How F3's all-female test proved physicality is no barrier to progression

Breaking into the Formula 1 feeder series pyramid has long proved tough for female drivers, but Abbi Pulling is among those making it her goal. She told Motorsport.com what it was like to take part in F3’s all-female test and what more can be done to help women progress

How F3's all-female test proved physicality is no barrier to progression
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Abbi Pulling is taking part in her first full-time campaign in the W Series this year. She currently sits fourth in the standings and has taken two podiums so far.

Having made her debut at her Silverstone home race last year, Pulling made headlines after taking pole at the US round ahead of reigning champion Jamie Chadwick, finishing second to secure seventh in the standings and an automatic place on the 2022 grid.

But the dream is to reach Formula 1 via the FIA's Formula 3 and 2 feeder series pyramid and, earlier this month, the Briton got her first taste of F3 machinery in an all-female test at Magny-Cours in France - part of the FIA’s diversity plan to give greater access to more female drivers.

Taking part on the first day of the test alongside Formula 4 and Formula Regional driver Hamda Al Qubaisi, Pulling was given three sets of slick Pirelli tyres for the day. The morning session was primarily used to complete installation laps, short runs and data analysis, prior to an afternoon session spent carrying out two qualifying runs and a 12-lap race simulation. She also got her first taste of DRS – something with which the W Series cars are not equipped.

FIA Formula 3 champion Victor Martins, crowned the previous weekend at Monza, served as reference driver and coach, while Magny-Cours Racing School’s instructor Julien Gilbert was also on hand to help.

Having completed 50 laps of the former French Grand Prix venue, Pulling said it was “amazing - it was kind of what I was expecting and even more. I've learned so much and I've met so many new people, everyone's been so nice and so professional, the environment, it's been an amazing day. I don't even know how to explain, you know, what words to use.

“I've never driven this circuit before, but I really enjoyed it. It's got a mixture of kind of high speed and low speed and I quite like high-speed corners. So yeah, it's an interesting track to drive this car on.”

Pulling found the Dallara F3 machinery

Pulling found the Dallara F3 machinery "comfortable" to drive

Photo by: Formula Motorsport Ltd

This is the second all-female test run by F3, with W Series Academy rookies Nerea Marti and Irina Sidorkova and Iron Dames drivers Maya Weug and Doriane Pin having completed last year’s running. Pulling's fellow W Series drivers Chloe Chambers and Marti also took part in the 2022 test.

There has been much discussion about the ability of women to drive an F3 car from a physical perspective, with steering often wrongly named as the biggest issue facing prospective drivers.

Though former Formula 1 driver David Coulthard recently said the lack of power steering in F1's feeder series makes those cars harder to drive than an F1 car, and puts a “physical preference towards certain size and physically developed men,” there is a range of adjustments which can be made to the cars.

"The cornering speed that you can have [in the F3 car] was so, so much greater than anything that I've ever been used to. It was just learning to trust that it was going to stick" Abbi Pulling

Pedal and steering wheel position are able to be changed to suit each driver, while there are also ways in which to make the seating position more comfortable to suit smaller and larger drivers, whether they are male or female. The adjustments were incorporated in the design of the latest car, which was introduced in 2019, and ensure all shapes and sizes of drivers can comfortably fit.

But Pulling, like those who drove in the test last year, as well as former F3 driver Sophia Floersch, said she did not face any problems with the handling of the car as a woman.

Though she says the car, which comprises a Dallara chassis and Mecachrome engine, was “so different to anything I've ever driven,” Pulling said she “definitely felt it was comfortable to drive."

“I'm 5’7”, so I could reach the pedals fine and the hand grip was fine for me," she explained. "I can reach everything that I need to so I'd like to think that I fit in it quite nicely. It was different to drive, but not a bad different. it was just interesting, you know, to see the differences between this and what I'm used to.

Pulling's usual charge, the W Series Tatuus chassis, is more weighty to drive than the FIA F3 car

Pulling's usual charge, the W Series Tatuus chassis, is more weighty to drive than the FIA F3 car

Photo by: Alastair Staley / Motorsport Images

“It had so much more downforce, it wasn't necessarily the straight line speed that kind of caught me off guard, it was more the cornering speed that you can have was so much greater than anything that I've ever been used to. So it was just learning to trust that it was going to stick, really, that was the biggest thing.”

Pulling also observed the differences in braking compared to the W Series car, as well as adjusting to the degradation of different tyres (W Series runs Hankook tyres). From a technical perspective, the Tatuus car Pulling is used to, which is used in both W Series and the Formula Regional European Championship, is more difficult to drive than the F3 car.

