Ugochukwu on top amid tense rookie battle: 4 takeaways from F4 UAE Round 1

After two days of official pre-season testing, Round 1 of the 2023 F4 UAE championship got underway at the Dubai Autodrome. Amongst the eclectic 39-car mix were rookies and second-year Formula 4 sensations alike, highlighting promising driver talents to watch as the season unfolds. Feeder Series reviews the four biggest takeaways from an action-packed round.

By George Brabner

The talk of the paddock after the two days of official F4 UAE pre-season testing was all the championship’s rookies. Mumbai Falcons driver Tuukka Taponen topped the time sheets on both days, with Hitech GP’s Arvid Lindblad leading Thursday’s collective test with what was then the fastest time of the week. However, as the round got underway, the more experienced Formula 4 drivers began to gain an advantage – although the competitiveness of the rookie field left little to be desired.

Rookie drivers made up over half of the field, with Round 1 showcasing many impressive performances, including Red Bull Junior Team member Lindblad’s first single-seater victory. Whilst some drivers, including Taponen, appeared a little off the pace on their debut, the F4 UAE format aided those who were less experienced in wheel-to-wheel combat but had pace over a single lap in getting another chance to display their talent.

Ugochukwu in the driving seat

In all three races, Ugo Ugochukwu never faltered.

Entering his second year racing Formula 4 cars after being crowned the rookie champion in British F4, the American driver had a lot of expectation on his shoulders. He was already one of the favourites for the F4 UAE title before running even got underway.

Starting from pole in Race 1, he converted his superb qualifying result to victory despite facing stiff competition from Lindblad. The Red Bull–backed Hitech GP driver managed to stick with Ugochukwu throughout, only to drop down the field because of a time penalty.

Ugochukwu’s pace was also exceptional the following day, when he started second for Race 2 alongside Taponen. A better launch saw him sweep around the outside of the Finn into Turn 1. Although the Prema Racing driver never had to put up a defence, he once again had a rookie driver hot on his heels. This was the story of Ugochukwu’s weekend; the young American was racing in strong company, but his level-headed approach and his ability to pump out strong lap times enabled him to dominate Round 1.

Lindblad and Taponen: Rookies to watch

Testing in both the UAE and Europe indicated that Lindblad and Taponen were likely to be the stars of the 2023 F4 UAE season. Whilst they’ve only contested one round this year, the two F1 academy–backed drivers have proven why they’ve been watched so closely.

Lindblad took the rookie class honours in Race 1. After qualifying marginally ahead of Taponen in Qualifying 1 to start from second on the grid, the Red Bull–backed driver matched Ugochukwu’s pace to chase the American all the way to the flag. However, Lindblad was ultimately demoted to an eighth-place finish because of a five-second time penalty for a jump start.

Taponen had a shakier start to proceedings, highlighting his lack of race experience compared to Lindblad. By the end of Lap 1, he had fallen back to fifth before further dropping down the order to ninth at the checkered flag. Despite this, the Finn set the best lap of the race to take pole in Race 2. Taponen would go on to take a pair of second-place finishes in Race 2 and 3, ultimately overcoming the teething issues that he faced in Race 1.

After taking a hard-fought third place in Race 2, Lindblad made his way onto the top step of the podium for the first time in only the 11th race of his Formula 4 career, taking a lights-to-flag victory to hold off Ugochukwu and Taponen. Whilst he and Taponen didn’t have the perfect weekend, their championship-contending pace as rookies could not have impressed more.

Midfield makes and breaks races

Despite there being 39 cars on the entry list for all three F4 UAE races at the Dubai Autodrome, the series uses the familiar FIA points system, with 25 points for a victory down to 1 point for tenth place. This makes it very difficult for drivers starting within the midfield to score points.

Behind the comparatively relaxed front-runners, the fight for the minor points-paying positions often got physical. With track limits relatively forgiving at the Dubai Autodrome, it was not at all uncommon to see drivers venturing out of the white lines.

All three races included long safety car periods, with the likes of Nicola Lacorte, Flavio Olivieri and Jakob Bergmeister suffering retirements in the first two races. Bianca Bustamante was the first to retire in Race 3, before an incident for Xcel Motorsport drivers Federico Rifai and Alexander Bolduev ultimately brought the race to an end under safety car conditions.

Being able to get through the midfield in one piece was therefore an impressive feat. Yas Heat Racing Academy’s Keanu Al Azhari had an incredible first race in his maiden competitive round, jumping up from 21st to 11th place. However, Al Azhari was unable to repeat this feat in Races 2 and 3 because he lost his front wing in both races.

Théophile Naël also had mixed fortunes. The French driver made up thirteen places in Race 1 and five in Race 3 to finish seventh in both races, but a collision with Al Azhari in Race 2 led him to retire – showing that battles within the midfield can carry great risk as well as reward.

Experience always counts

Whilst there was a lot of excitement around the rookies, Round 1 showcased excellent performances from some of the championship’s more experienced drivers.

Valerio Rinicella, Brando Badoer and Kirill Smal – each of whom have visited the UAE before – were consistent runners within the top ten. Rinicella competed in three rounds of the series last year and had a bulletproof start to 2023, picking up second and sixth-place finishes. The Italian driver’s only blip in performance came in Race 3, after contact with his teammate left him facing the wrong way.

Smal was called up to MP Motorsport alongside Rinicella and Emely De Heus as a late addition before his races in FRMEC. Despite the short notice, he used his knowledge of the Tatuus T-421 chassis to his advantage, finishing sixth, fourth and ninth.

Pinnacle VAR did not have the best of weekends as they made their debut in the UAE. However, Brando Badoer – who previously competed in last year’s F4 UAE championship with AKM Motorsport – left the weekend with a pair of fifth places and a sixth. Whilst not able to match the likes of Ugochukwu, Rinicella and James Wharton, Badoer had a solid round in the top ten, quietly putting in the results he needed.

Wharton was expected to join Ugochukwu at the top, but two messy qualifying sessions left him starting tenth in Race 1 and seventh in Race 3. His racecraft should not be overlooked, however; the British driver bounded through the pack to third in Race 1 and fourth in Race 3, although a stall in Race 2 put a damper on what could have been a more successful weekend.

Header photo credit: F4 UAE

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