The series described as ‘career-saving’ by those within it began this weekend but did so with a broadcasting own goal.
“Honestly, F1 Academy kind of saved me,” Hamda Al Qubaisi said. “Because I struggled with the budget for F3 and it made no sense to jump into a category that’s really tough if I didn’t have the right support.”
“With F1 Academy, finally I can do this series where I can also progress in the same way and I know that there’s a lot of support behind it,” Hamda, one of two Al Qubaisi sisters on the MP Motorsport F1 Academy team, said and her story is not unique.
“I have had a similar problem throughout my whole life really,” Prema Racing’s Bianca Bustamante told media including PlanetF1.com ahead of the opening weekend. “Coming from the Philippines, we had zero money in our very middle class family and my dad had to work a lot of jobs to put food on the table.
“So I knew initially that motorsport was not meant for me. I’ve always had that mentality, that we always had to struggle from one race to another.
“Early this year, I didn’t really know what to do with my career anymore, because of financial difficulties. Everyone knows how motorsport is generally reserved for people with money, so for you to progress you constantly have to be testing a lot and that means it requires a lot of funding or budget.
“So it makes it tough for us girls to progress because we’re doing less track time then most men are doing. That’s one thing that the F1 Academy has helped eliminate.”
That was the stated goal of the newest F1 series launched in November and beginning at the Red Bull Ring last weekend, to make the typical route into F1 not so typical.
Of the current F1 grid, you would be hard pressed to find a driver whose parents or sponsors did not pour money into their career before they even sat in a single-seater. On top of that, the reality in securing the required funding is a lot easier if you are a man than if you are a woman.
It has been 47 years since a woman last raced in F1 and nine years since a woman took part in an F1 session but the hope with the F1 Academy is that this is the first step of a long process to changing things.
“I believe it’s eight to 10 years away from happening,” Susie Wolff, the last woman to take part in an F1 practice session and the managing director of the F1 Academy, told the Guardian. “That’s not just because we are lacking the female talent pool and lacking those who progress through the sport but also because of the realisation that getting to F1 is incredibly tough. It’s tough for all of the male drivers.
“A woman in F1 is not going to happen overnight, I need to manage expectations. But I think this foundation and everything we can achieve with the F1 Academy in the medium to long term can be the real driver for change in the sport and that was what compelled me to say: ‘Count me in.’”
To F1’s credit, it has made it easier for these women to compete. Each driver is given a subsidiary of €150,000 which while perhaps not enough to sustain them on their own, gives them a valuable head start. The series is also restricted to women under the age of 25 and the hope is it will operate as the first step on the pyramid which will one day end up in F1.
But as the first race began in Spielberg, few eyes were watching. Not solely because it clashed with the F1 proceedings in Azerbaijan but simply because it was impossible to view unless you happened to be at the Red Bull Ring with no public broadcasting available.
The decision, announced on Friday, was met with backlash from those wanting to watch the maiden voyage of the F1 Academy but given it takes around 120 cameras to film an F1 race, it could be expected that they simply did not have the equipment to do so in Austria. However, professionally multi-camera footage emerged on the F1 Academy’s social media channels, raising the question as to why this race was not given top billing.
PlanetF1.com understands that for the inaugural event, the focus was very much on the track and plans are in the pipeline for broadcasting options including a place on F1TV but with no set date on when that is likely to be available, it remains to be seen when fans will get their first live glimpse of the action.
But how do the drivers feel? Their first time racing under the F1 banner and much of the focus has been on the broadcast issues rather than the race itself.
Bustamante, who speaks with more knowledge than her 18 years of age might suggest, saw it in a different light.
“I’ve always said in motorsport, you’ve always had to perform in the spotlight and it’s always been so tough for a lot of drivers to perform under pressure,” the Prema racer who was born in the same year Fernando Alonso won his first world title said.
“To be able to just focus on pure driving is what makes [F1 Academy] so important and now we don’t have to worry about anything else. We just focus on performance.
“I actually want to thank F1 Academy for easing us into it. They’ve done an amazing job, the whole media team, the broadcasting, it’s obviously crazy with the amount of people supporting me.
“F1 Academy has done an amazing job to give us that exposure on track and off track so in the end, it’s not a disadvantage [for the race not to be shown], because we’re doing all the hard work and once it’s time to shine, we’ll be there.”
The decision, or inability, to broadcast the opening race live will never sit well with some but it is clear for those on the inside, it was far more important to have 15 cars crossing the start line then it was to have a camera pointing at them.