Home Featured How Antonelli is getting to grips with F2 in the racing world’s spotlight

How Antonelli is getting to grips with F2 in the racing world’s spotlight

by Roger Gascoigne

Photo: Photo Gregory Lenormand / DPPI

When F2’s new era begins, the racing world will likely follow one rookie in particular: Andrea Kimi Antonelli

By now, news of Mercedes-AMG Formula 1 junior Andrea Kimi Antonelli’s step up directly from Formula Regional to Formula 2, skipping Formula 3-level competition entirely, has been widely reported. Since rumours of his move started to circulate in the Monza paddock in September, the level of hype has seemingly gone into overdrive.

Twelve months ago, Antonelli had just made his FRegional debut in the Middle East’s championship. Now he is already being considered a sure bet in some sections of the media for an F1 seat at Williams for 2025, and even, following Lewis Hamilton’s shock move to Ferrari, at Mercedes.

His sensational talent has been well-known in junior racing circles since before his eagerly-awaited single-seater debut in 2021, once he had turned 15.

Formula Scout has naturally followed his development closely, from being in the paddock for his debut weekend in Italian Formula 4 at the Red Bull Ring to following his title-winning FRegional European Championship campaign trackside in 2023.

Having interviewed Antonelli after his double F4 title triumph in 2022, it was a pleasure to again welcome him back to the studio for a follow-up as he prepares for the demands of an F1 support series after FREC’s relatively relaxed atmosphere.

How hard has it been to get used to the amount of attention from the mainstream motorsport media and fans?

“It was not easy because obviously all of a sudden from when the news came out, it was like ‘bang!’,” he says.

“It was the first time I was experiencing such a thing, but Prema and Mercedes were ready for that, and they helped me to keep focused especially because when the news came out it was during the FREC season so I still had to deliver and to finish the job, so I had to stay focused.”

News of Antonelli’s jump up the ladder came as a major surprise. So how did the plan come about?

“The initial decision came from Mercedes,” he explains. “They obviously want the best for me. And they made the decision because they think it’s the best for me.”

Nevertheless, he admits that when he was first informed of the idea, “I was quite shocked, to be honest”.

“But at the same time, I was really happy because I was like ‘wow, F2, a really big step’. I was really excited but, at the same time, initially I was a bit concerned because I know it’s a really big step because I’m skipping F3, but it is a new challenge.”

After a win-free beginning to the season, “FREC was going really well” with victories in three successive rounds and he had “managed to recover after a difficult start, so [Mercedes] were really happy with that”. That’s when the F2 discussions began.

The final decision was taken “after the summer break”, he confirms, with Antonelli still in a tight title fight at the time with Martinius Stenshorne and with four rounds to go, meaning he needed to avoid being distracted by the sudden attention.

“I was like: ‘Yeah, guys, like, I’m really happy. Thank you for this. But let’s first finish the job in FRegional, and then we’ll think about F2.'”

Having had time to get used to the vastly increased scrutiny, Antonelli appears comfortable in the glare of the enlarged spotlight now, even finding it “kind of motivating”.

“I’m not really concerned anymore about this step because in testing I felt quite comfortable,” he said, adding his focus is already on the job ahead, and “trying to get ready, as best as possible, for the first race”.

Photo: Formula Motorsport Ltd

The Mercedes hierarchy, from team principal Toto Wolff downwards, have clearly been trying to downplay expectations, and, together with Prema, will aim to cosset their protege as much as possible. “Prema and Mercedes really helped me on that side and both of them don’t want to set any expectations for me,” Antonelli explains.

He has been within Mercedes’ ranks since 2018, having been scouted by the junior team’s leader Gwen Lagrue while still in mini karting. With Frederik Vesti moving onto endurance racing and Paul Aron leaving the programme, he will be the marque’s most senior representative in junior single-seaters this year.

