With Formula 1 and its supports providing excitement and headlines at Silverstone over the weekend, it was easy to miss the start of racing at the other end of the single-seater ladder, and the names that stood out
While Formula 4 won’t get its usual appearance on the support bill of one or two grands prix this year, it shouldn’t have to lose out on the kind of attention that those weekends often got in the past. Obviously there are more series fighting for attention on any given weekend this year due to the compressed calendars, and this has already impacted F4 as drivers contesting multiple series have been forced out of the privilege of being able to give two series equal priority now there is an increased number of date clashes.
The four biggest F4 series in the world, in both car count and status, were all in action last weekend and marked the highly anticipated single-seater debuts of several karting graduates and Formula 1 juniors.
Our writers run through each of the series that were racing on the weekend, and which drivers left a strong impression.
Considering the impact world events has had on other F4 championships, British F4 has come off relatively unscathed. Two drivers had drop out before the season began, and one was quickly replaced by series rookie Nathaneal Hodgkiss.
Heading into the opening weekend, Carlin’s Zak O’Sullivan was one of the favourites, and he certainly hit the ground running. The Ginetta Junior graduate and former karting star was constantly in the fight at the front of the field, and won race two of the Donington Park season opener.
But O’Sullivan was far from alone at the front of the field. British F4 looks set to be one of the most competitive series at its level in 2020. The opening race was defined by the battle for the lead, with as many as five drivers fighting for position.
Among them was Arden’s Alex Connor, one of the few sophomore drivers on the grid. Fortec Motorsports’ Luke Browning is another one of the favourites heading into 2020, but Connor met the gauntlet thrown down by Browning to win the first race of the year. While that shouldn’t discourage Browning, he’s not the only title contender Fortec has on board.
Unsurprisingly, JHR Developments’ James Hedley – who beat O’Sullivan to the Ginetta title last year – was also at the front of the field in the two races set by the qualifying order, but a few small mistakes in both races one and two cost him strong results. He made up for that with a win in race three, but his retirement in the chaotic two puts him on the backfoot heading into this weekend’s round at Brands Hatch.
The tight schedule (four of the scheduled nine rounds take place this month) means there won’t be much time to regroup and learn the lessons of round one before racing begins again.
With British F4 being as competitive as it is, it’s entirely possible the eventual champion is yet to stand on the top step. Fortec’s Roberto Faria put in a good performance in qualifying but couldn’t quite make things stick in the races. It’s also likely some of the drivers eligible for rookie honours, including Carlin’s Christian Mansell and Matias Zagazeta will come into their own with more time.
But it’s definitely advantage O’Sullivan at this early stage.
While grid sizes have decreased over the years since the creation of ADAC F4, it’s never really been to the point where it should have become a talking point. But once these things are pointed out, it can become a self-fulfilling statement.
Just 11 drivers turned up for the first round of 2020 at the Lausitzring, with at least a further five whose absence was down to prioritising the clashing Italian F4 opener. While it’s encouraging that those missing entries are guaranteed to be competitive, the impact of their arrival for the next round may be limited by the fact that one of the Lausitzring stars could be gone.
Ollie Bearman was a late addition to the grid, having planned to stay in karting until 2021. His impressive test form led to a race debut with US Racing, and his pace immediately translated into strong qualifying results. The inexperience showed in the races, especially when it came to getting the car off the line, and he left with a best finish of sixth.
SMP Racing protege Kirill Smal is another top karter who was making his single-seater debut, and he had a similar learning curve after limited testing. He lost a front wing in one race, but was very quick over one lap and rivalled second-year F4 driver and Red Bull junior Jonny Edgar when it came to going on the attack in the races, comparing well against R-ace GP team-mate Victor Bernier, last year’s French F4 junior champion.
Van Amersfoort Racing driver Edgar was the class of the field, and very probably would have won three races out of three had he not timed his pitstop for wet tyres (in response to a sudden rain shower) shortly before the final race was red flagged.
