Wharton wins title in dramatic finale: 4 takeaways from F4 UAE Round 5

Following two trips to the Dubai Autodrome and a double-header at Kuwait Motor Town, the 2023 season of F4 UAE reached its climax at the Yas Marina Circuit. A long-time host of the Formula 1 season finale, F4 UAE had its own title showdown at the iconic Emirati venue. There were four drivers in mathematical title contention, with it all coming down to the last race of the weekend. Feeder Series analyses the action from the fifth and final round of the 2023 F4 UAE Championship.

By George Brabner

Heading into the F4 UAE season finale, seven points split Mumbai Falcons teammates James Wharton and Tuukka Taponen at the top of the standings. With Ugo Ugochukwu and Valerio Rinicella – the only other drivers mathematically able to win the championship – sitting over a race victory’s worth of points behind, it would be the two Ferrari Driver Academy members going head to head for the title in the final race of the weekend.

Coming to Yas Marina off the back of a hat-trick of victories in Round 4, Finnish protégé Taponen had the momentum on his side, but he was the one with all of the work to do. Wharton had the points advantage and after qualifying on pole for both Races 1 and 3, it was looking like he was back in the same groove that saw him slicing Ugochukwu’s lead down just weeks ago.

Wharton crowned champion in the pitlane

After taking a pair of pole positions on Friday, Wharton’s form continued into Saturday’s action. Starting directly alongside Taponen, their races would almost end in disaster near-instantaneously, banging wheels through the first few corners of the circuit. Neither would give an inch – a trend that would continue – but Wharton crucially emerged on top.

Following a mid-race safety car, the Australian timed his restart to perfection and marched away from the chasing pack, continuing to do so as the race progressed. Taponen had no answer to his pace, coming under fire from Arvid Lindblad behind instead, who would take third place.

Race 2 would largely be a repeat of Race 1 – Wharton simply had the better pace than Taponen and used that to extend his championship lead to 20 points. This meant that Taponen had to win Race 3 with Wharton finishing eighth or lower to snatch the title. From third on the grid, Taponen instantly swept around Ugochukwu’s outside into second, leaving himself and Wharton going side-by-side through the first sector yet again.

Wharton was crowned the 2023 F4 UAE champion | Credit F4 UAE

But their battle wouldn’t last for long, as Taponen fired it straight down Wharton’s inside without a moment’s hesitation into Turn 4 (known as Turn 12 if starting from the Grand Prix pits) sending both drivers straight off the track. As Wharton attempted to re-join the circuit, he clattered the inside kerb and took both himself and his teammate out of the race.

With both drivers in the pitlane and no penalties applied, the championship would stay as it was; Ugochukwu would go on to take the race victory but he was too far behind in the standings to have any impact on the top two. Wharton was crowned champion amidst tension at Mumbai Falcons.

Ugochukwu finishes on a high

His late-season slump ultimately put him out of realistic championship contention, but Ugochukwu finished the F4 UAE season on a high with a race victory. This ironically made him the driver with the most wins across the 15-race championship, despite failing to win the title.

After finishing outside of the points in Race 1 due to a 5-second time penalty for forcing Federico Rifai off the track, he bounced back to step on the podium for the seventh time this season a race later, after an early fight with Théophile Naël and Lindblad. Whilst not quite able to match Wharton, the American rediscovered the pace he had earlier in the season.

Ugochukwu ended his season on a high with a race victory | Credit: F4 UAE

Rounding out the year with victory leaves a sweeter coating on Ugochukwu’s winter campaign as he picked up the pieces of Wharton and Taponen’s collision to control the final race of the season right until the chequered flag. Whilst not able to challenge for the title in the final two races of the weekend, Ugochukwu can be satisfied with the season he has had, before he ventures back to Europe in search of championship titles in the summer.

Badoer snatches sixth despite Al Azhari’s charge

After Round 5, it was Lindblad who takes the position of best of the rest, securing fifth in the standings behind Wharton, Taponen, Ugochukwu and Rinicella. Whilst his relative inconsistency held him back from challenging the top four, bursts of podiums and top-five finishes managed to keep him clear of the ensuing fight behind.

Heading to Yas Marina, Maltese driver Zachary David held the sixth place in the championship that everyone was chasing. A victory and a podium in Kuwait put him on the front foot, but the fact that he achieved no points in the finale opened the door for the late-charging Keanu Al Azhari, as well as Brando Badoer.

Badoer would take the honours of sixth in the championship, despite missing the double-header in Kuwait (where he was replaced by Hiyu Yamakoshi). This marked an impressive feat of consistent points finishes for the young Pinnacle VAR team. However, it was Yas Heat Racing’s Keanu Al Azhari who was arguably the favourite to pip Badoer before the races unfolded.

Badoer finished sixth in the standings despite missing the Kuwait double-header | Credit: F4 UAE

One of the most improved drivers across the F4 UAE season, Al Azhari had pace on Yas Heat’s home soil, comparable to what he showed in Dubai last time out. He started all three races within the top five and took a podium in Race 3. A stall from third on the grid in Race 1 was his undoing though, shuffling him right to the back of the order.

His charge back to the points saw him complete one of the most clinical drives of the year, but it wasn’t enough to beat Badoer. Ahead of a Spanish F4 campaign later this year, his performances on track in the UAE tell you much more than the final results can.

Mumbai Falcons take the team’s championship

Prema Racing’s decision to provide technical and operational support to Indian outfit Mumbai Falcons at the Formula 4 level proved successful in the UAE. With two of Prema’s strongest Italian F4 drivers moving to their roster, Mumbai Falcons dominated the team’s championship to beat runners-up MP Motorsport by over 200 points by the time the chequered flag fell for the final time.

With Wharton and Taponen at the helm, and with some of the best machinery behind them, there was ultimately no match, even though neither scored any points in Race 3. Meanwhile, Prema would come home third in the team’s championship, with MP Motorsport doing well to outscore the Italian team who are renowned for their ability to exploit everything from the Tatuus T-421 chassis.

Mumbai Falcons won the team’s championship with Wharton and Taponen | Credit: F4 UAE

With Rinicella being a permanent member of the Dutch outfit’s roster, he scored a large portion of their points, taking a podium in Race 3 that saw him making the most of the top two’s collision just as Ugochukwu did. However, he couldn’t produce the same level of results as he did in Kuwait, which would have been his hope heading to a new track for Round 5.

Nevertheless, his teammate Pedro Clerot performed well during his second appearance for MP Motorsport this weekend. He achieved three points finishes as he took the fight to the top ten, putting the reigning Brazilian F4 champion in a good position for his Spanish F4 campaign with MP later this year.

And so, after just over a month of racing, F4 UAE comes to a close in 2023 after its most competitive season to date, boasting more drivers and teams than ever before and cementing itself as part of the Formula 4 calendar.

Header image credit: F4 UAE


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