There was an end-of-term feeling during the latest FREC round at Paul Ricard. The baking weather ensured teams’ inflatable pools got plenty of use as drivers tried to cool down between hot battles on track
During the previous two seasons, Isack Hadjar was the only Formula Regional European Championship newcomer to win in their rookie season, and you had to go back to 2020 to find someone with no category experience winning as a FREC rookie.
Off the back of that, it was expected that third-year driver Kas Haverkort and series sophomore Tim Tramnitz would set the pace in 2023. But as the paddock headed into the summer break, it was FREC rookies Andrea Kimi Antonelli and Martinius Stenshorne who had the most to smile about. Formula Scout got the thoughts of the main protagonists before the beach beckoned.
Having started this year with a full and title-winning campaign in FRegional Middle East after steppig up from Formula 4, Antonelli is not included in FREC’s rookie classification. He acknowledges that while FRME undoubtedly helped him with adapting, the differences to FREC are still noticeable.
“I think FRME helped a bit the rookies to make experience and to learn a bit more the car, even though, I have to say, it was quite a lot different when I came back to Europe,” he said, pointing out the different engine and tyres used by the two series.
After suffering a tough start to life in FREC at Imola, and then being robbed of a potential win by further technical issues at the Hungaroring, victories in each of the last three rounds has now propelled him into the championship lead.
“Of course, it’s a great feeling [to lead],” he told Formula Scout after winning the last race at Paul Ricard. “It’s really important for me and it’s going to be hard because our opponents are really strong but it’s going to be an interesting end to the season.”
The foundations for victory were laid with a sensational pole lap, as unusually the first qualifying group on track was faster.
FREC’s outright rookie winners
2019 Enzo Fittipaldi (2 wins), Olli Caldwell (1 win)
2020 Gianluca Petecof (4 wins), Arthurc Leclerc (6 wins)
2023 Alessandro Giusti (1 win)
FREC’s rookie winners with FRegional experience
2020 Oliver Rasmussen (6 wins), Patrik Pasma (4 wins)
2021 Isack Hadjar (2 wins)
2023 Andrea Kimi Antonelli (3 wins), Martinius Stenshorne (4 wins), Rafael Camara (1 win)
Most wins in FREC’s rookie classification
14 Frederik Vesti 10 Stenshorne
8 Leclerc & Hadjar 7 Petecof & Rasmussen 6 Gabriele Mini 5 Sebastian Montoya
4 David Schumacher & Tim Tramnitz 3 Fittipaldi, Gabriel Bortoleto & Joshua Dufek
Antonelli himself felt he could have gone faster still: “It was not amazing because I did a few mistakes so it could have been better, but it was good enough for pole and I’m really happy for that.”
Paul Ricard followed the recent pattern where he and Prema have got stronger as the weekend progresses, with each of his three wins coming in the Sunday race.
“As we did in Mugello, where we also started a bit off, we worked really hard, and we improved the car a lot,” Antonelli explained.
“Yesterday, we were really struggling. In practice we had really struggled to find the balance and then we weren’t able to try the new tyres, so we really went into quali just praying, without really knowing how the car would behave.”
Expectations were inevitably high as the Mercedes-AMG Formula 1 junior stepped into 2022’s double championship-winning car, but the season didn’t get off to the anticipated start.
“It was a bit tough in the beginning, I’m not gonna lie. We had a few mechanical issues which didn’t really help.”
“In Imola it was quite frustrating because we had issues all weekend from race one, then on Sunday we didn’t even drive [at speed], we had multiple mechanical issues. Then in Hungary we had another one – we found out the problem and now it’s all good. It was always an electronic problem but different ones,” he explains.
“Every race I try to improve on driving because I have to say in the first few races I didn’t really feel comfortable with the car. I’m trying to adapt as well as I can in every track and I think we’re doing quite well,” he added with some understatement.
Prema and Antonelli are definitely not underestimating the strength of their competition.
“Other teams made a big step looking at last year and also they have really strong line-ups. We’re strong for sure because also today was proof the other teams are strong as well. They made a step so it’s going to be tight but we’re doing a good job and we’ll see what we can do. Martinius is really strong this year; he feels well with the car and he’s been really fast.”
Despite losing the championship lead to Antonelli in France, Stenshorne has undoubtedly been the revelation of the season’s first half. He has four wins so far, having stepped up to FRegional after a difficult 2022 spent in several F4 series. He mustered one podium in the United Arab Emirates and two in Italy, but did at least establish himself as Van Amersfoort Racing’s leader driver in the Italian series. Rather than spend a second year in F4 he took the decision to step up.
With VAR having already filled its three FREC seats for 2023, Stenshorne, ever-present father Martin and his management team at Nicolas Todt’s All Road Management firm negotiated a berth at R-ace GP, in hindsight an inspired decision.
The partnership began with three rounds in FRME, enough for Stenshorne to retain rookie status for FREC, and he scored four times to come 18th in the standings. His form in Europe was an immediate improvement, as he won on debut at Imola.
