Home Featured FREC season review: Antonelli shines through tragedy

FREC season review: Antonelli shines through tragedy

by Roger Gascoigne

Photos: Diederik van der Laan & Sebastiaan Rozendaal / DPPA

Two events will forever mark the 2023 FREC season: Andrea Kimi Antonelli’s title charge which launched him straight into a F2 berth and the tragic accident at Spa-Francorchamps which took the life of Dilano van’t Hoff

The Formula Regional European Championship could boast full grids and a season-long battle for the teams’ title in 2023. To widespread disappointment, the calendar was deprived of its Monaco Grand Prix support races, although the replacement round at Hockenheim produced some of the best racing of the year.

Expectations of Mercedes-AMG Formula 1 junior Andrea Kimi Antonelli had been high coming into the season on the back of two Formula 4 titles in 2022 and the Formula Regional Middle East title at the start of 2023.

His main competition was expected to come from series returnees Tim Tramnitz, who switched from Trident to R-ace GP, and Kas Haverkort, who remained with Van Amersfoort Racing for his third season in FREC. However it was Tramnitz’s rookie team-mate Martinius Stenshorne who took the fight to Antonelli from the opening race.

Having opted to step up to FREC rather than stay in F4, and with VAR having already filled its seats, Stenshorne’s management team slotted him in at R-ace in what proved to be an inspired move.

Stenshorne took a stunning victory in the Imola season opener, following it up with a second place in race two as Antonelli was hit by mechanical issues. While the Norwegian led Haverkort by eight points, Antonelli trailed by 25.

Tramnitz enjoyed his best weekend of the year in round two at Barcelona, winning both races to propel him into the points lead. But when Stenshorne repeated the feat next time out at the Hungaroring he moved back to the top of the standings.

Antonelli had electrical issues at Imola, and lost the lead in Hungary with similar but unrelated problems. Team-mate Rafael Camara was the first Prema driver to win, doing so in race one at Spa-Francorchamps. But it was overshadowed the next day as tragedy struck. In awful conditions and zero visibility a multi-car crash on the Kemmel Straight took Dilano van’t Hoff’s life.

The decision by race officials to restart in the conditions was strongly debated at the time and, with the benefit of hindsight, clearly seems to have been a grave error. Antonelli ultimately took victory in a race everybody wanted to forget as quickly as possible, and he would go on to dedicate his title to the memory of van’t Hoff.

Stenshorne and Antonelli took a win apiece in Mugello a week later but nobody was in the mood to celebrate in the sombre post-Spa atmosphere.

MP Motorsport understandably decided to miss the event in order to deal with the emotional strain and to provide comfort to van’t Hoff’s family through their driver’s funeral. When the team returned at Paul Ricard, the cars and the awning paid tribute to van’t Hoff, and the way the team conducted itself earned huge respect across the paddock.

By mid-season, Antonelli was getting the upper hand and the “turning point” came in round six of 10 at Paul Ricard. “Heading into the summer break with the lead of the championship was really important for me” he said at season end.

Thereafter, he was able to keep “the momentum going”, extending his advantage with a fourth an a third at the Red Bull Ring. He was helped by Stenshorne losing a podium for retaking positions lost when he stalled on the formation lap.

At Monza, somewhat bizarrely, Antonelli lost the race he won and won the race he lost! Over-eager use of push-to-pass cost him his on-track victory in race one but he then inherited a win when race two was red-flagged immediately after he had been overtaken by Ferrari junior Camara.

Nevertheless, he still managed to extend his lead over Stenshorne, giving him a 43-point lead going to Zandvoort for the penultimate round. With the title in sight, even Antonelli admitted subsequently to feeling the pressure.

Despite not feeling fully comfortable with the car, he finished second in race one, before dominating the second race in heavy rain from eighth on the grid.

Photo: Dutch Photo Agency

As others struggled to stay on track, Antonelli was a class apart to win the race and the title. With some understatement he said that “the race was not easy, because conditions were quite difficult, but I think we handled everything really well”.

Looking back on the year, an emotional but relieved Antonelli said: “It’s been a long season, we fought really hard. We didn’t have the best start, but we came back really strong, and this is thanks to my team because we worked really hard, and we did an amazing job.”

Mercedes and Prema have done an excellent job to give Antonelli a solid grounding and to shield him from some of the attention that he attracts, particularly once rumours of his move to Formula 2 began to circulate.

There were weekends such as Paul Ricard and Zandvoort where Prema struggled to find car balance at the start of the weekend. But drivers and engineers worked hard to produce a race-winning car by Sunday’s race.

