Abbi Pulling F4 exit a big blow for women in motorsport

·4-min read
W Series reserve driver Abbi Pulling (right) with mentor Alice Powell
W Series reserve driver Abbi Pulling (right) with mentor Alice Powell

By Rachel Steinberg

One of Britain’s most promising female drivers has called it quits on her season after running out of cash.

Abbi Pulling, 18, announced her decision to pull out of the F4 British Championship in a candid Instagram post on Wednesday, saying she was “absolutely heartbroken that this is the outcome.”

The Lincolnshire teen, who has competed in two W Series races as a reserve driver this season, certainly isn’t the first to have a motorsport campaign curtailed by funding issues.

Her predicament, however, is especially gut-wrenching to fans and drivers alike, who saw Pulling – the only woman on the F4 circuit – as a beacon of inspiration to other girls and women looking to get on the grid and, eventually, behind the wheel in Formula 1.

“We’d been struggling for the last couple of rounds, thinking, ‘Are we doing the next round, are we not doing the next round?’” said Pulling.

“It’s been really tough going round to round not knowing where we’re going to get the money for the next one.

“We got to this point, and we kept holding on. The potential is there in the F4, I’m quick in the F4, it was just not meant to be sadly – the stars didn’t align.”

Pulling was in eighth place when her season ended, with three podium finishes—the most of any driver without a win.

While she had some support from a few companies and individuals, the bulk of Pulling’s support came from her father, Andy Pulling, a former motorbike endurance racer who now owns a welding business.

But with a baseline of £200,000-£250,000 for a complete F4 season, they simply couldn’t make ends meet without a sponsor.

Team costs include everything from personnel and transportation to parts, oils, tyres, repairs and entry fees.

Pulling’s mentor, Alice Powell, was just as gutted to see her protégé’s season cut short. The 28-year-old, currently tied with compatriot Jamie Chadwick atop the W Series leader board with two races to go, has experienced her own funding challenges.

Powell herself was once a teen with a racing dream, becoming , at 16, the youngest female driver to compete in a Formula Renault Race, and the first woman to win a Formula Renault Championship the following year, but still struggled to attract support.

In 2012, she became the first woman to score points in the GP3 Series—a campaign that ultimately got cut short due to money. Powell could only, she recalled, afford one of the six to eight pre-season tests on offer.

It’s a system, she explained, that hasn’t changed much since she was forced to drop out of racing in 2015 and help with her dad’s DIY business—she was unblocking a urinal when she got the call from the W Series.

“If you’re not out on track racing,” said Powell, “then you’re not going to be seen and no one is going to know who you are, so companies aren’t going to be interested.”

The catch-22s don’t end there. Sponsors are looking for results—but how do you improve if you can’t even afford to show up?

And if you’re a girl who hoped to catch Pulling at Croft this weekend, or one who may now sit in the stands never knowing she existed in the first place, there’s the ultimate dilemma: how can you be what you can’t see?

“Some people will say ‘maybe try us later’,” said Powell. “But unfortunately later is a bit too late.”

Pulling was hoping to use this F4 season to earn a seat in the W Series alongside her mentor next year. Powell still thinks she’s more than capable.

“[W Series] gave me and my dad a little bit of hope,” said Pulling, who began to transition from endurance racing to single seaters after it launched.

“It’s the whole reason why we took the shot at F4, the opportunity that could potentially arise with them.”

The all-female single-seater series, now in its second season, covers almost all of its drivers’ costs, from cars to accommodation and travel—this season across eight F1 Grand Prix weekends, offering £1.5 million in prize money and the opportunity to earn Super License points.

Pulling and Powell spent weeks sending out emails and putting together packages for potential sponsors. Some replied; others didn’t.

It’s not perfect—some drivers still worked other jobs during lockdown, and Harrogate’s Sarah Moore started a crowd-funding campaign to raise money for her helmet—but it’s a start.

“Without [the W Series],” said Powell, “I wouldn’t be back on the grid racing myself.

“This could have potentially been the end of the road for Abbi as well.”

It’s impossible, after all, to put a price on hope.

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