“So far, this season is much more than we expected but we’ll take it,” Stenshorne said modestly. “We’ll try to do the rest of the season like this as well.”
The Imola win was followed by finishing seventh and 12th in the two races at Barcelona, but he bounched back with victory at the Hungaroring to reclaim the points lead, and won again the next day before taking a podium at Spa-Francorchamps, another win and a third place at Mugello, then a third and a fourth at Paul Ricard.
He and team-mate Tramnitz have been evenly matched and “the teamwork has been really good”, says Stenshorne. “Tim as a team-mate is really fast, which helps to push me to go faster as well, which is always good.”
Unsurprisingly, the highlight of the year so far was at the Hungaroring: “A double win, you can’t get much better than that.”
Although he had a bad weekend at Barcelona, R-ace still scored big as Tramnitz won both races.
“I struggled a bit in Barcelona with some pace,” Stenshorne admits, but he was also unlucky to be caught out by red flags which “ruined one of my qualifyings”. In the one that wasn’t ruined he still qualified outside the top 10, but everywhere else “the speed has been good”.
One of Stenshorne’s skills this season has been the knack of pulling out a quick lap in the dying seconds of qualifying. Often, he has been outside the top five in the closing minutes and looking at a tough race before banging in a rapid time to jump to the top of his group.
Stenshorne sits six points behind Antonelli in the title fight, and in the rookie classification has a 139-point gap to Paul Ricard race one winner Alessandro Giusti down in 11th in the standings. The rookie title could be won in the next round.
“Both,” he shoots back immediately when asked whether he is focusing on wins or championship points. “I need to try to not take too many risks but still we will always try to win if it’s possible,” he says. “It’s a bit early to look at the championship so we are trying to go race-by-race and trying to maximise what we have always.”
Stenshorne and his father were spotted in the FIA Formula 3 paddock at Spa a week into their summer break, and the smiling duo said to Formula Scout they were “just looking around” as they sheltered from the rain under Campos Racing’s awning.
R-ace boss Thibaut de Merindol is understandably more than satisfied with the performance of his team and drivers in FREC, and is enjoying having two drivers fighting for wins.
“Obviously, it feels pretty good to be in such a fight with Antonelli and Prema for the championship. We are really happy to see both Tim and Martinius in this fight. It brings a lot of positive energy to everyone in the team so we don’t expect less than it will be tight at the end of the season.”
Tramnitz may be 35 points behind Stenshorne, but is 48 points clear of fourth in the standings. De Merindol knows “that Tim has the performance to be really as fast as” the top two. “He lost 15 points in Imola and something like 10 points in Hungary. Pace-wise he is really there so he can come back, I am sure.”
After taking the teams’ title in 2021, R-ace struggled to match the pace in the early part of 2022 as they got to grips with FREC’s new softer tyres. But “since mid-season last year we made a huge improvement and I think we are on the same path [now]”. R-ace leads the 2023 standing by 24 points over Prema, with six wins to their four.
“The teams’ [championship] is still very tight and it can go even faster with three cars, so we don’t have any break in the team ranking to Prema,” said de Merindol, but admitted his team is relaxed.
“It’s a positive mid-season break. We all get re-energised with the summer break and come back passionate at the Red Bull Ring.”
After spending some time with his family sailing off Corsica (“no engine, no noise, no speed”), de Merindol explained that R-ace will soon be back at a track. “We have a few starts during the summer to test some drivers for next year. It’s an important period for us to prepare next year but we’ll do our best as usual.”
Antonelli has delivered almost 60% of Prema’s points, but team-mate Rafael Camara has contributed a win and two other podiums. He took six podiums to come third in the FRME points as a rookie with the Prema-supported Mumbai Falcons team, but there have been “some ups and downs” in FREC since – despite quickly getting to grips with the differences in the car – and he sits fifth in the standings.
“Sometimes we are missing a bit. You need to be really focused on the quali because otherwise it’s a bit difficult to gain the positions back in the race, because the category itself is a bit difficult to pass.”
Nevertheless, the quietly-spoken Ferrari junior believes, “we were always doing some good progress, even if we were losing; we always had something to take from the weekend”.
While he admits that “we still struggle” to become a title threat, “when everything is good, I think we are fighting for the win, so we should just keep calm and for sure we can do some good results before the end of the season”.
He and the team “are pretty confident”, and aside from heading back to his home in Brazil, Camara wants to use the summer break “to reset and to get back to where we want to be, at the top”.
With four rounds remaining, Antonelli is optimistic about the circuits ahead. “Hopefully we can keep the good mood. I personally really like Hockenheim and Zandvoort so hopefully I can have a good time there and even Monza and Red Bull Ring were nice to me last year,” he says.
“Hopefully we can keep going like this. It’s gonna be tough because the competitors are really strong but I think we’re on a good way.”
Hockenheim will mark FREC’s first visit to Germany, but as de Merindol explains, “we know it from [Formula Renault] Eurocup – we’ve been there with this car but with Hankook tyres”. All three of the title contenders have circuit experience from ADAC F4 too.