Home Featured R-ace GP bids to regain Regional supremacy while looking to Le Mans

R-ace GP bids to regain Regional supremacy while looking to Le Mans

by Roger Gascoigne

Photo: Dutch Photo Agency

The long-time sub-F3 force on trying to reclaim its FREC crown from Prema, and why it’s expanding towards Le Mans with a favoured son

After winning both the drivers’ and teams’ titles in the Formula Regional Middle East Championship over the winter, R-ace GP is looking to continue its run of success back in Europe with young, quick and exciting line-up.

At the same time, the team has made the step across the divide to embark on a campaign in the ACO’s Le Mans Cup for LMP3 prototypes, the bottom rung of the endurance racing ladder, as a first step towards taking on the Le Mans 24 Hours itself.

Formula Scout caught up with team principal, Thibaut de Merindol, for a frank and wide-ranging explanation of the team’s plans for 2024 and beyond.

R-ace GP has been a leading force at the sub-Formula 3 level of junior single-seaters for over a decade. Formula Renault Eurocup titles with Max Fewtrell and Oscar Piastri, which launched the Australian on his hat-trick of successive junior championships, were followed by immediate success in the first year of Formula Regional Europe following the merger with the Renault Eurocup.

After a lean year by its standards in 2022, the team bounced back for 2023, narrowly missing out on the teams’ title to series nemesis Prema, as Martinius Stenshorne and Tim Tramnitz took the fight to Andrea Kimi Antonelli.

“For sure it was a good season,” de Merindol recalls. “I mean, I enjoyed the season, fighting. The team atmosphere was really good with the drivers.”

He insists that he “wasn’t disappointed” to lose out “by one point in the last lap [just] because Antonelli overtook car number 47 for sixth position or whatever.

“We did everything possible in the final round at Hockenheim, we won both races. It would have been very difficult to do better.

“Anyway, it was out of our control. I think we need to be focused on ourselves as always, we need to be focused on what we do, what we could have done better, and I think it’s not at Hockenheim that we need to have any kind of regrets.

“Maybe earlier in the season, for sure, we could have done better on some occasions, but Hockenheim for me was not the point of disappointment.”

R-ace GP came into the 2024 season on the crest of a wave after dominating in the Middle East, with new signing Tuukka Taponen trouncing an experienced field including Taylor Barnard, Rafael Camara and even a part season from Stenshorne, brought in to provide R-ace with a reference point.

De Merindol admits to being “surprised” at how well the FRME season went, “especially because the previous year we struggled.

“We did a good job in analysing what went wrong in ‘23. So, I think we arrived with a clear idea, or at least we were expecting, [although] we could have been wrong. We arrived there with the motivation to turn the situation around.

“I mean, even if we do this championship as a training championship, we wanted to perform strongly. To kind of reset, cancel or forget ’23, and even ‘22 [which] was quite average.”

He admits to being “scared having only rookies, to start on the wrong foot and then to be in catch up mode and then to lose the positive dynamic.

“I wanted to be sure that we would not have question marks, neither for the drivers nor for the technical staff. To know if we are good or not good.”

Photo: FRMEC

“That’s also why we asked and convinced Martinius to join, because arriving there with three rookies [with Zachary David and Kanato Le alongside Taponen), and then four with [Jesse] Carrasquedo, we didn’t know what to expect, so we thought it was good to have Martinius for the first three rounds to launch our championship and I have to say that he did it very good,” he says, before adding with a smile that “Tuukka was very fast to get the tow, I would say, on Martinius.”

On the back of success in the Gulf, and a promising pre-season testing programme, de Merindol is “optimistic” about the new European season, “because we feel prepared and we are very happy with the driver line-up we have.”

After three seasons with the same car, engine and tyre combination in FREC, plus the experience from the Middle East, he says there is still room to further improve the car.

“You can always learn. You can always optimise because don’t forget that we are fighting for hundredths, so sometimes very little details can make the difference.”

After analysing the 2023 data over the winter, he calculates the average gap to Prema over the season as just 0.05s. “If you improve a little bit, you can make the difference.”

