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How a French racing school is helping one of Canada’s rising stars

by Ida Wood

Photos: FEED Racing France

Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Lemarie run FEED Racing France, a racing school that sends drivers into F4. Their latest protege Kevin Foster explains the impact of their support this year

Launched in 2019, FEED Racing France is a scheme founded and fronted by 1997 Formula 1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve and former CART driver Patrick Lemarie and has so far provided scholarships for three drivers to race in Formula 4.

The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the schedule of the first scholarship recipient Marijn Kremers in British Formula 4, then the second recipient Robert De Haan used his scholarship to race in Spanish F4. Last year’s scholarship winner Kevin Foster is spending 2023 racing in French F4, a series that contrasts from others in Europe by being centrally-run.

Formula Scout caught up with Foster – who is currently third in the standings with a win, four other podiums and two poles – during the French F4 round in Pau to discuss the impact that FEED Racing France and Lemarie have had on his year.

“It’s a big help, of course. I think even at this level, you see everybody has a driver coach, they have their entourage, mechanics, engineers. Ranging from two or three [people] to teams of 10. I’d say it’s very rare to find drivers just doing it solo nowadays,” said Foster.

“In my case it’s just me and Patrick, but that’s been working really well so far. We were able to take a win in the first round of the championship, and then we were able to overcome and work through our problems in the second round, and again here. So to have the experience of Patrick, who’s run this track [a lot], gives little insights to help jumpstart me.

“I think the reality of it is without the scholarship I wouldn’t even be racing here. So of course I’ve got FEED to thank for that. I’m not the biggest fan on driver coaches, like ones that will look at your video, look at your data and basically form you into a driver, into a template [while] in a feeder series.

Photo: KSP Reportages

“I’m an advocate for banning driver coaches in F4, and just seeing how kids are able to adapt and develop to a car and use their true talents and feeling.”

Foster’s point may sound quite extreme, and in spite of him benefitting from the inputs of Lemarie for his driving, but French F4 is unique and to hold such an opinion has more logic to it in that paddock.

“In French F4, we’re only allowed to make four adjustments on the car in total. Just the rollbars and the wings. So it’s very limited in what you can change set-up wise. The pros of it are that you know that someone doesn’t have a secret set-up. But the cons are that you can’t adjust the car to your liking, you have to drive a car that might not work specifically the way you want it.

“It’s interesting, because even the tyre pressures, we go to a track 40°, like Spa, and we come at the beginning of the season testing [in different temperatures], it’s all the same set-ups from tyre pressures to camber, ride-heights, shocks, dampers. Everything is the same, so you really have the same set-up and have to drive around it.

“With wet conditions, again, stays the same. The only thing we change is we pull the rear anti-rollbar off. So we’re driving a very, I’d say a locked-in platform. It’s tough because yes it does bring out the drivers that can adapt to the car, but maybe there are certain drivers that like a specific way the car feels, and then are able to drive that. So it’s a difficult situation.”

The FFSA Academy, which runs all the cars in F4, does not provide one engineer to each driver, but rather to a group of four. They then work with the same engineer throughout the whole season.

“It allows us to get some insight into giving feedback to an engineer, even though we might not be able to change stuff on the car, so to still be able to relay on information like understeer, feelings in the car, vibrations,” explained Foster.

Photo: Ida WOod

“Just like getting that communication channel opened as we progress up into higher formulae. And then working with the engineer on data and driving technique-wise, as they’re able to give little insights. Not a tonne, but enough to get you thinking on some other areas where you could potentially improve.”

Foster won the Team Canada Scholarship last year too, which meant he got the opportunity to race in Formula Ford 1600 in the UK [pictured above]. But that was in wing-free cars, so a single F4 test day and the FEED Racing France shootouts were his only experience of slicks-and-wings before his French F4 debut.

“I think genuinely FEED has a programme where you can show up with no experience in a car and leave there very confident,” said Foster. “That’s a testament to what kind of programme they run.”

“I came from karting, so it’s just kind of converting over the way I drive a kart into the techniques and specificities of driving a formula car. That was all primarily done at FEED. Comparing the FEED car to this car, there’s definitely a lot of differences and changes. Adapting to this platform took a little bit of time, but I don’t think it’s impossible.”

FEED uses the first-generation F4 car from Mygale for its shootouts, and last year French F4 switched from that chassis to Mygale’s second-generation, halo-shod design. Most F4 series now use Tatuus’s second-generation car, which further isolates the French championship.

“I know there’s a few guys who have had running in the Tatuus, and they say it is a different feeling car,” Foster shared. “I think it’s good, because that means that this series is isolated to its own style and type of driving. And it allows for an isolated look into how drivers perform.”

