In the testosterone-propelled world of motorsports, Bianca Bustamante has shattered the gender barrier and made Filipino enthusiasts roar more than once in astonishment.
While most teenage racing drivers transition from karting (with lightweight karts, or go-karts, on short courses averaging 1,100-1,200 meters long) to Formula 4—narrow passageway to the professional league—Bianca headed straight to F3 and international pro status via the W Series championships, the most recent of was held in Singapore.
At the tender age of 17, she was the first Filipina in the W Series, the all-women championships, a complement event to Formula 1 (F1), the pinnacle of motorsports. It was created in response to the lack of female drivers progressing to the highest levels of the game.
Formula racing entails powerful cars driving at ultra-high speeds on wider and longer tracks. Bustamante dreams of becoming one of the few women drivers to compete in F1.
“The W Series invited me last January to a shootout (best players competing against each other) in Arizona. Even with the least experience, I came out the fastest,” said Bustamante. She was offered to compete in the 2022 and 2023 seasons.
Female drivers have come a long way. The W Series has turned out a rising number of extremely skilled women in the cockpits and on the engineering crews. Sadly, finding sponsors for the teams and the series itself has been a continuing hurdle, with women still underestimated in the sport. The final three races of the 2022 season, set in Texas and Mexico City, were canceled after expected funding fell through.
Bustamante released a statement thanking the organizers and her supporters, and vowed to continue training.
“It continues to be rough going for women in this male domain,” Bustamante said in an interview via G-Meet. “I should know; I grew up racing against boys. Driven by ego, they wouldn’t allow a girl to beat them. I was consistently belittled. That’s why for me, winning a race where I was the only female driver is extra significant. (That milestone was the 2018 Macau Asian Karting Open Champion Series – Pole Position, X30 Junior Overall Champion). One of my biggest obstacles has been a lack of opportunities because most people still believe that women are not good enough.”
With a steely determination, Bustamante is out to prove those people wrong. The Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise Journal cites a study conducted by Michigan State University, whose conclusions show that women racers respond just as well as men on the circuit.
Bustamante’s foray into the formula series attracted media attention and some level of interest even from non-sports audiences. She was thrilled, needless to say, but not more than her father was. Raymund Bustamante, a former karter, was Bianca’s earliest influence, the first one to bring her to the karting circuit— in a stroller, because she was all of nine months old. At age one, she wore her first racing overalls and helmet, and got her first kart. Two years later, she was driving that kart with Raymund as instructor. Every week, the precocious preschooler cajoled dad and mom to bring her to the Carmona race track, her happy place, to practice. This is pretty much the story of her childhood, Bianca pointed out, because it became clear to her very early on that she wanted a career in racing.
Raymund knew that in order to simultaneously strengthen a race driver’s mind and heart, training in the sport was best begun in childhood. Karting teaches racing both as a personal skill and a craft— conserving momentum and other maneuvers in handling compact machines, competing in teams and against other drivers. Bianca proved to be a quick and adept student from the get-go. Also, she said by way of an explanation, “When you’re young, you are not afraid of speed. I quickly became fearless.”
She started competing at age five, joined foreign races at age seven in Singapore and, at nine years old, won her first international trophy as Mini ROK Overall Champion of the 2014 Macau International Kart Grand Prix.
Bianca lived and trained in the United States from 2015 to 2017 while competing in Asia. Raymund took extra jobs so that his daughter could buy her own kart and support her living expenses overseas.
“To this day, I make sure I am paying him back for all his sacrifice, with all my wins and achievements,” said the dutiful daughter.
This is not always an easy oath to keep. Bianca noted that accidents on the circuit are inevitable. In her karting days, she collided with one kart or another, and sometimes could not finish the race due to an injury or extensive damage to the kart.
“Accepting failure is a great lesson to learn at a young age. That’s when you blossom and imbibe the most knowledge,” she said. “I had to deal with pressure when I started karting professionally at five years old. I had to retire a car because of technical and mechanical problems. That’s devastating for a kid.”
55 kg of muscle
She has been cross-training with weights since age seven, and most of her gym buddies are coaches and instructors. Her gym program is designed to build strength for competitive racing with full-sized and weightier cars. Petite at 5’3, Bianca is nearly 55 kg of muscle mass. She recently broke her own 120 kg. deadlift record.
Race driving is more than merely clocking the shortest lap time, she clarified: “It takes power to manipulate the car in the different turns because it is very heavy. An F3 car can go as fast as 300 kph. Even at 180 kph, you carry much g-force (to accelerate). The body has to be prepared. Otherwise, you could get a heart attack.”
More than the adrenaline rush of speeding, however, she counts representing her country as the highlight of any race. “It is a magical moment when you get to raise your flag as the world watches, and in full view of the people supporting you.”
