Home Featured FREC review: Consistency key for Beganovic as Prema returns to top

FREC review: Consistency key for Beganovic as Prema returns to top

by Roger Gascoigne

Photos: FRECA / Dutch Photo Agency

The heavyweights were expected to dominate FREC’s second post-merger season, but in the end a combination of consistency, outright pace and good fortune made Dino Beganovic a deserved champion

Three wins and five second places in the first eight races fired Beganovic into an immediate championship lead which he never let slip. Though he only scored one more victory, he was seldom out of the points, with his only real off-weekend coming at Barcelona in the penultimate round.

There was to be no repetition of Gregoire Saucy’s 2021 championship domination. Last year’s runner-up Hadrien David and third-placed Paul Aron stayed with the teams that had taken them to success in 2021, R-ace GP and Prema, for their third years in FRegional, while Gabriele Mini slotted into Saucy’s role of leader at ART Grand Prix.

The battle between these four swayed to and fro through the year, but, as his rivals tripped or saw their form fluctuate, Beganovic was always a factor and thoroughly deserved his title. As did Prema which was the team to beat in most places.

The championship itself continued to prosper following its merger with the Formula Renault Eurocup at the start of 2021. This season it boasted stronger fields, both in quantity and quality, better racing and a more competitive battle at the front.

Two new teams, reigning FIA F3 champion Trident and Italo-Irish team Race Performance Motorsport, joined, replacing JD Motorsport and DR Formula respectively, and undoubtedly increased the professionalism of the championship. There were more than 30 entries at each event with Monza and Monaco attracting a season high of 37.

For this season, FREC introduced a push-to-pass system in an attempt to rectify one of the series’ acknowledged deficiencies, a lack of overtaking. With DRS now the standard “overtaking aide” in single-seaters, the move to an alternative approach, more usually associated with IndyCar, provided an additional strategic element.

Limited to five uses per race, each for a maximum of 15 seconds, P2P undoubtedly result in more on-track passes although, unlike with DRS, it did give the leading driver the chance to react.

“The thing is, you need to be really careful with it,” Mini explained to Formula Scout. “Because as soon as you try to defend from someone it is done because you cannot attack anymore. We have only five and if you use two for example to defend, then you have only three. That means the car in front still has four or five.

“So, it’s really not easy,” he added. “You need to pay attention to the strategy, do it well, hope the car works so you can stay close to the car in front for long.”

Beganovic agreed that: “It does make a difference but it’s still really, really hard to overtake. You need to get in the range and when you’re in the range the guy ahead can also use it, so in the end it is plus-minus, there is nothing.”

Despite the extra ingredient injected to add some spice, all but four races were won on track by the polesitter. Nevertheless, this in itself was a huge improvement on 2021 where only Beganovic’s elimination by team-mate David Vidales at Monza prevented a 100% run of pole-to-victory wins over the season.

There is something refreshing about the lack of reversed grids and DRS in FREC, but there is still work to do to improve the racing at the front of the field further.

The introduction of new softer Pirelli tyres designed to increase grip levels caught out some of the teams, with Prema appearing to have stolen an advantage here initially. ART GP’s president Sebastian Philippe attributed much of the swing in form between teams to the tyres.

“The window where the tyre is working is very narrow,” he told Formula Scout. “It’s very easy to get out of this window and when you get out of this window it’s not always easy to understand why.

“You can clearly see in the paddock that there are a lot of cars up and down depending on track conditions and the weather changed quite a lot. It’s really fine-tuning but makes a lot of difference at the end.”

In the midfield, the racing was frantic and frenetic. The pack was quite literally packed, ensuring that every tiny mistake was punished. The number of young drivers disputing limited track space meant that safety cars and red flags were inevitable, and although the odd safety car to bunch up the field can liven up even the dullest race, too many simply spoil the rhythm and the entertainment.

So the continued premium on overtaking and occasionally wild midfield shenanigans meant a good qualifying position was still essential.

Faced with lengthy entry lists, FREC introduced split-session qualifying, previously used only at Monaco, at all races with the exception of the first race at Barcelona where morning fog resulted in just a single session for all cars.

Split into two groups according to championship positions, pole went to the fastest driver overall with the rest of that group lining up behind the poleman in third, fifth and so on. The other side of the grid went to the slower group, again in session order. Except for Monaco, each race continued to have its own separate qualifying session.

