Home Featured Formula Regional Europe season preview: the battle to succeed Antonelli

Formula Regional Europe season preview: the battle to succeed Antonelli

by Roger Gascoigne

Photo: Dutch Photo Agency

FREC’s sixth season starts this weekend at Hockenheim with the prospect of a wide-open title battle

There are eight Formula 1 juniors, with only Aston Martin’s driver development programme not represented, on the 33-car grid for the Formula Regional European Championship season opener. The field also boasts two FRegional champions and seven Formula 4 champions, but it is the prominence given to the three female drivers in the field – and particularly recent single-seater convert Doriane Pin – which is quite likely to attract the greatest level of interest from the general public.

Alpine and the ACI are justifiably proud at the agreement reached with Formula 1 to provide the next step on what its backers hope is a ladder to the top echelon of the sport for the leading graduates of the Formula 4-spec F1 Academy series.

When the FIA put its grand design for a single-seater pyramid in place, Formula Regional was intended to form the bridge between national competition (F4) and the international FIA Formula 3 and Formula 2 championships. It is therefore no surprise that 17 of the 30 drivers who came in the top 10 of last year’s French F4, Italian F4 and Spanish F4 championships are on the 2024 FREC grid. Two others have moved into the FRegional-based Eurocup-3, and two have stepped up to F3.

FREC is undoubtedly facing stronger competition in the gap between F3 and F4, with GB3 in Britain going from strength-to-strength, while Eurocup-3 looks to build a cost-effective alternative on the continent.

Though aware of the alternatives available to drivers, the ACI and Alpine believe that “the growing number of drivers who are joining the series and the increasing interest of teams are clear signs that the direction we have taken since the launch of the series in 2021 has been successful”.

“Evolution is part of our nature, and even though competition has become more intense over the years, it has only strengthened our determination to constantly improve,” the promoters told Formula Scout.

Photo: FRECA

Nevertheless, rising costs and increased competition for top drivers has led to Arden and Monolite Racing dropping out of FREC in recent weeks. Both proved capable of challenging at the front on occasion in the past but were never title contenders.

In their place, Iron Lynx’s female-led Iron Dames satellite will expand into single-seaters and run reigning F1 Academy champion Marta Garcia and her possible successor Doriane Pin, a Mercedes-AMG F1 junior.

The grid should match or exceed 2023’s average of 26.6 cars per race, and given how competitive the field looks there could be improved racing if there’s less potential for midfield and backmarker incidents.

The loss of Arden, and the departure of Tom Lebbon (as well as Lorenzo Fluxa and Charlie Wurz, both with British mothers), leaves just Anglo-Pole Roman Bilinski to fly the British flag. And, sadly, there is again no British round either.

FREC’s calendar retains the same venues as 2023, although the order has been thoroughly shuffled. Hockenheim hosted the 2023 finale but opens the season this time, with Imola being moved from its traditional season-opening slot to September.

Losing the F1 support round in Monaco is still felt keenly, Arden citing it as a factor in its decision to withdraw, and there’s no other street circuits that FREC looks likely to race at in the future. Its promoters told Formula Scout that although “street circuits are crucial for every driver’s career, currently, there are no ongoing negotiations concerning the street circuit like Pau”. However, they “do not rule out the possibility” of “returning to a similar type of track in the future”.


Who are the key names to look out for in 2024?

Two of the undoubted titles favourites are sophomore Rafael Camara and rookie Tuukka Taponen, both Ferrari juniors.

Photo: FRECA

Camara showed strong pace on occasions in 2023 and is one of only two FREC race-winners on this year’s grid. The Brazilian has spent his junior career to-date in the shadow of Prema team-mate Andrea Kimi Antonelli. Now is his chance to blossom and to underline his obvious potential as Antonelli’s romp to the 2023 FREC title (after beating Camara to two F4 titles in 2022) earned him a step up to Formula 2 for 2024 so they are no longer up against each other. The fact that Camara was rarely far adrift of his team-mate marks him out as a driver to watch.