Antonelli had to fight hard for the title. “Consistency in all conditions was really key. During all the weekends, trying to get as many points as possible. Even when we were lacking a bit on pace, I was just trying to get as many points as possible and that was really important because I think consistency was my strong point,” he commented.

Antonelli is clearly an exceptional talent – four championship titles in two years are no fluke – and Mercedes obviously believes it has uncovered a diamond. The step directly to F2 is a huge one, with a giant leap in performance alongside a drastic reduction in track time.

While Prema ultimately retained the teams’ title in FREC, a resurgent R-ace pushed them all the way, with Antonelli’s last lap move for sixth in the final race at Hockenheim gaining the extra two points required to snatch the title.

The French team actually edged their rivals by eight victories to seven, with Stenshorne and Tramnitz proving a very well-matched pairing.

Photo: Dutch Photo Agency

Stenshorne was undoubtedly the revelation of the season, after a promising but winless season in F4 last year as a single-seater rookie. Doing three FRME rounds ensured he remains eligibile for FREC’s rookie classification while still claiming crucial experience, but his results on the Arab peninsula in February gave no indication of what was to follow.

He bookended his FREC season with wins, and his total of five victories and 11 podiums matched Antonelli’s tally. He would have had one more podium if not for that Red Bull Ring penalty. After three wins in the first six races, he lost his edge slightly mid-season, leaving him with too much to do in the final rounds to recover the gap to Antonelli, and a four-place grid penalty carried over from Monza cost him pole when he needed to make up ground at Zandvoort.

Stenshorne made few mistakes all season, aside from these two penalties, although he did escape with a warning for racing with his smartwatch still on his wrist at Zandvoort.

His racecraft was exemplary, often making up positions at the start and not being afraid to engage in wheel-to-wheel combat. Surprisingly, he was only the fifth-fastest qualifier on average but seemed to have a knack of putting in quick laps right at the end of a session. With Nicolas Todt guiding him, he should be a strong contender if, as expected, he steps up to Formula 3.

On the other side of the garage, Tramnitz was never able to string together a run of wins to get back on terms with Antonelli and Stenshorne. In his second season, and at a top team, three wins and third in the standings was a slightly disappointing return.

His speed was never in doubt. Tramnitz was the only driver to qualify in the top 10 for each race (although Antonelli would have matched that without gearbox problems at Imola). Over the season his average gap to fastest in his qualifying group (0.16%) was marginally better than Antonelli’s.

But he seemed to lose out in the cut-and-thrust of opening laps. His Barcelona weekend was sublime – two front row starts and two victories – while a home win at Hockenheim, on the championship’s first-ever visit, was a special moment.

He was unfortunate to get punted off at Monza, although incidents at Imola and the Hungaroring which left him in the barriers were perhaps avoidable.

With insufficient funding to move up to FIA F3, by the middle of the season he and his father had begun to contemplate taking a step off the single-seater ladder. All that changed with renewed interest from Dr Helmut Marko, leading to Tramnitz joining the Red Bull Junior Team and an expected move up the ladder with MP Motorsport for 2024.

Matias Zagazeta in the third of R-ace’s cars spent most of the season far adrift of his team-mates. However, a sudden upturn in form in the final rounds gave an indication of where he could have been all year.

On his day, Camara was simply unbeatable. He was almost a match for Antonelli in qualifying and his two wins both came in commanding displays from pole. However, he was also prone to losing out in race situations, as for example at Hockenheim.

Ironically, possibly his best race performance came at Monza where he fought his way to the front from fourth on the grid, before calmly catching and passing Antonelli for the lead. Unfortunately for him, a red flag meant the results were taken at the end of the previous lap, dropping him behind his team-mate.

The quietly-spoken Brazilian inevitably suffers from being in Antonelli’s shadow, the two having been Prema team-mates for two years, and, although he has shown more than enough to justify a move to FIA F3, if he stays in FREC he should flourish.

Prema’s third driver, Lorenzo Fluxa, never quite had the pace to match his team-mates in his third FREC season. A charming guy off-track, Fluxa took a single podium and will undoubtedly prosper in sportscars.

VAR came into the season with high hopes of success with its experienced pairing of Haverkort and Joshua Dufek, with Niels Koolen learning the ropes at the other end of the grid.

