Andrea Kimi Antonelli has gone from strength to strength since his car racing debut last autumn, on and off-track. Ida Wood spoke to the Mercedes-AMG Formula 1 protege and his engineer about his progress
There are few drivers as exciting in junior single-seater racing right now as Prema’s Formula 4 dominator Andrea Kimi Antonelli. The 15-year-old has won 17 of the 39 races he has started, been on the podium in 26 of them and only had two retirements in the past 11 months.
Formula Scout was in the Red Bull Ring paddock last September as Antonelli made his debut, and he and his engineer Pedro Matos spoke in detail through that weekend (which you can read here) about their preparation and the races themselves.
Now Antonelli has the equivalent of a season of racing experience under his belt, it’s time to analyse again and find out how the Italian has turned into a dominant force in one of the most competitive series below Formula 1.
On the surface, Antonelli’s 2022 setup is a continuity from when he made his debut. He’s driving for Prema again, with some of the same team-mates and most of the same team crew as 2021, but he’s driving a different car (as series switched to Gen2 chassis) to what he spent his first nine F4 races in and he’s now engineered by Prema’s chief F4 engineer Benjamin Constans.
“I have to say I have a really good relationship with Ben, and I think we are working really well together,” Antonelli tells Formula Scout.
“When you work well together, you can assume good results and that’s what we are doing at the moment and I hope we can keep going like this because I’m really happy about it.
“I started with him with the UAE championship. That championship was mostly OK. To learn also the [new Tatuus T-421] car, but also to get in touch with him and build a relationship. I mean now, also compared to UAE, our relationship is really strong and as I said before we’re working really well together.
“We have a really comfortable type of working, and also we try to push each other. And mostly he tries to push me more, to do more. But he’s also part of the [job].”
The F4 UAE programme, which for Antonelli consisted of the non-championship Abu Dhabi Grand Prix support race (the debut of the T-421) and a round apiece at Yas Marina Circuit and Dubai Autodrome, wasn’t just useful for learning changes he’d have to get used to for 2022, but also assessing how winter testing in the previous-generation car had gone compared to his rivals.
“The testing is really helpful because you can always try to improve yourself,” Antonelli says. “But also I have to say the races, especially UAE, helps a lot because of course you measure with the other competitors.”
When Antonelli debuted in F4 he was nursing a leg injury that reduced the amount of brake pressure he could apply, but the rehabilitation work he had to do on that leg means it’s now stronger than the other one.
“Yeah, definitely,” he confirms. “And actually now I can manage the pressure way better than when I started and that’s also the improvement that I made because obviously when I got stronger I also managed the car better and also I was faster.”
The other memorable part of Antonelli’s debut weekend was a trait that has been spotted by many in the F4 paddock: a near-constant level of enthusiastic energy and friendliness that shows he is as comfortable outside the car as he is in it. His excitement was combined with some nervousness on his debut in Austria, and controlling those two things has actually been a key to the calmness of some of his dominant wins this year.
“I still have that energy, and sometimes I’m still nervous but in this time I learn now to manage all the excitement and all the stress and I have to say I still need to improve on this side but I’m working and definitely there are so many improvements because now I can manage way better the pressure compared to when I started in September.
“In terms of driving I wouldn’t say I’m that different [to last September], because I still have the same driving style, but I improve on some points. But mentally I’m way stronger, especially compared to the first race – as I said before I manage way better the pressure and I manage way better the race. I can still improve, but I’d say I’m better.”
And how would Antonelli describe his driving style?
“I mean my driving style, I have to say from qualifying to races changes quite a bit because in qualifying I’m quite aggressive on driving, but in the race I’m way more calm, also because with this new car the tyre degradation is way bigger, because of the extra weight. And we need to manage the tyres.
“Also, overtaking has improved [since 2021] because I took the measures, because in September I was still taking the measures between.”
Antonelli and his Prema team-mates demonstrated some of that overtaking prowess in the most recent Italian F4 round at Spa-Francorchamps, although running off track in their slipstreams battles meant several overtakes then required positions to be handed back.
On one occasion where team-mate Rafael Camara used the two to get alongside at Les Combes, Antonelli only kept the lead after going through the run-off at the corner. Rather than try to pull away or give the place back immediately, which he wasn’t informed he needed to do, Antonelli slowed at the Bus Stop chicane at the end of the lap and Camara went by. It looked like Antonelli was thinking ahead to get the tow for the next lap and be more confident of being ahead by Les Combes, and he confirmed to Formula Scout post-race that was the case.
“Yeah that was planned. So basically when I cut – obviously I took a gap and in the middle section I lift a bit to let the guy close the gap, and then for the Bus Stop I decide to give back the position because then I could use the slipstream in all the straight to attack again. So definitely that move was planned.”
