“When I won, it was like the whole world suddenly exploded,” Bustamante told DW.
The 18-year-old received a message from the president of the Philippines, had a resolution voiced on the country’s senate floor and her face was splashed across an enormous billboard on the busiest street in Manila.
“I honestly didn’t know how to react. I wasn’t expecting the effect would be this much. It was really a crazy moment for me. To experience all this stuff at 18, sometimes I think it’s a bit too much.”
It would be easy to dismiss this response as classic athlete hyperbole, but Bustamante’s journey to this point explains why the tears flowed and the country celebrated when the teenager stood on the podium.
Hard road to glory
Her father, a motorsport fanatic, bought Bustamante her first suit when she was just one. She was in a baby race cart by the age of three and at just six years old, Bustamante knew a life in motorsport was what she wanted.
“Financially it definitely wasn’t easy for us. You know, coming from the , we’re a very middle class family. My dad is actually an overseas worker. He moved away when I was young just so he could support the family and put food on the table.”
“The fact that I was racing, it was really, really difficult for the whole family. We made a lot of sacrifices, sometimes you might say too many. That’s why I’ve always felt like I’ve had to pay them back.”
Many aiming to be in professional sport say failure isn’t an option and yet, for one of myriad reasons that make being a professional athlete so hard, never make it. Like them, Bustamante never had a prom or sleepovers and has been homeschooled for most of her life. A lot of what makes a typical childhood has been missing.
“Five, seven years ago, we were just struggling to even pay for the entry fee, fuel, tires. It made for a difficult road and because of that I needed to really value every time I was just able to drive, to race because I never really knew when it would be the last time.”
Life hasn’t been easy for Bustamante, but one mantra has helped her through. “When life’s tough, you’ve got to be tougher.”
That approach has helped her go from karting glory as a child to the top rookie in the W Series [an all-female single-seater championship] last year. Now, in 2023, she is competing for Prema Racing — the starting point for many F1 talents such as Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc — in both and in the F4 UAE Championship.
To be here is a testament to Bustamante’s determination, but even now, on the biggest stage, home remains a long way away. “Other drivers have a home to go to after the race, but for me, home is a bit too far so I’m often by myself.”
“There’s a lot of moments where you kind of have a crash. You have so much adrenaline during a race weekend and then suddenly you’re back to being by yourself. It’s one of the struggles.”
It’s a poignant reminder of the mental fortitude needed when competing at the highest level. Family support helps, perhaps none more so than the bond she shares with her brother.
“I have a brother and he has autism and Down syndrome. I think having him really taught me how to not only think of myself, but to be very selfless with a lot of things because with him, I’ve always had to be selfless with moments where I needed to be very patient, forgiving when he would throw tantrums,” Bustamante said, adding that after her win in Valencia her brother was one of the first people she called.
“And I think that’s why I’ve always been really, really patient with life, dealing with difficulties, losing, progress, patience just with everything. With that, comes a lot of maturity. To not act on your emotions, or what’s around you or in the moment, it really takes a lot of self-control and discipline.”
It’s no surprise then that her end goal is to join the biggest show in motorsport.
“The end goal for me is making it to , that’s my Everest,” Bustamante told DW. “Everything I’m doing is to hopefully make it there.”
Last year at the Hungaroring, Bustamante got a taste of the big show when she met seven-time F1 champion . The two bonded over the similarities of their journeys, two aspiring drivers who didn’t look like anyone on the grid. For the teenager, the meeting was “a moment she’ll always cherish”, and credits Hamilton as being one of the original supporters for the existence of the F1 Academy.
“Lewis has always supported women in motorsport. He was one of the first few people that really stood up for it and said: ‘we need to have an initiative to support women.’ Looking back five years ago, there wasn’t even an initiative for women in the sport.”
“The fact that now, it’s not just about us drivers, but even engineers like McLaren launching their new women programme for STEM engineers — that’s amazing,” Bustamante said, referring to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math courses that lay the foundation for a career in motorsport. The teenager is herself a woman of STEM and is on the verge of graduating at the time of talking.
Bustamante is paving the way for women in motorsports and in the Philippines. Perhaps her future won’t include F1, but after all she’s been through reaching that goal isn’t going to define her. The teenager has a lot more to do right now, including hopefully making more phone calls to her brother after a race win.
Edited by: James Thorogood
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