Wharton and Taponen take control: 4 takeaways from F4 UAE Round 4

After the double-header in Kuwait, F4 UAE returned to the Dubai Autodrome for Round 4 of the season. With data aplenty after the series’ visit to the venue for the season opener, it was easy to predict similar results, but in reality, this weekend could not have proved to be more different. Feeder Series analyses the action from the latest round of the championship.

By George Brabner

A brutal end to the Kuwait double-header saw Ugo Ugochukwu’s championship lead come crashing down from 36 points to just 11 following a race-ending collision with Tuukka Taponen. James Wharton would pick up the pieces to cement his position in the hunt for championship glory, as it was suddenly Ugochukwu with the pressure on his shoulders.

The American was an easy favourite to fight back, after having clinched two victories and one podium last time the F4 UAE visited Dubai for its opening round. But after taking second behind Wharton during Free Practice on Friday, Ugochukwu never reached the top six in any of the following sessions.

By the end of the round, Ugochukwu’s title hopes seemed to be unravelling as Wharton and Taponen dominated at the top.

Taponen dominates with a hat-trick of victories

Tuukka Taponen poses with the winner's trophy after Race 1 — a feat he would repeat two more times during the weekend.
Tuukka Taponen poses with the winner’s trophy after Race 1 — a feat he would repeat two more times during the weekend. | Credit: F4 UAE

Three races, three victories. Tuukka ‘The Tiger’ Taponen took a clean sweep in Dubai to propel himself up to second in the championship standings, almost 100 points ahead of the next closest rookie Arvid Lindblad and just six points away from James Wharton at the top.

Whilst the Australian took the championship lead from the hands of Ugo Ugochukwu in Round 4, it was really Taponen’s weekend.

Pole for Race 1, another pole for Race 3 and a lights-to-flag victory in the opening race saw him start the weekend perfectly. Leading Wharton home, the Finn showed that he had what it takes to keep his more experienced teammate at bay, as the two streaked clear of the rest of the field before a late safety car led them to the chequered flag.

Race 2 saw him benefit from another driver’s misfortune. After running second behind Jesse Carrasquedo throughout the safety car-dominated second race, Taponen inherited victory after the Mexican suffered from a heart-breaking time penalty for crossing the white line on pitlane entry whilst following the safety car through the pits.

With Wharton second and Ugochukwu retiring, Taponen made yet more inroads towards the top of the standings. His victory may have come through good fortune, but keeping himself out of trouble ultimately paid off.

Race 3 was harder-fought than Race 2, as Taponen held on to deny Yas Heat Racing Academy driver Keanu Al-Azhari his first single-seater victory.

With electric pace and consistency throughout the weekend, Taponen — the only rookie in championship contention — now sits just six points away from championship leader Wharton ahead of the finale at Yas Marina.

Wharton takes championship lead as Ugochukwu fades

James Wharton in action during Race 1. The Australian kept his nose clean throughout the weekend to take the championship lead.
James Wharton in action during Race 1. The Australian kept his nose clean throughout the weekend to take the championship lead. | Credit: F4 UAE

Whilst Taponen dominated the weekend, his Mumbai Falcons stablemate James Wharton did everything he needed to do for his championship challenge.With two podiums and a race win to his name in Round 3 as Ugochukwu retired from the final race of the Kuwait double-header, Wharton was the one on the front foot heading into Dubai.

The Australian driver had less pressure on his shoulders as he followed Taponen to the chequered flag in Race 1 in second place. He did the same thing in Race 2 and had Al-Azhari split him from his teammate in Race 3.

After a tough time in Round 1 at the Dubai Autodrome, Wharton managed to turn his fortunes around in Kuwait to regain control of his championship attack in what was perhaps a reversal of his second-year rival’s fortunes.

Ugochukwu dominated in Dubai less than a month prior to Round 4, but after cracks began to show at the end of the Kuwait double-header, his issues were only compounded.

