Home Featured Inside the F3 title fight belonging to Ferrari’s F1 juniors

Inside the F3 title fight belonging to Ferrari’s F1 juniors

by Elliot Wood

Photos: ACI Sport

As well as its F2 drivers, Ferrari has junior drivers doing battle in Formula Regional European Championship, with two names that are already becoming familiar to motorsport fans off track as well as on it

There may only be 10 drivers currently lined up to race in the next Formula Regional European Championship round in September, but two of those are putting in performances that may merit a promotion to FIA Formula 3 in 2021.

Prema’s Gianluca Petecof and Arthur Leclerc currently head the standings after six races, five of which they have won, with their team-mate Oliver Rasmussen not too far behind after he claimed success in the season opener. Both Leclerc and Petecof are members of the Ferrari Driver Academy, an association that has already proven beneficial for their careers this year as they got to represent the Scuderia in Formula 1’s Virtual Grand Prix Series contest during the lockdown period.

Off the back of that, their followings increased significantly and they are two of the best-known drivers (for the right reasons) outside of racing’s professional ranks. But few of their fans will be seeing them trackside this year due to the pandemic.

Formula Scout was able to catch up with the pair though in the Paul Ricard paddock during the latest FREC round, and asked how they’re finding the move up to Formula 3 after two starring – but not title-winning – years in Formula 4.

“I think it’s a really good step up all around the car,” said Petecof. “Starting from the engine of course, more powerful, you go from 160hp to 270hp. You feel that quite a bit, especially on the corner exits. Then you go into the actual chassis and aero package, it’s a really big step. Now we have a proper diffuser, in the back part of the car you have a much more complex aero package which you feel out on track as well.

“You feel the car a bit more on the floor, and it’s also a bit more predictable, let’s say. Then you go into some smaller differences, for example the brakes. For this season, compared to last season in FREC, we’re using the same brake pads as FIA F3. It’s a lot more powerful brakes, and it’s a huge step from F4.

“We have now an active differential in the back, which in F4 by regulation is 100% open, so you also feel that on the corner exits, a bit less wheelspin. So as you can see, it’s a bit all around the track. I think tyre situation is really similar to F4, same Pirellis. It took a little bit to get used to in the first couple of tests, but after it’s a really fun car to drive.”

Leclerc expands on the tyre point: “The tyres are bigger so that’s the big difference. You can carry more speed into the corners, but then after it’s a heavier car so it’s quite difficult to manage the weight – especially in change of direction. Everything is more heavy, you have to manage a bit more the tyres as well in races, that’s the main difference.”

It’s not just the technical changes causing the duo to bring a new style to track. Petecof reflects on what he’s doing differently to his winning start to 2019, where instant success in ADAC and Italian F4 translated to fifth and second in the points.

“I started the [2019] season really well, and I don’t think I was patient enough to deal with some situations and I don’t know what the end result could have been, but it could definitely have been better than what it actually was,” he says. “And also, during the season it’s important to keep your mind healthy. I think more than anything else, if your mind is healthy, if you’re feeling good about yourself, you’re going to do a great job out there.”

Leclerc was similarly as reflective: “I learned a lot of things [last year]. Maybe the biggest thing is I learned a lot about myself. I don’t have that much experience in motorsport because I started two years ago, so that’s where I learned a lot about myself. The approach in qualifying, in race and everything.”

Besides one full season in karts at 13 years old, Leclerc’s motorsport career really does come to just a year in French F4 and a second in the German championship in the Sauber Junior Team. Qualifying was his biggest weakness during that time, but he’s started the FREC season with four poles out of six. It must have required some serious off-season work to turn around such an improvement.

“Yeah, for sure,” Leclerc confirms. “Because I knew that it was a bit my weak point to put a lap together. That’s what we worked on in tests. Now it’s definitely better, and I feel really confident with the car as well.”

That confidence has been aided for all three of Prema’s title contenders by having an experienced F3 racer in Ralf Aron as team boss.

