Despite only becoming old enough to race the day of the season opener, Ugo Ugochukwu started his British F4 career as one to watch. He responded to that pressure with pole on his birthday and a win the following weekend. He joined the Formula Scout Podcast to discuss F4, being a McLaren protege and racing in Europe
Ugochukwu already had an impressive CV when he started car racing this April, with national karting titles back home in the United States and strong results in European championships. It was a resume that had attracted attention from multiple Formula 1 teams, but it was McLaren that Ugochukwu ultimately signed with.
“At the of 2020 I was racing in OK-Junior [karts] and it was a good season,” Ugochukwu explained on the podcast. “I managed to pick up the CIK-FIA European Championship. And that winter, Zak Brown called, interested in me. And yeah, that’s pretty much how we signed.
“There were a couple of teams interested in me, but overall, we decided to go with McLaren. We felt was the it was the best choice for my career.”
McLaren actually only signed an option on Ugochukwu at first, as at the time he was racing for the karting arm of Sauber, the operating company behind the Alfa Romeo Racing Formula 1 team. It did not take too long however for Ugochukwu to move into the colours of the factory Kart Republic team and for a fully fledged McLaren affiliation to take place.
“Being in McLaren, I’ve been to the factory a couple times for training, seeing how everything works but of course, it can help me up the junior series quite a bit. But you know, for now, I’m still in British Formula 4 and I’m only 15. So I’m concentrating on the season only and just need to take it one step at a time.”
McLaren is one of three F1 teams with juniors in British Formula 4 this year, but Ugochukwu doesn’t thing the backing of big names has come with any added pressure.
“I think mainly the pressure is always coming from yourself. Because you always want to do good in these races. I think it was just a nice confidence boost at first [to be a McLaren junior] and now you always have to perform at a high level as well.
“Of course you always wanted to do the best job possible as you can and always do the best you can every time around the track.”
While representing America on the F4 grid, Ugochukwu is based in Italy, having moved there to pursue his karting career.
“[I knew I wanted to be a racing driver] pretty much straight away. I started karting in kid karts. And then slowly, slowly moved up, Micro Max, Mini Max and that’s when the decision came to come to race in Europe.
“It was a big dedication, already from karting to come to Europe to compete, but we knew that’s what I wanted to do. So that was the main goal to come to Europe and compete in these very competitive championships. It’s a lot of work. A lot of dedication but you need to be committed to doing it.”
As his karting career came to an end, preparations to move into cars began and Ugochukwu tested with R-ace GP and Motopark. Tim Tramnitz acted as his reference driver during a test with Motopark at Estoril and ended up breaking his back in a freak crash. It was ultimately British F4 and Carlin that he chose to go to though at the end of the year, although he reunited with R-ace for a test programme this spring before then adding ADAC F4 to his race schedule with Prema.
“Racing in British F4 this season, we just thought it was a good championship, and a good place to start my single-seater career,” Ugochukwu explained.
“I think it was a collective idea [with McLaren]. They’re in the UK, there’s good tracks, good teams and a good opportunity to learn a lot about cars.”
There was a lot to learn as, despite the winter tests, a totally new car was being introduced to British F4. Carlin has run four of the series’ past champions, including current McLaren F1 driver Lando Norris, but it also had to go on a learning curve with the new car.
“Starting from cars is a lot different from karting,” said Ugochukwu. “Everything changes, the tracks, the cars, they’re a litle lighter. It’s a little different. A little quicker as well. And it was definitely a learning curve through testing and the first couple of rounds but overall I think it’s been a pretty positive season.
“I managed to get pole straight away in the first race, which is good. Getting podiums throughout the season. I’m currently sitting third in the championship. It’s going to be tricky but the goal for the rest of the races is to just win as much as possible by the end of the year
“[The first] Saturday was the day of my birthday, thankfully, or we would have missed the first round. And I got pole position that day as well. So special.
“My first win came at Brands Hatch Indy, a couple of races later in the wet mix conditions and starting P3. But then I managed to get into the lead and I just pulled away. First time winning in cars was a special feeling. It was great.
“Zak Brown came to support, watch that race. But also there, when not for the British F4, for the support of the touring cars [racing that weekend]. So there’s always a big crowd and I was happy to take that first one.”
Ugochukwu also spoke about the atmosphere inside the British F4 paddock and of team-mate Ollie Gray, one of his closest rivals this season, a fellow F1 junior and also one his reference drivers during private testing and now on race weekends too.
“It’s tricky. There are many experienced drivers already who’ve done a couple of seasons in F4.
“It’s always tricky being in the first year trying to get the experience. It’s a very competitive championship. There’s always very big crowds, and it’s great. You always want to do the best as you can each race.
“Off the track is always different. And then as soon as you get in the car you want to do as best as possible. It’s just been like that really, quite a competitive group, let’s say.”
Now, with only three rounds of the 2022 season remaining, Ugochukwu lies 129 points away from Hitech GP’s Alex Dunne at the top of the standings and with 225 points still available to score.
“I’m feeling good,” he said of the remaining rounds. “Hitech is a strong competition. Of course, they did the UAE [F4 series as preparation]. So I think they started off the season with a lot more experience with the new Tatuus compared to us at Carlin. We got the cars a lot later. And only did the testing. It’s been a tricky start to the year. Still learning.
“I think we’re confident for these last few races, some good circuits coming up Thruxton, Silverstone and Brands Hatch Grand Prix. The speed is there so we’re confident in doing well in these last three rounds.”
Of his plans for 2023 he added: “We’ll see, still a couple of rounds to go here in Britain. We’ll have a couple more races this year with Prema. At the end of the year, it all depends on how it goes now. I have a lot of support, they want me to win. And then depending on how these races go, we’ll decide for next year.”
And of course, where Ugochukwu races will depend in part on where he’s old enough to race at the start of next year.
“I’m still 15 now, I only turned 15 in April, so it will most probably be F4 again, next season. Just need to see my options. And yeah, just do as best as possible in the championship I compete in.”