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F1 Academy, F2 drivers hit positive notes for Alpine during tough Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

JEDDAH: It is fair to say that Alpine have not had the best of starts to the Formula 1 season.
An underwhelming opening weekend in Bahrain for Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon was followed, days later by sweeping changes at management level, with three new appointments as technical directors: Joe Burnell (engineering), David Wheater (aerodynamics), and Ciaron Pilbeam (performance).
Before the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix at Jeddah Corniche Circuit, Gasly told Arab News that he expected another “tough” race, with the car having had no upgrades since Bahrain. He subsequently retired from the race, while Ocon improved from 18th on the grid to finish 13th.
But there was far better news for Alpine elsewhere last weekend, with Abbi Pulling having a win and a P2 finish at inaugural, all-female F1 Academy races in Saudi, and Kush Maini finishing second in the Formula 2 category.
Pulling was delighted with her first experience by the Red Sea.
“We did a three-day test two weeks ago, but before that I’d never driven the track, only on a simulator. We were actually pretty well prepared coming into the first race. But what a track — the circuit of the year for me; I don’t know if anything would top it.”
Pulling finished second in the first race on Friday, and said the narrow streets of the Jeddah Corniche Circuit suited her style of driving “to a T”.
“The close walls, fine lines,” the 20-year-old told Arab News. “It’s unforgiving, that’s the word that I like to use. It’s like what I grew up with in the UK. The UK tracks are normally very tight and unforgiving. And I think it plays into my favor here, the speed and everything. I just absolutely love it.”
Another factor for Pulling to contend with was the heat.
“The races have been tough, it’s been at the hottest point in the day at around three o’clock,” she said. “As a Brit, we’re not used to the heat, so I’ve been in P2 for both of them, starting from P2 and finishing in P2.”
Pulling crossed the finish line second in race two, but was later awarded victory after Doriane Pin, the French winner of race one, received a penalty.
“In race two, we had a really good fight and I was putting on a lot of pressure. So that was a very big positive for me and the team. Just looking forward to Miami and continuing that fight.”
Following round two in Miami, F1 Academy will move on to Barcelona (June 20-23), Zandvoort (Aug. 22-24), Singapore (Sept. 19-21), and Doha (Nov. 28-30) before finishing at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (Dec. 5-7).
“I really want to keep this momentum forward,” said Pulling.”The biggest thing about winning championships is consistency and keeping your head, and I think that will be really important this year. Nothing’s changed, I need to make sure that I don’t get ahead of myself, don’t get too big for my boots, and just keep clicking along like I have with the team.”
Pulling also praised the three Arab drivers who are part of F1 Academy: Saudi Arabia’s Reema Juffali, and the Emirati sisters Amna and Hamda Al-Qubaisi.
“Reema is a proper local, she grew up in Jeddah, so it’s great to have a local driver,” she said. “And the Qubaisis are obviously pretty local as well. So, it’s amazing for them to have a home race, I’m very jealous because I’d love to be racing at Silverstone. It’s great, the level is high, they are all very competitive, especially Hamda and Amna, who have come from the back of last year having a successful season.”
The British driver reaffirmed what it means to have F1 Academy provide an opportunity for a new generation of female drivers.
“It’s incredible to be a part of it,” said Pulling. “All of us are pioneering the way with Susie (Wolff), we’re creating a platform for females to be seen and show their talents off, which is so special to be a part of. I never really had that when I was younger, had something to watch where there were lots of females, and I was very lucky that I was exposed to motorsport through my family and my dad. So, it’s nice to be that person for someone to get them into motorsport and inspire them to push and try something different and go against the grain.”
Alpine’s F2 driver, Kush Maini from India, is similarly charting his own path, and having started ninth on the grid, fought back to grab second place and a podium finish.
“Good race. I think (on Friday) we struggled, so we changed the car a lot (for Saturday), and I’m glad everything worked out because we seem to be back on the pace,” he said.
“We pulled out a big gap and the safety car troubled us slightly, but I think Enzo (Fittipladi) was too quick for us. I’m happy we finished second, we got some good points in the championship, but I’m also happy that we made a big step in the car.”
It was Maini’s second year racing at Jeddah Corniche Circuit, and like Pulling, he found the layout to his liking.
“Obviously, I’m with a new team this year, but this track is amazing,” he said. “It’s amazing from a driver’s point of view, and I always enjoy myself when I come here.
“I’d like to think every track suits me, but it was a great pleasure to drive around.”
The 23-year-old said that joining Alpine has seen his life-long ambitions realized.
“It’s my first time being associated with an F1 team,” Maini said. “And to do it with Alpine has always been a dream of mine. Just me coming here after every session and speaking to some of the bosses and just being involved in everything improves my experience so much. And it’s really an honor and an amazing opportunity for myself.”
Maini believes having races in this part of the world will increase the chances of local drivers emerging to compete at the highest level of motorsports.
“Coming from a country like India, where racing isn’t as big as, let’s say, Europe, for me every step toward more views or people getting more into it, is amazing. It’s great to see it growing every year and in countries like India and Saudi and places where it was not a normal sport, five, six years ago.”
Miani is optimistic about the rest of the F2 season, with a view to making the ultimate step up eventually.
“I think it’s positive,” he said. “It’s very early, but every weekend we’ll be pushing to do our best and the goal is to fight for the championship so that’s the main target.”
“Of course, (Formula 1) is my goal,” he added. “It’s always been my goal.”
If Maini needs any inspiration, he could look to Jack Doohan, Alpine’s reserve and test driver, and a third-place finisher in F2 last season.
“It’s been really special to be honest. I joined Alpine Academy in 2022 and then went into a sort of makeshift role as reserve driver at the end of that year, into an official role from 2023,” the 21-year-old Australian said.
“So, technically, my third year in the team and second as reserve drive, and it’s been really cool, I feel very much part of the furniture, part of the team, and creating those connections with all the engineers and the mechanics and a good bunch of people. It’s very important to me and will prove crucial when I become a full-time driver.”
Doohan has driven on Jeddah Corniche Circuit three times since its launch in 2021.
“It’s one of my favorite tracks on the circuit,” he said. “It’s a super special place for me, especially under the lights.”
Doohan’s third-place finish in F2 last year was delivered against the odds, something that could even inspire Alpine’s senior drivers this year.
“It was a difficult start to the year, we had mechanical issues with the car that were able to find five rounds in, and so unfortunately, I didn’t really score any points up until then,” he said. “But to come back after that and still finish third, from that moment in time to the end of the event, we scored the most amount of points in the championship by about 30.
“We really did a good job to come back and, you can say, dominate that part of the season, but unfortunately, losing five rounds at the start of the year just meant we were a little bit too far back,” Doohan added.
“So, all in all, in what was in our control, we won the most races, scored the most points onwards from that test. When we had it together, we really did very well. Finishing my last Formula 2 race with a pole and a win, I’m looking forward to my next step.”

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