Taponen has switched from Prema, with whom he had a frustrating year in F4, to R-ace GP. The French squad was pipped to the 2023 teams’ title by Prema at the final race but with Martinius Stenshorne and Tim Tramnitz often had the edge on its chief rival.

Though this is the Finn’s first season in FREC, Taponen already has a FRegional title having dominated the Middle East championship with R-ace this winter, taking five wins. In the process he not only beat many of his rivals for the upcoming season but also FREC’s 2023 runner-up Stenshorne.

But success in the Middle East does not always translate to honours in Europe as Taponen discovered last year when he was F4 United Arab Emirates runner-up behind James Wharton but fifth in the two European F4 series he contested.

Both Prema and R-ace have the experience and the driver line-ups to repeat their 2023 title fight.

Prema fields two rookies alongside Camara, McLaren junior and Euro 4 champion Ugo Ugochukwu and former Ferrari junior Wharton. Both can be expected to challenge for the title after racing in FRME for category experience.

Wharton has struggled to put it together consistently so far in single-seaters and will be looking to prosper outside the Ferrari umbrella, and like the lanky Ugochukwu is making outings in GB3 alongside FREC.

Photo: Dutch Photo Agency

R-ace has signed Red Bull junior Enzo Deligny and the underrated Zachary David. Deligny graduates from Spanish F4 where he was fourth in the standings but his season ended badly with a disqualification for reckless driving and ignoring a penalty.

Deligny has less experience of FREC’s Tatuus T-318 car than Taponen having opted for F4 UAE in the winter but should come on strongly during the season under the tutelage of team boss Thibaut de Merindol.

David, who bears allegiance to both the Philippines and Malta, was quietly impressive in 2023, coming seventh in Ialian F4.

However, last year’s top two teams will not have it their own way with pre-season testing demonstrating the speed of their challengers. A resurgent Van Amersfoort Racing topped the times, and also completed the most mileage pre-season.

Despite two victories from Kas Haverkort, VAR finished well adrift of the top two in last year’s standings. Having gone into that season with the very experienced line-up of Haverkort and Joshua Dufek, VAR has now opted for three rookies.

Brando Badoer, son of ex-F1 driver Luca, was one of the last drivers on the grid to be announced and had been linked to other teams before signing with VAR. It is his third year with the Dutch squad, the first two resulting in nine F4 podiums (being unfortunate not to win in Italian F4) and the third having already produced two three podiums in FRME.

Badoer is seven months into a year-long observation by McLaren as an ‘optioned driver’, meaning he could become one of its juniors in October, and is the likely frontrunner in VAR’s line-up, at least initially. He needs to step up a level to win races.

Nevertheless, Badoer looked impressive in pre-season testing, on average the closest driver to the absolute pace across six days at three circuits. He was consistently doing well, being in the top five in 11 out of the 16 sessions testing entailed.

Testing, of course, proves nothing, but consistency is the key to winning championships.

Pre-season testing ‘supertimes’ [in relation to daily rather than overall test pace]

Pos Driver Team Pace
1 Brando Badoer Van Amersfoort Racing 100.189%
2 Noah Stromsted R-P-M 100.426%
3 Pedro Clerot Van Amersfoort Racing 100.457%
4 James Wharton Prema 100.485%
5 Tuukka Taponen R-ace GP 100.499%
6 Rafael Camara Prema 100.510%
7 Ugo Ugochukwu Prema 100.541%
8 Evan Giltaire ART Grand Prix 100.625%
9 Alessandro Giusti ART Grand Prix 100.641%
10 Nikita Bedrin MP Motorsport 100.643%

*Taken as percentage of fastest laptime on each day, averaged over the six days of testing

His team-mate Pedro Clerot started the 2023 Spanish F4 season with two wins and a second place at Spa-Francorchamps, but never saw the podium again after that. He is another highly-rated Brazilian, the inaugural champion of his home country’s F4 championship in 2022, and should give Badoer a hard fight while benefitting from the experience of VAR’s crew.

