A group of 25+ open-wheel cars heads downhill on a straight

FRMEC and F4 UAE booming in popularity: ‘We didn’t expect to have so many requests’

The new Formula Regional Middle East Championship (FRMEC) and the F4 UAE Championship will commence their 2023 seasons this weekend. Chinese promoters Top Speed are the ones responsible for the organisation of the two junior winter series. Feeder Series exclusively spoke to Top Speed’s Italian founder, Davide De Gobbi, about what to expect from the 2023 editions of both FRMEC and F4 UAE.

By Tyler Foster

The first part of this interview traced the evolution of FRMEC’s identity from its prior iterations as the F3 Asian Championship and the Formula Regional Asian Championship (FRAC).

The allure of Super Licence points

The main talking point surrounding the interest in F4 UAE and FRMEC for 2023 relates to the FIA’s controversial Super Licence points system. A few months ago, rumours emerged that IndyCar’s youngest race winner, Colton Herta, could compete in FRMEC in an attempt to earn the remaining Super Licence points needed to reach F1. From this, a discussion arose about the intentions of drivers who enter the winter series and whether their motives are solely defined by their need for the lucrative points to gain an FIA Super Licence. 

In 2021, Zhou Guanyu and Jehan Daruvala stepped down from F2 to Asian F3 to compete against less experienced competition during the usual off-season. As a result, both were able to acquire useful Super Licence points. However, after a re-evaluation, both the FIA and Top Speed would prefer to avoid this becoming a precedent, especially now that there are “enough drivers ranging from F4 to F3” in FRMEC.

“The FIA has decided, and correctly, to stop Formula 2 drivers from stepping down to Formula Regional just to score Super Licence points,” De Gobbi tells Feeder Series. “This has become a place where it is a challenge for drivers from different categories. We have the only series where we have drivers coming from different levels of cars that can compete with each other. It is good motivation for an F4 driver if they can compete at the same level with an F3 driver internationally, so they can really see their level.”

It is good motivation for an F4 driver if they can compete at the same level with an F3 driver internationally, so they can really see their level

Davide De Gobbi

Under Appendix L of the FIA International Sporting Code, F4 UAE provides 12 points to the champion, while FRMEC offers the winner 18 points – a substantial offering to drivers in both championships. But De Gobbi says that the allure of the Super Licence points should not overshadow the difficulty in obtaining them, especially in these ultra-competitive series.

“[The Super Licence system] is good from one side because if you want to go into Formula One, you have to go by merit,” De Gobbi said. “Our scope is not to deliver points to drivers that are already in a higher series but to give opportunities to young drivers to score points to add to the summer season. I believe that from last year, it is not that easy to score points. The level of the series is quite high.” 

Rookie status and part-time campaigns

Performing as a rookie matters to drivers’ marketing in junior motorsport. Being certified as a championship’s top rookie can boost drivers throughout the feeder series ladder, helping them make a name for themselves while impressing sponsors. It may seem a small detail, but this is the reason so many drivers want to retain their status as a rookie for the main summer season.

The rules for the Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine, the preeminent Formula Regional series in the world, state that any driver who competes in more than three rounds of a Formula Regional series, including FRMEC, cannot then be classified as a rookie. The same policies regarding official rookie status in F4 championships apply to those who compete in more than three rounds of F4 UAE.  

“Last year [in FRAC], we saw 17 to 18 full-season drivers and around eight to ten [entries that were] rotational. So we didn’t actually lose drivers to a budget reason,” De Gobbi explains. “Mostly, it was to keep the rookie status.

“For sure, it is not a benefit for the series. We would like to have the same driver for the five rounds. That is what everybody wants, but you can see also in FRECA, there is approximately a 20–30% turnover on the seat. It’s most related to the rookie situation.”

We would like to have the same driver for the five rounds. That is what everybody wants, but you can see also in FRECA, there is approximately a 20–30% turnover on the seat

Davide De Gobbi on the part-time campaigns common in F4 UAE

De Gobbi believes that with both championships now being more established as top winter series than they were before, drivers will be intent on completing all five rounds. 

“If you look at the drivers at the top of the championship last year, both in F4 UAE and FRAC, they are the same drivers that are actually doing very well in the European series: [Gabriele] Minì, [Arthur] Leclerc, [Isack] Hadjar. I think for [2023], we will have less turnover. It will be more a competition than just training. I think the majority [of drivers] are looking for a full season to fight for the championship.”