The gaps were so miniscule that a few tenths could make the difference between pole and row 10, and 24 drivers were within 1% of the average pole position pace over the full season.

Beganovic’s ability to nail a strong qualifying lap under pressure was key, as he acknowledged. “When it comes to crucial moments like setting a clean lap in qualifying or avoiding incidents in races, especially like Monaco when there’s a red flag and you get two laps, or in Paul Ricard you get one lap and you have to push that lap, you have to do a good job, to be on the limit but not beyond.”

He was on average the fastest driver in qualifying, averaging just 0.186% off pole over 20 sessions, and importantly never started from lower than the sixth row.

2022’s fastest qualifiers (average % gap to pole position time)

Pos Driver Team Pace in relation to pole average
1 Dino Beganovic Prema 100.189%
2 Paul Aron Prema 100.229%*
3 Gabriele Mini ART GP 100.254%
4 Hadrien David R-ace GP 100.332%
5 Pierre-Louis Chovet R-P-M 100.398%
6 Gabriel Bortoleto R-ace GP 100.412%
7 Kas Haverkort VAR 100.440%
8 Michael Belov MP Motorsport 100.474%
9 Sebastian Montoya Prema 100.542%
10 Tim Tramnitz Trident 100.544%
* excludes Monaco

Added to his qualifying pace, he made no costly mistakes, largely stayed out of trouble and was fortunate to avoid any major mechanical issues. In the races, he made few memorable overtakes, largely because he was never in the position of needing to.

At the series’ blue riband event Monaco, where he had struggled in his rookie year, he snatched pole in the final seconds from Mini and managed the gap to David to win in front of his Ferrari backers, earning him a trip to the Formula 1 pits as a reward.

As he explained to Formula Scout at Zandvoort, there was no magic bullet behind his success, merely hard work from driver, team and the Ferrari Driver Academy. He felt that in his first season in FEC he had maybe “wanted too much”.

After clinching the title, Beganovic explained that he had been able to eliminate, “all those small mistakes that I was doing last year and which are not supposed to be done in this championship … and that’s why we came out on top”.

His Prema team boss Rene Rosin believes: “Dino grew up massively in his mind this year. He did a big step. We know Dino’s history: he started with us in Formula 4, he was always competitive, but he was never able to put everything together.

“This year he really maximised all the potential that he has, he was absolutely incredible, and he fully deserved the championship. He did an amazing season, every race, maybe one race he was not on top of his game, but that’s part of the championship. He did a very, very good job and he’s done everything properly.”

In the end, Beganovic took the title by 58 points after the team successfully appealed against his exclusion from second place at Paul Ricard for a minor technical infringement. However, after the ACI appealed the judgement to the FIA’s International Court of Appeal it took over a month after the season’s finale at Mugello until the matter could be closed. Thankfully for the organisers, the return of the lost points made no difference to the final championship outcome.

In such a competitive field, the secret to success was in avoiding pointless weekends. Aron was arguably the fastest driver of the season, taking seven pole positions, and on his day capable of annihilating the opposition. At Zandvoort he was simply untouchable, taking the only double win of the year. But a self-inflicted calamity at Monaco, as he clouted the barrier at Casino on his first flying lap in qualifying, left him playing catch-up for the rest of the season.

Aron himself felt that he had suffered more technical issues than his team-mate, citing a front wing issue in qualifying at Monza “which compromised the whole day”, clutch problems at Paul Ricard and a broken wishbone in race one at Spa-Francorchamps.

At Paul Ricard, Aron and Beganovic had the most exciting fight for victory of the season, both utilising push-to-pass to swap the lead.

Aron failed to convert two of his poles to wins. Having been passed under yellow flags by David at Spa, he was left without the grip to fight off Gabriel Bortoleto and Beganovic, while at the Red Bull Ring his gamble on a stop from the lead to change to slick tyres backfired, potentially costing him another victory had he stayed out on wets. However, he must take his share of the blame for then colliding with team-mate Sebastian Montoya.

He bounced back to win again in Barcelona before producing another stunning display at Mugello to take pole and a dominant lights-to-flag victory in race one. But for race two, needing just a point to take second in the championship, he inexplicably qualified only eighth in his group, condemning him to a tough afternoon in the midfield.

