Filipina F1 Academy Driver Bianca Bustamante

Girl On The Grid: Bianca Bustamante Is Reaching Her Apex

Bianca Bustamante is taking the racing world by storm. She recounts her journey in formula racing with The GAME and shares how she built herself around the adversity she faced as a Filipina in motorsports.

When you’re driving a racecar at speeds of up to 264 kilometers per hour, everything that passes by in your periphery comes in blurs. Filipina racer Bianca Bustamante puts it into context best — “When you’re getting swayed around in the car, thrown around from one corner to another, you have to withstand that. And then there’s the mental side — your critical decision-making, fear, and controlling your emotions.” In a race, every minor decision made in a split-second can alter the results even laps later. How can anyone afford to pay attention to anything outside of the track? “You have to keep yourself focused,” Bianca explains.

And yet, in her final F1 Academy race for 2023 in Austin, Texas, the 19-year-old spotted something in her peripheral vision that she simply could not ignore.

“I remember going through a corner and I saw a Philippine flag hanging there,” she tells The GAME. “I could see it just from the edge of my point of view. It was beautiful.”

In a split-second, while racing on a major Formula 1 track 13,500 kilometers away from Manila, she felt a sense of home. And it wouldn’t be the last throughout that final race weekend. She recalled seeing four more Philippine flags and even getting to meet several Filipino fans. “There are a couple hundred Filipinos in every single country and the fact that they get to come and watch me race and support that little girl who’s repping the Philippines in the world of motorsports is just heart-melting.”

Bianca Bustamante was born and raised in a country where racing is hardly the favorite sport. Yet, the number of Filipino fans who have been coming to support her races all around the world has been growing, and this is an effect of her influence, not just in the world of motorsports, but in the Philippines’ sports scene as well. She is now one of the most talked about drivers in the world and was even named one of the top five “Most Influential Female Drivers” in 2023.

Bianca is truly making her mark as one of the pioneer drivers in the all-female F1 Academy, as one of the few women who gets to be a part of the competitive world of motorsports, and perhaps most notably, as the first female driver in the McLaren Driver Development Program. The milestones the young Filipina has achieved in the span of just one year came almost just as quickly as she can drive. And this year, she is set for even bigger things.

“I’m slowly climbing my way up to my Everest, to my dreams,” she proudly tells us. “But at the same time, I’m nowhere near my peak yet.”

All this at just 19 years old. And to think, just a little over a year ago, she thought her racing career might have been over.

Facing uncertainty

Given what we know of her today, it’s hard to look back and believe that Bianca Bustamante only started racing formula cars in 2022. Her first opportunity in a formula car came when she competed in the USF Juniors championship, a development racing program in the United States. But, it was when she entered the W Series, an all-female single-seater racing category, that her name started to gain traction. As the only Filipina in a new competition, she instantly started stealing headlines and making waves, slowly bringing more Filipinos’ attention to motorsports. However, given that she was still in the process of transitioning into racing formula cars — a transition that is much more challenging than many realize —she struggled to finish races in the top 10. She concluded her season with just two points.

Bianca Bustamante in the W Series
(Photo credit: Bianca Bustamante on Instagram)

“I was thrown into the deep end,” she says. “I practically just maximized what I was given, but it wasn’t enough. Not enough time in the car.”

In 2022, Bianca spent a total of just around 15 days in the car — barely enough time to learn everything about how to push it to its limits. And at only 17 years old, she still had a lot of growing to do as a driver.

But the real heartbreak came when Bianca found out that the W Series would not return for another season. “With the W Series coming to an end due to insufficient funds, I thought that my career was over. Coming from a very middle-class family, it’s not like I had many opportunities lying around, we didn’t have the money, we didn’t have the budget, and despite the sponsors, it wasn’t enough to guarantee me a seat next year. Obviously, in my head, it was just complete and utter panic.

“I was thinking, I wish I was given another year to show what I’ve got in me.”

Thankfully, this wasn’t the last we would see of Bianca Bustamante.

“I’m realistic — in everything I do, I know that chances are, I’m not going to get anything in return. But I want to do it anyways. I want to do my best to get one percent better every day.”

Bianca on keeping her feet on the ground as she works to achieve her dreams.

After the conclusion of the W Series, the Filipina was invited to travel to Barcelona to participate in a ‘secret test’ with PREMA Racing. This is where she first heard of the F1 Academy, a new all-female racing category that would act as a platform to develop young female racers to help them climb the formula racing ladder — a dream for any girl in motorsports.

