Cars make a slight left on the Yas Marina Circuit along the back straight, with the clock reading 29:55 and the Yas Marina Circuit logo in the background

How COVID-19 and European influence created FRMEC from Asian F3

The Formula Regional Middle East Championship (FRMEC) and the F4 UAE Championship will both kick off just 13 days into the new year at the Dubai Autodrome.  The pair are two of the earliest FIA–sanctioned series in the 2023 calendar, and this year, they will be organised together by Top Speed. Feeder Series spoke to Top Speed founder and general manager Davide De Gobbi about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on motorsport in Asia and the resulting increase in European involvement.

By Tyler Foster

Based in China, Top Speed has been responsible for the organisation of Asian F3 since the championship’s first season in 2018. In the following years, the group oversaw the series’ transition to the Middle East during the COVID-19 pandemic. It became the Formula Regional Asian Championship (FRAC) in 2022 before evolving into its new identity, FRMEC.

For 2023, Top Speed will be in charge of not just FRMEC but, for the first time, the F4 UAE series that runs alongside it. Emirates Motorsport Organisation (EMSO) selected Top Speed as the organiser in a bidding process that took place last spring. The announcement was made on 26 September.

“We are fully involved in the organisation. It’s our project, actually. What we have to do is try to deliver the best package for drivers and teams, in terms of calendar and format. They want to have mileage; they want to have Super Licence points during the winter period,” De Gobbi explains.

“Another important factor is trying to offer the best … financial conditions for teams and drivers to join, because it’s a special moment of the year. It’s before the main season, it’s after their previous season, so drivers don’t have so much budget.”

Super Licence points and COVID-19

Asian F3’s story of transitioning from an overlooked summer series to the main winter series for drivers across the globe is an unusual one. Since its first season in 2018, when there was an average of 15 cars per round, it has grown in interest and in size, with a number of experienced teams joining.

At the end of 2018, the FIA announced that the F3 Regional series would receive more Super Licence points, increasing from 15 to 18 for the winner. At the same time, Top Speed launched the satellite championship known as the Asian Winter Series, though it did not end up awarding Super Licence points because it did not hold five rounds at a minimum of three different circuits.

A change to the Appendix L, which houses the Super Licence regulations, for 2020 stated that a driver could earn points from two championships in one calendar only if the seasons did not overlap. This was the moment that the main Asian F3 Championship became a winter series, meaning that it was no longer overlapping with the European racing calendar.

“The first big step that improved our marketability was the different system for Super Licence point allocation,” De Gobbi says, referencing the two changes made by the FIA.

All five rounds of the 2019 Asian F3 Championship took place in East and Southeast Asia – in Malaysia, Thailand, Japan and China specifically. With the series’ shift to the winter and the need for races in warmer climates, the two rounds in China and the round in Japan were replaced with an extra round at Malaysia’s Sepang International Circuit and two rounds in the United Arab Emirates at the Dubai Autodrome and Yas Marina Circuit.

Pinnacle Motorsport’s Jack Doohan at the 2019–20 F3 Asia finale at Thailand’s Chang International Circuit – the series’ last-ever race outside the Middle East | Credit: Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool

But at the same time, COVID-19 was another decisive factor for the championship, one that had arisen during the 2019–20 season. The pandemic’s outbreak in China in particular threatened the Asian-based series’ long-term future, and the traditionally long distances between venues were not as easily traversable during the height of the pandemic. Top Speed had to look elsewhere for new Asian venues to host races in the 2021 season.

“We struggled in 2020 and 2021 because of COVID,” De Gobbi tells Feeder Series. “COVID has taken a lot from us in terms of business, but I would say that COVID has helped us discover a new potential business. Moving to the Middle East, it helped a lot to connect to teams because the teams now see the series closer to them.

“[In] 2020, we went to the Middle East not because of COVID [but] because we had already planned to in 2019. We saw that it was a good playground in the sense that it has good weather, it’s closer to Europe, there’s more interest from Europe. We worked already closer to European teams and drivers. They know what we are doing, the level of the series, the level of organisation. I have to be proud also of the way that we are managing the series because if European teams and drivers come, it means that we have done a good job. The more they know about us, the more they trust us, the more they join.

“Last year, it was a big success. We reached a level of entries that we didn’t expect even in the most optimistic situation. 2022 gave us the confirmation that this is the right place to be at the right time. I think what COVID took away from us, [it] has returned with this opportunity.”

Finding a new home in Kuwait

With COVID-19 helping make the Middle East the new de facto centre of what was once a wider-reaching contest, the championship’s numbers grew dramatically, from an average of 16.4 cars per round in 2019–20 to 27.4 in 2022. The FRAC name only lasted a single year before FRMEC was launched for 2023. While the original Formula Regional series in Asia is now focused on the Middle East for the foreseeable future, there remains the possibility that FRAC can be recreated further down the line with or without the region’s presence.