The fastest qualifiers of 2023

Pos Driver Team Average qualifying pace (relative to fastest time*)
1 Tim Tramnitz R-ace GP 100.160%
2 Andrea Kimi Antonelli Prema 100.175%
3 Rafael Camara Prema 100.224%
4 Kas Haverkort VAR 100.242%
5 Martinius Stenshorne R-ace GP 100.308%
6 Joshua Dufek VAR 100.389%
7 Santiago Ramos R-P-M 100.395%
8 Alessandro Giusti G4 Racing 100.462%
9 Nikita Bedrin Monolite/VAR 100.478%
10 Sami Meguetounif MP Motorsport 100.488%
11 Michael Belov G4 Racing 100.505%
12 Noah Stromsted R-P-M 100.524%
13 Roman Bilinski Trident 100.527%
14 Maceo Capietto R-P-M 100.527%
15 Nikhil Bohra Trident 100.535%

* Based on gap to fastest time in group.  Antonelli without Imola Q2

Haverkort won at Imola but his results took a dip thereafter. “We were just struggling to find a good balance with me and the car. It’s a bit sad because in the first season we were really good and then we dropped back a bit.”

He bounced back with a hugely popular win at Zandvoort, and pipped Camara to fourth in the standings by a point.

His 2024 plans remain in flux. While his talent merits a seat in FIA F3, “the costs are incredibly high and that makes it quite difficult for me,” he told Formula Scout at Zandvoort. “We’re just really struggling with the budget. We’re still trying to find a solution, but we have to see what the options are.”

Dufek on the other hand never came close to replicating his podium-filled form from late 2022 and had a best finish of fourth before he quit FREC after round six.

The only other driver to win a race was G4 Racing’s Alessandro Giusti, the 2022 French F4 champion. His overtaking moves grabbed attention but few points in the early races and by Paul Ricard he had scored just seven. After a crash in practice, the team had to work over night to repair the car and Giusti repaid the effort with his maiden victory.

Amazingly, he followed this up with two more wins in the following rounds, from pole at the Red Bull Ring and then slightly fortuitously again at Monza after on-track winner Antonelli was penalised. After that, incredibly Giusti would score just one point in the remaining five races.

Nevertheless, Giusti clearly marked himself out as a talent to watch. And the hard-working G4 team thoroughly deserved a return to the top of the rostrum for the first time since 2021.

The driver who had brought G4 success in 2021, Michael Belov, returned but struggled to match his team-mate’s pace, although also suffered more misfortune.

Photo: Dutch Photo Agency

With the team covering much of the cost of his seat, the arrival of a driver with funding for the last two races left Belov without a ride, and G4’s efforts to secure a fourth entry were spurned by the organisers.

Having won the drivers’ title with Gregoire Saucy in 2021, and finished runner-up last year with Gabriele Mini, ART Grand Prix endured a difficult season with a less experienced line-up.

Charlie Wurz, fresh from winning the FRegional Oceania title, failed to come to terms with FREC. He scored one point in five rounds before leaving – like Dufek – for Euroformula.

Laurens van Hoepen had a difficult start to his sophomore season but improved steadily. Qualifying remained his weak point, but he worked on his performance, and ended up with points in five of the last six races, including a double podium at his local track Zandvoort.

Sauber junior Marcus Amand meanwhile has never quite lived up to his stellar karting performances since switching to cars. He scored once in the first seven rounds, but then at Monza profited from a monster tow to top his qualifying group, and finished second on the road before a 10-second penalty dropped him out of the points.

At Zandvoort, he took pole in even stranger circumstances when the heavens opened minutes into the first group’s session. Whether by luck or judgement, Amand had been fastest on the only dry lap in the whole session and remained unbeaten by the second group on track. In the wet race, Amand could not touch Antonelli but hung onto second for his only podium finish.

The Italo-Irish Race Performance Motorsport team came into 2023 on the back of some impressive tests with drivers Maceo Capietto and Santiago Ramos. In the end, eighth and 11th in the standings didn’t do justice to the team’s performance level and left team boss Keith Doneghan frustrated at what might have been. While Ramos had the edge in qualifying, his starts often let him down, and it was Capietto who usually came through in the races.

Donegan and Capietto

Capietto was a consistent points scorer, his 15 top-10 finishes beaten only by Antonelli. But only once, at the Hungaroring, did he end up spraying champagne from the podium.

R-P-M’s third driver Adam Fitzgerald recovered from breaking his back at Imola after being launched over the track’s sausage kerbs, but was then the unfortunate driver to ram unsighted into van’t Hoff at Spa, leaving him hospitalised once more with another four broken vertebrae and other injuries. Though he would not return to FREC, he is set to be back racing single-seaters in 2024.

Noah Stromsted jumped into the third R-P-M car for two rounds at the end of the year, impressing the team sufficiently to be snapped up for next season.

