Home Featured How FRegional’s first year of European unification played out

How FRegional’s first year of European unification played out

by Roger Gascoigne

Photo: FRECA

The merging of the Formula Renault Eurocup and Formula Regional European Championship for 2021 led to big grids, more F1 support races and stronger promotion, but also a runaway champion

Bringing the two competing Formula Regional series in Europe together last year undoubtedly made great sense, providing clarity at that level of the single-seater pyramid and pushing FRegional European Championship grid sizes from an average of 11.4 cars to 32.8. The other big change for last year was swapping out an Alfa Romeo-badged engine for a Renault one.

That change seemed to favour the former Eurocup runners, who adapted well to FREC’s updated Pirelli tyres which were peakier, particularly for qualifying, in an attempt to mirror the characteristics of the tyres used in FIA Formula 3.

As many drivers struggled to get on top of those, ART Grand Prix driver Gregoire Saucy’s ability to extract a quick lap in qualifying led to him romping to eight poles and eight wins and then the title. He had never won a race in his previous five years racing single-seaters. How was he not challenged more by such a competitive field?

ART GP, Arden, JD Motorsport, R-ace GP, MP Motorsport and the FA Racing team it ran came across from the Eurocup, with G4 Racing taking on the assets and personnel of ex-Eurocup team Bhaitech for its FREC entry, while KIC Motorsport, Monolite Racing, Prema and Van Amersfoort Racing remained from 2020. Patrik Pasma was the only leading FREC driver to return.

Teams were limited to three cars, although G4 and R-ace took advantage of being able to run a fourth points-scoring entry for a female driver and fielded Belen Garcia and Lena Buhler respectively. R-ace also ran guest drivers in a fifth car.

The season started with a support slot to the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola, and Prema’s David Vidales won first time out ahead of fellow 2020 Eurocup stars Alex Quinn (Arden) and Hadrien David (R-ace).

Saucy converted the first of his eight poles into an untroubled race two win, and a poor start for David from the front row allowed Prema’s Paul Aron and R-ace’s Zane Maloney to make the podium.

Saucy was then untouchable at Barcelona, another F1 support round, heading free practice and both qualifying sessions before taking two lights-to-flag wins. In race one his rookie team-mate Gabriele Mini, the reigning Italian Formula 4 champion, got alongside on the run to turn one but had to settle for second place. In race two Quinn was the driver to get level with Saucy only to find out how hard it is to overtake in FREC, while two outstanding passes earned R-ace’s Isack Hadjar third place.

Hadjar and Maloney made use of R-ace’s track knowledge to lead the next round in Monaco, taking a pole, win and second place each. A provisional Red Bull Junior Team spot was also bagged by Hadjar off the back of the weekend.

Monaco was the only real low point of Saucy’s campaign. A free practice collision put him on the back foot for qualifying and he was unable to recover. In race two he was in a huge lap one accident on the ascent to Massenet that eliminated five cars and brought out red flags.

But he was back on scintillating form next time out at Paul Ricard, going totally unbeaten before an incorrectly fitted washer resulted in disqualification from race one, promoting David to his first win. David’s fortune turned to misfortune in race two as a formation lap issue consigned him to a pitlane start. In a fantastic drive, he charged from 35th and last to 10th in just 16 laps, incredibly finishing just 5.3 seconds behind Saucy.

Second in both races was JD Motorsport’s Michael Belov, ineligible for points as a guest driver. He was returning to FRegional having competed part-time in the Eurocup and F3 in 2020 but lacking the funds to race full-time in 2021.

His performance was nothing short of astonishing, particularly considering that JD had a points-free season. Ahead of the next round he had been snapped up by G4 in a (points-earning) seat for the rest of the season.

ART GP was in a league of its own in qualifying at the modified Zandvoort, as Saucy and Mini locked out the front row twice.

Saucy went unchallenged in both races, while MP Motorsport’s Franco Colapinto make his first podium appearance of the year in race two, having passed Mini for second at the start. Despite coming third in the Eurocup in 2020, he’d had a dire start to his sophomore FRegional campaign as he missed four races and didn’t score until Zandvoort race one.