His Red Bull stable-mate Jak Crawford, who like Bearman and Smal only recently turned 15, used his North American experience well but couldn’t charge as hard as Edgar after using up too much of his tyres at the start. Still, his double pole position proves he’s immediately up to speed in unfamiliar surroundings.
German karting graduate Tim Tramintz was the highest-scoring rookie, and maximised his chances to nab a podium.
All eyes were on Prema at Misano, but it was still VAR that came out on top with the one car it sent for Francesco Pizzi. The Italian had one of the best starts to 2020 in racing when he made his single-seater debut in F4 United Arab Emirates, won his first four races and then the title before COVID-19 delayed the rest of motorsport.
That extra racing was probably an advantage, but given he’s still a rookie and didn’t have team-mates to share data with – or much historical data to access compared to rival teams – it was an incredible job to get three podiums and lead the points.
Prema’s four-strong line-up consisted entirely of total F4 rookies, and it was Nicolas Todt protege Gabriele Mini who looked the most complete. He claimed pole for all three races, perhaps unsurprisingly after being fastest at Misano in pre-season testing, but race showings were most persuasive of this being a driver who seems likely to be in F1 some day.
The common struggle across all the rookies was getting launches right, with F4 gearboxes presenting very different demands to what drivers are used to in karts, and Mini pointed to his starts as being the difference between victory on his debut, a fourth place and a second, and getting victory in all three races.
His team-mates Dino Beganovic, Gabriel Bortoleto and Sebastian Montoya were closely matched, and Bortoleto admitted to nerves after being slowest of the quartet in qualifying. The Italian F4 midfield is massively competitive but often chaotic, so his return of 12 points and no clashes from the weekend was a strong start all things considered.
Montoya was at the front of that midfield, but not quite free of it, although he did get in front of Mini briefly in race two. Beganovic meanwhile made the podium in a weekend where his own feedback suggested he was exploring the limits in every way possible (including rear-ending Montoya).
As a new entrant, the Iron Lynx team landed with a similar splash with Leonardo Fornaroli, who kept Prema’s rookies on their toes.
Jenzer Motorsport’s Filip Ugran and Cram Motorsport’s Andrea Rosso were the star returnees, and while he raced at Misano last year, BVM Racing’s Pietro Delli Guanti should be commended for three top-seven finishes with less car racing experience than fellow one-car man Pizzi, and scoring more in two races than BVM has managed since 2017.
The star of the US F4 season so far has been Velocity Racing Development’s Hunter Yeany, who has an average finishing position of second place in the nine races held so far (including the non-championship Mid-Ohio encounter). He’s one of the least experienced on the grid, but with his impressive start he already has Regional Formula 3 appearances in his sights.
Last year he was too young to race, and VRD tasked him with shaking down their cars and completing test days instead. That’s prepared him well, and other drivers have had similar development programmes but aren’t getting the same results.
Even Kyle Kirkwood’s famed dominance of the 2017 season, as a second-year racer, doesn’t match Yeany scoring run at this point of the year – and he has some quality opposition that primarily comes from Crosslink/Kiwi Motorsport.
Third-year drivers Dylan Tavella and Jose Blanco-Chock were expected to be fighting for the title this year, and both have been right at the front but also dropped points through incidents. Their rookie team-mate Spike Kohlbecker – who like Blanco-Chock used Toyota Racing Series to prepare for this year – has kept out of trouble despite the number of side-by-side battles he’s been involved in, although that’s a skill he’s mastered in his last two years in Formula Ford racing.
Technical controversies have surrounded Jay Howard Driver Development, and its star driver Christian Bogle left the series after he was disqualified from two wins in the Mid-Ohio season opener. His team-mate Sam Paley has been similarly as quick on race pace, and is probably still just in title contention after the halfway point of the season, while the less experienced Nick Persing has also impressed.
You can also enjoy this feature, written by Bethonie Waring and Elliot Wood, in podcast form. Click below to listen, or head to Breaker, Google Podcasts, Overcast, RadioPublic, Pocket Casts, Castbox, Apple Podcasts and Spotify.