Just like the Formula BMW and Formel Masters categories that preceded?it – with Nico Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel and Pascal Wehrlein among the graduates – Germany’s ADAC Formula 4 has cemented itself as a hotbed for future racing talent with firstly Joel Eriksson and now Joey Mawson and Mick Schumacher stepping up to Formula 3 with some promise.
It has arguably been the healthiest of the FIA F4 series so far, attracting grids of nearly 40 cars through its first two seasons, but that was unlikely to be sustainable in the long-term and numbers for the first event of 2017 are down to 25, which is still pretty respectable by regular?standards. Hopefully, the reduced grid sizes will also reduce the number of incidents and allow more races to go uninterrupted by safety cars.
Many smaller teams have not returned, but the series retains five?clearly strong outfits, which?boast a number of strong contenders between them.
It was Van Amersfoort Racing that took Mawson to last year?s title, and the driver most likely to lead its attack this year is Felipe Drugovich. The Brazilian enjoyed a promising first season in cars last year in ADAC F4, finishing up 12th overall with Neuhauser Racing with regular appearances inside the top six. Over the winter he showed well up against Mawson and others in the MRF Challenge, and he?s looked quick in pre-season testing since joining up with VAR.
There was some expectation that Kami Laliberte would step up to Formula 3 this year with the VAR team in which his father Guy (founder of Cirque du Soleil) has invested heavily, but he has instead opted for another year in F4, which is perhaps a wise move based on his form so far. The Canadian did show progress last year in his first full season in the ADAC series, with an early second-place at Lausitz followed at the end of the year by a reverse-grid win at Zandvoort and two podiums at Hockenheim, but it remains to be seen whether a title push is realistic.
Completing the VAR quartet is Louis Gachot (son of ex-F1 racer Bertrand), who took until the final race last year to score a point with US Racing, and rookie Frederik Vesti, who scored a hat-trick of wins in the new Danish F4 series last weekend.
With Mick Schumacher, Prema provided the biggest thorn in Mawson?s side last year, and returns with its other two drivers from last season. After an even start, Juri Vips stood out from that pair the more the 2016 campaign wore on, as he rallied to sixth in the final ADAC standings and fifth in Italy. The focus for this year is on the former series, and it would be a surprise if the Estonian isn?t a serious title contender.
Juan Manuel Correa showed promisingly for much of his rookie campaign, but while Vips started to steer out of trouble and onto the podium, the Ecuador-born American found himself involved in too many incidents, and he started 2017 in similar fashion when he rolled out of the Italian F4 opener at Misano. If he can cut this out, he?s clearly got the speed to be right up there too.
Initially destined to move from karts to Formula Renault before Ferrari came calling, Marcus Armstrong appears set to combine full campaigns in both Germany and Italy for Prema. The Kiwi is already showing he isn?t afraid to get racey, although this could be to the detriment of the title challenge that his speed is good enough to support.
Beating Vips, Correa and Drugovich to the title of top rookie last season was Nicklas Nielsen, and a switch from Neuhauser to US Racing could only make him stronger, given Gerhard Ungar?s team was so strong back in 2015 with Marvin Dienst in particular. The Dane was good enough for three podiums last year and will now give F4 his full focus after also coming third in the Audi Sport TT Cup following a long-awaited step up from karts.
Sure to also be mixing it at the front in US Racing colours will be Kim-Luis Schramm, who is the highest-placed driver of 2016 making a return. Remarkably, this will be his fifth season at this level having started out in ADAC Formel Masters in 2013. That experience will only be a help, but how big a step forward can he find? Also at the team co-managed by Ralf Schumacher is Fabio Scherer ? 17th last year with a shock win in mixed conditions at Lausitz ? and Julian Hanses, who didn?t manage a point with Timo Scheider?s now-absent team.
Mucke Motorsport ran Mike Ortmann to third overall in 2016, and following he, David Beckmann and Maximilian Gunther as the team?s big young German hope is Lirim Zendeli, who showed promisingly on his way to 13th last season with a podium at Zandvoort.
Sophia Floersch moves across to Mucke from Motopark after a rookie season that started brightly enough but went disappointingly quiet thereafter. It?s going to be a big season for her to live up to some of the promise that she?s shown in the past. Swede Oliver Soderstrom will want to improve upon the single point he scored last season, while Czech driver Tom Beckhauser is the rookie in the Mucke line-up.
Remaining with Motopark is Jonathan Aberdein, who did an impressive job to take 14th overall last season after a pretty significant step up from South African national karting. He spent the start of this year dominating the UAE F4 series, and appears to have carried that speed into pre-season testing.
Also at Motopark is Leonard Hoogenboom, who grabbed a podium in both the German and Italian series last year, and two graduates of top level karting, American David Malukas and Belgian Charles Weerts, who both took podiums in UAE F4, the former with the rival Rasgaira squad.
Former Motopark driver Michael Waldherr now leads the Neuhauser assault alongside Andreas Estner, who drove for RS Competition last term. Fellow Austrian outfit Lechner Racing fields two rookies Mick Wishofer and Richard Wagner. Cedric Piro returns for a third season with the family team, while a new privateer arrives in the form of Laurin Heinrich.