“This was kind of my make-it-or-break-it moment in my career…For once in my life, I actually felt like, here’s an opportunity to compete next year with one of the best formula teams and to be in the best program for me, the F1 Academy.”

Naturally, she came into the testing sessions feeling nervous. Even before she arrived in Barcelona, she knew that she had a lot to prove, not only because she wasn’t able to get enough time in the W Series to fully develop as a young driver, but on top of that, she also lacked experience in comparison to many other female drivers who were vying for the same spot. At just 17, having just entered the formula scene, she didn’t have many successes tied to her name that she could rely upon. Thus, coming into this test, she did have to make a solid impression to take the spot.

Bianca Bustamante in the F1 Academy for PREMA
(Photo credit: Bianca Bustamante on Instagram)

“I was scared, but I just did my best and showed the team what I could do and show them that I’m here to learn and I can work hard. I think it meant a lot, the fact that I was willing to put so much work into my craft.”

Whatever went down in that ‘secret test’ must have truly been something special, because PREMA gave one of their limited seats in the new F1 Academy to a young girl from the Philippines.

Entering as the underdog

Although she felt incredibly grateful coming off of the Barcelona test knowing that she was guaranteed a seat in the inaugural season of F1 Academy, there was also another side of her that felt the pressure that comes with having one of only 15 slots on the 2023 grid.

“I was panicking,” she admits. “I wanted to show what I could do as a driver, how I can improve, and obviously, it was a fact that I did lack experience compared to the other drivers I was racing with.”

As a youngster competing in a Formula 4 racing category, Bianca felt like she had a lot to prove going up against racers who were up to six years older than her with more experience in motorsports. This alone was already a huge hurdle she would have to overcome — proving her place in this highly exclusive club. But, this wasn’t the only weight she would have to carry.

Like many other professional racers, Bianca was introduced to the racing world at a young age; she was only three years old. Her dad used to race in local events in the Philippines, but when Bianca got behind the wheel herself and fell in love with racing, both of her parents did everything they could to support her passion and her journey.

“We loaned off the house, my mom sold everything she owned, my dad had to go to America just to pay for food, to pay for allowance, to give me a bit of money for racing,” she reveals. “It was my whole family who had to sacrifice their lives for me.

“Growing up in a very Filipino household, I developed that mentality where I was kind of like the breadwinner of the family…Knowing that in the back of my head really unlocked this different mentality — that I’m able to achieve a lot of things in life without the fortune of being rich.”

Bianca Bustamante in the PREMA garage in F1 Academy
(Photo credit: Bianca Bustamante on Instagram)

Being a youngster with only a year’s worth of formula racing experience, and on top of this, being a part of a middle-class family from a country where racing opportunities are not easy to come by — the odds were stacked against Bianca. But, she did not mind at all. Instead, she saw these circumstances not as reasons not to succeed, but rather, as stepping stones.

“Why fit in when you can be special?”

Bianca on embracing her differences as a racer.

“The best part about it is that you can always use your disadvantage to your advantage,” she asserts. “That’s what I’ve done my whole life. I’ll use that to an advantage to change my mentality; to make sure that I work hard for everything; to make sure that I value all the opportunities. I’m not going to take anything for granted.”

The dark horse emerges

Bianca did not take her first season in the F1 Academy for granted at all. It was a season of milestones. Her eagerness to prove herself showed early on, as in just the first race on the calendar, she already notched her first podium finish, crossing the checkered flag in third place.

One race weekend later, in Valencia, Spain, Bianca Bustamante was ready to go not one, but two steps above her stellar debut. Having qualified to start in pole position for Race 2 of the weekend, she admits, “I was literally shaking. I was asking for all the advice I could get. I asked my engineer, my coach for advice I could get…All these strategies just go through your head.”

Bianca is a very meticulous person, an analytical driver, and a hard worker. And with the opportunity to start the race up front, of course, she took it with both hands, and she achieved her first-ever win in formula racing. Crossing the finish line ahead of all the other racers, she celebrated on the top step of the podium and listened as the Philippine National Anthem played for all to hear.

It would not be the last time this song would play for the season. Bianca notched her second victory a few races later, in Monza no less, one of the trickiest racetracks in the world, known for its high-speed nature and complex corners.

These two race wins were the highlights of Bianca’s debut season in a Formula 4 car, and they were definitely the most talked about. But behind the scenes, no matter what qualifying result or race result she concluded a weekend with, she would take these as experiences to learn and grow from.

“I think what’s funny is that I really am learning as I go along. Every race, I learn something new about the car, about myself, about my driving, and at this point in my life, I’m nowhere near my peak, I really am just at the very beginning,” she says.