That's down to the heavier steering, which W Series driver Alice Powell - who serves as a mentor to Pulling - says makes the overall experience of driving the Tatuus machinery much more physical.

“The steering weight for some reason, obviously is how it's set up or how it's built, it's a lot heavier. The geometry is totally different, so that in turn makes it more physical to drive. I think the steering wheel is slightly further away in the F3 car. So again, that allows you a bit more power with your shoulders. But overall, [Abbi] enjoyed this car and has not really struggled.”

Powell believes tests like this help young female drivers “have a feel of what preparation they might need to take physically, mentally, to step up to the next level”, adding: “Abbi’s done okay in the car, she's not struggled physically today.

“The FRECA car, which is what W Series use, is certainly harder to drive compared [to F3]. So, you know, I think it helps prepare the drivers. I'm obviously really thankful to everyone involved who’s given the girls this opportunity.”

Motorsport.com has seen data which backs up both Pulling and Powell’s comments. On a comparison graph showing F4, FRECA, F3 and F2, the FRECA car was shown to need the highest force to turn the steering wheel, with F3 requiring significantly less effort.

As part of the Alpine Affiliate program, Pulling is mentored by Alice Powell

As part of the Alpine Affiliate program, Pulling is mentored by Alice Powell

Photo by: Alpine

So it's not the ability of women to drive the F3 car which is preventing them from moving into the series. It's the lack of opportunity for them to do so. Though Tatiana Calderon has recently made a return to F2 and is the only woman driving in that series, there were no female drivers in F3 this season – and there haven't been since Floersch in 2020.

W Series has made a huge step forward in bringing women in motorsport to a global audience, and joined the Sky TV broadcast package for the 2022 season. But it is progression where work currently needs to be done, and tests like this are a step in the right direction to helping that change.

F2 and F3 CEO Bruno Michel has said it is “very important to us to ensure that more and more female drivers join our championship,” and said in August that he was working with W Series CEO Catherine Bond-Muir to see how the series could collaborate to achieve that goal.

“I think we won't necessarily see the difference now, in a sense, we won't see loads more girls trying to get into F3. I think what it will be is 10 years down the line, the girls that are watching at home with their family going, 'Oh, look, I can do that in the future.'" Abbi Pulling

Teams, too, are onboard with running female drivers, with two team principals having previously told this writer that they would be willing to field a woman in F3. But, as ever in motorsport, it comes down to money, and though that isn’t a problem exclusive to women, it is exacerbated by being a woman in a male-dominated field.

Powell believes that W Series has done a great job, but that the “big thing is now trying to help with the funding. But I feel that that's the same whether you're a male driver or a female driver. Funding can be difficult.

“I think it's harder as a female at times, because people still see it as a male-dominated sport, so might not want to really put their money behind a female, where they see it's male-dominated. But I think progress has certainly been made since I was racing in this sort of level of championship in 2012.”

Jamie Chadwick has won W Series twice, but is struggling to find the cash for a competitive F3 seat

Jamie Chadwick has won W Series twice, but is struggling to find the cash for a competitive F3 seat

Photo by: Dom Romney / Motorsport Images

Two-time W Series champion Jamie Chadwick has previously said a lack of funding was the reason she was forced to return to the series for a third season, having been unable to secure a “competitive seat” in F3 with her £400,000 in prize money from winning the 2021 title.

Pulling is part of Alpine's Affiliate programme, with which Powell is also involved. Though she is not a full Alpine Academy member, being an Affiliate means she receives support from the Enstone-based team. Powell says it's “working really hard with [Pulling]”.

Pulling believes that the current measures being taken to help women are “more than what has ever been done in the past,” but added: “I think we won't necessarily see the difference now, in a sense, we won't see loads more girls trying to get into F3. I think what it will be is, you know, 10 years down the line, the girls that are watching at home with their family going, ‘Oh, look, I can do that in the future.’

“I think that's where the change will happen. It's just been a big progression over the last few years, and it's great to see. I don't know what more can be done. I mean, I'd have to probably go into a lot more depth and do a lot more research to know, but I think it's going in a positive kind of trajectory.”

As Pulling says, there has been a big progression, but there is still plenty of work to be done before we see a woman return to the F1 grid for the first time in 50 years.

Pulling reckons motorsport's initiatives to bring more women through will have an impact later down the line

Pulling reckons motorsport's initiatives to bring more women through will have an impact later down the line

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

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