Antonelli’s F2 move is something of a break with tradition from Mercedes’ usual more conservative approach. He admitted to Formula Scout after his triumphant 2022 in F4 that he had initially been disappointed not to move up to F3 for 2023.

“I have to be honest, I wanted to go to F3 but speaking to Mercedes at the end we decided together to do FRegional, not because of the speed but because of experience,” he said at the time.

For Antonelli, Mercedes’ support has been “crucial since I started with them, and I’m really happy to be with them for several years now and to keep going with them”.

“I have mainly Stephane [Guerin] and Gwen [Lagrue], but this year, I will have also Jerome [d’Ambrosio – ex-F1 driver and GP2 race-winner, now Mercedes’ driver development director] and other people from Mercedes, so I will have their full support.

“I have a really good relationship with all of them and I actually enjoy spending time with them on the racetrack. They’re really supportive, especially on the hard moments, on the difficult moments, they’re always there trying to try to hype you up, to push you to work harder and to do even better, and I think that’s really helped me, not only as a driver, but also as a person.”

As Antonelli explains, the support from Mercedes does not stop when he leaves the track.

Photo: Prema

“For example, from last year they gave me a full-time personal trainer who helped me on the physical side, especially after weekends, because now he moved to Bologna, where I live. It’s really helpful that I can actually have consistency on the trainings, which is really important, especially for this season.”

F2 has a brand new car for 2024, and Antonelli drove its predecessor in the three-day 2023 post-season test at Yas Marina Circuit. He was seventh fastest, 0.212 seconds off the benchmark pace, and his average long run pace was the 15th best.

“I felt good with the car straight away. This is something I didn’t expect,” he admits. “From the first day, I really, really felt confident with the car. I kind of expected to be on the pace, but obviously, I know the level is really high.

“The team really helped me because they also know the car very well so they could set up well straight away, even to help me to adapt to the car. So maybe we started also with an easier set-up in order to help me and then we developed on that.”

He adds: “From the first session I just tried to improve lap-by-lap, even though it was not easy, because in F2 with the tyres you don’t have many laps, so you’re quite limited on that side. It’s not like the lower categories, where you have many push laps because the tyres keep improving.

“Actually, in F2 it is the opposite; the tyre gives you the best on the first laps, and then it starts dropping so you need always to get the best out of it in the very beginning. And that is one thing where I struggled during the test, because being used to the FREC tyres, I had to change a bit the mindset. So trying to give everything at the very beginning, while in FREC you try to keep a bit of margin in the start to then give everything at the end when the tyres give you the best. So this was a point where I struggled during the test, but I improved in the last two days. Apart from that, the feeling was good.”

Although an analysis of testing times compiled by Formula Scout revealed Antonelli’s long-run pace was 1.311s down on team-mate Ollie Bearman, he was satisfied with the progress made in that area of driving.

Antonelli’s single-seater career
Year Series Races Wins Poles Podiums Champ pos.
2021 Italian F4 9 1x 2nd 1x 2nd 3 10th
F4 UAE Trophy 1 1x 3rd 1 1 N/A
2022 F4 UAE 8 2 1 5 8th
ADAC F4 15 9 7 12 1st
Italian F4 20 13 14 15 1st
Motorsport Games F4 Cup 2 2 1 2 N/A
2023 FRegional Middle East 15 3 3 7 1st
FRegional Europe 20 5 4 11 1st
Total 90 34 31 56 4 titles

“The long run was surprisingly good, because I really tried to focus on feeling the tyre, also talking to my engineer, not going over the limit of the tyre, because in F2 there is no real degradation of the tyre, it is more thermal.

“If the temperature goes way too high, you start to lose a lot of performance, so you have to stay under that window of temperature. I have to say, I really improved during the three days in the long run, because I understood how to stay under that window. Obviously there’s still quite a bit of room for improvement, but [the long run] was actually really good.

“Where I struggled, to be honest, [was] to extract the best out of the tyres in the first two laps. I was always doing the lap way too late compared to the others. So this is going to be one of the main areas to look to improve.”