The American was off the pace in both qualifying sessions. This meant that he was left starting on the characteristically physical outskirts of the top ten, where he wouldn’t progress from in Race 1.

He could not put in a clean lap time during the race either, leaving him fourteenth on the grid for Race 2 — from which he would last mere seconds as he collected the stalled Aleksandr Bolduev.

Race 3 was a fresh opportunity for the American as he started sixth and much closer to his championship rivals, but after maintaining his position early on, he would slip backwards, missing the tenacity he showed so clearly in Round 1.

Picking up only three points across the weekend, Ugochukwu is now level with Valerio Rinicella in third place in the championship standings. It is fair to say that he will need a strong showing with Mumbai Falcons during the final round of F4 UAE next weekend to make his championship comeback.

Al-Azhari breaks into the top three in a late surge

Keanu Al-Azhari battles with Tuukka Taponen for the lead in Race 3.
Keanu Al-Azhari battles with Tuukka Taponen for the lead in Race 3. | Credit: F4 UAE

One of the most impressive drivers across Round 4 was Keanu Al-Azhari. Racing for the newly formed Yas Heat Racing Academy, he continued the steady level of improvement shown under the wing of the Emirati team in Dubai.

Topping the round’s two test sessions and qualifying fourth and second, the upwards trend in results was set to continue post-Kuwait. However, he would leave with less than he deserved.

Al-Azhari was left with a puncture after colliding with a spinning Arvid Lindblad in Race 1, forcing an early retirement. This compromised his second race as he started from P37, a harsh reality of F4 UAE’s format.

Race 3 brought a reset though, as from second place, he hunted down Tuukka Taponen in an attempt to take his first Formula 4 victory. He couldn’t pass the Finn, choosing not to make any rash moves and take second instead — a testament to his maturity after an incident-filled first round.

Whilst the Kuwait Motor Town double-header elevated new names to the very front such as Zachary David and Valerio Rinicella, who hadn’t been quite as fast in Dubai, Al-Azhari continued pushing forward throughout, and whilst the aforementioned names slipped back slightly in the Dubai Autodrome return, it is safe to say that Al-Azhari has only improved.

The jump to the Yas Marina Circuit should only help Al-Azhari and his Yas Heat team too. With memories of his double-podium in last year’s Trophy Race still fresh and the outfit’s strong ties to the venue, his pace should be expected to remain.

A strong weekend for Hitech as their 2023 challengers grow

Red Bull junior Arvid Lindblad leads the three other Hitech drivers in Race 2 of what proved to be a successful weekend for the British squad.
Red Bull junior Arvid Lindblad leads the three other Hitech drivers in Race 2 of what proved to be a successful weekend for the British squad. | Credit: F4 UAE

Fielding four cars in the F4 UAE Championship, Hitech boasts Red Bull Junior Arvid Lindblad as well as their three drivers for the upcoming British F4 season: William Macintyre, Kanato Le and James Piszcyk.

Whilst Lindblad will not continue with the team as the winter season ends, as he jumps to Prema Racing for Italian F4, the British squad’s other three drivers will all be crucial in the success of their 2023 campaign.

With all four drivers within the top 12 in the first part of qualifying, Hitech set themselves up well for a strong weekend.

Whilst Lindblad’s solitary spin forced him into retirement early in Race 1, the rest of the Hitech stable had good results: Macintyre and Piszcyk took their season-best finishes in fourth and fifth, as Le took a season-high equalling seventh.

Race 2 and 3 went on to be just as fruitful for Le, who finished in the points in Race 2 before narrowly missing out in Race 3 as he came home in eleventh. Piszcyk managed to finish in the points in Race 3, whilst Lindblad bounced back in a similar fashion to Al-Azhari to round off his weekend with a fourth place finish.

All three permanent Hitech drivers have made significant progress, which is crucial in such a short championship like F4 UAE. The British outfit is currently fourth in the teams’ standings in only their second season racing the Tatuus T-421 chassis, which is a testament to the success of their programme so far.

Header photo credit: F4 UAE


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