F1 Academy primed to propel women up the motorsport ladder

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- Formula One's all-female F1 Academy series embarks on a landmark second series this year with an overhauled look from year one.

After a quiet debut campaign, F1 Academy has strengthened its ties to the world championship. For 2024, F1's 10 teams have stepped in to back one of the grid's 15 young drivers -- which will come with liveries for each of their cars -- with the other five backed by different partners such as skincare brand Charlotte Tilbury, which made its first foray into sports partnerships by linking up with F1 Academy.

The F1 link does not stop there. F1 Academy will join the championship in Saudi Arabia, Miami, Spain, the Netherlands, Singapore, Qatar and Abu Dhabi, with races set to be broadcast live on ESPN in the U.S.

"It's a huge moment," series CEO Susie Wolff told ESPN about the second year. "Having all the F1 teams on board, some iconic brands and racing with F1 on three continents shows how much progress has been made and how much support there is for our vision and the positive impact we want to create in the sport for women."

- F1 Academy Saudi Race 1, Friday @ 7:10 a.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+
- F1 Academy Saudi Race 2, Saturday @ 7:05 a.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+

There is one headline stat that always accompanies talk of all-female series: The last F1 race to feature a woman was the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix, when Lella Lombardi competed.

While F1 and F1 Academy want to eventually see that fact consigned to the history books, both have stressed that the new series has a much bigger remit. F1 boss Stefano Domenicali has shied away from making bold predictions about having a female driver in the next five, 10 or 15 years, but has instead echoed Wolff's view of the series having a much more important vision for the sport.

"Success needs to be on and off track," Wolff said. "That's always been part of Stefano's vision and why he got F1 Academy up and running in the first place.

"We see this sport having this incredible global popularity, and the biggest growing fan demographic is the young female. I'm very aware not every young girl who watches F1 wants to be a driver, or a mechanic, or a journalist, but we can show that this sport is bringing to task the diversity.

"The sport wants to have a call to action to make sure its not this male-dominated, chauvinistic world which I think probably in the past, people still have that preconception."

In Wolff's eyes, the link with F1 teams has helped legitimise F1 Academy's wider aims.

"I didn't want this just to be seen as a women's thing, run by women, I wanted the power makers in this sport to play a part in it," she said. "But at the same time, this is not running on goodwill because it's hip to support women's sport. We need to build a model that is sustainable in the long term."

F1 Academy hopes to provide a launchpad for young drivers, not just up to F1, but across the racing pyramid. Last year's champion, Marta García will compete in Formula Regional European Championship (FRECA) this season, having landed a fully funded seat with Prema.

"We are not a destination for young female drivers to stay and race in," Wolff continued. "We are there to provide a platform to nurture them and give them rocket fuel for further progression in the sport.

"We believe in giving a huge opportunity for helping progression and making sure the talent pool is increasing [with women] and that talented women are finding their way into the sport."

While F1 Academy hopes to one day find the next Lombardi, the series will not live and die by its ability to do so.

Links beyond just F1

The benefits for F1 Academy drivers were no more apparent ahead of this week's Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, when Lewis Hamilton was asked about French driver Doriane Pin, racing this year with the backing of Mercedes.

"Yeah, I just saw her," the seven-time world champion said, before praising Wolff, who is married to the boss of his F1 team, Toto. "I just spent some time with her just now in the garage. To see the teams and the sport racing here ... there's still a huge amount to be done, but the work Susie's doing with F1 Academy, I'm really, really proud of her."

F1 Academy's drivers are also closely aligned with five Formula 2 and Formula 3 teams in a bid to make the step up to those feeder categories easier.

The ART team that Hamilton and Mercedes teammate George Russell won junior titles with is running Bianca Bustamante of McLaren and Williams-backed Lia Block, daughter of the late rally driver Ken. MP Motorsport, winner of the 2022 F2 title, is running Al Qubaisi sisters Hamda and Amna, backed by Red Bull's two F1 teams.

Prema, which won feeder series titles with Charles Leclerc, Mick Schumacher and Oscar Piastri, is running Mercedes' Pin and Ferrari's Maya Weug. Campos is running American driver Chloe Chambers, backed by Haas, while Alpine's Abbi Pulling is with the Rodin Carlin team.

"We're incredibly lucky to have five of the top junior teams," Wolff said. "Those teams know how to make complete racing drivers and help them develop.

"We will always analyse the next natural step with the drivers; I'm not sure it will always be F3, sometimes it will be FRECA. But it's also about having the right progression and knowing what's right for our winner to progress."