The FEED shootouts take place at former F1 track Magny-Cours, which is a world away from the challenge of Pau’s street circuit. Few F4 series can claim to include street racing, and it leaves French F4’s drivers with even more to learn.

Photo: Ida Wood

“At the end of the day, it’s just more trust in yourself,” Foster said of driving the iconic track as a rookie. “You’ve got to believe in your abilities, believe in what you do. And the fastest lap doesn’t require you to hit any walls, it doesn’t require you to take any massive kerbs, so if you drive towards the fastest lap, then that’s just being clean on the circuit. That’s where the time is. Instead of trying to drive on the ragged edge and hanging it out where there’s walls and there’s big danger.”

Formula Scout also spoke to Lemarie, who before reaching CART raced in International Formula 3000 in the 1990s. Last year he was a winner in EuroNASCAR, a series where he and Villeneuve are also providing opportunities to drivers who come through their racing school.

“I’m here because Kevin is super talented. He’s representing FEED, so I want to make sure he’s in the best condition – he has not a big experience in racing, and I’m trying to give him my experience, give him as well some help when at some point in the weekend there can be stress [with all the things he needs to think about].

“It’s more a reflection that we have, and sharing ideas. Bringing my experience, and putting some more calm [in], trying to put my experience there like as if his driving was my experience. Trying to find a right mix, you know? And it works pretty good, because Kevin is really listening.”

And that experience to translate isn’t necessarily focused on what to do while behind the wheel, as that gets taught at the racing school itself, “it’s more to understand how the weekend works, take session after session, don’t try to think about too much in his head, being able to [stay] calm; that’s my role, really”.

In terms of actually teaching drivers how to pilot a single-seater, Lemarie and his colleagues choose to do their work with a modified Gen1 F4 car because they think it carries enough similarities to the newer cars, particularly French F4’s one.

“We’re using the same tyres. The car is the Gen1, so the chassis is pretty much the same but maybe a little bit [different]. It’s not a big change with the chassis, it’s more the engine. The engine, now they’re using a turbo, it’s a lot more power.

“But FEED Racing is the way how to learn how to drive a racing car. So you can, with the technique you learn in FEED Racing, you can adapt to all these F4 cars. So having a little bit more power [in French F4], it wasn’t a problem for Kevin. For example, the first test at Nogaro, we went there and he was P2. He’d never driven the car before, it was just the FEED car before. I think the Gen2 is pretty similar, with everything a little bit better. So it’s not a big change.”

The choice of Magny-Cours for the shootouts is also about adaptability, as “we’re doing all the practice, until the semi-final, on the club circuit” and “we do the final on the [full] F1 circuit”. Lemarie and Villeneuve “like to see the top six, the finalists, adapt to the new track, so it’s very interesting”.

“You have a small track, which is very interesting and very, very [useful] for what we do. Suddenly you arrive like in a F1 environment with a big track, the big grandstands and everything, and you have to win that final,” is Lemarie’s logic. “So it’s a lot of pressure, and with Jacques we like to see how they react to that.”

Lemarie started his car racing career in FF1600, which he is grateful for the experience of, but also believes the far heavier spec entry-level single-seaters of today are still great as a starting point for young drivers.

“The F4s are amazing to drive for the young kids, and for sure FFord for me was crazy good because it was not very expensive and it was so much on the driving and talent. I really enjoyed FFord and it was really good. But now F4, for sure it’s like a little Formula 3 so it’s amazing.

“But the seasons are very expensive. We are very lucky that the French federation put this format in place [in French F4], I think it’s the best in the world, because it reduces the cost a lot, there’s big equity. Everybody has the same car and they’re making a lot of effort to develop a very equitable situation. So this format is pretty good, to race F4 at that price I thank the French federation as it’s just amazing. If you go to Italy or Spain for F4, it’s crazy expensive.”

As for the limited set-up freedom in French F4 compared to other series in the category, Lemarie is unbothered by the impact that may have on his proteges (which includes another French F4 driver in Frank Porte Ruiz) who at the next rungs on the single-seater ladder will have to learn how to work with different teams and more set-up variability.

“Because they cannot do the changes on the car, it does not mean they cannot talk with the engineer,” he said. “They learn, of course. They understand how the car works, and do the little changes. And I like this format. I don’t think it’s a big problem.

“We’ve seen it before with Isack Hadjar for example who went to F3. He was from this series [as a starting point], and he adapted very quickly. So I don’t think it’s a problem, because the engineers are very high level here. So they can work to [help the drivers] to understand how the car works and the set-up, [even if] they’re limited on the action they can take.”