NZGP winner Van Hoepen: Doing FROC over FRMEC a chance to ‘focus on yourself’

Laurens van Hoepen may have only joined the Formula Regional Oceania Championship (FROC) grid last weekend at Hampton Downs, but he immediately won the New Zealand Grand Prix. Feeder Series talked to him about his first season in the Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine (FRECA), his experience racing in New Zealand and his mindset going into the 2023 season.

By Jan Husmann

Like most 15-year-olds in karting, Dutch racer Laurens van Hoepen was looking for a big break in single-seaters. Upon his 16th birthday, he made an unusual move: He bypassed Formula 4 and went from racing in KZ shifter karts directly into Formula Regional machinery in the Ultimate Cup Series ahead of a full season in FRECA in 2022.

Now, he enters his sophomore FRECA campaign in 2023 with a new accolade on his résumé: victory in the New Zealand Grand Prix.

That win, aided by his extra experience in Formula Regional cars, vindicated his choice to skip F4. It was also a welcome return to the fore after a challenging 2022 in FRECA, in which he took two rookie wins in Monaco but finished 21st overall and 10th amongst rookies.

“The pace was really good throughout the season, but I struggled a bit with qualifying, which was my main weakness,” Van Hoepen said. “But I guess throughout the season, it got better and also my speed got better in regard to my teammates, which was good.

“You could really see that I missed the experience from doing F4. Instead of doing F4, I did KZ, so the race pace was really good, and stuff like tyre saving I think I did really well,” he continued.

You could really see that I missed the experience from doing F4

Van Hoepen on his decision to skip F4 and go straight to Formula Regional machinery

“Then, after the season, the winter test went really well, and you could see that I applied everything I learnt in the season. I think even now, you can see that I learnt a lot and have a bigger toolbox to work from.”

Winning the New Zealand Grand Prix

He put his new tools to work on his first weekend of FROC, in which he is contesting the final two rounds with M2 Competition. He was able to match the leaders’ pace immediately and took pole position for Races 1 and 3 at Hampton Downs.

“It already started from first practice. I arrived and was immediately on the pace, which was really good,” he said.

“From that point on, I knew I was really quick, so it was just about doing the same thing in qualifying, which I managed quite well.”

Van Hoepen secured pole position for the New Zealand Grand Prix | Credit: Toyota Gazoo Racing New Zealand

In Race 1 on Saturday, he was not able to convert pole position to the race win, but he won the series main event on Sunday, becoming the first grand prix winner of 2023. But second-place starter Louis Foster made it difficult for him at the start of the race.

“In New Zealand, you start next to each other instead of pole position being a couple of metres in front. I think the start was quite similar, but then on the outside [Foster] had a bit more grip, so I came out second after the first corner,” Van Hoepen recalled.

“I knew from that point that I had to overtake him quickly because otherwise it would be really difficult. So the next lap I passed him quite nicely and then, from that point on, I tried to control the race.

“Especially in the beginning, I was really managing the tyres and just managing the gap,” he said. “But then in the end I was like, ‘Okay, let’s maybe go a bit quicker’, but then I could not go that much quicker.

In the end I was like, ‘Okay, let’s maybe go a bit quicker’, but then I could not go that much quicker

Van Hoepen on his pace during the New Zealand Grand Prix

“But I was still in control, and I knew that he for sure had to come quite a bit closer before he could have a chance of overtaking.”

Van Hoepen was especially pleased with the consistency he displayed across a race length about 10 minutes longer than most FRECA races.

“I think it was also one of the longest races I have done, it was about 42 minutes, so it was quite a long race, but yeah, I managed to do it without any big mistakes.”

Preparing for the final weekend

At the final FROC weekend in Taupo, Van Hoepen once again had minimal preparation time before hitting the track on Thursday.

“At home I have a simulator, but it did not have the track models,” he said. “We went to a sim quite close, in the Netherlands, to try the tracks a bit, but the track models were not great.

“Of course, it helped me a bit, but it was mainly just to know the track so that you are not completely lost in the beginning and you have a bit of an idea where the corners go.”