On top of that, teams had “to adapt to the new front geometry,” which, as Formula Scout revealed, has been introduced by FREC to improve the car’s driveability, particularly for women drivers, and more power from the engine.

“I don’t know about the other teams, but I think we found a way to reset up the car. And when we did back-to-back tests with the old and the new geometry [there was] not much difference in terms of car behaviour and performance.”

Following his performances in the Emirates, Taponen is expected to head the team’s challenge in Europe, although the start of the season has not shown the team’s full potential as Prema’s Camara has won three of the first four races in his sophomore year.

Photo: R-ace GP

Taponen, like Camara, is a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy and his move away from Prema, the traditional berth of Ferrari’s juniors, surprised many.

Discussions with the FDA about Taponen’s availability began early, although de Merindol struggles to pinpoint the actual starting point, “because we have been in contact with Marco [Matassa, former head of FDA] and Ferrari every race weekend.”

“The last two years we were always speaking about drivers. Sharing, texting and then the opportunity came. We spoke about [James] Wharton at one point, and during the summer, we started to say, ‘OK, well, what are your plans for Tuukka?’” with a second season for the Finn in Formula 4 still being considered.

“Once he [Matassa] told me that they were maybe thinking about doing directly FRECA, I said, ‘OK, I’m interested.’

“I met him and his management, Jussi [Kohtola] and we had a good connection. Marco was really telling me good things about him and we had good feedback from many people, from karting and so on.”

After his stellar karting career, much had been expected of Taponen when he moved up to cars, particularly after narrowly losing out on the UAE F4 title at the start of 2023. But when he returned to Europe, it all went awry, finishing the year with just a solitary win in Italian F4.

“Part of the job [was] to understand the reasons why he didn’t perform as much as we would all expect. It has been a big discussion between us, from the first time we met.

Having not fielded Taponen in F4, the team has to work with “his understanding and analysis of his F4 season to try to understand, so I was not so much focused on what could be a technical explanation, from one car to another or from one kind of tyre to another.

“We were more focused on his mindset and the way he approached things during his F4 season from winter testing in UAE and then Italian.

“We try to learn from that and to not repeat this kind of scenario so let’s see if we he managed to keep him on the same level for the European Championship.”

Taponen is joined in the all-FREC rookie line up by Red Bull junior Enzo Deligny and Zachary David, a Filipino racing with a Maltese licence in one of the more unusual driver nationality combinations.

Deligny has had his own dramas with his racing licence, only gaining his French certification on his 16th birthday in May, his age also preventing him from getting experience with the FRegional car in the UAE.

Deligny’s move to FREC was a surprise to some, having finished fifth in Spanish F4 in his maiden season in cars and with Red Bull usually being reluctant to entrust its juniors to FREC.

For de Merindol, such rapid progress is now the norm, at least “for the good ones. If you are top five, you do only one year in each category.  Now you have four steps: F4, FRECA, F3 and F2. It’s maybe one more step than it used to be but it also gives the opportunity to the drivers to do only one year at each [level].”

Two juniors, from different academies. Does that make life more demanding for the team?

“No, most of the time, the academies and the top management [groups] like Nicolas Todt, ADD or Infinity, are much more helpful, making everything easier than when you need to deal directly with the parents.

“For sure it’s a plus to work with this kind of organisation because they know what motorsport is about. We speak the same language, so everything is more under control and secure for us.

“We did not select the drivers according to the academy they were in. We tried to select the drivers, based firstly on who is interested in racing with us and secondly, the drivers we feel can perform the best with us, integrate into the team the best, share the same values and the same way of working, and then it’s quite long or deeply analysed process to select the drivers, so nothing to do with the academies to be honest.”

The deal with David came together “quite early last year, a bit like Martinius the year before, because we had the opportunity to do F4 UAE with him in ‘23.” he explains.

