The very first season of the F1 Academy series kicked off in the Styrian mountains, in wet and cold conditions on April 28th. PREMA Racing team’s Bianca Bustamante had a rollercoaster weekend with the highs of a first career podium in Race 1 contrasted by an anticlimactic Race 3, being unable to start due to a technical issue with her gearbox. However, the weekend was an overall positive for the young Filipina, with a solid qualifying performance and commendable race pace to take a healthy points haul and put herself sixth in the driver standings after Round 1 at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, Austria.
The series has placed special emphasis on providing increased seat time to all 15 drivers, with 2 practice sessions and 2 qualifying sessions taking place on Friday. Bustamante was immediately on the pace, putting herself in P2 for both qualifying sessions and starting on the front row for Race 1 and Race 3 alongside her PREMA Racing teammate Marta Garcia. This was especially impressive considering the treacherous conditions, the unfamiliarity of the track, and her new #16 Tatuus Autotechnica F4 machinery. Bustamante has shown incredible improvement while driving in low-grip conditions, which was one area she struggled with in 2022. The weekend proved to be a breakthrough for the young racer, as her ability to dictate the pace despite wet conditions really shone through.
The Filipina teen was faced with her first real challenge going into Race 1, starting on the wetter and dirtier side of the track, which put her down to P3 after Turn 1. Bustamante, however, managed her pace and held off the pressure from the chasing pack as she got into a rhythm and grew in confidence on the still-damp 4.32km Grand Prix circuit. The 30-minute race flew by with a flurry of on-track battles and a brief Safety Car period. All the drama kicked off on the last lap of Race 1 as a 4-car battle unfolded for the final spot on the podium. Defending against 3 cars, Bustamante momentarily lost the podium place out of Turn 2, but kept her composure and pulled off a stunning switchback move in the next corner to retake P3 and eventually cross the chequered flag. Being promoted to P2 after a post-race penalty disqualified the car in front, she was handed the maiden podium of her professional career along with the valuable 18 championship points.
Bustamante started P7 for the reverse grid Race 2, which swapped around the order for the top-8 finishers in the first part of qualifying. She had a good getaway from the line and challenged the cars in front, but was forced off the track while trying to make a pass and had to concede a few positions. Being engaged in on-track battles at the very start, she yielded a couple of places and was unable to recover due to the rainy conditions. She eventually came home in P9, just out of the points-paying positions, despite an emphatic effort.
The big setback came in Race 3, for which Bustamante was due to start on the front row once again but the PREMA Racing machinery ran into power issues with the gearbox. The 18-year-old was unable to begin the race since she could not shift her gearbox. This was highly disappointing for Bustamante and the team, with a big point-scoring opportunity forgone due to unforeseen circumstances.
Bustamante currently holds down P6 in the driver standings with 18 points from race 1, as her team PREMA Racing leads the team’s championship. She has shown great promise to challenge for the top step of the podium and has proven that she will be a force to be reckoned with this season.
The second round of the F1 Academy Series will be held in Circuit Ricardo Tormo in Valencia, Spain from May 5th to 7th. This will be Bustamante’s first time in Valencia, but the feeling in Bustamante’s camp is positive as she is spending her time between the weekends learning the track on the simulator and putting herself in the best position to maximize yet another point-scoring weekend. Valencia presents a unique layout with the flat nature of the 4km circuit and highly technical middle sector, which provides a plethora of overtaking opportunities. Bustamante is also looking to make the most of the test sessions to be fully prepared for the upcoming Round 2.
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