Close friends and soon-to-be track rivals
Racing in front of a sold out British Grand Prix crowd of 160,000 at Silverstone is certainly one way for Abbi Pulling to make her W Series debut.
The 18 year-old will not be alone on the track tomorrow though, as her coach and mentor Alice Powell, will be vying for the podium too. Powell has been working with British Formula 4 driver Pulling since August 2020, with the teenager even practically moving in with her coach last Autumn to avoid commuting during the condensed season. They have developed a strong bond, but that will go out the window when they become competitors this weekend.
As one of the top three drivers in the W Series standings, Powell has a championship to think about and will not have a chance to keep a close eye on her protege during the race – not unless she makes her.
"If she’s alongside me then yeah, I’ll have a rough idea of where she’s going by," Powell says with a laugh. "Of course, I’ll be focusing on myself as much as possible. But Abbi deserves to be at the sharp end, she’s quick enough."
Powell is not the only one backing Pulling, who got her first call-up this week as a W Series reserve driver. David Coulthard, 13-time Grand Prix winner and W Series advisory board chairman, also called Pulling a "fantastic talent", saying this could be a "huge weekend" for her.
Pulling had an impressive junior career in karting, winning the Super One National Kart Championships (which produced Formula One champions like Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button) in 2017 and 2018. She made her senior single-seater debut in British F4 last year, and got on four podiums, finishing sixth overall.
Powell was on hand to guide her, and Pulling says it has taken things up a notch: "A few years ago, I wouldn’t have thought I’d be racing on the support package for Formula One, it’s crazy. Then, meeting Alice and having her to push me on, my training went to a whole new level. She taught me how important everything is off the track."
Powell, 28, is someone who knows better than most what obstacles can come up off the track, no matter how good you are. She was the youngest driver, male or female, to win a Formula Renault race in the UK aged 17. By 22 she was out of the sport altogether due to a lack of sponsorship. W Series saved her from that four-year limbo in 2019, and now she is coming good on her potential – winning the championship opener last month in Austria and in third place after two races.
Mentor Alice Powell has been setting the pace this season
Her experiences made her determined to mentor young women. As well as Pulling, she also coaches up-and-coming karter Ella Stevens, and hopes they can reach their F1 dream.
"I’ll have to block Abbi’s ears, but when I started working with her, I knew she was extremely talented," Powell says. "She’s doing a fantastic job with her level of experience and her lack of funds – she’s definitely got what it takes."
Powell has seen first-hand how few girls are coming through the ranks, and says W Series is part of making female drivers more visible for youngsters. With FIA points up for grabs too, the championship also aims to propel female drivers to F1 driving seats – something Pulling could well benefit from in years to come.
The all-female series gets its biggest ever platform at Silverstone this weekend and there will be six British drivers to support, with Jamie Chadwick and Sarah Moore first and second in the standings ahead of Powell. "The fact it’s a sellout crowd at a British Grand Prix is going to be special," Powell says. "It’s incredible to have three Brits at the top. I wish that I was still first, but hopefully I’ll be there at the end of the season."
To commemorate the historic moment, Powell will be wearing a British racing green helmet in Saturday’s race, made all the more special as it was designed by talented artist Pulling. Despite the sentimental touch, the fighting talk has already started between the pair.
"It will be cool to see my helmet design as I go by you," Pulling says to Powell laughing. "I want to surprise people. This is a one-off race for me, whereas Alice is fighting for a championship so I’m not going to do anything to jeopardise that. But I’m definitely not going to give it to her easily. If I’m battling with Alice, it means I’m going to be at the front anyway so I’ll be happy."