Sadly that weekend marked the last appearance for Thomas ten Brinke, as the Dutch driver stepping away from motorsport with immediate effect, citing the strains of competing. Pasma moved from KIC to take his place ahead of the next round.

Race one at Spa-Francorchamps was held in pouring rain, and Belov put on a masterclass to win by nine seconds despite a lengthy safety car period. A mistake from Maloney two laps from home allowed David to take second. Saucy started 24th after struggling in dry qualifying, putting him in the unusual position of having to overtake, but shone to rise to eighth.

For race two, held in sunshine, normal service resumed as Saucy won, and it would be his last on-track victory of the year.

On this occasion, he was made to work for the points. Mini took the lead and defended vigorously before Saucy eventually found a way past. After a late safety car interruption, Saucy was forced to fight off a challenge from Maloney.

The Red Bull Ring was next, and in a race with little overtaking, poleman Colapinto took a deserved first win for himself and MP, ahead of David and Aron. Saucy was fifth, while Belov was one of few drivers to overtaking, rising from 11th to sixth.

Colapinto rounded off the weekend with a second lights-to-flag win by holding off Saucy. In a farcical development, three days later he was penalised 10s for track limit violations, demoting him to to fourth and gifting victory to Saucy. Provisionally…

In total, a scarcely believable 230 track limit infringements at just two turns were identified in the 21-lap race, resulting in 16 drivers receiving time penalties of varying lengths. Unsurprisingly, the “number of reported track limits overwhelmed Race Director personnel”, necessitating “a new investigation …. after the race”.

But, in a season where stewarding has been under more than normal scrutiny, it surely can not be acceptable to take more than three days to issue penalties that change the results of a race. MP immediately appealed the penalty, and, at the time of writing, the matter is still unresolved.

David, Saucy’s closest rival in the points, lost ground after a collision with Belov at the first corner eliminated both drivers.

Valencia’s Ricardo Tormo circuit replaced the Nurburgring’s cancelled round, and led to more processional racing. Colapinto maintained his excellent form to take win race one ahead of Vidales and VAR’s Mari Boya. In race two Belov converted pole to victory ahead of Colapinto.

After making huge steps during the year, FREC’s former dominator Prema finally got back to the front when the series returned to its previous heartland of Italy for the penultimate round at Mugello.

Prema had seemed stuck in the doldrums mid-season, reaching a low at Paul Ricard where its best result was eighth. As Aron told Formula Scout after the season finale, “when we got to Paul Ricard, we kind of tried to do something and reset but it didn’t work out; it was the low point for the season, and then from there we started to build it up again”.

“Everything was to do with tyre set-up,” explained Ralf Aron, Prema’s FREC team manager and older brother of Paul. “But we know why we’re fast now. It’s not just suddenly that we have performance and have no idea why.”

An intensive programme of development and, in the words of the team’s third driver Dino Beganovic “a lot of hard work in the workshop, in the factory with the engineers” enabled the team to get to the bottom of the set-up issues. The drivers all felt that they had learned from the need to work with the engineers to improve the car, and the younger Aron was “happy with the work we did because it’s not easy in FREC to improve the car and we were the only team who managed to do it so well”.

Photo: ACI Sport

“Towards the end of the season we have been able to start putting everything together,” his older brother said. “Because FREC is so competitive, if you make a small mistake as a team or as a driver, you’re way down the grid.”

Aron and rookie team-mate Beganovic locked out the front row of race one at Mugello. A distraught Beganovic was punted into retirement by Boya into the first hairpin, while a separate error by Aron allowed a fast-starting Belov to edge ahead. The Beganovic/Boya incident also caught out Colapinto and David, and brought out a safety car.

Aron managed the restart perfectly, sweeping round the outside of Belov to retake a lead he would hold to the finish. With David forced to pit, fourth place behind Vidales was enough for Saucy to become champion with three races remaining.

Aron completed Prema’s revival by dominating from pole in race two of the weekend. Beganovic’s luck finally turned as he threaded his way through the fast starting Saucy and Colapinto at turn one for second place. Belov got past Saucy for third after a race-long duel, only to lose out as the results were taken back a lap after a red flag-causing shunt for Jasin Ferati.

