A driver in a black crash helmet hugs a man in a Jay Howard Driver Development polo shirt as several other racing staff look on in the background at parc fermé

How F4 US’s dramatic 2022 title battle turned upside down at COTA

Lochie Hughes left Circuit of The Americas one Thursday evening in November with a seven-point lead in the Formula 4 United States Championship standings. That night, he was crowned champion, notified about the title-deciding penalties by a teammate via iMessage. So how did a close-fought battle all season end so bizarrely on that final weekend of racing in Austin?

By Michael McClure

That 2022 has been a season of strange title deciders should be no surprise to anyone who follows feeder series. Take F3, in which Victor Martins won out in a six-way fight for the title, but only after an agonising and emotional 20 minutes on the pit wall to await confirmation of the results of the final race. Over in W Series, it was realistically a matter of time before Jamie Chadwick would wrap up her third consecutive crown, but the championship came to her as a footnote when the season was cancelled three races before its intended ending.

And then there’s the Formula 4 United States Championship, a domestic single-seater championship stateside in which drivers with years of karting experience battle those who just a year before had never raced anything – not even karts. Disorder is the norm; to paraphrase Isaac Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics, entropy always increases in F4 US.

Jay Howard Driver Development (JHDD)’s Hughes and title rival Bryson Morris of Crosslink Kiwi Motorsport had entered the final round at Circuit of The Americas seven points apart. That’s the same gap that existed between them after the first race of the year at New Orleans Motorsports Park, where Hughes finished first after two years out of racing and Morris, who completed half a season in the series last year, took second.

Morris took the win in Race 2, but as he failed to score in the final race of the weekend and Hughes took second, a provisional order in the championship appeared to form – 20-year-old Gold Coast native Hughes out front, with 18-year-old Tennessee resident Morris in hot pursuit.

It remained that way through the next four weekends. Both drivers fell away from the spotlight at Road America as the Velocity Racing Development pair of Matt Christensen and Noah Ping swept the weekend. Hughes retained the lead, but Morris had dropped to joint fifth in the standings, nearly 30 points behind his chief rival.

Thus began Morris’ fightback, one solidified by a triple podium at Mid-Ohio and a claim to the Omologato Perfectly Timed Move of the Race award for his performances across the weekend. A penalty for Hughes in Race 1 at the following round at New Jersey dropped him from first to sixth, enough for Morris to reclaim the lead.

Bryson Morris fought back from a points deficit at Road America to reclaim the lead by Race 1 at New Jersey | Credit: Gavin Baker Photography

Such moments were fleeting, though, and Morris acknowledged it as much. Hughes’ raw pace was formidable, and though Morris managed to take another trio of podiums that weekend, Hughes secured the next two race wins – enough to grant him a 14-point championship lead heading into the 67-day break before the fifth round at Virginia International Raceway from 6–9 October.

No driver’s season can be perfect, as Hughes came to learn after an accident in Race 1 put him out of the race and Morris within striking distance of the lead. The American driver won Race 2 later that afternoon ahead of Hughes. That third victory of 2022 gave him a two-point championship advantage, one he could easily extend from pole in Race 3.

VIR, with its rolling hills and plentiful grass run-off, seemed to amplify the number of incidents seen on a normal F4 US weekend. There were a number of incidents in Race 3 that brought out two full-course caution periods, among them a high-speed spin for Morris. For both Races 1 and 3, championship organisers were forced to award half points because more than half the races were run behind the safety car. Thus with one round to go, Hughes led Morris by seven points – just as he did exactly six months before at the first race of the year.

These circumstances set the tone for the battles, and the ensuing penalties, that would come in the final round. Even the schedule was unusual, with the track action at COTA, the home of Formula 1’s United States Grand Prix, taking place from 2–4 November – a Wednesday afternoon to a Friday morning.

Race 1: Advantage Morris

After completing testing, practice and qualifying on Wednesday, Hughes, on 215 points, and Morris, on 208, lined up second and third for Race 1 at COTA Thursday morning, with Jacob Loomis of Velocity Racing Development the surprise pole-sitter. Loomis scampered into the distance on the opening lap as the top four, rounded out by Ping, held station, but Ping soon got by Morris to take third place – a boost for the VRD driver’s fleeting championship hopes and a blow to those of the Crosslink Kiwi driver. Ping briefly lost out to Morris on the fourth lap of nine before Ping edged past both title rivals later that lap and took off in pursuit of his teammate.

That set up a four-way battle for third between Hughes, Morris, Shehan, and the third VRD car of Ethan Barker. Speaking to F1 Feeder Series from the COTA paddock, Morris recounts that this early-race fight essentially lost him the chance at victory.

“Me and Lochie started battling early, which allowed the two VRD cars to get away and brought the other two in. The last two laps, [I was] just trying to work my around Lochie and trying to keep the championship hopes alive.”

Morris celebrated a ‘good result’ of third, which tied him with sixth-placed Hughes at the top of the standings. The Australian driver’s take on the race, though, was less positive, illustrating the concern over inconsistent enforcement of track limits around COTA’s 5.513-kilometre layout.

