The F4 UAE Championship has enjoyed one of its most competitive seasons to date, as almost 40 full-time Formula 4 drivers battle it out to start their 2023 campaigns on the front foot. Commencing before the highest-profile summer championships, it allows drivers, and even teams, to get ahead of the game in terms of exposure, accolades, and of course, track time. With four out of the season’s five rounds complete, four drivers remain in title contention. Feeder Series breaks down the title fight before the final showdown takes place at Yas Marina this weekend.
By George Brabner
F4 UAE is unique in the Formula 4 world for its compact calendar. It is an intense six-week championship, placed right at the very beginning of the year.
For rookies and inexperienced names, it provides the opportunity for a burst of track time before progressing upwards into Europe in the summer months. Equally, drivers embarking on a second year in Formula 4 cars are pitched directly up against each other – some of those are names we expect to see fighting for championships outside of the UAE later in the year.
And so, after 12 races, there are four drivers who remain in title contention: James Wharton, Tuukka Taponen, Ugo Ugochukwu and Valerio Rinicella. Each with their own merits and drawbacks, 37 points split the top four, with 75 still on offer at the Yas Marina Circuit this weekend.
Wharton turns his championship around
With the new year marking Wharton’s second season at the Formula 4 level and his second visit to F4 UAE, he had one goal in mind this time round: to win the championship.
However, Round 1 didn’t yield the points the Ferrari Driver Academy member was hoping for. He was restricted by a disappointing pair of qualifying sessions and suffered from a stall on the front row, resulting in him scoring less than half the points of Ugochukwu, the driver who dominated the season opener.
That deficit would soon be eliminated when we came to the end of the Kuwait Motor Town double-header. Whether it was down to experience or simply track preference, Wharton excelled, closing in on Ugochukwu and bringing the gap in the championship right down. He piled the pressure onto his second-year rival, who had begun to slip away from his relentless consistency.
Round 4’s return to the Dubai Autodrome characterised his season up until this point exceptionally. Whilst he didn’t take the spotlight with a run of victories or a huge advantage over his teammates, three podiums in three races showed exactly why he is still in contention for the title. He sat back and let the championship come to him, while Ugochukwu struggled in the lower end of the points.
Fighting back after a mentally challenging first round, Wharton has scored big but it is his consistency that has elevated him to the lead, whilst those around him have experienced peaks and troughs in results. With prior experience at the Yas Marina Circuit too, it’s difficult not to predict Wharton as the favourite going into the finale.
The rise of the rookie
A multiple-time karting champion and a fresh addition to the Ferrari Driver Academy, Finland’s Taponen came to the UAE with a lot of expectation on his shoulders. Fast forward over a month and he is sitting just six points behind championship leader Wharton heading into the finale, marking him as a clear candidate for driver of the season.
Straight out of the gates, it was clear that the Finn was fast, qualifying second and third in Round 1 and taking two second-place finishes, despite some teething issues in the first race. At this early stage in the year, it appeared that he would be in close competition with Red Bull Junior Arvid Lindblad, but in the following rounds he would streak clear of the Brit to become the highest-placed rookie by far.
Whilst other title contenders Rinicella and Wharton came into their own in Kuwait, Taponen couldn’t initially match the high bar he had set two weeks prior, but it was during this phase of the season that he then lay the foundations for the championship position he now enjoys.
Vitally, he was able to progress upwards across Rounds 2 and 3, before carrying that momentum back to the Dubai Autodrome for Round 4. It became evident elsewhere on the grid that some drivers found or lost pace exclusively in Kuwait, reversing that dynamic only on a different circuit.
With momentum on his side after a hat-trick in the previous round, he is expected to be strong at Yas Marina, but as the only rookie amongst his title rivals, he is facing an uphill battle to overpower those with more experience who have visited the track before.
Is Ugochukwu still in with a chance?
After competing full-time in British F4 last year and collecting the rookie title, McLaren Junior Ugochukwu now embarks on a second Formula 4 season, with an equally high bar to reach as Wharton. The American started his season in dominant form, taking two wins and a third-place finish in the opening round, putting himself on the front foot heading into Kuwait.
Collecting another two podiums in Round 2, he extended his championship lead before the third round of the season – at this point still the class of the field. He would start Round 3 in impressive fashion with his fourth victory of the season, but as the chasing pack edged closer, the final race in Kuwait would be the beginning of his fall from the top of the championship table.
Colliding with Taponen in an attempt to put himself onto the tail of race leader Wharton put Ugochukwu out of the race, crushing his championship lead down to just eleven points. Round 4 would see the drivers return to the Dubai Autodrome, a track where he excelled earlier in the season, but this time around he was stranded in the midfield and scored just three points across the trio of races. This demoted him to third in the championship, leaving him a distant 37 points away from the lead.
Once a driver that was dominating the championship, he now has a steep hill to climb in Abu Dhabi if he wants to start 2023 by winning a title. Don’t let his poor performance in Round 4 divert your attention away from his dominance earlier in the year, but having said that, it will be difficult for him to make up so much ground on a pair of drivers who are currently in the best shape they’ve been in all season.
Rinicella is a possible dark horse
In 2023, Prema Racing, the Italian powerhouse of the Formula 4 world, chose to provide technical and operational support to Mumbai Falcons. This gave Wharton and Taponen equally strong machinery to that of Ugochukwu. However, the one man still in with a chance of winning the F4 UAE title that isn’t from under Prema’s wing, nor has support from a Formula 1 team, is Valerio Rinicella.
Just like Ugochukwu and Wharton, the MP Motorsport driver is entering his second season in Formula 4 cars, after competing in Spanish F4, Italian F4 and F4 UAE in 2022. He started the 2023 season slipping under the radar, fighting mostly on the outskirts of the top ten, but it was in Kuwait where he really set his championship challenge alight and came into his own.
Two rounds of the championship held at the venue would play to the Italian’s advantage. During this time, he took four podiums and finished every race within the top five, leaving him third in standings and within a race victory of catching up with Ugochukwu. However, the return to Dubai wouldn’t be quite so fruitful, with a pair of sixth places and a fifth place finish seeing him slip away from the top two. He is now level on points with Ugochukwu.
The lesson that Rinicella’s season can teach is that a driver’s pace isn’t necessarily consistent across circuits. Whilst you could write him off from being a realistic championship contender based on his results in Round 4, nothing is ever that simple in F4 UAE. He has as much of a chance as anyone else on the grid to rocket back to the front, just as he did in Kuwait.
Header image credit: F4 UAE
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