Britain wants to boost its F4 championship by learning from its European rivals. Bethonie Waring went to the relaunch to discover why Motorsport UK believes it will succeed.
“In order to revitalise F4 in the UK, we have to engage with the teams here, but also we have to learn from the teams who aren’t racing here on what we could do better for our championship. That was quite an important process to really understand what wasn’t happening, why we were falling behind.”
Motorsport UK has tasked itself with the considerable challenge of bringing British Formula 4 back up to scratch with its European counterparts.
The series boasts Formula 1 driver Lando Norris and IndyCar drivers Colton Herta and now Devlin DeFrancesco among its graduates. But increasingly the stars of the future haven’t been looking to the UK series for their first step on the single-seater ladder. Driver academies have been sending their talent to Italy, Germany, Spain or France instead. This year it was a British driver, Ollie Bearman, who became the first person to win both the Italian and German titles.
With F4 heading into a new era across the board in 2022, Motorsport UK sees an opportunity to change that and has taken over as series promoter.
“One of the first things we did at the start of this process, going back to February-March, was we commissioned a report of what is the state of play of F4 across mainly the European landscape.”
Karun Chandhok, the former F1 driver and Sky Sports pundit, has played a key role in the process as a member of the Motorsport UK board.
“Where are all those championships in terms of the amount of track time, the number of teams, the number of cars. But also what are the issues? We got someone to go out there and actually speak to engineers, speak to drivers, driver managers, understand what the pluses and minuses of those championships are. Mainly the Italian and the Spanish and the German [series] because they’re the most successful.”
Motorsport UK believes it’s taken the lessons from those series to shape its new package, which it unveiled at its headquarters last week in the form of the championship’s second-generation car. The combination of Mygale and Ford carried over from Formula Ford has gone. The new Tatuus T-421 chassis, complete with steel halo, and Abarth engine brings it much closer in line with the racing happening on the continent – with Italy, Germany and Spain having committed to the same package. Indeed, the hope is that part of the attraction of the new car will be teams’ ability to run the same chassis across multiple championships.
“It presents an opportunity where teams can invest in cars and in drivers and they have fluidity between different championships,” says Hugh Chambers, Motorsport UK CEO.
“The first championship that’s running the car is the UAE [over the winter], and a number of teams that are going to be in British F4 next year are going to be competing in the UAE. They’ve ordered cars they’re going to use there that they’re then going to bring over to the UK.”
Revitalising the UK series isn’t as simple as replicating what’s happening in Italy, though. Motorsport UK is keen to emphasis it’s learned from issues happening on the continent, which is where Britain’s USP comes in.
“You can’t pick any one team that’s better or worse than the others,” said Chambers. “That’s a mouth watering prospect for the racing, but also for the youngsters coming in.
“In some championships around the world, you do get the stratification where there are one or two teams you have to be with or you’re not going to win. And that’s devastating because if you’re not in one of those teams, you’re still spending huge amounts of money – maybe not as much but huge amounts of money – and you don’t have a realistic prospect of winning.
“The partnership with Neil Brown Engineering, who equalise the engines, makes absolute certain that this is a fair and equal championship. It’s absolutely crucial. I’m really proud of the package we’ve come up with now. I think it’s going to be the best in the world.”
The UK-spec engine will be mechanically much the same as those used in other Abarth powered F4 series. But it’s the equalisation of performance and changes to the turbo and turbo mapping by Neil Brown Engineering is what Motorsport UK believes gives Britain the edge.
“Just visiting some of the other championships, they’re very much envious of what we’ve been able to achieve with that balance of performance.
“If you look at Brands Hatch, the last round of the recent F4 championship during qualifying. The top 10 were split by a tenth or so, and that was on the Grand Prix circuit. So it does show how close it is.
“I’ve already seen some of the new powered cars, what they’ve been doing. It’s very exciting. We know we can get this engine to the same, if not even better, than what we did with the previous engine.”
The series boasts that the engines will be within plus or minus half a percent of one another in terms of performance, rather than the 1.5% seen in other series.
Keeping the engines at that equal level will involve re-evaluating them all at least twice a season, and the pool of engines being maintained by Neil Brown Engineering to ensure equal milage on all of them.
“You go to some other championships and an individual driver or an individual chassis might have six or seven engines,” Chambers added. “They’re all being put through run cycles. They’re all being used in different ways to try to extract that little bit of one and a half percent in performance.
“A complete waste of money. People are buying too much hardware, too much testing just to get the engines up to mileage. And we really want to do away with that.
“It does mean, however, that if we want to invite teams to come over and compete in the championship from other places, they need to buy or lease a UK spec engine, and vice versa. But you do have that fluidity in the market, which we think helps the whole universe of F4 championships around the world.”
It may seem like it’s all change in the championship, but Motorsport UK also thinks British F4’s roots is one of its biggest selling points.
In decades past, Britain has been the place to be for young drivers to get their start in motorsport. Drivers came from all over the world to race at a cold Brands Hatch in the middle of April, and it was what they learned there that took them to championships in F1 and other top-tier series.
Reminding drivers, their managers, and F1 team scouts about the benefits of the circuits British F4 has been racing on since its inception is also part of the plan.
“We’ve still got the great challenging circuits, which I think is really important for the drivers,” says Chandhok, who came to race in British F3 on his way to F1.
“The good driver managers and the parents recognise that their kid who is 15 or 16 and in it for the long run, they know they will learn a lot more racing here at this level. Going to the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit on a slightly damp day in September, your skill level goes up an awful lot more than if you were at a grippy Mugello.
“I think we’ve stuck to the USP in that respect. There are things that aren’t right, there are things that won’t be perfect in year one. We’re all humble enough to recognise and realise there will be lessons that we’ll have to take on for 2023 and beyond. But I think we’re starting in a good place.”
The starting place has been good enough to attract some impressive teams, including top Formula 2 outfits Hitech and Virtuosi. Along with series regulars Argenti, Fortec, Carlin and JHR Developments, the grid already looks strong for the first season of this new era. But there were many more teams involved in the development process, and the hope is to boost the entry list numbers even further.
“I think we’re a long way from capacity,” Chambers says. “I think there’s room for a lot more to play. We’ve set our objective in the first season. A good healthy size of the championship would be 20 cars. That would satisfy the right mix of good, healthy competition, commercially viable and sustainable. But I think there’s a lot more room.
“I’d love to see 30 cars on the grid. It would be spectacular. But at the same time, the infrastructure of the circuits we have in the UK is not the same as the European circuits: the size of the pits, the narrowness of the track. And if it’s a tenth of a second over the entire field, you need to have people having the opportunity to win, and I think there is a sweet spot in terms of size of grids for it to be sustainable.
“There’s no point having one season having 30 then it shrinks to 18. That would be a complete disaster. So I think it needs to be a sustainable size. Maybe somewhere in the mid-20s would be a really good size of sustainable F4 championship.”
Hear Bethonie and the Formula Scout team discuss the British F4 relaunch and the championship’s future in the podcast below, which can also be found on Breaker, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Castbox, Apple Podcasts and Spotify.