With the title decided, the final round at Monza had an end-of-term feel, although Aron and David still had their eyes on being title runner-up, while the rookie classification title was up for grabs between Hadjar and Mini.

David managed qualifying traffic to take race one pole from Saucy and Colapinto, and R-ace made use of its additional car count to be unstoppable in race conditions as Hadjar and Maloney made up four places each to complete a team 1-2-3.

Prema’s trio were unable to find the gaps in traffic in qualifying and languished outside the top 10, but Beganovic and Aron showed the team’s underlying pace by coming through to fifth and sixth in the race. In Q2 on a drying track, Beganovic claimed Sunday pole ahead of his team-mates, but elation turned to despair in the race. As Vidales attacked leader Beganovic, both cars cut the second chicane. Vidales’ car launched off the kerbing before torpedoing Beganovic as he flew out of control back onto the track.

Hadjar inherited victory ahead of Aron, but third for David secured him title runner-up spot and R-ace the teams’ title.

Despite winning the rookie title by 44 points, the self-critical Hadjar was frustrated at having “completely messed up” the second half of the season and coming behind his R-ace team-mates in the overall standings.

Rookie runner-up Mini was embarking on a learning year, without the Asian F3 experience Hadjar had, yet as Italian F4 champion and with the same equipment as Saucy, four podiums and seventh in the standings was a disappointing return.

The other rookies found going tough initially. Beganovic came on in leaps and bounds over the season, a la F4, and acknowledged the size of the step up but “managed to make progress” and his first podium at Mugello “meant a lot”.

Aron was effusive in his praise for his less experienced team-mate: “For me, honestly, the guy who improved the most is Dino. I was not expecting him to improve so much. He managed to gain a lot of pace and I think he did a very good job.”

Boya showed pace at the two Spanish rounds and scored VAR’s best result with his Valencia podium. His team-mate Francesco Pizzi, Italian F4 runner-up only scored twice, but finished fifth on the team’s home turf at Zandvoort.

Kas Haverkort, MP’s 2020 Spanish F4 champion, rounded the season off with fourth at Monza, and switches to VAR for 2022.

Saucy was undoubtedly a worthy champion. He was clearly at ease in his second year at ART GP and was able to extract the most from its package. Potential title rivals were unable to match his consistency and dropped valuable points at key moments. And by the time Prema had finally solved its woes it was too late for its drivers to mount a serious challenge.

With entries reaching a record 36 at Mugello, the field lacked little in quality or quantity. Overall, the 2021 season has ensured the survival of a series which looked in danger of collapsing without its merger with the Eurocup.

Yet the championship has continued to suffer in one fundamental respect, as Hadjar bluntly puts it: “You know, you can’t overtake in our championship. It’s impossible. So qualifying is key.”

From a purist’s perspective, it does FREC credit it steered clear of ‘spicing up the show’ with reversed-grid races or DRS, but even Giovanni Delfino, chief executive officer of chassis supplier Tatuus, acknowledges that something needs to be done to improve overtaking.

“This is what we are feeling and it’s not a great show when you look at the race because it’s difficult to overtake,” he said.

“So, we are thinking of two different solutions for that to give more satisfaction to the drivers and to the people watching the races.”

DRS is not that answer for 2022, “but we are thinking of a push-to-pass system just to give more power in fixed areas of the tracks. We’ll see, but I think this year something will happen”.

Formula Scout broke the story on FREC’s P2P plans back in September after the near-overtake free Valencia races.

Using different cars there were similar issues with the FRegional ruleset in other contents, and similar title narratives too.

In North America, 2020 United States F4 midfielder Kyffin Simpson did a Saucy and turned into a dominant champion for the new TJ Speed team, and the combination is now going to Indy Lights. TOM’S driver Yuga Furutani used fierce consistency to win the Japanese title, and Jamie Chadwick applied all of her experience to claim a second W Series crown.

More on FREC
The close friends and rivals with contrasting prospects for 2022
Interview: No secret ingredient in Saucy’s success
F3’s champion team Trident picked by FREC to join grid