“Race 1 was a bit of a crazy race. With the track limits here, I felt like I got overtaken a few times by people going off the track, which you can’t do. So that sort of kept dropping me back and then I’d pass. It was just a dogfight the whole time,” Hughes explained.

“I was sitting third on the last lap and then got passed off track and then got hit from behind and spun out, so I quickly grabbed the clutch and tried to keep going. It was good to at least finish wherever you could finish just to get the points. Obviously it wasn’t ideal, but that’s racing.”

Hughes fell from third to sixth on the final lap of Race 1 at COTA | Credit: Gavin Baker Photography

Hughes and Shehan had come to blows at Turn 15, which helped Barker to a season-best fourth. He had switched over to VRD for the weekend after a partial campaign with family-run team Barker Racing and told F1 Feeder Series that “the car handles way better than the other car” he had taken to a single points finish at VIR.

“I was trying to hang on the back of Shehan as much as I could. He’s really good at defending. I couldn’t get by him and then I just took advantage of Ryan and Lochie’s incident and I got by both of them,” Barker said about his race.

Shehan lost his left mirror during the race and admitted that “it was hard to see where Ethan was at some points” in their battle. But more importantly, the Crosslink Kiwi driver’s distant title hopes were also firmly in the rear-view mirror after Race 1; he only gained two points on Hughes that race, and the 55-point gap was now insurmountable.

Until the final lap of the race, it looked as though Ping would finish second to Loomis, but the VRD teammates quietly swapped places on the final lap as the chaotic battle for third brewed behind them. That made it a three-horse race entering Race 2 that afternoon: Hughes and Morris level at the top, with Ping 27 points back an outside contender in third.

Race 2: Advantage Hughes

Crucially, by setting the fastest lap in Race 1, Ping had earned himself pole position for Race 2, with Morris alongside him in second and Hughes down in sixth.

The front two got strong starts and held their positions, while Hughes slipped past Shehan to take fifth. That became fourth, then third by the end of Lap 2 as he passed both Alex Berg and Loomis, who was spun around by teammate Barker at Turn 13 on the opening tour.

Morris, meanwhile, had taken over the lead on Lap 2 and stretched out a gap over Ping, who was then passed by Hughes on Lap 3. Ping needed to finish ahead of both Morris and Hughes to remain in contention for the title, but as he fell through the field to fifth, the title race functionally winnowed to the two main contenders, who were now also scrapping for the lead on track.

Having set the fastest lap as he passed Ping, a charging Hughes finally overtook Morris into Turn 1 on Lap 5 for the lead. He never pulled out as large a gap as Morris did at the start, but his victory was sealed after a full-course caution on Lap 7, when Shehan hit Ping’s left-rear tyre at Turn 5 and sent the VRD driver careering into retirement – and out of the title race.

“That was a good race. We made a few changes to the car, and the car was feeling much better. I started P6 and I was just trying to chip away at it. Every opportunity I had to make a pass, I went for it,” Hughes told F1 Feeder Series after the race. “I caught Bryson down and then sent it around the outside him into Turn 1. He blocked really narrow, and then I broke really late and got ahead of him on the brakes.”

The chequered flag waves from a flag stand as cars exit from a left turn and prepare to cross a black-and-white chequered strip on the racetrack surface
Hughes led Morris across the line in Race 2 | Credit: Gavin Baker Photography

The win put Hughes back in sole control of the championship, with a seven-point advantage over Morris. The Crosslink Kiwi driver admitted there was improvement necessary ahead of Race 3.

“[I had] actually a really good start. I got out a few seconds, I want to say. Unfortunately, we just haven’t had the car today. We’ve just had a bit of understeer in certain corners where it’s hurting a lot, so I think if we can figure that out, we’ll be fastest on track,” Morris said.

As for the championship? “It’s going to be super difficult because [Hughes] is one of the most consistent people out there, but hopes are still high. It’s still possible.”

Crosslink Kiwi had expanded from five to seven cars for the final weekend, with Texas drivers Cole Kleck and Titus Sherlock both making their F4 US debuts and joining Morris, Shehan, Gabriel Fonseca, Lucas Fecury and Maddie Aust. Kleck, contesting his first weekend in cars after a season and a half of national karting, immediately impressed by qualifying sixth and crossing the line seventh, just a tenth behind Hughes, in Race 1. Sherlock, who is looking to F4 US for 2023, had to retire from that race with dragging brakes, but he withstood midfield battling to recover to eighth in Race 2 from a 20th-place start.

Kleck said he was there to do ‘whatever [he] can to help’ Crosslink Kiwi that weekend at a crucial time in both the drivers’ and teams’ standings. As Shehan explained when asked about the expanded line-up, “The more data you can get, the better, so even if your lap time might be better, they might still have a spot where you can learn from them.”

Teams’ championship points are scored by a maximum of two cars each race, so more entries gives teams more chances at glory. VRD used their three-car line-up to their advantage early in the season when Nicholas Rivers raced alongside Christensen and Ping, but as Rivers faced financial issues and dropped out after Road America, VRD’s once formidable 67-point lead evaporated. A torrid weekend for VRD at New Jersey gave Crosslink Kiwi the lead, and they never looked back.