But, speaking to Feeder Series, he was not too worried about this lack of track knowledge even if the tracks in New Zealand are significantly different to what he is used to in Europe.

Van Hoepen had just days between Hampton Downs and Taupo | Credit: Toyota Gazoo Racing New Zealand

“Watching some onboards helped, and I think one of my stronger points is that always when I arrive to a new track, I’m quite quickly on the pace,” he said.

“For example, in Imola last year with FRECA, the first session I ever drove on the track, I was immediately about one tenth behind [Gabriele] Minì and in second place of the test session, which was quite good.

“And then also, for example Monaco, where I have never been, I was immediately in P3 in free practice. I think that is one of my stronger points. I think in Europe the tracks are a bit more forgiving, especially because most tracks have a lot of run-off,” he continued.

It is a bit more bumpy and rough I would say, which is quite good to prepare better for tyre management

Van Hoepen on how New Zealand’s race tracks differ from Europe’s

“[In New Zealand], if you make a mistake, you put it quite easily in the barriers. And then the tracks are also a bit different. It is a bit more bumpy and rough I would say, which is quite good to prepare better for tyre management and stuff like that.”

Van Hoepen’s goals for 2023

Once Van Hoepen leaves New Zealand for Europe to begin the main 2023 season, he will complete his transition from being the inexperienced rookie at FRECA front-runners ART Grand Prix to becoming their de facto team leader.

“My teammates last year, especially in the beginning of the season, were quite strong, especially Gabriele Minì, which I learnt a lot from,” he said.

“Now, obviously it is great to be in a position to lead the team and I definitely feel like I am able to do that this year and we can achieve some great results.

“It is of course good to have strong rookie team-mates, so it is nice to have Charlie to help the team, especially in the team’s championship,” he continued. “If he has any things he is unsure about, for sure I can help him with stuff like that. That is why we are teammates.”

A white and black car drives to the left with greenery behind
Laurens van Hoepen will lead ART Grand Prix’s FRECA attack in 2023 | Credit: Diederik van der Laan, Dutch Photo Agency

As for his own goals for 2023, Van Hoepen is not yet thinking of the final standings.

“The main goal is to perform better this year, to turn the speed that we actually have into results,” he said. “I would not want to put a real position to that, but for sure we need to be fighting for wins and podiums throughout the season.

For sure we need to be fighting for wins and podiums throughout the season

Van Hoepen on his goals for FRECA in 2023

“I think when you perform well and you win many races, [winning the championship] will come naturally. You will be in that position if you win races and perform well.”

Choosing FROC over FRMEC

While Van Hoepen and his current M2 Competition and future ART GP teammate Charlie Wurz are battling in New Zealand, most of their peers are spending the winter competing in the Formula Regional Middle East Championship (FRMEC). Van Hoepen’s choice, as with his decision to skip F4, is motivated by a desire to chart his own course in motorsport.

“There were a couple of reasons. The main reason was that in [FRMEC] you can have quite some difference between the cars and between tyres as well. So we did not want to start the season off badly due to things we could not control,” Van Hoepen explained.

“And then also, it is nice to have an off-season away from most of the competition – to have your own plan and just to focus on yourself and then come back fully ready for the season.”

Van Hoepen is enjoying his time in New Zealand both on and off track | Credit: Toyota Gazoo Racing New Zealand

Van Hoepen is also enjoying New Zealand off the track, spending time with his racing rivals and experiencing the country.

“We arrived quite a bit later than everybody else, but I think the camaraderie with the other drivers is good and we have a good relationship with each other,” he said.

“Monday after the race we went hiking – Charlie, David Morales, and I – and on Tuesday we went fishing. We do a lot of activities, which is nice, and I think it is also good to see a bit of New Zealand when you are here because you do not have many opportunities to come here.”

In his short time in the country, Van Hoepen has seen and learned many things. But there’s one accessory, popularised in the FROC paddock by M2 Competition teammate and championship leader Callum Hedge, that he won’t be taking with him on future adventures.

“I am definitely not buying Crocs.”

Header image credit: Toyota Gazoo Racing New Zealand


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