At just 16 years old, Chloe Chong was by some margin the youngest driver on the inaugural F1 Academy grid in 2023.
At the end of 2022, the British teenager was selected for the finals of the FIA Women in Motorsport ‘Girls on Track – Rising Stars’ programme, which saw four up-and-coming female talents assessed at Maranello for a spot in the illustrious Ferrari Driver Academy. She qualified as a finalist via after an intensive four-day evaluation programme at Paul Ricard in France.
Although Chong eventually missed out on the big prize, she has become part of a ‘talent capsule’ providing her with racing career support and various driving development opportunities.
Boosted by that recognition, she had the confidence to step up to car racing, joining top team PREMA Racing to contest the new F1 Academy. Despite competing against others with considerably more single-seater experience, Chong made an instant impression finishing sixth in the opening race at Spielberg in Austria and ended the season in impressive style with three points scoring finishes on the F1 bill at Austin, Texas.
We caught up with Chloe shortly after she returned from America.
You made up the step from kart racing this year. How did it go? Was that everything you expected or was it tougher than you thought?
“Getting the call only one month before the start was very difficult. You need a lot of preparation, both in terms of fitness and simulator time.The team really helped me to understand the potential, even though I was struggling with fitness during the early tests.
“Despite this I was still consistently in the top ten in terms of pace. It was good to see I had good pace while learning all the very different techniques required in formula racing compared to karting. It was a bit of an adjustment phase but F1 Academy has so many young girls all helping and teaching each other, which really helps. And I’m grateful for that opportunity.”
PREMA Racing obviously have huge amounts of experience in junior categories and you had eventual champion Marta García alongside you, too – how beneficial was that?
“Being with PREMA obviously helped quite a bit with techniques and learning. I remember at the beginning of the year I literally didn’t know how to use the clutch – sure, I could get the car started, but I had no idea what they were talking about in terms of ‘preload’ and ‘race procedure’.
“Marta was kind enough to take me off to a car park and we practiced it in a little Fiat 500! It was nice having her by my side and supporting me. She, of course, experienced similar scenarios in her first year, so has done so many things for me, like looking over my onboard video and being very positive. Together with Bianca [Bustamante the third member of the PREMA line-up] all three of us drivers were a tight, closely knit family within the team so it just made it a good experience both on and off the track.”
It does really seem as though F1 Academy is a supportive community, ensuring the girls are comfortable in a racing environment, so that you can perform to your best.
“It’s a very good environment, especially for girls coming straight from karting. I’ve got to drive on many F1 tracks, which is amazing. Also the financial burden isn’t as high as compared says other feeder series, which I would have struggled even to get started in.”
You had a really strong start to the year, scoring points in your first race.
“It was almost like a dream come true in terms of how you wanted to start the season. I mean it was definitely a really tricky weekend. It started off with me being P2 in the Thursday test. It was my first time at the track and in the car and I just I wasn’t expecting to come in with such a strong result. And then on Friday it started raining and I remember being really scared because I never driven the car in the wet – it was straight into qualifying and I had no idea what to do.
“I was then finishing a lap with a theoretical P3 time when suddenly, in the last corner, I just lost it. That was unfortunate and meant that I couldn’t even participate in Q2. It did show, however, that the potential was there even in my first time in the rain, but it meant that I only started P10 in race one. As a result I wasn’t really expecting anything.
“As it was still drizzling, the team were just happy for me to finish, not least as I didn’t even know how to do a standing start! But after that it was it was a good race. I stayed out of trouble, had some really good pace and finished sixth. It’s one that will stay with me forever. I also felt it could have been even better having been so quick in testing… but that’s racing – it is all about up and down experiences.”
How did the season progress from there?
“The rest of the season was quite positive. We’re always going to new tracks that other drivers had raced on several times before – I had to learn them and it was a struggle at times, which was unsettling. By the mid-part of the season, I just really wasn’t sure where to go. I wasn’t confident with the car. It was a bit of a mess.
“But once we got to Monza I put all that to the side. It was very hard to do that when you are in a new environment and have never experienced that sort of thing before. But in Monza I really tried to put everything behind me and it was pretty positive to get fastest lap in race one. And from then on we really ramped it up.”
You then went to the Circuit of the Americas racing on the United States Grand Prix programme – that must have been very special to race in front of a huge F1 crowd?
“I was excited as it was my first time at an F1 race. It was an amazing experience and something I’ve always dreamed about as a kid – I never imagined being there and doing it myself. It was always a pipe dream to be in the F1 paddock and getting to meet all these people and share experiences. It’s an experience I want to keep to consolidate my passion for the sport.
“We then secured the Team Championship for PREMA and I also met some of my F1 heroes like Lewis [Hamilton] which was truly amazing… but, at the end of the day, I knew I needed to race. One of my strengths is that I don’t really feel pressure while I’m racing, so I just went out there. I had belief in myself and I liked the track. Obviously starting on the front row for race two, you see all the fans on the hill from the start line. I think that scares some people but, as soon as I put on my helmet and was sitting in the car, my only focus is the race.”
Having now finished your maiden F1 Academy season, what are your plans to keep match fit over the winter?
“The winter is definitely a really long break, but there’s a lot to do. We have invested in a simulator, so I’ll be using that to get ready. It really helps; I’ve heard team members say I’m a completely different driver since we got it before Paul Ricard. I’ve so much more confidence now and that is purely just down to knowing tracks from the ‘sim’.
“Keeping up physically is very also important, especially with the F1 Academy car, which is very physical because of certain restrictions on the steering. Those are two very important aspects, plus any track time we can get.”
You attended the launch of Motorsport UK’s ‘Discover Your Drive’ programme, which is run at TeamSport karting venues throughout the country – an initiative has been introduced to encourage girls into kart racing at a younger level. How important do you believe these kind of initiatives are?
“As soon as I heard about the programme, I was just very excited and I really wanted to join in because I believe it’s super important. Being the youngest driver in F1 Academy, I feel like it’s my mission to help young girls get into karting at grassroots level as that’s the only way someone is going to get to where I am. F1 Academy is cool but you need to start from the bottom and make your way up and getting good track time through schemes like this is important.”
You were talented enough to be selected for the FIA Girls on Track Rising Stars and made the finals at Ferrari – those schemes were clearly very important for you in terms of recognition as well as exposing you to the world of professional, competitive motorsport.
“If it wasn’t for the experience with Ferrari, I would have never even considered going into a career in single seaters. I remember getting the email from them inviting me to the first scouting camp. I’d never even driven a car before and didn’t know whether I wanted to give it a go because I just didn’t think it was worth it. I did, though, and got to the finals and that really changed my mindset on racing because without it I never had the money or thought to go into a bigger formula.”
Images courtesy of F1 Academy Limited.