And de Merindol was impressed with what he saw, feeling that “he was a bit underestimated or underrated. I think we knew why from the UAE campaign, it was a lot about mental and also physical strength. He was very not prepared, neither mentally or physically but the raw speed was already promising, so we thought that signing him during the summer we had plenty of time to work on that.

“We felt that the people around him, the management was really keen to put in place what we were suggesting to do. And I think he starts to pay off.”

Indeed, in the two rounds so far, David has twice qualified on the third row, and while a mistake cost him a strong result at Hockenheim, he took his first podium next time out at Spa-Francorchamps.

When it comes to developing junior talent, R-ace GP’s track record is outstanding, and de Merindol believes that “the real good ones” should be able to adapt from the specifics of one championship to another.

“Naturally, one car can suit your natural driving style better or not, but this is the case maybe for the first two years of your racing career.

“For me, good drivers like Enzo, Tuukka or Zachary, must be able to adapt to any kind of cars or tyres or whatever, so they need to have the flexibility, the understanding, the overall understanding and the ability to work with each team to find a way to perform.”

De Merindol has made no secret in the past about the team’s ambitions to progress into other categories, notably Formula 2 and FIA Formula 3.

However, he is hesitant to commit, and while he may be keeping his cards close to his chest, the level of demand from rival teams also seeking to join the F1-support grids outstrips the places available.

While F3 will run a tender process this year to select the 10 teams to compete in the next three-year cycle from 2025, “we already know which teams will be selected,” he shrugs. “I think the only way to enter now is to have the opportunity to buy an F2 and F3 team together.”

Formula Motorsport CEO Bruno Michel has indicated a strong preference for teams to compete in both series, “and I understand his point,” says de Merindol. “It makes sense.”

“So, you need to have this opportunity [which] we had in the past with Charouz but in our case it has to be a possible business model.”

By which, we can assume, that it was not an entry fee that R-ace was willing to pay.

“Fighting against PHM to buy Charouz was not our business model,” he says, before adding, “we have to be patient”.

With options for expansion in single-seaters limited, the team has this year added an endurance programme, competing in the pro-am Le Mans Cup for LMP3 prototypes.

The driver line-up brings together the bronze-rated amateur driver, Fabien Michal, and one of R-ace GP’s favourite sons, Hadrien David, whose single-seater career had stalled after two frustrating stints with the Alpine junior programme and lacking the budget for the move to F3 his talent clearly merits.

Photo: FocusPackMedia – Marcel Wulf

Running the Duqueine M30 D08 chassis, R-ace was immediately on the pace, taking two poles, a second and a third in the opening two races, despite incurring a 30-second time penalty in France because “Fabien was too quick.”

Under the series rules, “when ACO considers that the bronze driver was too fast during his stint in the race, you get a time penalty for the following race. It’s kind of a BOP [Balance of Performance] but for drivers not the cars,” explains de Merindol.

The team is on a steep learning curve in endurance racing, “discovering the category and endurance, [and] we did not manage to put everything together on the races,” failing to hook up two strong stints in the same race.

“Next race, we will try to do the first stint good and the second stint good and then maybe, finally, we will be able to win a race.”

A reinvigorated David shares the positive outlook for the rest of the season: “We are against very good teams who did the Le Mans Cup since a few years, so it’s a really good start.”

The sideways step to endurance racing was born of two main considerations, explains de Merindol: “First of all, because I think it’s good for the team to see something else than single-seaters and what we are used to doing in F4 and FRECA. It creates a fresh new challenge with a totally different approach [which] is quite refreshing for the team.”

With no F3 on the horizon, endurance provides the necessary “new challenge for the mechanics, the engineers and for myself,” he says.

“But secondly, because we can feel that endurance is really developing, with all the constructors coming. In hypercars, there are now seven or eight constructors. This will provide plenty of paid opportunities for drivers to leave the single-seater pyramid earlier to go to endurance, as we can start to see with [former R-ace GP FREC driver, Lorenzo] Fluxa and [Frederik] Vesti.

“I think we will see more and more drivers moving from single-seaters to endurance earlier than after two or three years of F2 and knocking at the door of F1 for three years in a row.”

