As we inch closer to the second round of the 2023 Italian F4 Championship, it’s time to take a step back to talk about what was one of the wildest, most unpredictable season openers of the 2023 season. The first round of the series saw 37 drivers battle it out in Imola, with a couple of new names topping the standings and some of the favourites struggling to find the pace. With Feeder Series reporting trackside during the weekend, here’s what we learned from the opening round of Italian F4.
By Daniele Spadi
The 2023 Italian F4 Championship got off to a hectic start, to say the least. Four interesting and unpredictable races took place at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola had many drivers flying out of the blocks to start their Formula 4 campaign. Many predicted that Prema would be topping every session of the opening weekend, and though that was almost the case, it was perhaps the more overlooked drivers of the Italian outfit that stole the show.
We saw interesting battles between different teams, proving that there’s more than just Prema at the top of the championship. Considering the surprising results, mechanical issues and twists, we were all kept on the edge of our seats until the very last lap of the final race of the weekend. But what are the main stories coming out of the Italian F4 paddock ahead of the series’ second round in Misano?
Revenge of the underdogs
Though teams like US Racing and VAR showed to have made important steps forward during pre-season, everyone was expecting Prema to be dominating the standings, with seven cars at the starting blocks and perhaps the three main favourites for the title in their garage. F4 UAE champion James Wharton and his two main championship rivals, Tuukka Taponen and Ugo Ugochukwu, were the three quickest drivers this winter and showed everyone why they should be considered among the favourites to win it all in Italian F4.
However, it wasn’t them who impressed the most in Imola. In fact, it was Red Bull junior Arvid Lindblad and 15-year-old Nicola Lacorte who stole the spotlight throughout the weekend. Lindblad, who finished fifth in F4 UAE earlier this year, left the opening round of Italian F4 with three podiums, including his maiden win in the series in the final race, and the championship lead. The Briton looked like a different driver compared to this winter, with much more precision, racecraft and overall confidence that led him to have the perfect start to what could be a sensational season for him.
Though Lindblad leading after round one was perhaps hard to predict, it wasn’t a huge shock to see him among the quickest drivers of the weekend. However, even Prema was a bit surprised by Nicola Lacorte’s performances throughout the opening weekend of the season. After a tough winter, the young Italian took everyone by surprise when he finished in third in the first race of the year, before following that up with a commanding performance in the last qualifying race that saw him take his first win in single-seater racing. A fourth place in the final race of the weekend meant that Lacorte would walk away from Imola in second place in the drivers’ standings. If he keeps up the level of mental strength and raw speed he showed during the opening round, he could potentially be a championship threat come to the end of the season.
BVM Racing is a small Italian team from Piangipane, a little town just 30 minutes away from Imola, which made the first round of the season even more special for them. After ending the 2022 season in ninth with just one point to their name, BVM wasn’t even considered to be a threat for the points-paying positions despite some strong performances in pre-season. Therefore, it is quite a surprise to see them up in fourth place in the teams’ standings after the first round of the championship.
38 of their 39 points were scored by their star driver Alfio Spina, who sits in fourth in the drivers’ standings and is the first non-Prema driver in the championship hunt after Imola. Spina looked comfortable throughout the whole weekend and secured three top-five finishes in his three races, including second in the final race, the team’s first podium in Italian F4 since Pietro Delli Guanti’s historical win in Monza in 2020. Sure, his competitors’ misfortunes during the weekend helped him considerably, but Spina was able to capitalize on them and he showed terrific speed and consistency while doing so.
A rocky start for some
Though drivers like Lindblad, Lacorte and Spina left Imola with sky-high confidence, others needed some time to reflect on their performances to figure out how to improve for round two. The biggest negative surprise coming from Imola was perhaps James Wharton’s lack of pace during the entire race weekend. Given that the 2023 F4 UAE champion is the only driver Prema retained from the 2022 Italian F4 season, it makes him an automatic favourite to win the title this year. However, it wasn’t the best of starts for the Australian, who had a troublesome qualifying session that led to him failing to score points in two of the three races he took part in.
It’s a very long championship and there are still 18 races to go, but Wharton has to pick up the pace in Misano if he wants to be in the title hunt at all this year, and the same could be said for Tuukka Taponen. Though the latest addition to the Ferrari Driver Academy is a rookie in the series and still needs to find his footing in such a closely-contested championship, he looked ready to be considered among the favourites for the drivers’ championship after a great F4 UAE campaign earlier this year. With just two points to his name after Imola, though, the Finn needs to find the speed he showed during the winter and start ironing out the small, yet costly mistakes that saw him picking up penalties and losing crucial points during the opening round of the season.
Ugo Ugochukwu and Kacper Sztuka were two drivers who reaped less than what they sowed. The American, who is considered to be the main title contender by many, won the second qualifying race of the weekend before stalling from pole position in race 3 because of a faulty clutch, getting collected by Andrea Frassineti’s BVM in the process. On the other hand, luck was definitely not on Sztuka’s side in Imola. The Pole, who comfortably won the opening race of the weekend, had to retire in his following two races due to terminal technical issues that denied him the chance to take the fight to his Prema rivals. Despite their misfortunes, they both showed great pace and were among the fastest drivers of the weekend, setting the two fastest lap times in qualifying, so watch out for these two in Misano.
Consistency is key
In a championship as close as Italian F4, consistency will be the main factor come the end of the season. With so many fast drivers on the grid, it’s going to be difficult to stay in the top half of the points-paying positions race after race. Valentin Kluss had a terrific first weekend of the season, finishing sixth in all three races he took part in. Although the German wasn’t among the quickest drivers of the entire weekend, he raced brilliantly and made no mistakes in order to take home as many points as possible for both PHM and himself. The same can be said for Zachary David, who left Imola as the highest-ranked US Racing driver in the standings after three finishes in the top six, which included a podium in the second qualifying race.
Despite coming together on the very last lap of the final race, VAR’s Brando Badoer and Ivan Domingues showed great speed and were just one lap away from a third consecutive top-five finish. The two of them were evenly matched throughout the weekend, with the Italian potentially having the best raw pace of the entire field as he showed when he was in clean air. However, the collision that saw Domingues hitting the back of Badoer at the very end of the final race meant that VAR would lose a lot of points in the teams’ standings, and both of their drivers now need a faultless weekend in Misano to gain back what they lost to their rivals.
Among the 37 drivers who took part in the opening weekend of the season, there were a couple of young talents who raced for the first time in single-seaters and had a positive first outing. Enzo Deligny was certainly one of them, as the Frenchman entered the first round of Italian F4 with AKM Motorsport in order to further improve his preparation for his upcoming Spanish F4 campaign. Deligny, who wrote a column for Feeder Series about his Italian F4 debut, got up to speed with both the car and the track pretty quickly and managed to finish every race in the top ten, giving AKM their first points since the 2021 season.
James Egozi also had a promising debut. The young American, who signed with PHM for the 2023 Italian F4 season and is currently part of the Minardi management agency, handled himself really nicely throughout the weekend and scored points in two of his three races, only missing out in the final, where he crossed the line eleventh. A very good start for Egozi, who was perhaps overlooked at the start of the season and has instead proved he belongs in Formula 4.
Header photo credit: Italian F4 Championship / ACI Sport
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