Spa was also a unique opportunity to race on the same track twice in a year, as Antonelli’s triple win there in Italian F4 followed up similar domination in the ADAC F4 season opener at the same circuit.
“It’s really helpful to be back, because we were racing in the ADAC before and we had all the data from that round so we could improve from those points. Even though the track was a bit different this weekend, I could still try to work on some points to improve, also especially compared to ADAC. Definitely being here before this weekend was really important.”
Following the Spa weekend was the third ADAC round at Zandvoort, and the wins there were shared between Antonelli and team-mate Conrad Laursen. Camara sits between the pair at the top of the points table, and the very real chance of winning the driver, rookie and teams’ titles with the trio has prompted Prema to continue its participation in the championship into this weekend’s Nurburgring round and beyond.
Much of what Antonelli says is mirrored by Constans, demonstrating how effective their relationship is as well as the results on-track do.
Constans started work at Prema in 2017 as a simulator engineer, then got switched into a race engineer role in F4 two years later and worked with another Mercedes junior in Paul Aron. He was promoted to chief race engineer the year after, with Dino Beganovic his focus that season in Italian F4, then Sebastian Montoya was his driver last year. Once that season ended, he started working with Antonelli through winter testing.
“He’s such a very nice kid, always full of energy. That’s his main thing,” Constans says.
“He comes at the track, he’s always full of energy, it’s almost sometimes very tiring to keep him busy. But it’s quite good. Obviously he has natural talent, he showed it in karting, so for him it was quite easy to make the step. He’s always immediately on the pace, and of course he’s still a rookie, so to work on some details with him to make him grow the best we can. That’s the main thing.”
Constans [pictured above, right] says the change in car between Antonelli’s rookie part-season and his first full one was also more of a challenge for the paddock’s engineers than the drivers, as supply chain issues meant the F4 UAE programme was effectively the first test of the cars.
“Obviously it’s a very different car from the old one, especially in the weight. Everyone knows this. That was the main challenge and for the drivers to adapt to it. Honestly it’s not a big difference in terms of driving, what you need from the car. It’s still a very good learning tool for these kids. And, as all the teams, we just tried to put the best work in. That’s also why we went to the UAE, to kind of do these shakedowns and see how the new car is. That’s the main thing for us as engineers.
“Then for the drivers, to be honest was not as big as a challenge to switch from the old new one to the new one. The old one is obviously quite a bit faster because of the weight, but trying to improve that new car step-by-step.”
But the Italian F4 teams have more than made up for lost time with the new car, particularly teams like Prema that have also been racing in ADAC F4 and on track almost every week either in group or private tests.
“Yeah. We have maybe every single week on the road. If we do the German series, the Italian, the testing, the UAE was five weeks over there; it’s so intense that we don’t have any time to spare, let’s say. Even at the workshop. It’s quite demanding compared to other categories.
“Probably we can count 150 days we’re away, over a year, on the road. So that’s already quite a lot. We’re basically every single week working with [our drivers], whether it’s simulator, on-track. It’s mostly testing for F4, but you also have simulator in some teams, especially Prema. So yeah, it’s just every single week, we see them all the time.”
Formula Scout comments that it’s like going to school, but all year around, and Constans agrees.
“That’s what is quite challenging [it being all year] because it’s always very tiring. We came into Spa, we have a triple-header, then at the end of that three weeks I know the drivers are going to be very tired because they’re still young. Also the team. That’s why it’s not on a F1 level maybe, but it’s very tiring and you just keep going like this. But that’s part of it and that’s why we make it.”
It’s addictive, as much for those around the cars such as the teams and the media, as it is for the drivers.
That Spa weekend was a strong demonstration of Antonelli’s brilliance, and his friendly rivalry with Camara which looks like it could run into the coming years, and Constans says the second trip to the circuit actually posed a unique challenge because of his driver’s earlier success.
“Well actually, what’s quite interesting to see how much a driver is already improving during the year, or not, compared to each other,” he says.
“Which is obviously for Kimi quite challenging because he did quick results in the ADAC, and then coming to the Italian, obviously everyone learns, everyone improves, so it’s always interesting to see. That’s the main thing, because at the end for them that’s the main challenge. It’s also a good thing – it’s a benchmark, basically, during the year to see if the drivers are improving between each other [in the season].”
There are three more rounds on both the ADAC and Italian F4 schedules, meaning Antonelli could have totted up 57 race starts to his name by the end of 2022. But there’s a chance he’ll have even more, and if his form continues there’s potentially more than two F4 crowns that are up for grabs. But more on that at a later date…
Antonelli’s Formula 4 record
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