Ahead of the F4 UAE season’s kick-off at the Dubai Autodrome in January 2023, all eyes were on the Yas Marina Circuit, where F4 UAE held two non-championship rounds alongside the Formula 1 season finale at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The grid, albeit incomplete, gave us a taster of what’s to come, with strong debuts and familiar names taking the headlines.
By George Brabner
The pair of 23-minute plus one lap races proved to be an interesting peek into the future. While only 11 drivers took to the starting grid this weekend, the competition was strong.
Established Formula 4 drivers such as Alex Dunne and Louis Sharp set the benchmark on multiple occasions, and whilst experience was on their side, the squadron of five single-seater debutants certainly made an impact. On their first outing as a team, Yas Heat Racing Academy picked up two podiums courtesy of Keanu Al Azhari, whilst Hitech’s Kanato Le also took a podium on his first weekend racing Formula 4 machinery.
Used to seeing each other’s faces in British F4, Dunne and Sharp were arguably the fastest two drivers on the grid this weekend. Racing for Hitech Grand Prix and Carlin Racing respectively, Dunne and Sharp headed three of the round’s four sessions, the pair only pipped to a sweep of first places by Xcel Motorsport driver Federico Rifai in Friday’s practice.
An upturn in pace after qualifying, which Dunne topped, swung the weekend in Sharp’s favour, as whilst he was clearly close to Dunne over one lap, he just needed an edge. Sharp certainly extracted those extra tenths from his Carlin machine come Saturday, taking victory by five seconds after passing Dunne and, vitally, setting the fastest lap of the race by 0.4 seconds to put him on pole for Race 2.
In somewhat uncharacteristic fashion, however, Dunne couldn’t respond to Sharp. The pair made contact while battling in Race 2, breaking Dunne’s front wing. Later in the race, the Irishman went on to incur similar damage from an incident with Sharp’s teammate, Costa Toparis, for which he picked up a 10-second time penalty.
For the reigning British F4 champion Dunne, this was ultimately a one-off series appearance, but Sharp didn’t give him a sweet F4 goodbye: the duo went wheel to wheel and got physical in dramatic fashion in both races. That’s the kind of rivalry to expect from F4 UAE in 2023.
No matter what, though, it was an encouraging weekend for Louis Sharp and Carlin.
Almost half of the drivers on the grid made their single-seater debuts this weekend, and Yas Heat Racing Academy also made their first appearance. The local team was set up in conjunction with the Yas Marina Circuit in order to nurture young UAE talent. They fielded two drivers fresh from karting this weekend.
Al Azhari and Matteo Quintarelli were hot out of the blocks, starting the weekend with fourth and sixth in practice before finishing qualifying later in the evening in fourth and tenth – Al Azhari coming out on top.
Al Azhari would prove the stronger of the Yas Heat pairing in both races too, picking up an impressive third in Race 1 and finishing just under a second behind Dunne. It was double delight for Yas Heat, though, as Al Azhari took another podium on Sunday, just missing out on second place after Le snatched the position in the dying moments of the race. Quintarelli didn’t leave the weekend with any silverware, but as is the case with any young driver, every lap turned is vital mileage.
The Trophy Race weekend was certainly a success for Al Azhari and Yas Heat considering it was the Emirati’s first two races in an F4 car and his team’s first on-track appearance. Although the results don’t have any real effect on the 2023 season, the confidence boost both will receive is undeniable. It’s clear there is huge potential in the team and their current drivers.
The team with the most drivers this weekend, Hitech Grand Prix brought strength in numbers. Dunne, Le, William Macintyre and James Piszcyk made up the largest team on the grid, and if one driver slipped away, there was always another one to pick up the pieces. Plus, the squad made noticeable progress as the weekend went on.
With Dunne consistently in the top few positions on pace, his teammates edged closer and closer as the sessions passed. Whilst Dunne finished the 45-minute practice session in second place with a best time of a 1:59.723, Piszcyk and Macintyre sat 1.6 seconds back from him. But by Race 1, their delta to Dunne’s best lap time had been reduced to 0.9 seconds.
Meanwhile, Le turned his weekend around, starting on the back foot with only six laps on the board in practice but finishing with a battling drive in Race 2 from sixth place to second. Le passed Toparis into the first chicane after the first Safety Car restart and repeated the move on Al Azhari on the final lap to take a podium on his first F4 race weekend. Macintyre also ended on a high, making up four places in Race 2 to finish fourth.
Header photo credit: F4 UAE
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