Home Featured All eyes on Antonelli as new FRegional Europe season kicks off

All eyes on Antonelli as new FRegional Europe season kicks off

by Roger Gascoigne

Photos: Dutch Photo Agency

There will again be many talented drivers in this year’s Formula Regional European Championship field, but most eyes will be on one in particular

With three championship titles and a gold medal from the last seven months, Andrea Kimi Antonelli comes into the Formula Regional European Championship season as one of the hottest properties in junior single-seaters.

Stepping into the championship-winning Prema entry, Antonelli himself says he does not feel any extra pressure, and his backers in the Mercedes-AMG Formula 1 team are there to ensure that he keeps his feet on the ground.

The 2023 season of FREC looks to be more competitive than ever. In testing, the top 18 drivers were within just 0.45% of the average pace of the fastest driver across the three pre-season tests at Barcelona, Paul Ricard and Monza.

It was Antonelli who topped the combined average from the three tests, but only by 0.012% over team-mate Rafael Camara. And it was Camara who headed the times at both the most recent tests in France and Italy.

With Prema looking to have maintained its performance advantage over the winter, the second instalment of the duel between Antonelli and Camara would be worth the price of an entrance ticket on its own.

But the two first-year drivers face a strong challenge from three returnees – Tim Tramnitz, Maceo Capietto and Kas Haverkort – each of whom has put in some impressive times in testing and could take the title.

Despite increasing competition from a buoyant GB3 series in Britain as well as the new-for-2023 Eurocup-3 championship, FREC remains Europe’s benchmark series in the gap between FIA Formula 3 and Formula 4. Nevertheless, amid global economic uncertainty the grid is not yet quite full, with two seats unoccupied at Imola despite a couple of late signings.

The battle to find the successor to Gregoire Saucy and Dino Beganovic will be one to savour. And the classic sweeps of Imola will, as in 2021, stage the first skirmishes of the new season.

Resisting pressure to move up directly to FIA F3, reigning Italian and ADAC F4 champion Antonelli accepted Mercedes’ counsel to spend a season – and nobody realistically expects it to be more than a year – in FREC. As seen with Paul Aron in 2022, Mercedes’ approach is to let its youngsters learn and progress only when they are ready, rather than as quickly as possible.

Antonelli has already got his FRegional career off to a flying start, taking his first title of 2023 back in February in FRegional Middle East. He claimed the crown in the final round, with his F4 rival Taylor Barnard being his closest opposition.

While success in the Middle East is no guarantee of victory back in Europe, as Sebastian Montoya demonstrated last year, Antonelli acknowledges the boost it gives his season as “apart from the tyres, the cars are just the same”.

Now fully recovered from the wrist injury and resulting surgery brought about by a collision in the Motorsport Games Formula 4 Cup last October, Antonelli has the talent, the machinery and the support to be FREC champion at his first attempt.

Participation in the full FRMEC season does, however, mean that neither Antonelli nor Camara are eligible for the rookie title in FREC, although their sights would undoubtedly have been trained on the main prize in any case.

For most of 2022, Camara was Antonelli’s closest rival in F4 but seldom had the extra speed or consistency to take the top step of the podium. However, the Brazilian has been the revelation of testing, topping the times at Paul Ricard and Monza.

Outside the cockpit, the Ferrari junior looks relaxed and admits that while he found the FRegional car difficult to get used to initially, it was now “easy” to drive. Camara finished third in both ADAC and Italian F4 last year, and occupied the same position in FRMEC, one place ahead of his other Prema team-mate in FREC, Lorenzo Fluxa.

Fluxa is moving to his third team in three FREC seasons. He began the 2022 campaign strongly with a podium at Imola, before fading away. The Anglo-Spaniard has been overshadowed by his rookie team-mates in testing but should have the experience to score frequent podiums and the occasional win.

Another of the pre-season favourites, Tramnitz, has moved from Trident to R-ace GP, winner of the teams’ title in 2021, having shown strong pace last year despite suffering more than his fair share of mechanical niggles.

R-ace is looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2022 when it failed to match the consistency of the dominant Prema despite the talents of Hadrien David and Gabriel Bortoleto, who is currently leading the FIA F3 points as a rookie.

Tramnitz was the 2021 ADAC and Italian F4 runner-up, and is now reunited with his preferred number 77. He has been one of the stars of pre-season testing, consistently running at the front and topping the times at Barcelona, and at the Monza test he told Formula Scout how much he was enjoying his new environment, even working on his French language skills.

He is joined at R-ace by rookie Martinius Stenshorne, who steps up from Italian F4 where he established himself as Van Amersfoort Racing’s fastest driver. He admits that it hadn’t been the original plan to move straight up to FREC: “We were going to see after the season but in the end, we thought it could be good to move up because my year was not too bad and to join R-ace was a good opportunity.”

Stenshorne gained useful experience at this level after joining R-ace for the final three FRMEC rounds, and he’s still eligible for FREC rookie honours.

“The speed in UAE wasn’t the best but now it’s not going too bad,” he said. “I’m learning a lot and the package of the team is good as well.” Unfortunately, he was forced to skip the Barcelona test due to illness but has otherwise been near the front.