Trident fell back to earth after joining the series last year and running the top that season. Roman Bilinski returned to the team, joined by fellow sophomore Owen Tangavelou and F4 graduate Nikhil Bohra who started the year strongly and maintained a slight edge over his evenly-matched team-mates.

Emmo Fittipaldi was the only driver to complete the full season for FREC’s newest team Sainteloc Racing, who had taken over the equipment and entry of FA Racing before the start of the season.

Neither Fittipaldi or team-mate Lucas Medina made any impression, but with the arrival of Esteban Masson mid-season the team suddenly had a benchmark. The 2021 French F4 champion scored one point in FREC last year, and moved to the new FRegional-based Eurocup-3 series for 2023. But on his FREC return he showed Sainteloc’s potential, taking a point at Spa then starting and finishing second at Paul Ricard. He scored 20 more points in the next two rounds.

Arden was reliant on Joshua Duerksen for points, and the Paraguayan was inspired at a wet Zandvoort as he charged from 24th on the grid to seventh, although his best finish was third in the red-flagged Spa race.

Ferrari junior Maya Weug landed at KIC Motorsport after FREC’s decision to revoke the rule permitting teams to run a fourth car for a female driver appeared to scupper her chances of joining Prema. Amid the hype for female racers elsewhere, Weug often goes unnoticed but continues to impress with her solid performances and had a run of five points finishes in six races mid-season.

Five different drivers took turns in KIC’s other entries, although none could match Weug, who would undoubtedly have benefitted from a more experienced team-mate for guidance in her rookie season. While true that her best results came after replacing the engine, there is no doubt that she and the team made huge strides together through the year.

Championship minnow Monolite Racing started the campaign with two cars before Kirill Smal joined for Barcelona. Enzo Scionti and Giovanni Maschio clearly lacked experience, running at the rear of the field and being the primary cause of red flags. When Smal failed to help the team make the expected progress, they brought in series veteran Hadrien David for two rounds to help give the engineers direction and validate the car’s base performance.

Nikita Bedrin made a surprise appearance as a guest driver at Zandvoort, and two top-10 finishes underlined the potential and provided encouragement for 2024.

Bedrin made a second FREC outing with VAR at Hockenheim, and again underlined his ability with a podium. If he lacks the budget for a second season in FIA F3 and spends next year in FREC instead he will be a clear title contender.

For MP, the 2023 FREC campaign was inevitably a tough one. Sami Meguetounif and van’t Hoff returned to their line-up, while Victor Bernier moved across from FA Racing, which was run by MP in 2022. Meguetounif has progressed steadily in his two FREC seasons and had the edge on his team-mates with three podiums, including running Giusti close for a win at the Red Bull Ring.

“I extracted good performance when the car was able to be there. We had some difficult races in terms of pace – in Budapest, Spa and Imola – [when] it was difficult to do more than P9 or P10.”

A podium at Paul Ricard, on the team’s emotional return to the paddock, was “an amazing moment” for him. Despite missing the Mugello round “because of much more important reasons”, he still came eighth in the standings.

Bernier couldn’t match Meguetounif in qualifying, which often left him stranded in the packed midfield, and a second place at Monza, albeit after the penalties for Antonelli and Amand, was the highlight.

Sander Dorsman’s team demonstrated incredible fortitude and professionalism to regroup for the second half of the year, burning a metaphorical candle for van’t Hoff as the team’s drivers paid their own tributes with dedicated helmet designs.

“On the human side it was a really difficult season, but on the other hand I’m really proud of how we managed that with the team, how with the boys we stuck with each other to get through that period together,” Meguetounif told Formula Scout.

The ‘Racing for Dilano’ image placed centrally in the team’s paddock awning never failed to bring a lump to the throat.

Looking to the future, FREC still has some work to do on its marketing and fan profile. The open paddocks attract plenty of fans on raceday, but the drivers remain low profile. It is understood that plans for autograph or “meet the drivers” sessions are planned for 2024 after an initial trial at Hockenheim.

Not before time. It is hard to avoid the feeling that FREC missed a chance to capitalise on having its most charismatic and recognizable figure on the grid this year. Will Antonelli’s move to F2 increase FREC’s profile? There is no doubt that young drivers who skip it to go from F4 straight to FIA F3 miss out on valuable track time, something FREC offers in abundance.

The results of G4, R-P-M and Weug at KIC, as well as the flashes of promise from Sainteloc and Monolite once they brought in more experienced drivers, show how competitive the field is, and that all teams have a chance to compete near the front.