There was lots of incidents and talking points at Imola last weekend as FREC and Italian F4’s seasons began
After rain early last weekend, the famed Imola race track – currently celebrating its 70th birthday – was bathed in beautiful sunshine for the opening races of the Formula Regional European Championship and Italian Formula 4 seasons. Formula Scout was there to get the reactions of the pacesetters, as well as some potential stars making their first step on Europe’s single-seater ladder.
Impressive Stenshorne is FREC’s first debut winner since 2020
With Isack Hadjar the only rookie classification driver to have claimed an overall win in FREC in the last two seasons, the series has proved a tough training ground for those graduating from F4. So Martinius Stenshorne’s faultless drive to take victory in the 2023 opener made him the first driver to win on his series debut since Ian Rodriguez at the same circuit in 2020.
“It feels really good,” he told Formula Scout after his win. “My first weekend in FREC, really good speed. Before the first safety car came out I had quite a big gap, so I was disappointed when [it] came out but I had two good safety car restarts and managed to get a small gap and to do the job after that. It was a good race.”
“The team is working really well and the car is really fast. I really like this track, particularly the chicane where you cut the kerbs.”
Second place behind Kas Haverkort in race two meant Stenshorne left Imola at the top of the standings. Was he already thinking of the points rather than going for the win last Sunday?
“If you think that then you don’t know Martinius very well,” laughs Thibaut de Merindol, his team principal at R-ace GP.
The team had looked on course for two podium finishes in race two before Tim Tramnitz lost the rear as Stenshorne challenged him for second and he ended the race – which he started from pole – in the barriers.
It was a strong weekend for R-ace, with Matteo De Palo putting in a good showing in the team’s F4 operation as well.
“Yes, but we always want more,” de Merindol told Formula Scout. “And it is still only the first race, there is a long way to go, and things can change quickly.”
Beaming Haverkort puts smile on VAR’s faces with measured drive
The smile on Kas Haverkort’s face was even wider than normal as he took a superb win in FREC’s second race at Imola as many of his closest rivals hit a mix of mechanical problems and on-track incidents.
Back for a third season in the series, the Van Amersfoort Racing driver knows he needs to deliver this year. He came fifth in race one, and got a perfect launch to pass poleman Tramnitz even before the Tamburello braking zone at the start of race two.
“Yesterday’s start was not that great, so I knew what I had to change and we looked into the data, did that and it worked out. I just had a very good start and took P1 and after that it was just managing, not making any mistakes and pushing to the limit.”
With multiple incidents leading to four safety car periods, Haverkort judged the restarts to perfection.
“The first two restarts were very late and after that I knew I had to change something, otherwise they suspect that, ‘oh, he goes late’. I was looking in my mirrors for where they do the moments and then I go.”
Fastest in the first free practice session on Friday, his Saturday race had been compromised by a disappointing qualifying, as he and team-mate Joshua Dufek ended up tripping over each other on track.
“It was a bit of a mess. On my first qualifying I didn’t really get a lap in because of traffic so I had to do a bit more calmly on my last lap because it was my only counting lap. But we put it right on the second day.”
Haverkort’s win was the icing on VAR’s cake, with Brando Badoer and Ivan Domingues showing well in Italian F4. Badoer chased down US Racing’s Kacper Sztuka in race one before ultimately falling just short of victory.
An outstanding weekend ended in disaster though, as Domingues punted Badoer off in race four, costing the team a double podium and ensuring their weekend ended with a visit to the stewards.
Lindblad the F4 leader as drivers share wins and birthday cake
Prema’s Arvid Lindblad made a perfect start from the outside of the front row to take victory and the points lead in the fourth Italian F4 race. “I was just super-focused on getting a good start, trying to get into the lead as early as possible and then to control my pace from there,” said the Red Bull junior in the paddock post-race.
“We struggled a bit for pace on Thursday [in pre-event testing], but we improved step-by-step. And had good pace in the final race,” he explained, concluding that it had been a “really good weekend, really happy with the result, leading the championship, two seconds and a first, so really good start to the season”.
In the race he had been aware that Badoer “was catching me a little bit, so I was trying to keep pushing but also to manage the tyres because I knew at the end there could be a risk of a safety car but I had confidence that even if he did arrive I’d be able to hold him off”.
His team-mates Ugo Ugochukwu and Niko Lacorte had taken a win each in the earlier split group races, with Sztuka winning the first one. Unfortunately, Sztuka’s weekend went downhill from that moment on as mechanical issues meant he retired in his second race and the final one.
