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Pole positions: The lifelong friends leading a Polish racing resurgence

by Roger Gascoigne

Photo: Kacper Sztuka

Sixteen years on from Robert Kubica’s F1 victory, Polish motor racing is on the verge of a new boom. Two drivers leading the current generation of young Polish single-seater talent join the Formula Scout podcast.

Born just a month apart in the same hospital in southern Poland, Kacper Sztuka, the reigning Italian Formula 4 champion, and Tymoteusz “Tymek” Kucharczyk, the current points leader in GB3, have progressed through the ranks together.

Their fathers, Lukasz and Maciej, competed against each other in rallies and their sons “started karting together when we were like four years old,” explains Sztuka. “Tymek’s father was pushing my father to do it together and we finally made it to the track.”

After competing together through their karting years, the childhood friends have since taken diverging paths as Sztuka headed to Italy, winning the F4 title at his third attempt, before being snapped up by Red Bull to join MP Motorsport in FIA Formula 3 for 2024.

Kucharczyk graduated to F4 in Spain, courtesy of the Richard Mille Talent Academy shootout, taking third in the championship in 2022, before moving up to GB3 in Britain last season.

Illustrating the brutal ups-and-downs of motorsport, after a stunning second half to his F4 season with 10 wins from 12 starts in the Italian and Euro championships, Sztuka has endured a difficult start to his F3 season, reaching a nadir with the announcement just after our interview that he had been abruptly dropped by the Red Bull junior programme.

Kucharczyk, on the other hand, has bounced back from a difficult learning year in GB3 to score three victories with Hitech GP, including two last time out at Spa-Francorchamps, to sit on top of the championship standings after three rounds.

“I’m just super grateful, to be honest, because it finally seems that everything starts to work out really well for me and for the team,” Kucharczyk says.

“We’ve been quite a bit unlucky for the first two rounds, especially in round one when we should have scored a podium.” After “a bit of my mistake in race two at Oulton [Park] and a much better round two at Silverstone and then that amazing last round at Spa,” he finds himself leading the championship, “which is really crazy,” he says.

“We were super quick all weekend. Whatever the conditions were, if it was either like wet or dry, we were the quickest. That gives us a lot of confidence for the next round. I have a lot of positives to take out of the weekend. I’ve learned quite a lot of stuff. The more laps I do, it’s just getting better and better.”

Despite his two wins in Belgium, he is aware that there are still areas to improve. “I know I should have done a better job on my second-best lap [and] in the last race. There’s so much going on in race weekends and your driving is so limited that you don’t know really what could happen, but I’m just happy that I didn’t take that too much risk that I could deliver the results that gave me the championship lead, that’s the most important thing.”

Now, he adds, he needs “just to keep that momentum going and score the points and keep on this form.”

Having moved across from Douglas Motorsport over the winter, Kucharczyk underlines the hard work he and his new team Hitech have put in “because we struggled a bit in the beginning of this season, I’m not going to lie.”

Although the decision to go to Hitech came “quite late, so I didn’t have much time to adapt to a new team,” he has settled in quickly, helped as well by already knowing his team-mates from karting.

“The people [in Hitech] are taking their job really professionally and are true fans of motorsport,” he enthuses. “It’s a huge team, with F4, GB3, FIA F3 and F2, so there’s a lot of people walking around and my team boss is a really important person in the paddock.”

Photo: Jakob Ebrey Photography

“It was not easy really in the first few test days [and] we didn’t show our real true pace but I’m just happy that in the races we could prove everyone wrong. Six wins in a row for Hitech GP just shows on what level we are right now,” he says.

Besides adapting to the new team environment, “the tyres changed a bit. I think I had to adapt a bit longer than I would have expected to do, but I’m super happy to make the team proud [and] to finally make some good results.”

Kucharczyk feels that he has developed in the last year. “I generally think that I’m a bit more mature driving now, I’m a bit calmer. I’m trying to analyse a bit more what’s going on around me and [what] the track’s looking like.

“Now I’m trying to be a bit more focused on the setup and also only on the driving while I’m in the car. I just know what I have to do really and obviously, I believe the team that they give me a good package so I can just do my job, and I don’t need to care about anything.

