The championship fight is back on as Wharton slashes Ugochukwu’s lead: 3 takeaways from F4 UAE Round 3

With a tight turnaround after Round 2, the 2023 F4 UAE season surpassed its halfway mark at the Kuwait Motor Town circuit. Despite the unknowns brought by the track to Round 2, Round 3 saw drivers finding their stride as they settled in. But that meant no less drama during the races, as the championship was turned on its head before the series heads back to the Dubai Autodrome. Feeder Series unpicks another vital round of the F4 UAE Championship.

By George Brabner

Round 2 saw some changes to the pecking order as drivers up and down the field reacted differently to the new Kuwait Motor Town venue. By staying at the track for Round 3, we saw less of a drastic change in the placement of the field and with driver lap counts well over the 150 mark, running became more representative of the actual placement of drivers.

At the front though, this consistency had a big influence on the way the championship continues to pan out. James Wharton and Valerio Rinicella, who arrived in Kuwait for Round 2 with more pace than in the season opener, retained their recent form to challenge Ugo Ugochukwu, but there were surprises in the mix too, as drivers such as Tuukka Taponen built on a tougher first round at the track to secure stronger results.

Ugochukwu’s mistake brings Wharton onto his tail

Wharton, who kicked his championship campaign into gear with one victory and a further podium just days prior, carried his momentum into Round 3 as a challenger to Ugochukwu.

Despite his pace, he couldn’t breach Ugochukwu’s defence come the first race, slotting into a comfortable second place.

Race 2 saw him briefly in contest with his Mumbai Falcons teammate Tuukka Taponen for victory instead. After holding Ugochukwu back, a late safety car restart gave Taponen the glimpse of victory he needed.

With the Finn now extending his lead and Wharton without slipstream, Wharton was vulnerable to both Ugochukwu and the fast-charging Rinicella. A move from Ugochukwu saw him get ahead of the Australian, but a rare mistake just corners later dropped him to fourth and gifted Wharton second place – a 6 point loss for Ugochukwu.

James Wharton on the podium in Kuwait holding a trophy celebrating his win
Wharton closed the championship gap with some brilliant performances in Round 3 | Credit: F4 UAE

But, it was Race 3 where the championship pendulum really swung back towards Wharton.

Crucially, Wharton made light work of Jesse Carrasquedo early in the race, who made one of the moves of the season to overtake four cars in one corner to take the lead on Lap 1.

From there, his job was done, sitting out in the lead for the rest of the almost uninterrupted race. Ugochukwu showed incredible pace to catch Taponen and Rinicella from fourth after losing time behind Carrasquedo, but in a desperate dive to take second from Taponen – which would have left him one lap to pass Wharton if successful – the American outbroke himself, tangling with Taponen and taking both out of the race.

The level-headed Wharton cruised to the line under safety car to take the full 25 points for victory, and Ugochukwu’s championship lead was cut from 36 points down to just 11.

Taponen tightens his grip on the rookie lead

As Wharton reignited his championship challenge, teammate Tuukka Taponen found his groove in Round 3 as he took his maiden Formula 4 victory.

The Finnish karting sensation and newly-signed member of the Ferrari Driver Academy couldn’t translate the pace he showed at the Dubai Autodrome to Kuwait Motor Town in Round 2, but as track time grew, Round 3 saw a much more comfortable Taponen at the wheel.

Unlike fellow rookie Arvid Lindblad, who didn’t show the same progression between and across the Kuwait rounds, Taponen had the championship leaders to learn from – Prema Racing’s partnership with the Mumbai Falcons team meant he could make improvements based on not only James Wharton but also Ugo Ugochukwu’s data.

Whilst Taponen could only manage ninth in qualifying for Race 1, he put on a great show of both pace and overtaking ability to step on the podium by the flag, securing third on the grid for Race 2 too.

Three drivers on the podium in Kuwait holding trophies
Taponen won his maiden F4 race in Race 2 of Round 3 at Kuwait | Credit: F4 UAE

It was then that his moment would come, as after passing Ugochukwu, he swooped to his teammate Wharton’s inside down the back straight on the penultimate lap of Race 2 – the pair virtually rubbing wheels – snatching the lead in the dying stages and going on to secure his first victory in single-seaters in an impressive manner.

With Lindblad out after a collision in a straight line with Zachary David, it was an important victory for Taponen, but his incident with Ugochukwu a race later to spin him out from second would really hurt the positive momentum he was building.

Nevertheless, Taponen’s pair of podiums and race victory have meant that he leaves Kuwait still in touch with the top three – Rinicella, Wharton and Ugochukwu – and with Lindblad now a race win behind him in the rookie standings.

Shuffled grids give new names opportunities

Whilst Round 3 saw some linearity compared to Round 2, a shaken-up grid for the final two races of the round saw some surprising results.

Bianca Bustamante was one driver to reach a milestone in her career, with her first points in F4 coming in Race 2. After a difficult start to the season that saw her struggling to settle in with her Prema Racing machine, fighting steering issues early on in Dubai and then suffering two retirements across the first two rounds, she was starting to really find her footing throughout Round 3.

Starting eighth for Race 2 propelled her into the top ten fight, crucially keeping her nose clean on her way to tenth. Race 3 didn’t see her in the points, but jumping from P26 to P15 showed she is beginning to connect with her Tatuus T-421 machine.

White, red and green car driving on track
Bustamante is showing great progress as she gets up to speed with the Tatuus T-421 | Credit: F4 UAE

Alexander Abkhazava and Akshay Bohra were two drivers who also scored their first points of the year, their best results coming in Race 3, which saw incidents both in the midfield and at the front.

Being able to keep yourself out of trouble proved to be important as always in F4 UAE, both taking advantage of other people’s misfortunes after strong qualifying sessions.

Abkhazava and Bohra weren’t the only two to take advantage, though. Abkhazava’s R-ace GP stablemate Zachary David, who found great pace in the shift to Kuwait, scored his first single-seater victory in Round 2.

In Round 3, a second podium of the year came the way of the Maltese driver, picking up the pieces from Taponen and Ugochukwu’s collision to take third.

Whether or not he can keep up his pace during Rounds 4 and 5 of the championship remains to be seen, but the two podiums he secured in Kuwait put him in good stead.

Header image credit: F4 UAE


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