Matias Zagazeta moves across from G4 Racing after a difficult and pointless 2022 season to drive R-ace’s third car. The Peruvian has been off the pace of his team-mates in testing and will be looking to recapture some of the form which took him to second in British F4 in 2021.

The VAR line-up is not short of either experience or stability, and with Haverkort (fifth) and Joshua Dufek (ninth) the crack Dutch squad can boast the two highest-placed returnees from 2022. Both are obvious championship contenders.

VAR itself made great strides back to its historical position at the front of the field, having struggled initially after the change to Renault engines two seasons ago. By the second half of 2022, however, the team was a regular frontrunner with Haverkort taking two wins while Dufek’s late charge for the rookie title was thwarted only in the final laps of the season.

By rights, Haverkort should have followed his rivals to FIA F3, but a lack of budget has kept him back for a third season. “It is what it is and we have to make the best out of it,” he says philosophically. “We showed last year that we can be quite quick.”

“We’re going to be there in front to fight for the championship, of course. We made some good improvements in testing, so we’re looking quite strong.”

Recent form indicates that the step up to FREC from F4 is a demanding one – Isack Hadjar is the only rookie to win races since FREC’s 2021 merger with the Formula Renault Eurocup – and Haverkort’s experience means he starts as a title favourite.

“Last year I had the same goal to get the championship. It didn’t really work out how I would have wanted it but still P5 was not too bad. But in this year, I really have to do it so there’s a little bit more pressure. I like the pressure, it’s good.”

Dufek’s late-season form was as surprising as it was impressive, something he attributes to “really using that summer break and fixing the things that had to be fixed from both my side and the team’s side”, allowing him to make “a big step that the others didn’t make”.

Coming into 2023, Dufek tells Formula Scout he is “feeling confident with the team; our preparation has been good throughout the winter and I’m really looking forward to the racing finally starting again.”

VAR’s third driver is the inexperienced Niels Koolen, and 2023 is likely to be a tough learning season.

This season herald a change in approach for ART Grand Prix, the fourth member of FREC’s ‘big four’ teams. The French squad is used to running an experienced team leader, having fielded Victor Martins (in the Eurocup), Gregoire Saucy and Gabriele Mini in the last three years.

Talking to Formula Scout at Monza, ART GP team principal Mathieu Zangarelli acknowledged the relative inexperience of the squad this year but at the same time noted that “this is where we can also bring something to help them develop”.

Its most experienced runner is Laurens van Hoepen, a FREC sophomore but with additional experience in a FRegional car from racing in the Ultimate Cup Series in 2021. Van Hoepen has been on the edge of the top 10 in testing, and, with F1 driver Nyck de Vries offering friendly advice, could spring a surprise.

Like Antonelli, Charlie Wurz already has a FRegional title having won the 2023 FRegional Oceania championship over the winter. The son of former F1 driver and two-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner Alex Wurz had a mixed 2022 in F4, establishing his “winter series” credentials with victory in F4 United Arab Emirates but struggling to match Antonelli and Camara in Europe.

ART GP’s true rookie, Marcus Amand, moves up to FREC after two frustrating seasons in F4 in Italy and Germany. Having been signed by the Sauber Academy, Amand will run in their colours, similar to Theo Pourchaire in Formula 2. The Franco-Finn excelled in junior karting, winning the 2019 European title for OK-Junior karts, and seems to have adapted quickly to FREC’s more powerful car.

The Irish-Italian Race Performance Motorsport squad come into the season as a dark horse for honours. Since making its debut a year ago, Keith Donegan’s squad has gradually established itself as a consistent frontrunner. But as Donegan tells Formula Scout, “we are not here to race for top 10s, we are here to win”.

Though ineligible for championship points as a guest driver, Pierre-Louis Chovet took two podiums at the end of the season for R-P-M, and the gorgeous green-and-yellow cars have been among the fastest in testing.

Lead driver Capietto put in some outstanding performances for Monolite Racing in 2022, particularly when the heavens opened. Donegan agrees that the French university student is a great talent, and that “with late races at Zandvoort and Hockenheim the ability to shine in the rain could be valuable!”. With a budget confirmed for the season, and if R-P-M continues to progress at its current rate, Capietto is definitely a driver to watch out for.

Having started last year with KIC Motorsport, Telmex-backed Santiago Ramos joined R-P-M for the final round with a view to a full campaign in 2023. On paper, the Mexican’s career results to-date do not indicate a potential race-winner, but Donegan has been impressed and Ramos has not been far off Capietto’s pace having run in the top 10 at each pre-season test.

R-P-M’s third driver Adam Fitzgerald undoubtedly has a mountain to climb given his lack of experience. The Irishman only started karting in 2019 and moves up after a season in British F4 complemented by two rounds in Italy.

Like fellow Dutch team VAR, MP Motorsport has opted for an experienced threesome as it looks to build on some strong performances in 2022.

Victor Bernier is another driver with an outstanding karting pedigree, having beaten an outstanding field to become OK-J world champion in 2018. But three years in F4 with R-ace across three series yielded just four wins. He moved up to FREC with the MP-run FA Racing team, and put it all together at the Mugello season finale with a second place after topping his qualifying group.

