Home Featured Analysing Slater’s imperious Italian F4 start, and who could beat him

Analysing Slater’s imperious Italian F4 start, and who could beat him

by Roger Gascoigne

Photos: ACI Sport

It was plain sailing for Freddie Slater a few miles from the Adriatic coast in Italian F4’s Misano season opener

Hotly tipped for the title after his impressive performances at the end of 2023, reigning Formula 4 United Arab Emirates champion Freddie Slater started the 2024 Italian Fomula 4 season two weeks ago with three poles and three assured wins.

The only driver to head him at any stage of the three races at Misano was behind the wheel of the safety car, which was called upon in every race.

The championship’s short 15-minute qualifying sessions are usually enough to mix up the starting order, particularly on a tight circuit like Misano when there’s 37 cars on track. But Slater left no doubt as to his pace, setting two laps good enough for pole in both sessions. Impressive enough, but even more considering that in Q2 “I only did two push laps, there was a lot more traffic in the second one, so it was a little bit closer”.

“I only had to wait seven months since the last [pole, in Euro 4], it’s nice to get it back,” he said after qualifying, before leaving his intentions for the races crystal clear: “I’m here to win. You’ve just got to keep your head down, and keep going for pole positions and wins.”

He fully delivered on his promise the next day, controlling the gap to Prema team-mate Alex Powell, managing his tyres and staying calm when the safety car prevented him from pulling out a larger lead en route to victory in race one. Later in the day he had three restarts after safety car periods to handle while leading, and did so masterfully in each to win race two.

It was a similar story the day after that, with race three being interrupted by the safety car three times as Slater won again.

“It was a mega weekend!” he told Formula Scout after his third victory. “It’s not about taking risks, it’s about building the points, no silly mistakes. I made a good start, not too risky. I made some good choices as well, I could have pushed more in a few bits…but I’m in championship mode, and I want to win the championship.”

Drivers to go unbeaten in Italian F4 rounds

Driver Team Year Circuit
Mattia Drudi F & M 2014 Monza
Zhou Guanyu Prema 2015 Monza
Sebastian Fernandez Bhaitech 2017 Misano
Enzo Fittipaldi Prema 2018 Misano*
Olli Caldwell Prema 2018 Vallelunga*
Dennis Hauger Prema 2019 Monza
Ollie Bearman Prema 2021 Vallelunga, Monza
Andrea Kimi Antonelli Prema 2022 Spa-Francorchamps, Vallelunga*, Mugello
Arvid Lindblad Prema 2023 Monza
Kacper Sztuka US Racing 2023 Paul Ricard, Mugello*
Freddie Slater Prema 2024 Misano*

*Won all three races from pole

He added: “I’m here to rack the points up and win as many as I can, in the cleanest way possible.”

Slater’s triple win meant he became the 11th driver in 11 Italian F4 seasons to go unbeaten over a weekend of racing, and remarkably only the fifth to do so from pole on each occasion. Only one driver has pulled off a perfect weekend of victory, pole and fastest lap in all three races, and perhaps unsurprisingly that was Andrea Kimi Antonelli who swept the board at Vallelunga in 2022.

At Misano, Slater missed out on matching Antonelli’s feat by 0.004 seconds as team-mate Tomass Stolcermanis just beat him to the race one fastest lap.

It should be noted that Mattia Drudi and Zhou Guanyu achieved their hat-tricks at a time when race two’s grid was set using race one’s finishing positions but with the top eight reversed, making their achievement more remarkable.

But perhaps there’s a note of caution for Slater ahead of round two at Imola. The only other driver to sweep a season opener was Sebastian Fernandez in 2017. His opposition included two future IndyCar drivers and a future Formula 2 champion, and after round one he would only win two more races out of 18 and sunk to fourth in the standings.

It was not just Slater who was being dominant at Misano, but his Prema team. Slater and Powell locked out the front row and the top two spots on the podium three times over, and Kean Nakamura Berta completed a podium lockout in race three.

“[Prema is] one of the greatest teams in motorsports [who] do an amazing job to put the car underneath us. I couldn’t have done it without Prema,” said Slater.

Mercedes-AMG Formula 1 junior Powell’s “super consistent weekend” was, he admitted, “the maximum we could extract from this one”. Since making their F4 debuts last September, Slater is winning the head-to-head battle 19-6 in races.

“It was quite close in terms of laptime around this track where it’s quite difficult to overtake, but more than anything it was good to start the season in a positive way,” Powell remarked. “It confirms that all the pre-season testing we’ve done is starting to pay off. We have the confidence that the pace is there so hopefully every weekend will be comparable to this one.”

He never looked like getting on terms with Slater, even at the restarts.

“I think it came down more to the starts and the first two laps, but he [Slater] managed the races well and I wasn’t able to do anything. It’s not a win but we need to look at the bigger picture, which is the championship, right?”

Powell said he “built from” the “really strong” pace that put him on top of pre-event testing and was “super happy with the work we did collectively as a team this weekend” to make sure that he was competitive in every track session. His Mercedes stablemate Antonelli, who did some chequered flag waving at Misano, warmly congratulated him after his race two podium.