In 24 hours, Aron suffered the disappointment of watching Beganovic take the title to the despair at losing second by a single point to Mini. As he said at that evening’s FREC awards ceremony, he had finished third in both 2021 and 2022 but the seasons and the emotions were very, very different.

For Rosin this is all part of the learning experience that FREC provides: “I knew [Paul’s] full potential is there as well. He could have arrived here fighting for the last point. Of course, Paul compromised his season in Monaco with two rounds where he didn’t score points for a silly mistake. But that’s part of the learning.”

Mini, the highest-placed rookie from 2021, remained with ART Grand Prix for an expected title challenge. He was joined initially by Mari Boya, moving from Van Amersfoort Racing, and Laurens Van Hoepen, with Esteban Masson replacing Boya from Spa onwards.

If Beganovic was the best driver of the year and Aron the fastest, then Mini was surely the best racer. Some of his moves were superb, with and without push-to-pass. He pulled off a delightful move on Bortoleto at the Hungaroring, a track “where there is only one overtaking spot, it is not simple [to overtake] but not too hard if you do a good job in the last two corners”.

Mini was the most consistent qualifier, only qualifying outside the top three in his group five times, and always within 0.5% of the pole laptime.

“Last year, we were quite clearly the top team in qualifying and then we were struggling a bit in the races sometimes,” he explained. Consequently, the team “worked quite hard” on its race pace and, according to Mini “found some good solutions”.

After a mistake behind the safety car cost him a second place at Monza, at Imola for round two he was in a class of his own, taking his maiden FREC victory in dominant fashion in race two. In race one a 10-second penalty for creeping slightly on the grid with a clutch problem cost him victory and 25 valuable points as late safety car periods meant he wasn’t able to pull out a big enough gap to be in the top 10 once the penalty was applied.

“For me, pace-wise Imola was the best weekend,” said Mini. “I lost a lot of points with something that I couldn’t really do anything about because when you burn the clutch there is not much you can do.”

In Monaco, Mini topped the times in free practice and in qualifying had appeared on course to head his qualifying group before traffic in sector three cost him any chance of improving just as Beganovic nailed his perfect pole lap. He knew the pace had been there to win but had to settle for a third and a fourth.

Another lights-to-flag triumph followed at Paul Ricard, while second and third at Zandvoort against the faster Prema trio – “we were not as strong [as them] at Zandvoort, that was pretty clear” – kept him in the title hunt.

At Spa, he lost second to a puncture, regained it when the results were taken from the lap before after a red flag and then lost it again in scrutineering due to a technical infringement. For Philippe, Spa was “clearly a team mistake” although “it was a very small mistake”.

Mini was one of the drivers who really mastered the techniques and strategies of maximising P2P, evidenced by his move on Beganovic at Zandvoort, a circuit where passes are scarce.

P2P “was the only reason why I overtook Dino at Zandvoort,” he explained.  “As soon as I understood that with the slipstream I couldn’t overtake, I started saving mine and when I was really close to Dino I was then using mine but he was using his.

“You can clearly see and understand when others are using it. Basically, as soon as I thought he had one I started using mine. The first one I used I overtook him and then I used one more to pull a gap.”

He repeated the move on Bortoleto again at Mugello, saving his P2P before unleashing it once he sensed his rival was unable to defend. However, it is hard to disagree with Bortoleto’s conclusion that on this day, Mini was simply “too fast”, whatever the strategy. Victory here gave him a fairytale end to a rollercoaster year.

Despite Mini’s runners-up trophy, overall ART GP’s season was a disappointment after the domination of 2021. And it was not helped, Philippe concedes, by “the change of driver in the middle of the season”, which cost time and gave the team “less global force to improve”.

“Normally it’s not a bad season but it’s not the one we were expecting [or] the way we want it, clearly,” admitted Philippe. “Some few times we should have score points that we didn’t and at the end of the day it’s what’s missing. Especially the second part of the year we’ve been struggling a bit more but it’s the way it is, so we have to work harder.”

The other pre-season title favourite was David, aiming to go one better than 2021 in his third year in FRegional. Lacking the funds to move up to FIA Formula 3 with friend and rival Isack Hadjar, David was expected to front the challenge of defending teams’ champion R-ace and was back in the Alpine fold as an affiliate of its academy after being dropped for 2021.