Clerot actually recorded the highest number of laps – 406 – of any driver in pre-season testing, so should be well-prepared.

Ivan Domingues showed flashes of pace in F4 before making his FREC debut with VAR at the end of 2023. He has not quite been able to match his team-mates in testing but may be capable of solid points finishes.

One of the most exciting line-ups on the grid is that of Sainteloc Racing, the ambitious French squad embarking on its second year in FREC and only its third in single-seaters.

An all-rookie line up of Spanish F4 champion Theophile Nael, French F4 runner-up Enzo Peugeot and F4 race-winner Matteo de Palo has the underlying speed to make up for the lack of experience.

Nael in particular is an extremely promising prospect and can be expected to challenge for victories at the least. He and de Palo have been very equally-matched in pre-season testing and de Palo could definitely spring a surprise. Peugeot has, however, been a little off the pace but is another who should score regularly.

Fellow French outfit ART Grand Prix is looking to bounce back from a difficult 2023. Apart from a successful – if slightly fortunate – weekend at Zandvoort, there were no podiums. A sharp disappointment for the team which ran 2021’s dominant champion. For 2024 it boast the two most recent French F4 champions Alessandro Giusti and Evan Giltaire.

Photo: FRECA

Giusti impressed enormously in his rookie season [pictured above], taking three wins for G4 Racing. If ART GP has a winning car again, Giusti is certainly a strong contender for the title.

Giltaire is another extremely highly rated youngster. He did 2023’s last two FREC rounds as a guest driver to gain experience for 2024, and edged closer to the top of the times over the pre-season tests so should feature at the front this weekend.

ART GP is the only team taking advantage of the rule allowing a fourth car if filled by one of the top three from the 2023 F1 Academy season, in this case running championship returnee Lena Buhler. However, there is little to indicate that Buhler or her other team-mate Yaroslav Veselaho will be anything other than backmarkers.

Giusti’s former team goes into the season with what seems like a weaker line up than in 2023, although the team will continue to punch above its weight.

Kanato Le, Romain Andriolo and Jesse Carrasquedo lack experience at this level but British F4 race-winner Le and Andriolo, who came fourth in French F4, could show well on occasion.

Bilinski returns for a third season with Trident. Having shown its pace in post-season testing, the team has not been to the fore in the pre-season tests but will undoubtedly be competitive once racing begins. Like Taponen, Bilinski is already a FRegional champion having won the Oceania title over the winter.

He has looked quick but inconsistent so far in FREC, with 40 points from 40 races, but should be able to use his experience to notch up his first win and challenge at the front if Trident can recover its 2022 pace.

His team-mates will be Alpine junior Niko Lacorte and Ruiqi Liu. Lacorte had some strong performance in F4 last year but may have benefitted from another year at that level before stepping up.

Photo: Dutch Photo Agency

The Italo-Irish Race Performance Motorsport team ultimately fell short of its pre-season promise and own ambitions in 2023 as Maceo Capietto and Santiago Ramos never quite got it together in qualifying and races at the same event. And team owner Keith Donegan had plenty of reason to doubt the veracity of the saying about the luck of the Irish…

Giovanni Maschio will be looking to make a stronger impression than he was able to at Monolite, often being the cause of session-interrupting red flags, while Edgar Pierre, part of Victor Martins’ Victory Lane stable, graduates from French F4 where after showing some initial promise he gained a solitary podium in two seasons.

R-P-M is therefore pinning its hopes for a first win on Noah Stromsted, who finished sixth as a guest driver on his debut weekend with the team last year at Monza. He graduates from F4, where he was runner-up in the Danish championship but only get three podiums in the Spanish one, and is another potential race winner. Stromsted has also been at the front in pre-season testing, dominating the final day at Hockenheim to become second fastest overall on an average of all the test days combined. The Dane is definitely a driver to watch.

