The hidden positives in Block’s F1 Academy debut

Her big debut in F1 Academy didn't go to plan – but there were signs of underlying potential on show

Motor Racing – Formula One World Championship – Saudi Arabian Grand Prix – Qualifying Day – Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Learning was the word of the week as American Lia Block made her F1 Academy debut on the streets of Jeddah at last weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

The 17-year-old finished 16th and 11th across the first two races of F1’s all-female series; spinning on the penultimate lap of race one while running eighth and getting wiped out by Rodin Motorsport’s Lola Lovinfosse before charging back up the order, only to suffer a penalty for speeding in the pit lane, in race two.

But while the Williams Academy driver’s results might not be the start she was after, her speed and progress behind the wheel of a single-seater racing car certainly were.

“Honestly, I would say it’s a very, very good first round,” said last year’s American Rally Association O2WD champion after the weekend. “From the experience that I do have and the amount of time I have had in a car, it’s honestly a big positive for me. Even though it didn’t end as well as I wanted it to, it just shows how much I need to work for the next race and just looking forward now.”

Motor Racing - Formula One World Championship - Saudi Arabian Grand Prix - Qualifying Day - Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

No point looking at the past – Block's attention is fully on what's ahead

Block’s lack of experience in circuit racing, and just how far she has come in a short period of time, cannot be overstated. The Jeddah weekend marked only her fourth event behind the wheel of a Formula 4 car, following three Formula Winter Series outings in Spain earlier this year.

For Block’s mentor and former Hoonigan Racing Division team boss Derek Dauncey, the American’s rate of learning, and pace compared to her vastly more experienced competitors, is nothing short of remarkable.

“It was 106 days from when we started the training process to get to Jeddah, and she’s done extremely well,” said the former Mitsubishi WRC team manager. “The narrative of basically trying to cross over from rally to open wheel, you’ve seen it in the past with drivers coming back and forwards between two formulas, it’s not so easy and she’s done extremely well. She’s raised the bar more than what we expected.

“Our preconceptions for this season were to basically allow her to develop and learn the sport and learn how to gain the tenths and hundredths of a second you need to do to improve in each sector. It’s a massive effort to try and improve all the time.

Motor Racing - FIA Formula Academy - Friday - Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Raw pace proved to be no issue for Block, as practice demonstrated

“She was third quickest in practice, and she was seventh quickest in qualifying, which was a higher level of performance than what we expected.”

Block took her pace in the weekend’s early session with her into her first F1 Academy race, where she clocked the third-fastest lap behind only race winner Doriane Pin and second place Abbi Pulling. But while speed is proving no issue for the ART Grand Prix driver, learning the vital skill of racecraft is a whole different ball game.

“That is the key area now to gain,” confirmed Dauncey, “She has the speed, that is one of the big things that has come out throughout February. Going through the three Spanish races, the test she did and then Jeddah, is that she definitely has the speed. It’s all a case of racecraft.

“Race one [in Saudi Arabia] she just pushed the car slightly too much and it rotated and went into the wall. In the second race she had a bobble on the start, she made the time back up again and then [Lovinfosse] pulled out in front of her and took her nose off. The safety car came out, she came back in, changed her nose, got back on the pace but unfortunately got a penalty for just speeding in the pits. Without it she would have been I think fifth.”

Motor Racing - FIA Formula Academy - Thursday - Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Block's next chance to impress will be in front of a home crowd in Miami

While Block’s first weekend in the F1 spotlight may have been a baptism of fire, Dauncey is confident that she’s created a solid foundation for improvement throughout the season.

“The speed is there, she’s back in a simulator before Miami [the next F1 Academy round] in April,” said Dauncey. “There’s a constructive direction with Williams and ART to give her the process [to improve]. The sim work she did for Jeddah proved to be really rewarding. It’s a constructive direction going forward.

“I’m more than happy with the progress. It’s been astonishing. She’s done really well.”

Words:James Bowen