Home Featured How McLaren’s Ugochukwu aims to get back to “fighting at the front”

How McLaren’s Ugochukwu aims to get back to “fighting at the front”

by Roger Gascoigne

Photo: Dutch Photo Agency

After winning an F4 title, Ugo Ugochukwu’s step up to Formula Regional has so far not quite gone to plan. But, as the McLaren junior explains to Formula Scout, he is confident that he can get back to “fighting for wins”

Ugo Ugochukwu finished 2023 on a high, capping a very strong season with Prema in Formula 4 by wrapping up the inaugural Euro 4 championship with victory in the final round, before impressing observers with his speed in a one-off Formula 3 appearance for Trident in the Macau Grand Prix.

The Italian-speaking Ugochukwu has stayed with Prema for his full-time move from F4 to Formula Regional and feels at home with the team.

After getting a taste of Italian F4 on two outings at the end of 2022 alongside his full season in the British series, Ugochukwu returned to Prema for a crack at the title in 2023, as well as the United Arab Emirates championship and the new three-round Euro 4 series.

While Arvid Lindblad and Kacper Sztuka were the standout performers in the first and second halves of the season respectively, earning their promotion to FIA F3 with Red Bull backing in the process, Ugochukwu’s season somehow flew below the radar.

He was a consistent performer across his 45-race F4 season, taking 11 wins across the three championships, the same number as Lindblad and two fewer than Sztuka, although the Pole racked up five in what was an indisputably weaker Formula Winter Series.

Ugochukwu’s performances earned him a full set of “medals”, with second place in Italy and third in the UAE to add to his Euro 4 honours.

“Definitely some things could have gone better, but overall it was still a good year,” he reflects modestly.

Photo: ACI Sport

“We started off in the UAE winning a lot [with four wins from the first seven races] but the end of the championship didn’t go so well, so we fell back to P3.

“The European part of the season was really strong. Unfortunately, US [Racing, which took Sztuka to the Italian title] came on really strong at the end of the year, so it became hard to fight for the championship but I still think it was overall quite a good year.”

Interestingly, he blames a lack of consistency in the first half of the championship for costing him a shot at the title, but, in fact, 16 top five finishes in 21 races illustrates that he was a threat everywhere.

“I started the Euro 4 really strong with P1, P1, P2 [in the Mugello opener] so I knew I had a really good chance to win that.

“I think it just really clicked for me in those in those three rounds.”

After losing some ground at Monza for the second round, he was able to give “full focus for the last round in Barcelona,” once the Italian series had concluded.

Unsurprisingly he looks back on that Barcelona weekend with the greatest satisfaction.

“Barcelona, when I clinched the championship, kind of stands out, that was a really good race for me. The pace was really good. I had to defend from [Brando] Badoer who was on really fresh tyres so I was just pushing the whole way through and we were quite far from all the others.”

“I think I could still have clinched the championship with P2, but I just wanted to win it across the line as well. I was just really happy to be able to clinch the championship,” he says.

Photo: ACI Sport

Though Ugochukwu “could have also made the step to F3” for 2024, the decision to “stick with Prema, [do] a year in FRECA, get a bit more experience before going to F3″ was taken quite early.

“It was like a year and a bit with Prema in F4. We had a really good end to the year last year. The goal is just to keep building on that. It’s good to move up with the same team. We have a good understanding with the team. We work all together, so I think that was a crucial part for this year.”

Alongside fellow rookie [and F4 rival] James Wharton, Ugochukwu has joined the pre-season favourite and dominant driver in the early season rounds, series sophomore Rafael Camara.

“Rafa has a lot of experience with this car, so he will always be probably fairly consistent throughout the year and that will set a good benchmark for the team as well, just to push everybody forward.”

Ugochukwu started his FRegional career in the Middle East, although he only netted three podiums and no wins on the way to seventh. While “the finishing position was not where we wanted, towards the end the pace was always in the front.”

Nevertheless, he believes the experience has left him better prepared for the European championship, despite some difference in equipment compared to FREC.

“I definitely think you can learn quite a bit there, to get a bit of a feel, learn stuff about this car, tyre management, the racing in this car, dirty air. It was also on a different tyre, so a little bit different driving style which you just have to adapt to.

“The knowledge will definitely help in the European part of the season, but as we’ve seen, some people go up and down from UAE to here in Europe, maybe from the tyres. There’s definitely a little bit of difference but you just have to adapt and just get on with it.”

Photo: Dutch Photo Agency

In truth, the first three races have not brought the results he and the team were expecting, with his lack of qualifying pace leaving him stranded in the midfield, and exposed to the incidents typical in the middle of a 30-plus car grid.

While his team-mates have each topped their qualifying groups three times in six races, underlining the strong set-up that Prema has been able to extract from the modified cars, Ugochukwu has only twice managed to get into the top three in his group.

To make matters worse, when he did so, he failed to get away from the line at Spa-Francorchamps and spun away his chances of a strong result in the rain at Zandvoort.

As the field heads to round four at the Hungaroring, he is still metaphorically scratching his head “to analyse why we were down on pace.”

While his goal in the first part of the season had been, he says, “just to learn as much as possible, we definitely have the potential to be fighting for the top places every race.

“If we can just try to stay as consistent as possible, pick up the points, I think we should be in a good place for the end of the year.”

One thing that the American is definitely not lacking is track time. Having started the year with a full campaign in FRMEC, he is now combining a full season in FRegional Europe with outings in GB3 for Rodin Motorsport when the calendars permit.