VRD finally took another 1–2 in Race 1 at COTA, but Morris’ second and Fonseca’s fifth in Race 2 gave Crosslink Kiwi 28 points compared with VRD’s sole point courtesy of Loomis. With a 54.5-point lead in the teams’ championship heading into Friday’s Race 3 and a maximum of 43 points on offer, Crosslink Kiwi left the circuit on Thursday having secured one of the two titles they were chasing.

Or so they thought.

Post-race penalties

After Race 1, JHDD filed four protests on Hughes’ behalf towards Morris, with Shehan already under investigation by the stewards for the last-lap collision. Those hearings were adjudicated in the morning, but after Race 2, another round of deliberations began for, among other things, two additional protests: one by VRD alleging that Morris had crossed the pit exit blend line while passing Ping for the lead, and another from Crosslink claiming that Hughes went off track when taking the lead from Morris a few laps later.

Discussions stretched long into the evening, and around 9 p.m. that night, the stewards’ decisions came to the championship’s read-only WhatsApp group. The responses, in quintessentially 2022 fashion, rolled in via emojis with increasingly indecipherable connotations.

Shehan was the first to earn a five-second penalty for his Race 1 contretemps with Hughes, dropping from fifth to ninth. And while three of JHDD’s protests against Morris were dismissed, a fourth, which stated that Morris had gone off track between Turns 11 and 12 while passing Hughes for third on the final lap, was successful. Morris earned a five-second penalty and fell to sixth. The new results – with Barker third, Hughes fourth, Kleck fifth and Morris sixth – created an 11-point swing in Hughes’ favour. Eighteen points now separated the two contenders.

The last of the first wave of decisions came in at 9:06 p.m., leading to an agonising wait for the results of the Race 2 protests. Then, more than 20 minutes later, a notice came that VRD’s protest had been accepted and Morris was to be handed another five-second penalty, dropping him from second to seventh in Race 2’s classification.

There was no further action on Hughes’ alleged infringement – guaranteeing his win and leaving him with a 30-point gap over Morris. And thus, at 9:29 p.m. Central on a Thursday night, Hughes was crowned the 2022 F4 US champion.

“I was actually in the bathroom when I found out,” Hughes told F1 Feeder Series on Friday at the year-end awards banquet. “After Race 2, I was pretty confident we were actually going to win the championship anyway because I thought the penalties were deserved, so it was quite obvious, as soon as that race was finished, that there was a high chance that we have won the championship.”

Hughes, who was not in the series WhatsApp group, learned of his title win from JHDD teammate Michael Boyiadzis, who notified him of the stewards’ decisions via an external iMessage group chat. Then, the celebrations began. “I ran down to Jay and my engineer’s room and hugged them. It was a weird way to celebrate the championship, but it was good to get it over and done with before the last race because you never know what can happen.”

Lochie Hughes holds a gray, black and red trophy reading "F4 United States Championship powered by Honda: Champion 2022.
Lochie Hughes won the 2022 F4 US drivers’ title | Credit: Gavin Baker Photography

Hughes may have been the unexpected winner, but the unexpected loser of the moment, alongside Morris, was Crosslink Kiwi. With the final penalty for Morris, their lead in the teams’ standings was cut to 38.5 points over VRD – no longer enough to guarantee them an early victory. But it would, barring a miracle from the Georgia-based team, come in Race 3.

Friday’s race took place under a light drizzle, with rain tyres fitted on all cars. Hughes, starting from pole, had switched his car number from his customary #6 to #1 in recognition of his newfound status as champion; fittingly, he never relinquished the lead during the race. Morris and Ping hit trouble during the race, making Hughes’ victory all the more decisive in terms of points.

Asked if the pressure was off, the champion said, “A little bit, but I still want to win every race I do. Obviously, it was mixed conditions. We were on wets, and it was raining and stopping and raining. I had nothing to lose, so I could go balls to the wall, but it was nice to win the last race of the year and win the championship.”

One-off VRD entry Loomis finished second in what he admitted might have been his final car race for the time being, while Future Star Racing’s Andre Castro took third. Behind them were Fonseca and Shehan, whose combined 22-point haul gave Crosslink Kiwi the teams’ title, this time indisputably, by 40.5 points. New F4 US recruits Kleck and Sherlock, who finished sixth and eighth, backed them up with more points of their own, and though Morris left the race empty-handed, he did pick up the series’ inaugural Most Improved Driver Award at the championship banquet later that night.

A glance at the final standings, with Hughes on 277 and Morris on 222, might not indicate a close battle. Only in the final weekend, when Hughes took a season-high 62 points and Morris a season-low 14, did the gap open so much. Nor do the record books show just how tense, chaotic and downright bizarre the season was at times – and just how fitting it was for its champions to be crowned as they were.

Graphics developed by Michael McClure

Header photo credit: Gavin Baker Photography

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