In the days leading up to the British F4 Media Day, Luke Browning was not expecting to be making a series return. But a last-minute deal with Forec put him on the grid, and he would make the most of that opportunity
Lots of things expected at the start of 2020 wouldn’t come to be. A round on the Silverstone International circuit was cancelled as the season was condensed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Dutch driver Marijn Kremers didn’t take up his seat with Carlin and competed in the French Formula 4 championship instead. A sophomore campaign by Roberto Faria came to an early end as he opted to focus on BRDC British Formula 3.
But one thing that 2020 was never going to take away was the competitive nature of the entire field.
With Luke Browning added to the mix days before the pre-season Media Day test – and not long before the scheduled start of the season – the 2020 British F4 championship looked to be the most competitive since the 2016 five-way fight between Sennan Fielding and the Carlin quartet.
Zak O’Sullivan was an early favourite. The Ginetta Junior graduate had finished second in only his first season in car racing, taking the fight to eventual champion James Hedley. Now with regular title winner Carlin, he looked a safe bet for the title.
O’Sullivan’s Ginetta rival Hedley was expected to continue their 2019 battle into single-seaters. Hedley was aiming to do something nobody has so far achieved – take back to back Ginetta Junior and British F4 titles. Having come close to the title on multiple occasions, it was possible JHR Developments would have the driver to do it this year.
The inaugural F4 Scholarship winner Casper Stevenson was also one to watch. Another Ginetta graduate, he was yet to take the top step of the podium, but he had already convinced Double R Racing and then Argenti Motorsport he was a race-winner in the making.
Added to that, Hedley’s team-mate Abbi Pulling and Arden returnee Alex Connor also couldn’t be ruled out.
Then Browning was announced.
Browning had been a thorn in Zane Maloney’s side throughout the 2019 season. He may not have been the one challenging for the overall title by the end of the season, but he was one Maloney often found himself battling with on track. A lack of consistency, a tendency to push the limits just a little too far, and the lack of a team-mate cost Browning in 2019. With a learning year under his belt and the experience of Fortec behind him, it was unlikely the same would be the case in 2020.
From the off the early championship expectations seemed to be proven right. Connor, O’Sullivan, and Hedley all took victories at Donington Park, while Browning took a pair of second-place finishes. It wasn’t a seamless weekend for Browning. An off-track excursion in race two cost him twice – once when he initially lost positions with the off and again when he was forced to pit to clear grass. But it was a sign of intent.
As the season wore on, the title fight looked more and more like a two-horse race on paper. A hat-trick of wins for Browning at Oulton Park – the first non-Carlin driver to take a weekend triple win – put him at the top of the points ahead of O’Sullivan.
However, it was far from over for the likes of Stevenson, Connor, and Hedley. Not only were strong results to come for each driver later in the season, but the nature of an F4 weekend meant Browning and O’Sullivan spent every round battling them. All it would take was being in the wrong place at the wrong time and a title campaign could be seriously derailed.
Though not fighting for the championship, the chance of Pulling’s first win in F4 was knocked away through no fault of her own when she started on the front row of the grid alongside Arden’s Roman Bilinski at Knockhill. Pulling had taken one podium at this point and bad luck had denied her at least one more. Contact between Pulling and Bilinski on the opening lap then wiped Pulling out of the race. She bounced back to score a second place at Thruxton, and would start on the front row of the grid again on merit, but the trip to Scotland was a round of “could have beens” for Pulling.
In that respect, it wasn’t only being beaten by the other that Browning and O’Sullivan had to look out for. Being on a grid with drivers still getting used to handling F4 cars could have caused retirements through no fault of their own – as Browning proved to Maloney in 2019.
For the most part, though, the pair avoided any such incidents.
The second half of the season wasn’t quite as spectacular for Browning. Hedley became the second driver of the season to complete a hat-trick of victories at Thruxton. Stevenson finally got the monkey off his back with his first car racing victory at Silverstone. And both Stevenson and O’Sullivan were racking up the podium finishes.
Given British F4’s history, all the way to Lando Norris’s title in the inaugural 2015 season, it would be forgiven for anybody at this point to think O’Sullivan would walk away with the title. Carlin has taken the drivers’ championship in every year the team has competed, and O’Sullivan was consistently in the top three. There were a couple of hiccups during the year – an apparent mechanical issue at Brands Hatch towards the start of the year took him out of the race and problems at Thruxton left him with a points-less finish there – but overall it looked like he would have a strong end to 2020.
However, Browning really was Mr Consistent. When the field arrived at Brands Hatch for the season finale, he hadn’t finished lower than sixth since the season opener. O’Sullivan and Stevenson had been whittling away his championship advantage, but not at the rate one would expect when looking at their podium tally.
Browning and O’Sullivan came into Brands level on points. Pole position meant it was advantage Browning heading into race one, but only just. The pair were inseparable in race one, finishing first and second with only 0.5s between them.
Things swung the other way in the reversed-grid race two. Both climbed up through the order during the frantic race but O’Sullivan managed to stay ahead of his title rival. They finished second and third, but the result wouldn’t last as race officials deemed O’Sullivan had overtaken team-mate Christian Mansell during yellow flags. He dropped back to fourth.
It was all or nothing in the dramatic final race of the season.
Oil on track very nearly destroyed Browning’s championship hopes. The Fortec driver span and dropped to the back of the field, while O’Sullivan continued on and soon regained the race lead. It was a simple enough five minutes for O’Sullivan. If he could keep the car on track and take the win, he would surely take the title.
But the heavens opened not long before the 10 minute mark, and officials made the quick decision to red flag the race. It would not be restarted.
In a heart-breaking scene, O’Sullivan celebrated with Mansell. The late-season charge appeared to have paid off. But then news reached the Carlin duo that only half points were awarded for the race. He was four points behind Browning.
Browning’s title victory was a sign of his growth as a driver. In 2019, it was joked he could only win a race if he started from the back of the grid. In 2020, he had the entire package. The ability to win from the front or climb up through the order. Continuing that progression will be his next challenge, but one he should be able to take on.
There’s also little doubt O’Sullivan won’t be a star of the future. While he’ll no doubt be disappointed, the pace and talent he’s shown all season will prove valuable going forward.
Outside the championship fight, Pulling laid foundations for a strong title challenge should she return for 2021. She was matching team-mate Hedley by the end of the season with a consistency that came close to rivalling Browning.
Rookie class champion Mansell would also be one to watch should he make a return for 2021. Mansell’s decision to race in Britain came late in the winter, after the Australian F4 championship was cancelled. He had the same energy as Browning in his maiden season, an exciting and fun driver, though he managed to stay out of trouble on track. Despite his inexperience, he worked well with O’Sullivan. By the end of the year he was regularly fighting for podiums and stood out as one of the most exciting drivers outside the championship fight.
2020 could have been a bad year for British F4. With travel restrictions in place, COVID-19 rules changing every month, and losing the crowds of fans that regularly attend British Touring Car races, the championship risked losing some of its appeal. But the on-track racing, and the work of everyone behind the scenes to get it to the fans, meant it was another classic year.
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