As we all wait for the return of the summer series, the Middle East has played host to the opening round of the Formula Regional Middle East Championship (FRMEC). The action from the Dubai Autodrome saw 27 cars and 8 teams battle it out in the desert. This is your weekend round-up as Feeder Series guides you through the main four takeaways from the first three races of the 15-race season.
By Tyler Foster
Minì penalised for squeezing Beganovic
Following the impressive performance by Gabriele Mini in the opening round of the Formula Regional Asian Championship last year, which saw the young Italian score a podium and win from pole, it was safe to say there was plenty of expectation on the shoulders of the FRECA vice-champion coming into FRMEC. This was certainly delivered upon in the first qualifying session. Setting the grid for Race 1, Mini in his Hitech scored a dominant pole position by nearly half a second over his nearest competitor, fellow Italian Andrea Kimi Antonelli. This set up to the prospect of an entertaining fight for victory on Friday afternoon.
As the sun set, Mini led away comfortably, while behind him Antonelli surprisingly faltered and fell down to fourth. From fourth on the grid, it was Mumbai Falcons driver Dino Beganovic who became responsible for the battle at the front. Just as we saw throughout 2022 in FRECA, the duo of Mini and Beganovic showed the way. Despite a couple of Safety Car restarts and some tight racing, the Hitech driver held his lead up until the final couple of laps.
In FRMEC, the organisers use a race clock of 28 minutes for proceedings rather than a lap total. As the rules state, once the clock reaches zero and all time has passed, the leading driver will begin the final lap of the race when he crosses the start/finish line. However, as the clock reached zero, the timing screen automatically signalled that it was the final lap. As FRMEC commentator Jake Sanson explained, “It [the timing system] doesn’t make an allowance for having an additional lap after the time ran out.”
With the battle continuing into the final corner, Mini was told by his Hitech team that it was the last lap. As he crossed the line, Mini squeezed Beganovic tightly against the wall to ensure that he wasn’t passed. However, thinking he’d won, the 17-year-old Italian backed off in celebration, unaware that he had just begun the final lap. As a result of the aggressive defence, he was penalised anyway with a five-place drop, putting him down to a scoreless 11th. This allowed Beganovic to steam through and collect the first victory of this FRMEC campaign, while Matías Zagazeta and Taylor Barnard joined him on the podium.
Barnard from the back
German team PHM Racing have impressed since their debut in F4 UAE just twelve months ago. Making his debut with the team in that very series was British driver Taylor Barnard. Having partially competed in both Italian and ADAC F4 in the years prior, Barnard was not seen as a standout talent. However, with PHM he shone. A solid F4 UAE campaign set him up to finish second in ADAC F4 and eighth in Italian F4. For 2023, the now 18-year-old will be making the jump up to Formula 3, as PHM enters the ring at the top of the feeder series ladder. Therefore, this a very crucial period for Barnard to continue his learning.
In the first qualifying session, Barnard managed P14, four spots behind his PHM F3 teammate Nikita Bedrin. However, as a result of technical infringement during qualifying, he started Race 1 from 27th in last. What followed was a masterclass on overtaking, as he proceeded to make up 24 places in less than half an hour, to find his way onto the podium in style. While he certainly benefitted from the timing debacle, Barnard still had to overtake the likes of Andrea Kimi Antonelli and Rafael Câmara.
This wasn’t the end of the spectacular racing from the Norwich-born driver, as he also excelled in Race 2 on Saturday. With it being a top-10 reverse grid race, he started P8 but got an electrifying getaway which helped him progress to another third place finish, overtaking Joshua Dufek and Lorenzo Fluxá in the process. This gave the young Brit a surprise lead of the championship going into the final race of the weekend.
Bohra takes his chance
Some motorsport fans may be unaware of the name, Nikhil Bohra, but after an impressive lights-to-flag victory in Race 2 of FRMEC’s opening round, he has announced himself as one to watch. Having recently competed in the Indian Racing League against the likes of Neel Jani, Bohra finished fourth in the championship. He also drove in Italian and ADAC F4 last year with US Racing, scoring a total of 57 points over the two series.
After qualifying 15th for Race 1, the R-ace GP driver took advantage of the two main incidents in the midfield to gain places and score a point with a tenth place finish. More importantly, this meant that the 17-year-old would be on reverse-grid pole for Race 2. With a reverse-grid win in FRMEC being worth the same 25 points as a normal win from pole, this was a massive opportunity for Bohra.
The Singaporean made the most of this chance, and was able to keep Prema’s Aiden Neate behind for a total of 16 laps to take the chequered flag first. Bohra also managed to qualify P8 for the final race of the weekend, but had to settle for another tenth place finish. This does mean that he was able to score in all three races of the opening round; something also only achieved by Andrea Kimi Antonelli and Rafael Câmara.
Kimi leads despite no wins
Despite never having competed at a Formula Regional level, Mercedes’ sparkling junior 16-year-old Andrea Kimi Antonelli looked the class of the field for much of the weekend’s action. He showed immediate pace in the Tatuus F.3 T-318 and qualified an awesome second for Race 1. This meant that despite no prior experience in the car, the Italian managed to outqualify all three of his Mumbai Falcons teammates, including reigning FRECA champion Dino Beganovic.
Going into the first race, many would have then expected Antonelli to continue this trajectory and fight polesitter Gabriele Mini for the race win. However, a lack of consistent race pace meant that he fell off the podium and down to fourth. Regardless, this was still a good performance on his Formula Regional debut.
As a result of the fourth place finish, Antonelli started Race 2 from seventh. In a race of tyre management for many, the Italian was able to achieve the fastest lap while moving up one spot to sixth at the flag. However, it was Race 3 where we had the opportunity to watch Antonelli fight for the win, after he qualified on pole in just his second qualifying session, two tenths ahead of Hyderabad Blackbirds by MP Motorsport driver Mari Boya.
Unfortunately for Kimi, it wasn’t to be a perfect ending. Spaniard Boya had an excellent opening lap and was able to pressure Antonelli wide of the mark. This was compounded by a fastest lap on the way to a dominant victory. Ultimately it was a tale of what could have been from the Mercedes youngster. We expected him to take one win at the least, showing that expectations are at an all-time high already for the 16-year-old.
Antonelli he is now leading the Formula Regional Middle East Championship by six points over fellow Mumbai Falcons teammate Rafael Câmara. Maybe he will improve, but the level of performance from this rookie driver shows just how excellent he is.
Header photo credit: FRMEC
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