And, of course, that means offering its drivers, who lack the budget or “the pure sporting momentum or potential to really go to F1,” with the chance to continue their careers within the R-ace GP stable.

Positive feedback from David after testing the car eased de Merindol’s initial fears that the LMP3 might not offer enough of a challenge for drivers coming from FREC, as the prototype is both enjoyable to drive and “even faster than FREC, [by] around 2-3 seconds.”

Indeed, David has been pleasantly surprised by the performance of the LMP3 car after coming from single-seaters. “When I jumped into an LMP3 car, it really felt like home already, because it has the same behaviour as a single-seater. We just have a bit more engine power and a bit less downforce. But in the end, it’s still faster on one lap and the tyres are really good.”

De Merindol makes no secret of his admiration for David who has raced for the team in F4 and FREC, finishing runner-up in 2021, as well as acting as a driver coach.

“It’s nice to have Hadrien with us, first of all because he’s a very quick driver but also [because he is] very good to work with as a team member.”

Entering a new category with a new car, having a trusted partner in the cockpit “was a big advantage. We understand each other, he knows how we work. We know how he is. So it just made everything more efficient and easier.

“For him I hope it’s an opportunity to relaunch his sporting career,” he adds.

David, himself, is equally happy to be back in the driver’s seat and within the embrace of a team he loves and where he “had the best performance in the past in FREC.”

R-ace GP is “like a family for me. I spend more time with Thibaut than with my father. He has always believed in me and helped me so much in my racing career,” he enthuses. “I want to thank Thibaut for the opportunity.”

“To start a new project with them was the best thing that could ever happen to me,” he tells Formula Scout.

Having lost the support of Alpine, who was “supposed to pay a big part of my season, I couldn’t find any programme,” David says of his 2023. After a potential deal with MP Motorsport to race in F3 in 2024 failed to materialise, R-ace was “the only team who called me and helped me to race for good conditions.”

He accepts, at least outwardly, that his single-seater career has reached its end point. “We all know that money is everything in this sport and to enter the best teams we need a lot. I think it’s better to start this new project with R-ace, which is a top team, as strong as Prema.”

For a driver that raced against and beat drivers such as F2 front runners Isack Hadjar and Gabriel Bortoleto as R-ace GP team-mates in FREC, there is clearly a lingering sense of hurt at how things turned out. “I see people that were a lot slower than me going up in the categories that I beat easily and when I see that I am blocked in a category and I cannot find the money to go up, it’s very frustrating.”

“It may be frustrating to not be in F2 now with all the drivers I raced against but probably in a few years we will meet again in endurance, in LMP2 or hypercars,” he concludes, and given the lack of F1 opportunities, even for F1 junior drivers, and the rapid growth of endurance racing, he may well be right.

For R-ace GP, the future strategy is clear: “We know what we want to do. We want to do LMP2. We want to do ELMS. We want to do the 24 Hours of Le Mans,” de Merindol says without hesitation.

Even if direction of travel is clear, the timeline is not. “I don’t know when. First, we need to understand when they will introduce a new car. It should be ‘26, but it’s under discussion.

“Secondly, we need to get an entry in the championship and we know it’s not that easy.

“And third – or maybe first – we need to deserve it. It means that we need to learn endurance, to deserve being in LMP2 in ELMS. So, first we need to do a good job this year in LMP3 and to take the opportunity as soon as it comes to go to LMP2,” he explains, confirming that “anyway we will keep LMP3.”

Not surprisingly, David is in a hurry to move up, and to do so with R-ace. “We would love to be on the LMP2 grid in 2025, even if I think it will be too tight. But we will target 2026 and we will try to prepare it as much as possible in LMP3.”

For the moment, however, a step to the top tier in hypercars, potentially running a customer Alpine or Peugeot, is not in R-ace GP’s plans. “Never say never, but this is a too long term project to be able to have the ambition to do it, but we know we can do LMP2.”

Hadrien David interview by Alejandro Alonso Lopez