FIA British Formula 4?s inaugural champion took his first Formula 1 points last weekend, and seven days before that one of his title rivals became the youngest winner in IndyCar history. No doubt that will be on the minds of the 12 drivers lined up for the 2019 British F4 season opener this weekend.
Only two of these, Double R Racing’s Sebastian Alvarez and JHR Developments’ Josh Skelton, are championship returnees, and they’ll be depending on their experience against some highly rated rookies. Although neither stood on the podium last year, they shouldn’t immediately be ruled out.
?It was my first year in a car last year, so I learned all about the car and how it works, and all the circuits,? says Skelton. “Hopefully we can put that to work this year, having all the knowledge.”
Several of the rookies can also count circuit experience, with many having been on the same TOCA bill in Ginetta Junior. The most experienced of them all is Skelton’s team-mate Carter Williams, already a Formula Speed champion in America and a racer in BRSCC National Formula Ford 1600 last year.
He?s hoping that his previous single-seater success will allow him to challenge early on in F4, which contrasts from FF1600 by using slicks and wings.
?It?s definitely going to take a few minutes to get up to speed in the F4 car, because it?s a little bit quicker, but I think the track knowledge will help a lot,? he said.
?In FF1600 you have to throw the car around a little bit more, and in this you have to be smooth with it ? the car does lose grip here and there ? but I think I?ll be comfortable with it. [FF1600] is definitely going to help me a little bit.?
What won?t help JHR Developments’ line-up is their limited testing. Skelton completed a two-day test at Valencia, and a third day at Snetterton, before the Brands Hatch media day test last month (which he topped). Williams has only had a shakedown day and the group test.
At the other end of the testing scale is Arden?s Alex Connor, not included in the 12 drivers mentioned earlier as the 14-year-old is too young to race this weekend.
Of Arden’s three rookies, Connor is the only without car racing experience, but has been preparing for F4 by packing in over 20 private tests before he could weigh himself up against rivals at the media day.
?[Besides testing] I?ve been at Arden on the simulator, doing a little sim driving to learn all the tracks,? explains Connor. ?Then going to the gym and trying to get the muscle strength up to drive the car.?
F4 is marketed as a entry level championship, but, as proven above, simultaneously demands levels of professionalism meaning drivers have to be as strict off-track as those in higher categories.
Double R’s Louis Foster, second in Ginetta Junior last year, explains:
?The car’s very physical, very hard on the arms, on the core, the neck; fitness-wise it takes quite ?a lot. I?ve worked quite a lot on that, and keeping the weight down for the car.”
Like in F1, the addition of muscle tissue has its downsides, especially when some drivers will be over a foot shorter than their rivals and have a lower centre of gravity in the car.
Winning isn’t all about physical preparation though.
?Mentally, I?ve been doing preparation for most sessions,” continues Foster. “Looking at data etc., so that when I go out there I know exactly what I?m doing, where I?m braking, when I?m picking up the throttle.?
Foster follows Kiern Jewiss in winning the rookie title in Ginetta Junior then landing a Double R seat in British F4. Jewiss then won the F4 title, so comparisons will inevitably be drawn between the pair, both managed by former F1 driver and now touring car driver Mark Blundell.
?I?ve always been one year younger than Kiern. When he stopped karting, I?d be one year later,? Foster points out.
?I?ve known him for quite a while now. We can try to match him, try to do better, but I?m not going to put the pressure on myself. I?m just going to do the best I can and wherever that is we?ll see.?
Another driver hoping to block out any outside pressure and expectations this year will be Zane Maloney, so far Carlin’s only full-season signing after it returns from a one-year sabbatical from the championship.
Carlin won every title from 2014-’17, and many expect it to continue where it left off, especially as it continued to test last year.
For Maloney, racing for Carlin is a dream come true, and he?s pretty confident he?ll be able to cope with the outside pressures in his first season in cars.
?There?s always pressure with any racing driver, but you have to just not let it get to you,” says the Barbadian.
“Usually pressure doesn?t really get to me and I just need to do the same this year.
?I wanted to race for Carlin, I?ve been dreaming of it all my life. If I win with them, I?ll be the only driver to win with them this year, so it means a lot to me.
?I know what my aims are, but I?m not going to be overconfident. Any racing driver hopes to win, and if I keep doing what I?m doing and the team keeps doing what they?re doing, we can end up with what I really hope for.?
There’s now a sting in Maloney’s comment, for he has been joined at Carlin by world karting champion Joe Turney for the season opener.
The CIK-FIA kart competitions are usually recognised as the hottest breeding ground of future F1 stars, but Turney has picked the alternative Rotax kart route for the last few years, and has become the British, Benelux and world champion in the X30 Senior class.
The 17-year-old has impressed in his few F4 tests, and scooped up Motorsport UK’s Young Driver of the Year over the winter, but budget issues may mean he’ll continue to excel in karts for another season rather than turn his Carlin drive into a full-time ride.
So what of the rest of the grid? Richardson Racing is following Carlin?s lead in returning to the championship with Ginetta Junior race-winner Luke Browning, while Arden has added two more FFord graduates to the field in the form of Australian regular Bart Horsten and Young Racing Driver Academy member Tommy Foster.
Fortec Motorsports has put two Latin Americans together: Roberto Faria and Mariano Martinez. Both are new to Britain, but Martinez has applicable car experience having been a regular in the NACAM F4 championship.
The final confirmed driver on the grid, and the one getting the most media attention, is Saudi trailblazer Reema Juffali.
Her motorsport career only started late last year, but she’s already won in a sportscar and cameod in other single-seater machinery. Is she ready for British F4 though?
The drivers lined up to be racing at Brands Hatch this weekend, and beyond, come with a huge variety of experience and aims for the season, but have all picked the championship for roughly the same reason.
JHR’s Williams explains it best:??It comes down to a couple of things: the competitiveness, the prestige, and the exposure it gets.
?The field is super competitive. Usually the entire field is within a second or so. It?s incredible how close things are, so you do get that competition.
?Prestige: Formula 1 drivers now, they come from British F4. So I see it as ‘they?ve done this series, obviously it?s gotten them more exposure’.
?And there is a tonne of media here. You don?t get that in most other F4 series.?
It will be a while before we find out if any of the class of 2019 are successful in following in the footsteps of McLaren F1 driver Lando Norris or IndyCar title contender Colton Herta,?but one thing is certain: we can expect another competitive season of racing.
2019 British F4 entry list
Alex Connor, 14
Tommy Foster, 16
Bart Horsten, 16
Zane Maloney, 15
Joe Turney, 17
Double R Racing
Sebastian Alvarez, 16
Louis Foster, 15
Reema Juffali, 27
Roberto Faria, 15
Mariano Martinez, 15
Josh Skelton, 18
Carter Williams, 20
Luke Browning, 16