And while cheers boost the morale, it is sponsorship for further training abroad that Bianca constantly hopes for. The Philippines does not have facilities for formula racing, not even tracks that meet the requirements of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, governing body for many auto racing events, including F1.
She uses the F3 car owned by W Series. The costs of maintenance and testing the race car are prohibitive.
“That’s one downside of not having the car, I don’t get to test it,” she said.
Science, art, fashion
During the off-season from November to April, Bianca concentrates on academics. She is in Grade 11 at the UST Angelicum under the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics program. She is certain that her experience in setting up a car’s aerodynamics, understanding the workings of an engine, and reading/analyzing data helped improve her focus. “It made understanding graphs so much easier.”
Curiously, she finds time to dabble in art. “I love gazing at portraits, and architecture fascinates me,” she said. “In my free time, I sketch, render 3D drawings, and design floor plans.”
And while she is unmistakably gritty behind the wheel, Bianca is unafraid to express her femininity. She is aware that white clothes beautifully complement her morena complexion especially when she’s abroad, so she is famously partial to them. Her latest favorite is a white dress that she accessorized with a tiny Philippine flag pin and wore to after-race parties.
Like any teenager, she loves fashion trends and looks up to models Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid. She follows the Fashion Week series and wouldn’t mind devouring foreign magazines during an idle weekend. Before a race, her unfailing ritual is putting on makeup, giving her eyes special attention. “Makeup enhances, not masks, my skin,” she insisted. “I feel confident and powerful. This state of mind fine-tunes my driving.”
Her carry-on essential is a hydrating lip gloss, “Especially when I know I will be talking to people at some point during the day,” she said. When traveling or scheduled to attend a meeting, she also carries a moisturizer, a clear brow gel and mascara. She couldn’t do without Glossier, a cult beauty brand from the UK.
Romance on hold
With an international career to mind, Bianca looks up to her Hong Kong-Canadian mentor/ manager Darryl O’Young, an accomplished race car driver and founder-director of CBR (Craft Bamboo Racing) Media, which specializes in PR and marketing. Craft Bamboo Racing itself is a pro racing team which Bianca is not a member of.
“I used to be afraid of what people would say —like, I’m not good enough—and terrified of failing,” she said. “Darryl is my role model. He told me to never fear failure and to instead see the silver lining in everything, the positive in every negative scenario. I had many insecurities. He helped me find myself. I am much clearer now about who I am.”
She recalled one particular conversation of theirs: “I was apologizing for not performing well. Darryl said to stop worrying, just keep learning. Moving forward, that mindset helped me progress and achieve something greater than winning— happiness in the sport.”
That said, Bianca is setting romance aside for now. “I have made a rule regarding that— not till I am 25,” she said, chuckling. “I am emotionally fulfilled with motorsports so I don’t feel the need for anything else. If I must give it my very best, there should be zero distraction.”
In aid of said rule, it may come as a surprise to some that, despite her impressive racing record, she doesn’t have a driver’s license. Her parents still drive her to school and to the circuits in Carmona and Clark.
A memory keeper
From all her trips, Bianca has amassed quite a collection of trophies. “Each one is certainly a piece of me, since those races contributed to what I have become,” she said. She also collects toy cars and photographs. “I’m a memory keeper. I take photos of important moments and keep them in my albums.”
A favorite souvenir is a customized plaque from the Macau International Karting Grand Prix when she became champion in 2016. (She also won in 2014 and 2019). All the drivers and crew members signed their names on it. Gifts that she considers the most precious are race-related as well. Bianca cherishes the bright pink guitar given by Hard Rock Café, a sponsor, in her first race for the W Series in Miami.
“I love music and learning to play musical instruments,” she said.
Her most recent interest is scuba diving, even if she can’t swim. Embracing this particular vulnerability, she confessed, “I live 20 minutes away from Pagsanjan Falls, and yet I’ve always been scared of deep waters. In a swimming pool, I am never far from the side rails. Then I decided to break barriers last summer in Boracay. I went for scuba diving— my very first time to go down 18 meters. I was terrified at first, but once I saw all that marine life… it was very calming. I found even the water amazing. Things that don’t get easier are there to make me stronger. I would love to go back.”
Bianca is upbeat about 2023 despite otherwise intimidating uncertainties. “My faith is strong. God would never put in my path something that I could not overcome. Things that don’t get easier are there to make me stronger. I seek His guidance in everything… ask for help during difficult moments… have learned not to see only what’s in front of me, but also the end outcome of that and what I stand to learn from it. I pray that 2023 will be an amazing year, with more wins. There was much growth for me last season. Progress is the most amazing feeling.”
Photos by Dennis Sulit.