Having begun to get on top of the specifics of F2’s challenging Pirelli tyres, he was undaunted by the step up in performance.

“The power was not that big an issue, to be honest. The main difference compared to FREC was the braking, because in F2 you have carbon brakes, which are really, really powerful. You can put quite a lot more pressure on braking, and you can actually push the braking quite a lot.

“So that was [another] thing where the first day I struggled a little bit, but then I improved. Also, the brake warm-up because carbon brakes, under a certain temperature, don’t work well. Keeping the temperature up was not easy during the test. The first two days I really struggled but then in the third day I fixed it. The braking was quite a bit of a challenge during the test. But after every run I was understanding more and more. For the [pre-season] test in Bahrain I will try a few new things in order to improve also the brake performance and hopefully it will work out.”

He confesses that the first three-day test also underlined the higher physical demands placed on the driver. “Physically, it was tough. In Abu Dhabi, I’m not gonna lie, on the last day I struggled a little bit of the physical side.”

Photo: Prema

The initial challenge there came from having “to change the training quite a bit from FREC” to suit F2’s cockpit demands.

“F2 is quite a bit more demanding: it has more downforce, the car is a bit heavier, so the g-forces are higher, and also it has no power steering, so with more downforce the steering wheel is heavier as well.”

Where did it hurt most? “Everywhere!” he laughs, before clarifying that while his neck had been fine “because I really worked before that test on the neck muscles”, his arms were “the main area where I struggled”.

“The best training is in the car,” he says. “In the car with the g-forces, and other factors, you use muscles a bit differently [to the gym].”

As a result, Antonelli has been “training quite a lot” during the winter break. “I really worked hard. And now I’m really pushing on the physical side to be as ready as possible for the first race.”

Ominously for the opposition, he adds: “I think I didn’t have the full confidence still at the end of the three days. But for the next few tests that we will do in Bahrain [on February 11-13] it will be much better.”

Unless a chance arrives to do a shakedown test for their team, that will be first time the 2024 F2 field get to drive the championship’s new car. Antonelli says that the potential levelling effect on performance that could have between the experienced and inexperienced drivers was “for sure” a factor in the decision to race in F2 this season.

“The new car is new for everyone, so that is also a help,” he says. “Experience will still pay off a little bit, especially at the beginning, even though it’s going to be a new car. It’s going to be a new challenge for everyone, not only for drivers, but also for the teams.

Photo: Prema

“We’re just at the beginning of developing [the car] because it’s just been released but for now we’re doing good work. We’re doing quite a lot of [simulator] sessions because they can help with trying to find the best compromise on the car balance.”

Only once Prema can get out on track for the “crucial” Bahrain test will “we really understand how the car works with the new regulation, and how it will behave”.

It’s not only the performance and handling of the car which will require a rapid adaptation, but the format of events too. There’s limited track time before qualifying with one practice session, while in FRegional and F4 he enjoyed pre-event tests and multiple practice sessions.

“In the first few rounds, I will need to adapt to this new format, to change a bit the way I approach practice because when you have only one practice, you really need to maximise all the track time you have. Already I’m working on the sim to change this mindset and try to maximise every lap. The sim is one thing, on the real track is another thing. For sure we’ll need a bit of adaptation, but then I think we’ll be fine after a bit.”

If Antonelli is able to adapt quickly, and there is no serious doubt that he can, it will also reflect well on FRegional as a category for developing young talents.

Antonelli had surgery on a broken wrist in November 2022, a legacy of his gold medal-winning drive in the FIA Motorsport Games F4 Cup the month before, and it restricted his off-season schedule before FRegional Middle East began in January.

“I missed like the whole winter testing. I did early Mugello. And then one day in and out in Barcelona,” he says, adding he “went to the UAE with basically no experience” and “still not fully recovered with the wrist from the injury”.

He went on to win the title in his “useful” FRME campaign, despite the start “not being the easiest”, then did the same in FREC.