Nakamura had been expected to run Slater close after coming four points short of beating him to the 2024 F4 UAE title, but the European karting champion and World junior karting champion endured a “challenging” start to his weekend at Misano. He was fifth in pre-event testing, 12th in practice then ninth in Q1, being more than 0.5s off the pace in all three.

In race one he gained a spot, and although he was fourth fastest in Q2 a poor start left him vulnerable to a move from PHM Racing’s Davide Larini which eliminated both. “Which wasn’t amazing,” said Nakamura afterwards.

He qualified fifth for race three, and the aim was “just trying to enjoy the race and grab a few points”. He succeeded in doing so, saying “it was a tough race, but I managed to claim P3, which is great”.

The Alpine junior pulled off arguably the overtake of the weekend to snatch that third place from Van Amersfoort Racing’s Hiyu Yamakoshi.

With passing difficult, Nakamura was trying everything to find a way to overcome Yamakoshi’s “good defending” and finally made the move into the turn 10 hairpin “when I managed to convince him to defend a bit early” before the two ran wheel-to-wheel down the back straight, Nakamura holding the inside through the two fast right-hand kinks to get ahead.

“At that moment, I was like ‘oh, no, maybe I went in a bit too hard’ but it was good.”

In Prema’s hospitality tent, Nakamura admitted “the weekend didn’t start how I wanted it to coming from UAE, comparing how fast we were then to now was hard to suck up but I and the team made good progress during the week so we can only go forwards from now”.

For Tomass Stolcermanis, the least experienced driver in Prema’s line-up, Misano was a learning exercise. He “had trouble managing the traffic in the first couple of laps in both qualifyings and that destroyed my mindset for the next couple of laps”, then in race one the car was “very strong and competitive and I had good pace but just struggled to overtake some drivers” and he finished ninth. He was quick to admit “I definitely need to work on that for the upcoming races”.

After some “ups and downs due to some small mistakes and contact avoidance” he eventually fought his way from 15th to eighth in race two, then a penalty for contact cost him another points finish in race three.

Despite his strong pace in winter testing, Yamakoshi was perhaps the standout surprise at Misano, going fifth fastest in Q1 and Q2 after getting on top of some minor technical issues in practice. Nevertheless, he had felt before qualifying that “P2 is possible” based on topping a pre-event test session. Sixth place in race one was followed by finishing fourth in the next two, putting him third in the standings. He has his eyes on a title challenge as VAR looks to win races for the first time since 2021.

Although Yamakoshi had experience of the Tatuus T-421 from racing in Spanish F4 in 2023, he said VAR is helping a lot with “getting used to the Pirelli tyre” in Italian F4. “I love this team,” he enthused as he revels in its support.

To further prove that Prema will not have everything its own way in 2024, US Racing’s Akshay Bohra ran consistently at the front at Misano. He was 0.012s off Slater in practice, qualified in the top four for all three races and finished them in fourth, third and 16th.

“[US Racing is] a great environment. It’s like my family. They teach me a lot – not only about being a driver but also about being a person,” he said of the team which ran him last year and also the dominant champion Kacper Sztuka.

“The maturity I’ve gained has helped me a lot. Some of the experience I gained [in 2023] has already been put into work. For a second year the expectations are higher but, from my side, I know that I now have the pace so it’s more about just being in the right mindset every weekend and giving my best.”

He admits to feeling pressure “to do my best but not when it comes to results” as “F4 is more about learning and becoming a complete driver but obviously the results will come if we’re doing our best, so we just need to focus on the process”.

“It was definitely a good qualifying,” he reflected. ““At the front it is very close; everybody is within one or two tenths of each other. Q1 was a bit messy but Q2 I think we definitely maximised.”

A fluffed start cost Bohra valuable points in race three, but he had been rapid all event and will undoubtedly be a title contender should Slater not continue to exclusively occupy first place.

Jenzer Motorsport was another outfit that looked to have raised its game compared to 2023. Reno Francot, who narrowly missed out on last year’s F4 Central European Zone title with the team, impressed on his Italian F4 debut but a five-second penalty in race two for passing Yamakoshi off-track cost him 10 points and meant he ended the weekend with eight.

He led the line at Jenzer all weekend, with sixth and seventh on the grid for races two and three demonstrating his speed.

When it came to results failing to do justice to underlying speed, Larini had a lot to reflect on with his DTM title-winning and F1-experienced father Nicola in the paddock. He was eighth and ninth in the two qualifying sessions, and in race one “after the safety car restart, I had some problems with the balance of the car” while running in eighth. Contact damaged his front wing, costing him positions and earning him a black-and-white flag.

After the Nakamura contact in race two, Larini’s weekend finally came good with eighth place in race three, and he definitely put down a marker for the rest of the year.

He is clearly at ease within PHM, who he had already done two Italian F4 and two F4 UAE rounds with, feeling that they “are working really well” together and that “maybe taking some podiums” is on the agenda.

While Larini senior is on hand to provide “some important tips, he leaves me alone to do my things”.