“Obviously it’s a lot easier to communicate with him, because he’s been in our shoes, literally,” says Rasmussen, whose F4 campaign last year was light on podiums but is doing better in FREC after debuting in regional F3 in the Toyota Racing Series.

“All the stupid questions, he’s probably also asked them himself. So he will have the answers for them.”

Petecof adds that a boss who ‘speaks the same language’ provides “more familiar feedback” and “makes it easier” to communicate with the rest of the team, and Leclerc echoes his statements. All around, it seems that these three drivers are pretty much on the same page, and their respect for each other is evident both in and out of the car.

“It is important [to keep that respect going], to the extent of just having a healthy environment in the team,” states points leader Petecof. “I think between us we are able to exchange information of course, through data, videos and sometimes when one of the others is faster we can use that. [But] most important of all, just make sure I do what’s best for myself and maximise my performance first.”

Leclerc and Ramussen are similarly appreciative of the working relationship, and just as aware of the purely selfish aspect of competition.

“For sure it’s really important. We are team-mates, so the ones you want to beat [most] is the team-mates, but we still have a lot of respect for each other, a good relationship outside of the track, and that’s what it comes [down to],” says Leclerc.

“Obviously it’s always better to have a good relationship, and to be able to talk with each other. But the one who wins will be the winner,” confirms Rasmussen.

One topic the title-fighting trio don’t seem to be in agreement with is tyres. The delay of several of FREC’s rounds into late summer means temperatures are higher than usual, but has this made tyre management a bigger factor than usual?

“Definitely. It’s been really difficult to deal with that. Even if our tyres for example don’t suffer as much degradation as FIA F3 or F2, we still need to care of it, especially because of the temperatures,” is Petecof’s take.

“Also in qualifying, sometimes you do a few too many push laps in a row, and you feel the tyres going away and losing grip, so it’s really important to pay attention to that and know how to manage to get the best out of the car.”

Rasmussen doesn’t think the high temperatures have added to the challenge: “No, because we know we’re driving with Pirellis and we are expecting tyre management and degradation. So no not really on that side.”

Leclerc meanwhile does think it’s a difficulty: “It’s really hard, because the steering wheel is really heavy. But I mean we are training for that. Then after for the tyres it’s a bit more difficult to manage because there is a bit of trouble with the thermal [limits]. So we are trying to manage it, and we are doing quite well for the moment.”

Five points split Petecof and Leclerc at the top of the standings, with Rasmussen a further 26 points behind. There is a fourth Prema-run car this season, being driven by Jamie Chadwick, but her struggles so far make her an unlikely title threat. Petecof or Leclerc’s campaigns may not last though, with vacancies on the FIA F3 Championship grid to be filled that would better prepare them for 2021, and a budget shortfall that may yet lead to Petecof ending his 2020 early.

Either way, whoever comes out on top of this team-mate rivalry will be firmly on F1’s radar next year.

 

CV
Gianluca Petecof Name Arthur Leclerc
16 Age 18
October 14, 2000 D/O/B October 14, 2000
Brazil Country Monaco
Car Racing
currently 1st in FREC (2 W, 2 P, 2 FL) 2020 currently 2nd in FREC (3 W, 4 P, 2 FL)
2nd in Italian F4 (4 W, 2 P, 2 FL)
5th in ADAC F4 (1 W, 2 P, 3 FL)
2019 3rd in ADAC F4 (1 W, 1 P, 2 FL)
4th in Italian F4 (1 W, 1 FL)
10th in ADAC F4
2018 5th in French F4 (2 W, 1 FL)
Karting
5th in South Garda Winter Cup – OK
6th in CIK-FIA World Championship – OK
2017
5th in CIK-FIA World Championship – OKJ
8th in Trofeo Andrea Margutti – OKJ
2016
8th in Florida Winter Tour – Junior ROK 2015
Florida Winter Tour champioon – Mini Max
2nd in Mini ROK Int. Finals
2014 KRA champion
Brazil Kart Cup winner – Junior Minor 2013