“Last year it’s been a bit of ups and downs. It was never really constantly good. We were fast last year. Most weekends, at some point we were the fastest or closer to the fastest, but something was just not clicking right. What I think I was lacking a bit [was] that confidence from the team that you know that they can deliver the car and I can just deliver the results. The way the team works, it’s just so professional, like another level really. So, everything is turning out how it should be really.”

As Kucharczyk’s world looks increasingly bright, Sztuka has been struggling to get to grips with “the very big step” to F3, with the added pressure of Red Bull’s expectations upon him.

After two seasons with US Racing in F4, meaning he “spent a lot of time with the team, the mechanics and the engineers,” he has also been adapting to a new environment at MP Motorsport.

Photo: Red Bull

Though the lack of testing compared to F4 has made “the process of getting used to the team a bit slower,” he was able to establish “a very good feeling with the team” from day one, he says. Compared to F4, he has been shocked by the amount and depth of data analysis required in a top F3 team like MP.

“I’m happy to be in this team. As a rookie it’s a really good place to learn and to build the pace there. The teamwork which is very important in F3 is done properly. We are getting used to each other in the team,” Sztuka adds.

On track, the opening rounds in Bahrain and Melbourne “were something different to what we have in the normal European season,” he admits.

Racing for the first time outside Europe, Bahrain’s abrasive track surface and resulting “really high” tyre degradation caught him out, while F3’s limited track time meant he was under immediate pressure to learn the Albert Park circuit.

Despite that, he believes that “it wasn’t as bad as the result was for me in terms of driving, especially in qualifying as it improved by a lot comparing to Bahrain. It just seemed like the pace wasn’t there from practice until the feature race,” he explains.

Back in Europe, Sztuka feels that the “Barcelona test gave me for sure a much better feeling in the car,” ahead of the Imola-Monaco double-header.

He’d been hoping to show stronger form at Imola, a circuit where he won in F4, and “improved” qualifying pace put him 12th which, he says, “wasn’t actually too bad. I wouldn’t normally be happy with P12 in qualifying, even though it gives me pole position on Saturday, but the fact I did it on used tyres makes it a bit better. For sure I’m not saying I would score pole position, but I think I could be a bit higher with a new set.”

Photo: Red Bull

Despite those positive signs, he again struggled for pace in the races. He did score his first points with fifth in the sprint race but would have been hoping for better after starting from reversed-grid pole. “Difficult first lap on Saturday and then a bit of struggle in in the first part,” he says, and while Sunday’s race brought further disappointment, he felt that he had “learned a lot from Imola.”

While “not happy with the result” on his first-ever race on a “proper street circuit” at Monaco, it still “wasn’t too bad,” he believes. “I wish I was in the points all weekend, but I’m not saying it was a completely negative weekend. There were some positives, and we also found a good balance on Sunday with the race set up.”

As the F3 field heads back to Barcelona and a run of tracks he knows, he is confident that he and his MP Motorsport team have made some strong progress, with “a lot of lessons learned in these two weeks,” making improvements on his main weakness so far, the all-important one lap qualifying runs.

“Now we have to work on the race runs and, of course, keep improving qualifying but we are for sure moving in a good direction. I think there is for sure a few reasons to bring better results.

“But in the end, it’s about the performance, the speed and the work you put in,” he reflects.

As Sztuka looks forward to showing his potential on circuits he knows, his backers at Red Bull have, after just four rounds, decided to put an end to their cooperation.

Speaking before the split was announced, Sztuka had been positive about the support from Red Bull, including runs on the sim in Milton Keynes, singling out the head of the driver academy, Sebastian Vettel’s former engineer, Guillaume Rocquelin, better known as “Rocky”, for praise.

Photo: Red Bull

“He comes after each race to have a chat, to speak about what went well and what went wrong” Sztuka says. Interestingly, given what later transpired, he adds that “we also spoke about the progress and we both think that that the results should come, and we should focus on what we do on the driving, and I hope we can get good results.”

As for Dr. Helmut Marko, “the contact is more limited than people think,” he adds.

While Sztuka has said on social media that he intends to see out the F3 season, the loss of Red Bull support inevitably re-opens the never-ending search for budgets, something that both Sztuka and Kucharczyk have struggled with.