Ugochukwu, celebrating his 16th birthday, had been dominant in race two, but a clutch problem left him motionless on his pole position grid slot as the lights went out for race three. Most of the field managed to avoid him, but Andrea Frassineti, starting at the back, was unable to react as the car in front jinked to the side and he ploughed into Ugochukwu’s car.
Luckily neither driver was hurt, allowing the American, supported trackside by McLaren’s new driver development programme director Emanuele Pirro, to cut the birthday cake for his team after the final race.
Mixed weekend for FREC’s reigning champion team
While its F4 quad was celebrating three wins, just across the paddock Prema’s FREC squad endured a trying weekend.
In qualifying Rafael Camara and Andrea Kimi Antonelli topped their respective groups, although a late off at Tamburello had prevented Lorenzo Fluxa from making a late pole-threatening improvement. The resulting yellows proved the undoing of Camara who lost his best laptime after stewards deemed that he “didn’t brake earlier nor reduce noticeably the speed”.
Despite losing pole to Stenshorne, Prema still managed a strong 2-3-4 result in race one to underline they had lost none of the pace shown in pre-season testing.
However, Sunday was a day to be forgotten. Antonelli failed to even set a representative laptime in qualifying as Prema worked to resolve an engine issue with his car. Though he was able to take up his last row grid slot, and he was looking forward to a charge through the field, the problem manifested itself again immediately, forcing the Mercedes-AMG Formula 1 junior back to the pits after one exploratory lap.
“It’s not great to start this way, but we must keep working and do the best we can and reset for Barcelona,” he said, jokingly adding that after his struggles a year earlier at the same circuit in F4, Imola is not his lucky venue.
Camara hadn’t made it round the first lap of race two either. As the pack jostled for position into the Tamburello chicane, he had been hit from behind by VAR’s Dufek, eliminating both on the spot.
Fluxa made it further than his team-mates, but another engine issue – seemingly unrelated to Antonelli’s problem – brought him into the pits to retire after six laps. “It’s a shame about the second day, but that’s racing,” he said.
New F1 juniors impress after frustrating qualifying – a portent of battles to come?
The fight for 13th in the fourth Italian F4 race may not have generated the biggest headlines of the weekend, but the two F1 juniors involved, Ferrari’s Tuukka Taponen and Red Bull’s Enzo Deligny, both demonstrated their pace as they tried to recover from difficult qualifying sessions.
After four wins in F4 United Arab Emirates, Taponen returned to Europe for his Italian F4 debut with Prema as one of the anticipated title contenders. He had a strong pre-event test, but the 2021 CIK-FIA Word Karting champion and 2022 Formula Academy Finland star was left ruing qualifying mistakes that put him on the back foot for the rest of the weekend.
“We, together with the team, made quite a big mistake in qualifying,” he said. “Top three all the time and then one second off but we know what we did, and it wasn’t on purpose. [In the race] I was trying to go up but it’s really difficult to overtake here at Imola.”
After coming eighth in his two heats, he was unfortunate to get hit during a safety car period in the final, while running 11th.
“We improved our race pace throughout the weekend and we were able to find a good balance,” he noted post-weekend. “We need to look forward to the next one, and it will be for sure better.”
Deligny was making his car racing debut, having signed a last-minute deal to race with AKM Motorsport, the team run by Andrea Kimi Antonelli’s father. Deligny had turned 15 on the Monday before the race, allowing him to gain some experience ahead of his main campaign in Spanish F4 with Campos Racing.
Unsurprisingly, given the circumstances, the weekend was a steep learning curve for the Franco-Chinese driver. “Everything that have possibly gone wrong in qualifying did,” he explained with refreshing honesty. “It was quite surprising because I knew what to do to do a good job but for some reason it was like I lost 50% of my brain when I was driving.
“First of all, the track was half-wet, half-dry so I made some mistakes by driving in the wet and going off track. The balance of the car was really tricky too and I felt zero connection with the car. Maybe I was also trying to extract too much from the car. Then I lost the rear of the car. It just snapped on me and I went off.”
When a stationary car prevented a possible improvement “to eighth or ninth” at the close, he ended up 13th in his group and 26th overall.
Nevetheless, he remained philosophical: “It’s not the end of the world. It’s not like I was fighting for pole position. But I definitely learned a lot from this one. Next time, I’ll just assess the situation a bit more and take it a bit cooler.”
Come the races, Deligny was able to put the tough lessons learned in qualifying into use immediately. He followed up finishes of 10th (after receiving a 10-second penalty) and eighth in his heats with a superb run to 10th in the 36-car final.
Make no mistake: we will be hearing a lot more about Taponen and Deligny over the coming months and years.