Nikita Bedrin is already racing in FIA Formula 3 with PHM Racing, but is also going to be in FREC with MP Motorsport this year. PHM says F3 will take priority, meaning he will miss FREC’s Spa, Hungaroring and Paul Ricard rounds. While that rules out a title challenge, wins are certainly possible as he demonstrated with the podium in his guest outing at Hockenheim last year. Hopefully success in FREC can help him rebuild his confidence which suffered in his trying rookie F3 season.

His team-mates are both equally capable of challenging at the front if MP can deliver consistently. Giancarlo Fisichella’s protege Valerio Rinicella came third in Spanish F4, while Nikhil Bohra was Trident’s best-placed FREC driver last year. Bohra lost his way after an impressive performance in the opening round, although came strong again at the end of the season.

KIC Motorsport was the last to announce its drivers for 2024, and will co-operate with Australian team Evans GP to run Costa Toparis and relatively unknown Vietnamese racer Alex Sawer. Thailand’s Nandhavud Bhirombhakdi completes the Finnish team’s Asian-Pacific line-up.

Photo: Iron Dames

And last but not least, what can the Iron Dames achieve on their entry to single-seater racing? Of course, it is not actually a novice team, being part of the Iron Lynx/DC Racing Solutions family which includes junior powerhouse Prema. The team will, however, be run separately from the Prema squad.

In some ways, Marta Garcia carries the hopes of F1 and its F1 Academy project. Success for Garcia will provide the basis for the rapid growth of the series and the engagement of female drivers on the bottom rungs of the junior ladder. But if she struggles to match at least the pace of the midfield runners, given she has already done 20 FRegional races in W Series and won one of them, it may prompt more critical discussion of the false hopes generated by women-only championships. But with her experience she can be expected to run strongly once she gets acclimatised to the more competitive environment.

By the end of the season, Doriane Pin will almost certainly be the best-known name on the FREC grid, if she isn’t already. Her rise to single-seater prominence has been rapid since she debuted in F4 five-and-a-half months ago.

She has sampled three different F4 championships already, winning in each of them, and as reported by Formula Scout she was entrusted with the on-track testing of FREC’s new steering update kit so is not entirely new to FRegional.

While Iron Dames have confirmed that Pin’s FREC campaign will take priority over the World Endurance Championship, she may still have to miss the Hungaroring round which clashes with F1 Academy’s races at Barcelona.

With Mercedes and Iron Dames behind her, she will immediately be in the spotlight and expectations will be inevitably high, perhaps unreasonably so. Having missed the first two tests she will be on a steep learning curve.

A series aiming to continue raising its profile: both at the track and online

FREC’s promoters will be hoping to build on the rapid growth in media coverage it has enjoyed. The series attracts a predominantly young audience, with a third of YouTube viewers aged under 24.

Photos: Diedrick van der Laan / Dutch Photo Agency

“Our championship has always been popular among a young audience, largely due to the age of the drivers who typically average between 16 and 17 years old,” the championship organisers told Formula Scout. “The atmosphere in our paddock is quite youthful, but it also attracts a significant number of older fans who are drawn to the series because of the highly competitive track sessions.”

Interestingly, while female fans account for 27% of those interacting via Instagram, this falls to only 12% for those watching races and highlights on YouTube. However, both those figures rose significantly in 2023 compared to the previous year.

With Antonelli using FREC as a springboard to F2 and potentially F1, has FREC’s place in the pyramid been strengthened? The ACI and Alpine are in no doubt that “the success of Antonelli is a testament to the educational effectiveness of the series, both technically and in terms of sportsmanship”.

“[FREC] is a racing series that allows drivers to enhance their skills. They get the chance to spend a lot of time behind the wheel, which is crucial for their growth and progress.”