“Unfortunately, we’re not able to do the whole season because four out of the eight rounds are clashing with the FREC, but we’ll do the other four,” he explains.

So far he’s been able to compete in all three GB3 rounds (he’ll sit out its visit to the Hungaroring to focus on FREC) and lies fourth in the standings with three podiums to his name.

Photo: Jakob Ebrey Photography

“We got the opportunity to be able to do that and we decided it would be good to take it because [it means] more track time, more experience, I think it’s just better further on. It will just help me grow more as a driver.”

It’s been “quite a good experience,” he says, gaining “lots of knowledge of different circuits, and a little bit different car,” requiring him to adapt his style, something “I think I managed to do quite quickly.

“The GB3 is a bit of a lighter car, so it’s a bit more nimble. It also has more high speed downforce, so around high speed tracks it’s a bit nicer to drive, but still a bit underpowered compared to the FREC [car].

“The level of GB3 is also quite high. Everyone’s really close in that as well, so you still need to be pushing.

“Obviously, I’m not doing the full championship so my goal there is a bit more just full send and just try to see if I can get some wins.”

As others have recently discovered, making a cameo appearance at Silverstone to get circuit experience can be an expensive mistake once a driver has already graduated to FIA F3, so it makes sense to get his outing in this year.

With Spa also part of his limited programme, GB3 provides valuable knowledge of “two tracks that I would need to know quite well in Formula 3 and Formula 2.”

As if that wasn’t a full enough schedule, Ugochukwu got the chance to experience McLaren’s Formula E car in the Berlin rookie test in May.

“We weren’t planning really to get into the Formula E, it’s not something that I’m really looking at at the moment. But I think it was good when they said to go for the rookie test, we just thought it would be a good opportunity,” he explains.

Photo: Dutch Photo Agency

“Obviously, the FE is a completely different car to most of the single seater ladder – F4, F3 and F2. In the sim I was like learning a lot of stuff to make things smoother. There were no real expectations, to be honest. Just go in see how I feel, do the best I can, as always, and see how it goes.”

Ugochukwu has been backed by McLaren since 2021, becoming part of its rebranded Driver Development programme at its launch in 2023. Originally overseen by Emanuele Pirro, the programme has now been brought in-house, under the direction of Stephanie Carlin, McLaren’s F1 Business Operations Director.

For Ugochukwu, McLaren’s increased focus on the programme has been visible, and not only due to the bright papaya livery which has adorned his FREC Tatuus from the Spa weekend.

“They’re definitely putting a lot more into the programme lately,” he notes. “The support now has been more than it has been before.

“I’ve been already to the to the MTC [the futuristic McLaren Technology Centre in Woking] a couple of times this year.”

In addition to getting up to speed on the FE sim in preparation for the Berlin tests, he has also had the chance to experience the F1 sim.

“That was a good experience,” he smiles. “Obviously, a lot quicker than what I’m used so I had to adapt a little bit to that. There are always things I can learn from and I think at the end of the day, they [McLaren] just kind of help me as much as possible to be able to adapt and be better in the category I’m racing in at the moment.”

The McLaren programme differs from those run by other F1 teams in not being exclusively an academy for junior talent, since it also includes IndyCar’s Pato O’Ward.

Photo: Dutch Photo Agency

He is looking forward to getting the chance to meet up with the more experienced drivers, as “it will be good to learn from guys with more experience and higher up in the ladder.”

And while he wouldn’t turn down the chance to test one of McLaren’s IndyCars, his goal “is to make it to F1″.

“That’s a lot of people’s goal as well so I just have to keep working hard throughout these years and we’ll see what happens.”

For now, his focus is on performing well in FREC and graduating to F3.

“I am looking forward to F3, I do enjoy driving the F3 car, it suits my driving style quite well. It’s more high speed. You can kind of push more because of the downforce. So I’m looking forward to that next step,” he adds.

Ugochukwu got his first experience of FIA F3 machinery with a “positive” run for Carlin (now Rodin) in the post-season tests at Imola in 2023.

However, it was his debut at the historical Macau Grand Prix non-championship F3 race with the championship-winning Trident Motorsport team which really demonstrated his potential.

“The plan had been to do the F4 in Macau, but we got the opportunity to do F3 which was too good an opportunity to say no to, so we decided to take it,” he explains.

Despite a crash at the end of qualifying, he still finished an outstanding ninth, beating his highly-experienced team-mates Richard Verschoor and Roman Stanek, both dropping down from F2 for the event, in the process.

He felt that he was able to build up his confidence through the practice sessions, which “is quite normal, just being able to push a bit more.”

Photo: Macau Grand Prix

Unfortunately for the young New Yorker, “quite a big mistake in the first [qualifying] race kind of compromised my starting position for race 2, which was not ideal.”

Fighting for position, Ugochukwu tried an opportunistic lunge inside Dan Ticktum into Lisboa, putting both cars in the unforgiving barriers and out of the race, leaving him relegated to the back of the grid for the FIA World Cup race itself.

“I was a bit disappointed by that because I think starting in the top 10, I could have had a really good race, and maybe challenged for the top five because the pace was really good, [but] I guess we learn from that.”

Overall, he says, “Macau was a great experience. I definitely learned a lot from that weekend. Such a challenging track, a high-speed street circuit, so it was always going to be difficult and also my first race in F3.

“Obviously that would have given me good experience for the next years in my career in F3 and F2,” he says, adding “I’ll be more prepared for the street circuits.”