Villagomez 2022

Inside VAR’s maiden F3 home race: ‘Qualifying is 80 percent of the weekend’

This weekend at Zandvoort marked the first time Van Amersfoort Racing raced on home soil in FIA Formula 3. F1 Feeder Series caught up with team manager Tom Claessen and drivers Franco Colapinto, Rafael Villagómez and Reece Ushijima in the paddock to talk about their weekends and the atmosphere of their home race.

By Michael McClure

The seaside village of Zandvoort became a sea of orange over the weekend for the Formula 1 Dutch Grand Prix as Max Verstappen fans from all around the world packed into the stands in the sand dunes for a weekend of festivities. They got progressively rowdier as the weekend rolled on, with Friday’s excited and anticipatory crowd shouting and stumbling around the sidewalks by Sunday evening.

That electrifying atmosphere energised the feeder series as well, particularly the two Dutch teams competing in this weekend’s event, MP Motorsport and Van Amersfoort Racing. MP, a fixture of the Formula 2 and Formula 3 paddock, won the second race of the weekend at last season’s F3 round at Zandvoort and achieved the same feat with Collet in the Sprint Race this year.

Home advantage

The Van Amersfoort home base in Zeewolde is about an hour’s drive away from Zandvoort, and several of the top brass, including owner Frits van Amersfoort and CEO Rob Niessink, were in attendance over the weekend for the team’s first home race in F2 and F3. Even the team’s leading driver in Formula Regional, Kas Haverkort, made an appearance over the weekend.

They were treated to a maiden Feature Race podium in F3 on Sunday by Franco Colapinto, who capitalised on an early mistake by Jak Crawford to move into third. He held the position until the flag and even hunted down championship leader Victor Martins for second, but he could not gain the place.

On Saturday afternoon, F1 Feeder Series spoke with Colapinto, who was nursing a lost voice. He had contact with Roman Staněk entering Turn 1 on the opening lap of the Sprint Race, which dropped him out of the points.

“We had a bit of damage,” he explained. “There is a crest at the end of the straight and the two tyres were in the air, the fronts, and I locked up straight away. I think I had an [aerodynamic] deficiency and I just had a little contact, but all fine. Unfortunately a bit of damage, but looking forward to tomorrow. Scoring a few points would be good.”

19-year-old Argentinian Franco Colapinto in his debut season in FIA F3 | Credit: Van Amersfoort Racing

With the podium from fifth on the grid, Colapinto exceeded his own expectations for the race. But the rest of the weekend yielded largely disappointing results for the team as a series of incidents hampered the drivers’ progress.

Things got off to a difficult start for rookie Reece Ushijima, who suffered a large accident at Turn 9 in Free Practice. That put him on the back foot for the rest of the weekend, and he qualified 23rd and finished the two races 22nd and 19th after struggling to make progress.

“[The crash] did have a big effect. I’ve never been to Zandvoort before, so it was important for me to capitalise on the practice, and sadly I wasn’t able to, obviously,” Ushijima told F1 Feeder Series in Zandvoort. “I pushed a bit too hard. But in qualifying, the fist two runs, I was really learning – learning the track, learning the tyre and how it behaves.

Everyone know what Van Amersfoort is and everyone kind of says, ‘What’s up?’

Reece Ushijima on VAR’s popularity in the paddock

“On the last run, I was obviously improving along with everyone else, and what happened, happened. So it messed me up for our position in the race, but … we learned a lot within the team, so it was a step forward. I’m not enjoying it as much as I would be [if I were] on the podium. I would enjoy it then!” Ushijima joked. “It’s still a really cool vibe. Everyone knows what Van Amersfoort is and everyone kind of says, ‘What’s up?’.”

Oranje Army

Van Amersfoort’s team manager in F3, Tom Claessen, explained to F1 Feeder Series that the extra attention also helped the drivers, especially when they endure difficulties over the weekend.

“It’s always good to see a lot of fans, a lot of people – to see this orange colour everywhere around the track. It’s also good for the drivers, which are still young, and we are getting out of a COVID situation, so it’s for sure good for them to see a lot of people on the track.

“Performance-wise we can see that we have the pace. Qualifying has been a bit difficult because of a red flag that [meant] we lost our last push, and we were improving with the three drivers, so our pace is not really reflecting the position that we start with.”

One driver particularly hard done by that red flag for a crash on William Alatalo’s part was Rafael Villagómez, Van Amersfoort’s third driver. Villagómez qualified 19th but felt that he could have ended up near the sharp end of the grid if he’d been able to finish his lap.

“It was just really painful to get that red flag because actually, the lap was done. I was just on the straight line. If not, I think some guys [who] are just in front had very similar sectors, so they finished around sixth and top five or around there.”

20-year-old Mexican and FIA F3 driver Rafael Villagómez, Van Amersfoort Racing | Credit: James Gasperotti

His races didn’t go much better, as contact with Brad Benavides at Turn 1 on Lap 5 of the Sprint required him to pit for new front tyres. His Feature Race ended in the same place on the 22nd of 26 laps after Juan Manuel Correa made a similarly unsuccessful lunge.

“It was quite an unlucky one, but a stupid mistake from my side,” Villagómez told F1 Feeder Series about the incident in Saturday’s race. “I went for the move to Brad in Turn 1 for the inside, but actually on the inside, there’s a couple of bumps. When I arrived, I already had the wheel in the air, so it was locked.

“From there, we had a bit of damage, but the car was really, really good. I was able to keep a really good pace, in one part being the quickest, and if not, matching Caio [Collet, race leader], which had the quickest pace. It feels pretty good to be honest knowing that we can do it.”

Taking the positives from the performance

Claessen was encouraged by Villagómez’s strong pace despite the damage he picked up.

“He was the quickest on track during the whole race. He just crashed at the beginning with Benavides,” he said. “We had to change the front tyres. He had a flat front tyre and he had the sidepod damaged as well, and his direction was not straight anymore, so it’s even better to know he had the pace with an IndyCar steering wheel instead of a Formula 3 one.”

Helping him to set those fast laps was the serpentine nature of the Zandvoort track, where overtakes are hard to come by and trains of cars easy to spot. There were no safety cars in that Sprint Race, so while Villagómez could not close back up to the rest of the pack, he had a crucial advantage in terms of pace – clean air. Colapinto and Ushijima, mired in the midfield, were unable to take advantage of the race to the same extent.

“As we can see, Zandvoort, it’s Zandvoort, it stays Zandvoort. It’s difficult to overtake, so even if you have the pace, you always follow the train. It’s difficult to overtake, and qualifying, as always, I think it’s 80 percent of the weekend.

Header photo credit: James Gasperotti


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