Photo: SRO

“Even though the tyres were different [Gitis instead of FREC’s Pirellis] and also the engine was different [Alfa Romeo in place of the Alpine powerplants used in Europe], it was still good learning, to understand how the car was working race-wise and during the quali. Especially in the races, while following other cars, which was really difficult. In the end, we managed to win the championship, which kind of prepared me for the European season.”

Antonelli flitted between second and third in the standings through the first seven races of the FREC season as he picked up three second places but no wins.

“The start was not the easiest, especially in Imola with the technical issues and in Budapest, where I had a gearbox problem in race one,” Antonelli reflects. He and Prema’s engineers “worked really hard”, taking their first win in round four at Spa-Francorchamps and moving into the points lead in round six at Paul Ricard with his third victory of the campaign.

“Consistency was the key to the championship. Even in those weekends where we were struggling a little bit with the pace, we managed to take the best out of it, scoring the most amount of points we could and that allowed us to win the championship,” says Antonelli, whose title-winning margin over Stenshorne was 39 points.

The Paul Ricard win before the summer break “was really, really a good thing, especially on the mental side”, and the maien win at Spa “was also a turning point on the mental side because it gave me the momentum to keep pushing hard”.

Once Antonelli had momentum, he wasn’t planning to give it up easily, racing with an F2 future now at the back of his mind. In fact, rather than adding pressure, he “turned into extra motivation to do even better”.

“I didn’t really want to think about F2, because I knew there will still be a job to finish, which was obviously FREC. Even though they told me that I would have gone to F2 [anyway], I still wanted to do my best and to finish the job in the best way possible.”

Photo: Diederik van der Laan / Dutch Photo Agency

After a fourth win of the season at Monza, the title was within reach and Antonelli clinched it with a scintillating drive to victory in the penultimate round at Zandvoort. “A great weekend and to take the championship with a win was really special.”

His performance in the Netherlands, particularly the win in race two, underlined what makes Antonelli special.

“I think that was one of my best races. During the whole weekend we’d been really fast in the wet, from the practices. Qualifying on Sunday didn’t go as planned, because the red flag came out and also the session wasn’t restarted so it was a bit of a mess. In the race, we showed our real potential in the rain. The car was working really well. I felt really good in it and I was just driving naturally, not thinking, and everything was coming easy.

“It was not an easy race, don’t get me wrong, because conditions were really difficult, it was really slippery because it was really cold and windy. So even to keep the tyres up to temperature, especially behind the safety car, was really difficult. It was really tricky but I just felt really good under those conditions.

“It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in a race car, because I was just driving naturally, and the outcome was the win.”

While Zandvoort was undoubtedly a highlight, the tragic loss of Dilano van’t Hoff in the race Antonelli won at Spa cast a shadow over the season. “It was really a hard hit,” Antonelli recalls of the race. “Everything happened like super fast. When I think about that, I was on the track at the same time. It was really hard to get back, to focus mentally, because, obviously, you never want to to experience these kinds of things.”

The paddock was back racing a week later at Mugello, which Antonelli initially found difficult.

“It was hard to get back in the right mood, but at the end, this is what I love to do: I just tried to keep going and to do even better. That was my mentality that weekend and since Spa I raced for Dilano as well, [it] was my motivation to do it better.”

Photo: FRECA

Starting 2024, Antonelli’s feet are still firmly on the ground and neither he, Prema or Mercedes want to make bold claims for the season.

“Of course, the mentality is to try to win, but at the same time, I am aware of the difficulties that I might face during the season. For sure, I’ll try to do my best. I’ll try to learn as much as possible in testing, in order to make as much experience as possible and then we’ll see during the season where we will be, but I think we can do a good season. I just need to keep working hard and try to do the best job as possible together with the team.”

“I’m just really looking forward to this season,” he says. He’s not the only one, that’s for sure. It’s going to be a fascinating year.