(Photo credit: Bianca Bustamante on Instagram)

Her growth cannot be denied. Darryl O’Young, a fellow racecar driver who has been supporting Bianca through her formula journey, proudly shared in a media conference, “It’s been a year of progress for Bianca, from training as well as driving. To make a big step forward, especially the gap to the frontrunners. I would say in the W Series, she was merely three to four seconds off the pace at times to the frontrunners, like Marta Garcia, her teammate this year. And we managed to close that gap down to tenths this year, if not, sometimes surpassing her teammate and some of the top drivers. So that growth has been quite tremendous in one year. That’s probably easily forgotten because so much has happened this year in one season.”

 “I’m only nineteen, so the sky is the limit for me right now.”

Bianca on reaching new heights in her racing career.

Indeed, a lot has happened in just one season alone. And in her year of development — true to what the F1 Academy was established for — it could not have ended better. Just before the final race of the season, Bianca Bustamante announced that she had signed with McLaren to become the first-ever female driver in the team’s Driver Development Program.

“It’s quite a weight to carry on my shoulders,” Bianca admits, recognizing her unique position on her new team.

“I kind of feel like I have to perform really well now, but at the same time, I think it’s symbolic. It’s literally everything I’ve been fighting for my whole life — fighting for inclusivity and diversity in the sport and to be one of the trailblazers and be one of the first female drivers in the Driver Development Program, it’s everything I’ve been building up to and the fact that this opens not just doors for me and doors for a lot of younger generation drivers that will come up in the sport; the fact that I can hopefully open up a lot of doors for them? That’s what it means for me.”

Having been a young girl dreaming of a spot in the male-dominated motorsports world, Bianca knows better than most what it means to have representation on the global stage.

Being the Filipina on the grid

Having spent most of 2023 on flights from country to country, Bianca Bustamante was happy to be back home during the holidays after a tiring yet rewarding season. When she landed in the Philippines and was greeted in the airport by her mom, who had been unable to travel to watch Bianca due to budget constraints, was understandably ecstatic.

“When she saw me, the first thing [my mom] asked me was, ‘Can I see the McLaren shirt? Can I see the McLaren shirt?’ in the most Filipino-mom way ever. She didn’t even let me sit down in the car yet, she was asking me, ‘Where is it?’,” Bianca shared, her smile spread across her face from ear to ear.

Bianca Bustamante for McLaren as the first female driver in the team's Driver Development Program
(Photo credit: McLaren on Facebook)

This excitement surely resonates with many Filipino motorsports fans. McLaren is one of the biggest Formula 1 teams in the world and has developed champion drivers including Lewis Hamilton. For Bianca to have this opportunity is nothing short of incredible. And if her mother, as well as thousands of Filipinos around the world, is excited, Bianca herself can hardly believe it.

“It’s still fresh in my mind that I haven’t digested the whole fact that I’m in the McLaren Driver Development Program.”

Despite that disbelief, she has managed to find a home with her new team. In a span of two months, Bianca has moved to the United Kingdom, spent her 19th birthday working with her new team, and competed in the Formula Winter Series — and this barely scratches the surface of all the behind-the-scenes work she puts into preparing for a big F1 Academy season ahead.

Indeed, Bianca has come a long way from where she started. In her early days as a racer, she admitted that on the track, she didn’t feel like she belonged. “I couldn’t find people who had long hair like me or who wore makeup like me, so when I was younger I would force myself to fit in,” she shares. “I would dress baggy and try to look like a guy, I would wear a hat just to fit in with the boys. But then I realized, why fit in when you can be special?”

Since coming to this realization, Bianca has never looked back. Instead of trying to fit in, she embraced everything that made her unique — being the only Filipina in her racing category, being one of the few women in a male-dominated sport, and coming from a middle-class family — and this may have very well been the key to her success.

“I’ve always said to my team that I probably wouldn’t have made it this far if I wasn’t Filipino,” Bianca says. “You build yourself around the adversity you face in life. If everything was just handed to me, I wouldn’t have this mentality to strive for things in life.”

Any of the things that could have held Bianca back in her dream to become a racer, she simply turned into fuel that would drive her to fight even harder and dream even bigger.

Now at 19 years old and just about to write the next chapter of her budding career, she is already leaving a legacy with the success she has achieved, with what she has proven to herself and the world, and with the doors she has opened as a trailblazer in the motorsports industry. There is already so much for her to look back on with pride. And still, Bianca Bustamante is far from done.

“I really am just at the very beginning and it’s quite funny thinking about it that way. Even though I spent my whole life preparing for this moment, I’m still not close to where I wanna be.”

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