The exciting desert duelling continued in the midweek as the Kuwait Motor Town delivered another solid round of Formula Regional Middle East Championship racing. This third round occurred a matter of days after the conclusion of the previous one, giving drivers an opportunity to pick up right where they left off. The drama didn’t disappoint, with our two main title rivals producing an epic on-track battle.
By Tyler Foster
Part of the decision to create the Formula Regional Middle East Championship (FRMEC) was so that teams and drivers could take part in a winter series where weather would not be an intrusive factor. With the racing in Kuwait in Round 2, we saw this play out perfectly, with sunny skies and warm weather throughout.
However, for Round 3 we saw sandstorm conditions mixed with strong winds to give drivers less grip on track, causing moments of chaos. This enhanced the action, forcing the drivers to their limits of car control. It was the final opportunity to watch the FRMEC grid at the Kuwait Motor Town; having hosted back-to-back rounds, the series will move back to the Dubai Autodrome on 11th-12th February.
Antonelli finally wins (and then does it again)
Entering the third round of FRMEC, Andrea Kimi Antonelli led the championship by 12 points despite not having led a single lap within the six races thus far. It was only a matter of time before the Mercedes Junior took his maiden victory in Formula Regional. While he was unable to put it on pole, the Italian fought the rapid Hyderabad Blackbirds and still set himself up to contend with P4 and P3 in the two qualifying sessions.
The three teammates ahead of Antonelli certainly didn’t help their cause at the start of Race 1 on Tuesday. At one point, the Blackbirds were three wide going into Turn 2. Polesitter Joshua Dürksen tagged Sami Meguetounif, causing the Paraguayan to spin and the Frenchman to drop down the field.
Meanwhile, Antonelli successfully avoided the melee and was putting pressure on new race leader Mari Boya. The Spaniard was unable to escape the clutches of our championship leader, eventually out-dragging him into Turn 2. From this point onwards, it was all Antonelli. There was a safety car to contend with, but a clean restart allowed Antonelli to pull away and take a commanding first win in the series, as well as his first in Formula Regional.
In Race 2, the Italian would start P10 due to the reverse-grid format. By staying out of trouble and relying on his race-winning pace from Tuesday, Antonelli was able to get into the podium spots come the end of the race. With Barnard suffering an issue, he was soon up to second and on the back of Kirill Smal for the lead.
Despite being 2.5 seconds behind with less than five minutes remaining, the gap began to drop each lap. Almost in no time, Antonelli was on Smal’s gearbox and advanced past the Russian to take his second win of the weekend. An exceptional achievement in a reverse-grid race.
For the third race, it was almost a perfect weekend. Antonelli took the lead from third with an audacious overtake on the opening lap that saw him leave the white lines of the track. Despite leading the front for over half of the race, the combination of worn tyres and a five-second penalty for his unlawful move ultimately meant that fourth place was the best possible result to finish out the round.
Considering that the 16-year-old Mercedes Junior is still in his infancy at this level, he is already a class above the rest. At times he outperformed the reigning FRECA champion and Mumbai Falcons teammate Dino Beganovic in the first two rounds, and now he is closing in on his first title, during a much-hyped year for the Italian.
As FRMEC commentator Jake Sanson said, “[He] is already one-hand on this championship trophy. From tenth to first. What a hero!” Antonelli now leads the standings by a margin of 44 points over PHM’s Taylor Barnard with two rounds remaining.
Barnard loses victory but gains another
On Tuesday evening, it was announced that Taylor Barnard would join the Jenzer Motorsport team for the upcoming Formula 3 season. “This is by far the biggest step in my career”, the 18-year-old said, “and it will be a challenge, but definitely one I’m up for.” This comes after his electric performances so far in the FRMEC series with PHM, where he scored his second victory in Round 3.
After improving from eleventh on the grid in the first race to score 12 points with a solid P4, Barnard would start Race 2 from seventh. Another chaotic opening lap saw three drivers fighting for the lead – Neate, Câmara and Bedrin – all retire as a result of a collision. This allowed Barnard to rise up the grid and after the safety car restart was battling his PHM teammate, Joshua Dufek, for the win.
With the Brit putting Dufek under pressure, the Swiss driver made a mistake, allowing Barnard to swoop in and take the lead. Unfortunately for the Norwich-born driver, the win wasn’t to be on this occasion. A damaged front-wing caused from a collision on the first lap slowed him dramatically, resulting in him finishing way down in P24.
Having qualified fourth for the final race in Kuwait, Barnard had one final opportunity to make up for lost points. At the start, he lost out to his title rival Antonelli who took the lead, leaving Barnard in fourth. What followed was two brilliant individual fights with Câmara and Boya, with the Brit suddenly finding himself in pursuit of Antonelli.
A gap of over eight seconds was overturned, as Barnard fought back and defeated the Mercedes Junior, helping to close the margin in the standings. This win made up for his disappointing finish to the race earlier on Wednesday. As a result, Barnard remains in the title fight but with two rounds remaining, needs to avoid any repeat disasters in order to reduce the 44 point margin to Antonelli.
Dürksen and Meguetounif déjà vu
Round 2 saw two surprise drivers capture pole position. These were the Hyderabad Blackbirds cars of Joshua Dürksen and Sami Megeutounif. While Dürksen failed to make the most of this achievement, retiring on the opening lap after an extensive collision, his French teammate was able to convert his pole in a race win.
It was clear from testing that the Blackbirds were a force to reckoned with, and their qualifying pace has been their biggest strength so far in the series. Coming into the third round, both Dürksen and Megeutounif made the most of this once again, with a repeat performance of their double pole from the previous weekend.
However, it was not second-time lucky for the Paraguayan polesitter, who once more got caught up in a first-lap incident that saw retire before the end of the race. To make matters worse, the collision came with his fellow polesitter and teammate Meguetounif. The Frenchman fared better in defence of his pole on Wednesday, but was unable to recreate his brilliant victory, instead having to settle for a solid fifth place.
Mumbai Falcons dominance
While the talk of FRMEC usually surrounds that of the young prodigy Andrea Kimi Antonelli, a lot of credit must go to his team, Mumbai Falcons. The reigning FRAC team’s champions have carried on their dominant fashion in the Middle East. Their mix of supreme driver talent – Beganovic, Antonelli, Câmara and Fluxá – in addition to their technical partnership with Prema, have made them to the team to beat. They currently sit atop the team’s standings, with a demanding 110 point lead over PHM.
Of course, Antonelli and Beganovic will take most of the plaudits, but the progress of Rafael Câmara and Lorenzo Fluxá have helped extend their margin of excellence. The duo had an excellent third round in Kuwait, with two podium visits each. With both the Brazilian and Spaniard being announced as part of the Prema line-up alongside Antonelli in FRECA this year, their performances here in FRMEC will certainly benefit them down the line.
It could and perhaps should have been even better for the Indian outfit, as FRMEC newcomer Kirill Smal made his debut with the team. This came after competing in the supporting series, F4 UAE, with MP Motorsport for one round. Despite having no prior experience of the Formula Regional cars, Smal would have the task of filling the seat of Beganovic.
There was certainly a degree of pressure to make quick progress with one of the strongest teams in the field. While the Russian qualified a solid P15 and P10, he would go on to squander his chances of a podium in the second race after picking up a 10-second time-penalty for track limits. This dropped him from second down to twentieth.
Header image credit: FRMEC
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