Kucharczyk has no doubts that without the budget that came from winning the Richard Mille award, he wouldn’t have been able to move up to cars. “Winning the shootout made me able to race in formula cars. That’s a fact. Without winning it, I wouldn’t be here. I guess I’d be still in karting or whatever, doing some nonsense stuff really at this age.”

The Polish fans, who previously supported Kubica in great numbers, have waited a long time for the next heroes to cheer for.

Sztuka appreciates the “great support. The Polish fans are the best fans, as we say. I’m grateful to have them.”

“There are a lot of people watching our sport, especially due to the Netflix series [Drive To Survive] which had an impact obviously. It’s a very popular sport and as we are climbing to the pinnacle of motorsport, there are more and more people following us.”

Kucharczyk says he has even seen Polish flags “at Silverstone, which was really, really good. I was just driving with my smile all lap long, just waiting for the flags on the straight,” he laughs.

“I would say that the generation we have now of Polish drivers is probably like the golden era of single-seater race car drivers in Poland for a very long time, since Robert Kubica really,” he continues.

Photo: Jakob Ebrey Photography

“But Poland is more of a rally country than a racing country and people don’t realise how expensive it is,” says Kucharczyk.

“There’s a lot of talented drivers in Poland right now that could easily go up to FIA F3 or FIA F2 just like me and Kacper,” he maintains.

“Poland just needs to understand that without real backup, a real academy or whatever, without the support of Polish government, we probably won’t reach F1 or be even close to F1. It’s just financially not possible. Me and Kasper are working very hard to show all the little kids racing in Poland that is possible to race. But they have to work very, very hard and get that financial back up.”

Sztuka agrees: “Just the fact I made it to F3 makes me really proud because it’s not really possible for some other drivers even though they are very talented.”

“There are many talented Polish drivers right now, so I think we have a very good potential to have at least one of us in F1 [but] it’s really important right now for Poland to give them the financial support and at least a chance to show themselves.”

Kucharczyk emphasizes that “getting the financial backup is so hard in Poland that probably for most of the young Polish drivers, it’s just hard to show off their real skill. Me and Kacper obviously got super lucky that we managed to race together in karts to be in that kind of environment where all the young talents are showing up and we were one of the brightest out there. But not everyone gets that lucky.”

The lifelong friends spent “eight or nine years” racing karts, “staying in the same hotel, travelling together in the same car or plane.”

Sztuka remembers “some other drivers on the way, [who] were with us for two or three years but only me and Tymek were there from the beginning until the very end of karting. And then, of course, we split in F4 but I hope we can we can get back together as F3 and F2 is a world championship so you cannot choose anything else than that.”

Photo: WSK Karting

So, the big question: who was faster in karts?

To Kucharczyk’s pleasant surprise, Sztuka modestly suggests that “Tymek was faster, looking at the whole career of karting. I had good moments, but I think Tymek just had more good moments than me. A shame we couldn’t compare each other in F4, but in karting he was faster.”

For his part, Kucharczyk (pictured above in 2021) acknowledges that “in one lap pace, Kacper could really be impressive, [which] sometimes caught me absolutely off guard.

“I would say also I had a bit more constant karting career, so Kacper did quite a bit of switching between teams, trying to find that sweet spot, where I just basically stayed in two teams for most of my karting career.”

Could the friends be reunited on the FIA F3 grid in 2025, budgets permitting? Or even F2, as the pair jokingly suggested during the interview?

Kucharczyk is clearly heading in the right direction for F3, if he can maintain his current form. “The GB3 car is actually a bit quicker than the FRECA so I would assume that it prepares you a bit better to FIA F3 and so to FIA F2 too. Just where will I get the money from?” he laughs.

Sztuka has always been a driver who requires more time to adapt to a new category, something that obviously sat uneasily with Red Bull’s operational style. Hopefully, without the strictures of an F1 academy to adhere to, he can find his own rhythm and rebuild his confidence to prove his doubters wrong.

The enthusiastic and loyal Polish fans will certainly be hoping for another driver or two to cheer for at the top levels soon.

Photo: Tymek Kucharczyk