The Kuwait Motor Town racing circuit outline viewed from above
Kuwait Motor Town will host FRMEC and F4 UAE in 2023 | Credit: Kuwait Motor Town

As the championship’s grid continues to grow, so too will its geographic footprint. The second and third rounds of FRMEC and F4 UAE in 2023 will be hosted by a new addition to the calendar in Kuwait Motor Town, the first Middle Eastern circuit outside of the UAE to be used in either series.

Designed by F1 circuit designer Hermann Tilke and opened in 2018, Kuwait Motor Town is the longest permanent race track in the Middle East at 5.609 kilometres. Going there is a natural expansion for the series, De Gobbi says.

“The reason that we stayed in UAE in 2021 and 2022 was purely for logistical reasons because of COVID restrictions. For a driver, it’s good to experience as many circuits as possible. Luckily UAE has got two nice Grade 1 FIA circuits. Our target is to expand and explore the region.”

Europe’s influence on FRMEC

Asian motorsport often uses the power of European teams to support its racing programmes. Just last year, Indian outfit Mumbai Falcons partnered up with European feeder-series powerhouse Prema to help win the FRAC teams’ title. The decision to move to the Middle East made it much easier for European outfits to support the series than when East and Southeast Asia made up the core of the calendar. Regardless, De Gobbi and his Top Speed team have always emphasised enhancing Asian motorsport.

“For us, it is really important to have Asian teams. We are trying also to facilitate a team from Asia to join Formula Regional. It is our priority. The fact now that we have European teams, the Asian teams are struggling a bit, but not from the technical point of view. It is mostly from the marketing point of view,” De Gobbi explains.

“For a driver, it feels safer to deal with a European team, because of the credibility of the name, than an Asian team. We need to remember that we have teams also like Pinnacle Motorsport, who was an original Asian team, that used this opportunity to partner with a European team. The whole operation was made by Asian people.

“Pinnacle scored very good results with a full Asian team besides a few engineers. The series was born in Asia and we would like to do as much as we can for Asian teams and drivers. Being in the Middle East, it’s more of an open competition between Asians and Europeans.”

For a driver, it feels safer to deal with a European team, because of the credibility of the name, than an Asian team

FRMEC promoter Davide De Gobbi

Europe’s influence on the series is undeniable. In its inaugural season, Asian F3 had eight Asian-based teams out of eleven. For the 2023 FRMEC season, just three of the nine teams are based in Asia. Hong Kong’s BlackArts Racing, a staple of the series, withdrew a month before the championship’s commencement, citing the drift towards the Middle East.

Their team principal, Bill O’Brien, stated, “The past two years of racing in the ‘Formula Regional Asian Championship’ only in the Middle East have been difficult for our team and other Asian-based team[s], most of whom have disappeared from the series.”

The 2022 FRAC season finale | Credit: Formula Regional Asian Championship

Further, in last year’s FRAC, only two Asian drivers, Israel’s Ido Cohen and the UAE’s Hamda Al Qubaisi, managed to score points. Compare this to 2021, when series champion Zhou Guanyu of China and Jehan Daruvala of India scored seven wins between them and five Asian drivers finished in the top 10. As far back as 2019, Japan’s Ukyo Sasahara beat Australia’s Jack Doohan to the title in the summer edition, while China’s Ye Yifei was the runner-up behind current IndyCar racer Rinus VeeKay of the Netherlands in that year’s winter series.

Questions of identity

While the championship is thriving from a marketing standpoint, the reliance on European assistance is eroding its original identity and purpose of supporting Asian motorsport. Therefore, De Gobbi says, it’s important to judge the future editions of FRMEC and F4 UAE not solely on the quality of performances by European competitors but also by those of their Asian counterparts as well.

“It’s becoming a European series,” De Gobbi admits. “Most of the participants are from Europe. Honestly speaking, motorsport and especially junior formulae depend on the European market, drivers and teams. We still have teams from Asia, but if you want to have a successful series, you need to depend on European input.

We still have teams from Asia, but if you want to have a successful series, you need to depend on European input

Davide De Gobbi

The planned inaugural seasons of the Formula Regional Indian Championship (FRIC) and Indian F4 Championship both failed to proceed as planned in 2022. They were first postponed from the winter to November because of a COVID-19 spike in India, before being called off entirely because of logistical hurdles. As the effects of the pandemic remain a threat to the growth of Asian motorsport, Top Speed may need to re-evaluate their goals in the near future.

“We need to see in a couple of years, as COVID hit Asia very hard. There are several [Asian] teams that are not in the condition to operate overseas and they need time to re-establish their operation,” De Gobbi says.

“In the long term, I am thinking of something to re-involve the Asian teams more, maybe for 2024, 2025. It’s a good promotion to see Asian teams that can operate in Europe, but we need to understand whether it’s just branding or a pure operation.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated after its initial publication to reflect that FRMEC is considered a new series rather than a direct continuation of FRAC.

Header photo credit: Formula Regional Asian Championship


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