David took time to get into his stride, lacking pace at both early Italian rounds before taking victory in Monaco to reinvigorate his title bid. When he was on form, and in the mood, David could be imperious. He won convincingly in Hungary and Austria, both times from pole, and drove a beautiful race in Barcelona to charge from sixth on the grid to finish right on the tail of winner Aron.

At Zandvoort, he was penalised for activating P2P 500 metres before the start-finish line at a safety car restart, dropping him from second to 12th. While he was one of two caught out, it did seem a bizarre error for such an experienced driver. Five metres in the heat of battle maybe, but half a kilometre?

At Spa, David took a fresh engine for the races after incurring damage to the previous unit. Though he was relegated to the back of the grid for race one, in the second race and armed with fresh tyres as well as the new powerplant he was flying. He drafted past poleman Aron down the Kemmel straight to take the lead on lap one but did so after yellow flags had been waved for an incident at La Source. Following some miscommunication with race officials, David stayed out front to the finish but a subsequent penalty dropped him to second.

Even though David told Formula Scout at Zandvoort that “the championship will not change anything on my future”, his season fell short. Admittedly as a returning runner-up, he was on a hiding to nothing but there were too many weekends where he did not feature. To progress with certainty, he needed as a minimum to see off team-mate Bortoleto.

In fact, by the end of the season, Fernando Alonso-backed team-mate Bortoleto appeared to have gained the edge between them.

The Brazilian was able to match David’s pace from the start of the season, although it took a few races for R-ace to return to the front. Bortoleto claimed that he had been struggling with “quite a lot of issues during the season with the engine and problems with a lot of components in the engine so I lost a lot of points because of that”.

The team also changed Bortoleto’s engine at Spa and the difference was immediately visible. In race one he stormed through from the back of the grid to finish 14th, and inherited a maiden victory in race two thanks to David’s penalty, having passed Beganovic and Aron on track. “Finally, I think putting this new engine I could make some points for the championship and show my real potential,” he said after the race.

He finished the year on a high, taking one pole at each of the last two rounds. At Barcelona he held off David to then win, but at Mugello he simply had no answer to Mini’s speed. The two had collided in race one, pitching the Brazilian into the barriers but in race two Mini was irresistible.

Nevertheless, sixth in the championship was a strong result, earning him a promotion to FIA F3 with Trident for 2023, while David is back to his annual hunt for funds to progress.

The team’s third regular driver, Lorenzo Fluxa, started strongly with a podium in the first race at Monza but faded badly thereafter. He was seldom a match for his team-mates and will be hoping for more at Prema next season.

Fluxa’s former team, VAR, had, like Prema, struggled with the transition to Renault power in 2021. But the Dutch team was back to something like its rightful place in 2022, led by sophomore Kas Haverkort.

Haverkort is one of junior single-seaters’ “glass half full” drivers and seemed to have a ready smile at all times, even when things hadn’t gone his way. He was super consistent in the opening rounds, taking top-five finishes in all but the last round.

His maiden victory came at the Hungaroring, and he took another in the rain at the Red Bull Ring as he carefully picked his way through to the front from 14th on the grid, the only race winner of the year to start lower than fourth. A third season in FREC seems to be on the cards for him.

The other highly-fancied returnee, Michael Belov, finally had a chance to impress with a larger team in MP Motorsport after some outstanding drives in 2021 with JD Motorsport and G4 Racing. Like Fluxa, his best result came in the first round. As a Russian, travel and budget complications made competing difficulty and for Spa his seat had been taken by Boya.

After getting on top of early gearbox issues, Boya scored solid if unspectacular results at ART GP but the move to MP brought only two points finishes, although reward came with his promotion to the Dutch squad’s FIA F3 line-up for 2023.

Dilano van’t Hoff was forced to miss three rounds completely thanks to an early season shoulder injury and subsequent surgery. He returned at Spa and despite still not being fully fit took a superb third at Barcelona.

Arden’s Eduardo ‘Dudu’ Barrichello finally demonstrated some of his potential during the second half of the year. The Brazilian felt that he had “progressed a lot and learned a lot” during the year. The team hit form late in the season, with Barrichello making the podium for the first time at Spa and the front row at the Red Bull Ring.

He called the season’s second half “a bit better” as “we got some good results, not very, very good but they were nice enough and a podium was very nice as well”.

