Filipino teen racer Bianca Bustamante making F1 history with McLaren

“There’s still a lot of lack of understanding for the sport. It’s hard to respect the amount of hard work and craft you have to put in.”

The teen has amassed multiple national and international awards since she started competing in karting events as a six-year-old, and in 2021, Bustamante qualified for the FIA’s girls on track rising stars programme, where she was the lone Asian in the junior and senior categories.

Last year, Bustamante became the first Filipino to race in the W-Series, an all-female single-seater racing championship, which folded this year because of financial issues. Her appearance in the competition, though, catapulted her to the inaugural F1 Academy season, where she eventually bagged her first win in Valencia.

On Sunday, Bustamante will make her debut in the Formula 4 Macau Grand Prix for BlackArts Racing, just a few weeks after McLaren announced her signing.

Like many F1 legends, Bustamante and her family had to sacrifice a lot, especially financially, for the success of her motorsport career. Bustamante’s father, who introduced her to karting, moved away to work overseas to meet the demands of the sport and provide for his family at the same time.

But even during the early years of her career, Bustamante showed the potential to become one of the brightest stars in the history of Philippine motorsport. She drew the investment of sponsors, who gave her free seats in competitions and helped with coaching and support.

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Though Bustamante has earned top opportunities internationally over the past two years, she still could not afford to do private race testings, which are vital to the careers of drivers.

“Most F1 drivers have done 1,000 testings before making it to Formula One. A single test day costs close to US$15,000 and a single race weekend is probably around US$30,000 to US$50,000,” said Bustamante, who did 30 testings this year.

But by joining McLaren, she will be able to gain access and support to do more private testing on the race tracks.

Emanuele Pirro, the driver development programme director at McLaren, said Bustamante had reached the point where she needed more time on track, and more races.

“Bianca is an enthusiastic person. She’s an analytical person and puts a big effort on learning,” former F1 driver Pirro said.

“She proved to be an excellent pick outside the racetrack, and when the championship starts, we will try to give the best tools to make her become a good pick inside the race too.”

It’s not just opening doors for me, but it’s opening doors for the up and coming of the next generation

Bianca Bustamante

An active driver during the 1980s until his retirement in 2010, Pirro, who raced at the same time as Michele Mouton was competing in the World Rally Championship, said women excelling in motorsport was nothing new.

“In normal life, women were not getting enough opportunities decades ago, but motorsport has been welcoming in the way it treats and sees women,” he said. “Our sport is a skill sport, so there is no reason why a woman could not achieve the same result as men.”

But despite the inclusive community, the former Italian F1 driver said there generally was a lack of women in motorsport, leading to the perception the sport had gender barriers.

Though F1 has no gender categories, the F1 Academy series was created to boost the number of women racing at a high level. The all-female single-seater racing championship uses a F4 car and has a goal of producing the next female F1 driver.

“F1 Academy is a women-only category to give women an opportunity to grow and learn then compete with men on an equal level. It can inspire more girls and families to get into the sport,” Pirro said.

Bustamante is one of the key athletes promoting and normalising women in motorsport. She was named the third most influential female driver among 400 athletes with a total of 2.2 million followers on TikTok and Instagram combined.

According to Bustamante, her announcement broke McLaren’s social media records in engagement, surpassing the previous announcements of the company’s current F1 drivers Norris and Oscar Piastri.

With more support on her side, Bustamante continues to chase her F1 dream, but is also committed to using her platform to inspire the next generation of drivers all over the world.

“This speaks volumes about how inclusive and diverse the sport has become. It’s not just opening doors for me, but it’s opening doors for the up and coming of the next generation,” Bustamante said.

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