was expected of Weug but her knowledge of European tracks such as Barcelona and Zandvoort may pay dividends later in the year, and it’s always going to take a bit of time to settle back into a lower rung of the ladder.

Spaniard Nerea Marti, who finished fourth in the series last year, showed strong pace in Jeddah too but was brutally wiped out of fourth place on Friday by a misjudgement from Lola Lovinfosse.

Marti (pictured above) raced back to that same position on Saturday and Pin’s penalty handed her a first podium of the year. She’ll need another step to become a title threat.

Red Bull’s Hamda Al Qubaisi finished ahead of both Marti and Pulling last year but found herself in the midfield pack in Jeddah, ending the weekend eighth-best in the standings, having been compromised by a qualifying where she only used one set of tyres en route to 13th on the grid. Al Qubaisi and her MP Motorsport team’s form did fluctuate a lot from track-to-track last year so the best is probably yet to come.

McLaren junior Bianca Bustamante battled through the midfield chaos to walk away with a couple of top-six finishes that left her as the best of the rest behind Pulling-Weug-Pin.

All will have to take a step forward to break up the Pin-Pulling stronghold on the top two.

The driving standards can be improved

Jeddah was always going to be a tricky place to start a season, not least at F4 level with some inexperienced drivers in the field.

The nature of some of the corners, like the tighter-than-it-looks Turn 1/2 chicane, just invites incident and even the grand prix showed far more experienced drivers can make mistakes here.

Having said that, some of the errors in the second F1 Academy race in particular were poor. Perhaps the most egregious was Lovinfosse’s unsafe rejoin in the second race when, after being spun by a locked-up Chloe Chambers, she rejoined right into the path of Williams-backed Lia Block.

That instantly ended Block’s race and earned Lovinfosse a five-place grid penalty for the next race for being “wholly responsible” for causing a collision.

That was just one of a litany of incidents in the midfield with Pin, Pulling and Weug the only drivers really safe from having their race ended by another driver’s mistake.

Having the added attention of the F1 paddock and a now far greater broadcast audience will mean far more pressure on the drivers to minimise these errors. They wouldn’t have been out of place in some other F4 races but the difference for F1 Academy is that the viewing audience is far greater.

The fresh look delivered

Having 11 cars driving around in F1 liveries – including a potential look at a future Red Bull-Ford F1 livery – gave the championship a proper ‘F1 Academy’ feel, as did moments like Lewis Hamilton watching the podium ceremony for fellow Mercedes driver Pin.

There were sleek new broadcast graphics with each F1 team’s driver clearly identifiable by the logo next to the driver’s name. While junior single-seater aficionados will mourn the loss of the iconic team names who actually run the drivers, it makes sense to have the F1 teams who support them more prominently displayed.

Streaming qualifying and both races for free on YouTube and X was also a genius move in giving F1 Academy the better exposure it deserves and was a key sign from the series that it had listened to the negative feedback of its mostly behind-closed-doors first season.

Inevitably, holding it on an F1 weekend also added to the integrity of the series and in the UK at least, Sky Sports F1 did a commendable job in the time it dedicated to covering F1 Academy during its build-up to F1 sessions.

The new commentary wasn’t as sleek as the new graphics but that will hopefully be improved during the near-two-month gap before the next race. Likewise there was no official wrap-around coverage with on-site presenters which made it feel a bit disconnected from the on-track goings on.

There are plenty of other things that can also be worked on in that gap by the series, teams and drivers, but overall with a new star shining and solid initial viewing figures, F1 Academy’s full-time step onto the F1 support bill has started brightly.



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