New team owner Keith Donegan ended up driving for his own R-P-M outfit for five rounds, until Owen Tangavelou joined. Pietro Delli Guanti drove the team’s second car until Spa, and thereafter Pierre-Louis Chovet netted the team’s first two podiums but as a points-ineligible guest driver.

The battle to be FREC’s top rookie went down to the last laps of the season, with Trident’s Leonardo Fornaroli emerging victorious over VAR’s Joshua Dufek. Nine different drivers topped the rookie classification in races, although ironically Fornaroli was not one of them. Dufek took three podiums, including a Red Bull Ring double, but the positions in the rookie standings were based on the overall championship points, with Fornaroli scoring more despite lacking a podium.

He finished all 20 races, and 15 of them in the points. “I’m really happy about our performances this year,” the ecstatic Italian told Formula Scout at Mugello. “We showed really good potential both in qualifying and races.”

The three rookies at the debuting Trident team enjoyed some close battles throughout the year. Roman Bilinski took a third in Hungary although overall he was not quite able to match his team-mates’ speed.

Tim Tramnitz and Fornaroli were very evenly matched on pace, the German edging the qualifying head-to-head by just 0.02% over the season. Despite scoring four rookie wins, Tramnitz’s title chances were affected by a number of niggling technical issues, a double retirement at Zandvoort being a season low-point. The mechanical woes seemed to affect his motivation by the end of the year, and he’s expected to join R-ace GP in 2023 for a title attack.

Dufek’s form in the second half of the season was a revelation. The convivial Swiss-Austrian had scored just two points in 10 races, despite landing an elusive seat at VAR where he would be engineered by the highly successful and highly sought after Rik Kasius, but then seemed to raise his game.

Third in race one at the Mugello finale narrowed the gap to Fornaroli to just six points with one race to go. At a circuit where he excels, he then pipped Beganovic in his qualifying group to earn a front row start for the decider.

Four laps from the finish of that race, Dufek looked to have the title in the bag as he ran a comfortable fourth with Fornaroli stuck down in ninth. But a lunge from David after a late safety car restart forced him wide, dropping Dufek three places and handing the rookie title to Fornaroli.

Prema’s Sebastian Montoya had shown impressive pace in a part-time FRegional Asia campaign over the winter, taking two wins, and brought that strong form back with him to Europe. The F4 graduate shone at Monza and Imola but then his season tailed off except for when Prema dominated at Zandvoort. Whether his outstanding cameo appearance in FIA F3 at the same track or the allure of Red Bull backing distracted him, ultimately his season fell short of the expectations generated, perhaps falsely, by his results in winter.

Of the strong French rookie contingent in this year’s championship, it was some of the less celebrated names that shone most brightly. Once Tangavelou had swapped G4 for R-P-M he was outstanding, qualifying in the top five at the Red Bull Ring and Barcelona and then capping his season with a rookie win at Mugello.

Maceo Capietto starred on occasion at the small Monolite Racing team, particularly in wet conditions, and the grid’s youngest driver put his car higher than it had any right to be, often getting in among the top teams. At Mugello he qualified third in his group, ahead of Bortoleto, David and Mini. If he gets the budget for a second season, he will be one to watch.

Meanwhile for his 2021 French F4 rival Esteban Masson, it was a year to forget. Masson scored a single point, ironically in his last weekend at FA Racing. His ART GP move pre-empts a planned full season with the team in 2023.

Victor Bernier and Sami Meguetounif also moved up from F4.

Bernier ended up off the road rather too often but came good with a front row start and second place at Mugello with a new engine. “The car was really flying today,” he enthused, adding that “since Red Bull Ring it has been almost perfect”. A move from FA across to MP is now on the cards.

Meguetounif looked impressive at times, although his 16th place in the standings is slightly flattered by a surprise Spa podium.

“Many times I had the potential to do something good but some rookie mistakes in qualifying or with race and tyre management, for example, or some issue that I had with the car cost me some good results,” he confessed. “Now I have to work on putting everything together to get the results.”

The other rookie race wins went to ART GP’s Laurens van Hoepen, taking honours in both Monaco races but otherwise struggling despite this actually being his second year in FRegional, and Joshua Duerksen who stepped up from F4 with Arden.

Duerksen carried the hopes of Paraguay where he has generated a huge following for junior single-seaters. Like Dufek, Duerksen really came on strong at the end of the year, with five points finishes, including a rookie win at Barcelona, in the last six races.