The grid selection process

Following the success of the 2022 FRAC and F4 UAE campaigns, Top Speed realised that they had hit the jackpot. Having been selected to promote F4 UAE in the spring of 2022, Top Speed will organise both Middle Eastern series for the first time.

“We are trying to maximise now because we understand that now the European drivers and teams see both F4 UAE and FRMEC as the place to be during winter to practise,” De Gobbi says. “2022 gave us the confirmation that this is the right place to be at the right time.”

A group of open-wheel cars prepares to turn left from the main straight at Yas Marina Circuit, where 21:48 is visible in the background on the timing clock
F4 UAE had a record grid in 2022 that’s set to expand even further in 2023 | Credit: F4 UAE / Adriano Coutinho

For any driver aiming for a regular-season campaign in any national F4 series, a Formula Regional championship, Euroformula Open or FIA Formula 3, these early-season events generate traction for drivers’ main campaigns. The prospect appeals to those with the resources to compete in them, and as a result, interest in the 2023 edition reached new peaks.

“I have to be really honest and direct,” De Gobbi says. “We didn’t expect to have so many requests. We were aiming for 30–32 cars for F4 UAE and I would say 27–28 for FRMEC, so it’s going much over the expectation, but you see in Europe as well, most of the championships there are running over 30 cars. Potentially we counted around 100–120 Formula 4 drivers, so if one-third want to go [to F4 UAE], then we already have over 30.”

We were aiming for 30–32 cars for F4 UAE and I would say 27–28 for FRMEC, so it’s going much over the expectation

Davide De Gobbi

This extreme level of interest in both series gave Top Speed the tough task of choosing whom to accept. In order to maximise the strength of the championships’ grids, Top Speed created a list of priorities by which they ranked prospective entries.

“We have set some criteria to select teams. First of all, we want to prioritise teams joining the series that are local – teams that are based in the United Arab Emirates and Asia. Then we prioritise teams that are doing both series because they have some logistical advantages. The last criteria is the team with more cars. We try to avoid teams with a single [car] or just two cars.”

Balancing optimism and reality

For two series that just a few years before struggled to reach 15 cars each weekend, turning down potential clients is a good problem to have. But the recent influx of attention means Top Speed has to balance maximising profits from more entries with sustainable grid sizes.

“It’s difficult as a promoter because you have to target as many cars as possible,” De Gobbi explains. “To have a big grid, it looks good from the business point of view. On the other side, we need to be pragmatic and say more cars will lead, also, to more trouble on the race management, with more potential red flags, safety cars and also problems with the paddock space.

“It’s true that we are having a lot of inquiries. We are going over most positive expectations. We have an issue that now we probably have to say no to some teams or [to] the number of cars they were expecting. We already put a limit on the number of cars – four cars per team.

Mumbai Falcons FRAC 2022
Mumbai Falcons won the 2022 FRAC drivers’ and teams’ titles | Credit: Prema Racing

A number of Formula 2 and Formula 3 teams will feature in both series, with Hitech GP and Prema returning to both F4 UAE and FRMEC and MP Motorsport and PHM Racing making their debut in the latter championship. There will also be four Asian-based teams in F4 UAE, while Indian team Mumbai Falcons return to fight for both championships in 2023 after they triumphed in the teams’ championship in their 2022 FRAC campaign.

A smooth expansion

After planning for the 2023 editions of the two series over the last twelve months, Top Speed now has only a matter of days before the start of both winter series. The recent success they have overseen has brought a wave of optimism – as well as heightened expectations. With COVID-19 receding worldwide and mitigation policies relaxed, 2023 is emerging as a likely year of transition for Asian motorsport.

Armed with their experience of managing FRAC in the same region, De Gobbi assures Feeder Series that he and his team “are dealing quite well” with the added weight of a second series in F4 UAE. 

“It’s easier, actually, to reproduce a series which you have already done successfully than start a brand-new concept. The fact that we are on the same weekend, it’s the same event. Formula Regional worked really well, and that’s why we wanted to reproduce the same format in Formula 4.

“I don’t see our organisation stressed for this extra job that we have. We are really looking forward to the first start of the season and seeing so many cars on the grid,” De Gobbi says. “That will be the biggest excitement.”

Header photo credit: F4 UAE

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