Testing has been “very positive for the whole team,” he says, adding that his goal “is to be top five in the championship”. If he and the team can continue their progress, Bernier should be challenging for wins.

Team-mate Sami Meguetounif returns to MP for his second season and has been very evenly matched with Bernier, his 2021 F4 team-mate, in testing. A second place at Spa-Francorchamps last year showed his potential, which he underlined with his maiden category victory at Kuwait Motor Town in FRMEC.

Dilano van’t Hoff will be hoping for an uninterrupted year after a shoulder injury blew a massive hole in his 2022 campaign. Nevertheless, the 2021 Spanish F4 champion clearly has the potential to challenge at the front as his third place at Barcelona at the end of last year demonstrated.

Trident retains Roman Bilinski for his and the team’s sophomore season. The Anglo-Pole ran his team-mates Leonardo Fornaroli and Tramnitz close in 2022, taking a podium in Hungary, and should be a consistent points scorer this campaign.

Bilinski is joined by the under-financed Owen Tangavelou, who impressed with a half-season at R-P-M in 2022, and F4 graduate Nikhil Bohra who has already notched up a first win at this level in FRMEC’s visit to Dubai Autodrome in January.

Joshua Duerksen remains at Arden for his second season, having finished 14th in 2022 with two fifth places. The Paraguayan is joined by fellow sophomore Levente Revesz, who switches from VAR, and GB3 graduate Tom Lebbon.

Monolite Racing scored 12 points in 2022, all courtesy of Capietto. The small Italian squad return in 2023 with two confirmed new drivers, Giovanni Maschio and Enzo Scionti.

American Scionti, who finished 14th in the junior world karting championship in 2018, raced in Euroformula two years but spent 2022 out of action, while 16-year-old Maschio has been the slowest in testing.

Kirill Smal joined Monolite at testing at Paul Ricard and Monza, immediately impressing with some excellent times. Smal told Formula Scout at Monza that he was aiming to secure a budget to enable him to join FREC from round two at Barcelona.

Since his race-winning F4 season with Prema in 2021, he has been racing in F4 in Spain and the UAE as well as in FRMEC.

G4 Racing failed to score last year but having signed French F4 champion Alessandro Giusti, could now be a regular points scorer. Giusti tells Formula Scout he has adapted quickly to the car, as well as to working with a dedicated engineer within a team.

“In French F4 we have just have one engineer for five cars and so we can work a lot more [on improving the car],” he explains, adding that “we have good pace in the car and testing in Barcelona and Monza was very productive”.

At the recent Monza test, with only Giusti announced by the team, he admitted that “it would be better to have a team-mate as a reference and to share data and not be alone”.

However, the late addition of Michael Belov, a double race-winner for G4 in 2021, for the season opener will give the team further direction in getting the most from the car. Belov was an expected title challenger for 2022, having moved across to MP, and managed to come seventh in the standings despite being forced to curtail his campaign mid-season.

Finland’s KIC Motorsport team will field an all-rookie line-up with Ferrari junior Maya Weug joined by Shannon Lugassy and Alexander Partyshev. Weug leaves Iron Lynx for the move up from F4 where she has raced for the last two seasons.

Lugassy has two years’ experience in UCS, including racing a FRegional car in the multi-class series in 2022, while Ukrainian racer Partyshev has two seasons of F4 behind him.

Imola will mark the debut of Sainteloc Racing, which has taken over the entry previously held by FA Racing. Emmo Fittipaldi, son of two-time F1 world champion Emerson, moves up from F4 although the racing genes may not be enough to compensate for his inexperience and he may regret not staying in F4 for a tilt at a title in the entry-level category.

Nicolas Baptiste shuffles across from FA Racing for his sophomore FREC season, having scored just two top-20 finishes in 2022, and will be joined by fellow Colombian and NACAM F4 graduate Lucas Medina, who drove for Sainteloc at the Monza test and is a late addition to the grid.

With the two most recent champions Saucy and Beganovic, along with fellow FREC race-winners Bortoleto and Mini heading the FIA F3 standings after two rounds, the class of 2023 will be fighting from Imola this weekend right up to Hockenheim in October to succeed them.

You can listen to this week’s season preview podcast for FREC, Italian F4 and British F4 on Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Castbox, Apple Podcasts, Spotify and below.

The top ten drivers across the pre-season tests at Barcelona, Paul Ricard and Monza are shown below, expressed as an average of a driver’s pace against the fastest laptime (100%) of each test and presented in percentage form.

Driver Team Average test pace (%)
Andrea Kimi Antonelli Prema 100.138
Rafael Camara Prema 100.150
Tim Tramnitz R-ace GP 100.157
Maceo Capietto R-P-M 100.163
Kas Haverkort Van Amersfoort Racing 100.216
Roman Bilinski Trident 100.293
Kirill Smal* Monolite Racing 100.323
Santiago Ramos R-P-M 100.350
Lorenzo Fluxa Prema 100.392
Martinius Stenshorne R-ace GP 100.410

* Smal did not participate in the Barcelona test