With half the grid capable of scoring wins, and with almost all the top drivers from the continental European F4 scene coming together for the first time, this is the year for FREC to truly come of age.

2024 FREC entries

Team Driver Country 2023 (’24)
Prema Rafael Camara Brazil 5th in FREC, 3rd in FRME (3rd in FRME)
Ugo Ugochukwu USA Euro 4 champion, 2nd in Italian F4, 3rd in F4 UAE (currently 2nd in GB3, 7th in FRME)
James Wharton Australia F4 UAE champion, 2nd in Euro 4, 4th in Italian F4 (6th in FRME)
ART Grand Prix Alessandro Giusti France 6th in FREC
Evan Giltaire France NC in FREC, French F4 champion
Lena Buhler Switzerland 2nd in F1 Academy, 33rd in F4 UAE
Yaroslav Veselaho Ukraine 21st in French F4 (33rd in FRME)
MP Motorsport Nikhil Bohra India 9th in FRME, 12th in FREC (12th in FRME)
Nikita Bedrin 18th in FIA F3 Championship, 8th in FRME, NC in FREC (currently 19th in FIA F3, 5th in F4 UAE)
Valerio Rinicella Italy 3rd in Spanish F4, 4th in F4 UAE (17th in FRME)
Trident Roman Bilinski Poland 21st in FREC (FRegional Oceania champion)
Niko Lacorte Italy 9th in Euro 4 & Italian F4, 24th in F4 UAE (10th in FRegional Oceania)
Ruiqi Liu China 4th in Chinese F4 & FWinter Series, 14th in Euro 4, 30th in Italian F4 (26th in FRME)
Race Performance Motorsport Giovanni Maschio Italy 30th in FRME, 34th in FREC (21st in FRME)
Noah Stromsted Denmark NC in FREC, 7th in Spanish F4, 9th in F4 UAE (30th in FRME)
Edgar Pierre France 9th in French F4 (32nd in FRME)
G4 Racing Jesse Carrasquedo Jr Mexico 22nd in Eurocup-3, 42nd in FREC, 18th in F4 UAE, 19th in Spanish F4, 25th in Italian F4 (25th in FRME)
Romain Andriolo France 4th in French F4
Kanato Le Japan 7th in British F4, 17th in F4 UAE (22nd in FRME)
Van Amersfoort Racing Ivan Domingues Portugal NC in FREC, 11th in Euro 4 & Italian F4
Brando Badoer Italy 6th in Euro 4, Italian F4 & F4 UAE (10th in FRME)
Pedro Clerot Brazil 6th in Spanish F4, 13th in F4 UAE (28th in FRME)
R-ace GP Zachary David Malta 5th in FWinter Series, 7th in Euro 4 & Italian F4, 8th in F4 UAE (4th in FRME)
Enzo Deligny France 4th in Spanish F4, 19th in Euro 4, 22nd in Italian F4 (8th in F4 UAE)
Tuukka Taponen Finland 2nd in F4 UAE, 5th in Euro 4 & Italian F4 (FRME champion)
Sainteloc Racing Matteo De Palo Italy 5th in Spanish F4, 6th in FWinter Series, 20th in Italian F4, 25th in British F4 (18th in FRME)
Theophile Nael France Spanish F4 champion, 11th in F4 UAE (11th in FRME)
Enzo Peugeot France 2nd in French F4 (24th in FRME)
KIC Motorsport Nandhavud Bhirombhakdi Thailand 14th in F4 CEZ, 21st in Euro 4 & Italian F4, 31st in F4 UAE
Alex Sawer Vietnam 5th in Indian F4, Senior karting
Costa Toparis Australia 15th in GB3 (14th in FRME)
Iron Dames Marta Garcia Spain F1 Academy champion
Doriane Pin France 2nd in F4 SEA, 9th in WEC – LMP2 class (currently 2nd in F1 Academy, 10th in F4 UAE, currently 11th in WEC – GT3 class)