She burst onto the feeder series scene last season, impressing many with her speed as she switched with apparent ease from go-karts to British Formula 4. Now, Abbi Pulling is ready to challenge for a championship as she returns to British F4 in 2021 for a second season with JHR Developments. F1 Feeder Series had an exclusive, pre-announcement chat with Abbi and her mentor Alice Powell.
By Jeroen Demmendaal
It is an innocent question at the end of our chat: do they maybe have a photo of the two of them together, to illustrate this article? Alice prepares to answer, but Abbi doesn’t miss a beat. “How about the one where you strangle me?” she says with a big grin. You could call it the mischievous nature of a teenager, or maybe it is just an illustration of the relaxed confidence the 17-year old carries ahead of what is arguably the biggest year of her still short career.
Pulling impressed many observers last year, when she made the transition from go-karts (two British championship titles) and took place behind the wheel of a Ford-powered Mygale F4 car for the first time. After a relatively careful start (although she did finish on the podium in already her second race weekend), she went on to record four podiums and ten top-5 finishes on her way to a sixth place overall in the championship.
Especially in the second half of the season, she rapidly came into her own and closed off the year with seven top-6 finishes in eight races. The reason? Starting at the Knockhill weekend, the fourth of the season, Abbi Pulling was paired with W Series driver Alice Powell. Being able to benefit from Powell’s years of experience made all the difference.
“Alice taught me what it really means behind the scenes to be a race car driver,” Pulling explains. “The preparation, definitely the physical side of things, obviously going through the data. I already had a fairly good preparation in my view; I would always look at onboards and make use of the team simulator, for example. But it was about improving the quality of it.”
The mental game
It is easy to forget when you’re as young as Abbi Pulling, but racing is a mental game. “The mental side of the sport is so important. When you are out in a car racing at high speeds, you have to deal with situations as quickly as possible,” explains Powell, noting that she also disregarded the mental side as a teenager. “I just thought: ‘I’m alright, I’ll just drive, that is what you do’. But being successful actually takes a lot more apart from just driving, the mental side is huge.”
Powell has been impressed with what she has seen from her protégé. “The change has been huge, she put a lot of effort in to improve and I think she came a long way,” she says. “We had quite a bit of bad luck throughout, but it was also about learning to deal with that. And given my own racing experience, I am passing on a lot of mistakes that I might have made and the learnings from those mistakes. There will be really testing and challenging times, but if you can deal with those mentally in the right way, that’s going to help you move forward and have success.”
Pulling will be the first to admit that she made plenty of mistakes during her rookie season. Yet to do so is the first step towards solving them and making sure they do not happen again. “It was a different thing each round, little mistakes in different areas,” she recalls. “There were a few times where I didn’t get the tires up to temp early enough. There were a few starts I messed up, a few moments where I got flustered.”
“But I learned from it and this year my level of concentration is much higher. I think I’ve matured a lot as a driver. I really understand the limitations of the car now, what it’s capable of and what it’s not capable of.”
Bigger, faster, stronger
Understanding your car and your role as a driver is another area in which the two women have put a lot of work. “The first time driving a car, it is a big step,” relates Powell. “Karting is a great help, but when you step into a race car, it is bigger, faster, there is a lot more going on. Suddenly you’re dealing with suspension, much bigger tires and so on. Everything is totally different.”
And as most feeder series are a one-make championship, small setup changes can make a huge difference to the car’s performance. “We worked hard on improving Abbi’s feedback and understanding that driver inputs are important to how they affect the car,” says Powell. “Sometimes you might think: I got loads of understeer or oversteer here, but actually it is the driver’s input that is causing it, and not necessarily the car. Abbi has gotten a lot better there. She can now differentiate between whether it is her own input or whether it is something the car is doing.”
The youngster agrees with that notion. “I definitely have a much better understanding of the car, and the technical inputs it takes to push it to its limits,” she says. “And Alice constantly pushes me. When we’re going through data, she’s like: this driver can do it, so why can’t you? So it is just a matter of doing laps together and understanding it better. Hopefully that will have an effect and help me win the championship this year.”
No tunnel vision
Continuing in British F4 was not necessarily a given. Last October Pulling ran a single weekend in the now defunct Formula Renault Eurocup at Imola and she admits that the new Formula Regional European by Alpine (FRECA) was an option she considered. “But of course it is a much larger financial step. It was an exciting experience going to Imola. It was a tough weekend and I was thrown in at the deep end, but I now understand what the next steps are and what to expect,” she relates.
So while she is fully focused on F4 in 2021, FRECA is definitely on her radar beyond this year. “After Imola we also did another test in the car and I was very competitive. The steps taken from Imola to this test were quite big, so I was really happy with it and exceeded the expectations of everyone.”
Naturally there are also other ways to reach her ultimate aim of driving in Formula 1. An obvious option for Pulling would be to follow in her mentor’s footsteps and join W Series within the next few years. “I think it’s a really good series on the road to F1,” she says. “It’s a good platform to get your name out there and get useful track time. I know from talking to Alice that it can give you a lot of experience, especially as a young driver with big aspirations.”
But while Formula 1 is her lodestar, Abbi Pulling is refreshingly open about other avenues. “Oh definitely prototype cars,” she enthuses, when asked if she has thought about other top levels in motorsports. “They have always interested me, from a young age. The LMP cars, you know? I’ll push to get as close as I can but if F1 is not reachable, those options are also open. I’m not going to have complete tunnel vision on single seaters.”