The grid wasn’t as strong as hoped, but the story of winner Andrea Rosso shows why the concept behind the F4 event at the inaugural Motorsport Games was a success
The inclusion of Formula 4 in the first running of the Olympics-style Motorsport Games was always going be a gamble. The logic behind the idea – to bring together young drivers from around the world to compete for their nations on an equal basis – was strong.
But while the sister GT event, which essentially had a successful trial as the Nations Cup in Bahrain in 2018, could effectively be propped up by gentleman drivers through its pro-am format, and the touring car race could feasibly be run as an extension of the regular TCR season with the same regulations and many of the same drivers and cars, the F4 element was a huge step into the unknown.
Organiser SRO could have selected an existing F4 car package, which would have naturally favoured any drivers who had already raced it, but instead chose to introduce an all-new machine. Incorporating a halo and a hybrid engine into that car (firsts on both counts for F4) was certainly forward-thinking, but came with the risk of massively overcomplicating the entire concept.
Not only could that have posed potential issues with implementation during the race weekend itself, but it also risked putting up a considerable barrier in amassing a grid of drivers to race the cars in the first place. After all, each entry would need to be paid for, whether the money was going to be sourced from national sporting federations or from drivers themselves. If drivers weren’t going to be put off by the apparent complexity of the car from a financial perspective, they might not have been willing to risk their reputations in a completely unfamiliar car, with very little track time to get used to it.
In an ideal world, we would have seen the cream of the crop of current F4 drivers racing at Vallelunga. Think Italian F4 champion Dennis Hauger taking on his German series counterpart Theo Pourchaire and their season-long rivals Gianluca Petecof, Arthur Leclerc and Roman Stanek. Or the French federation could have sent its own champion Hadrien David to go up against British F4 contenders Zane Maloney, Sebastian Alvarez and Louis Foster, plus Spanish F4 champion-elect Franco Colapinto. But none of those were present.
Clashes with rounds of the United States and Japanese series ruled drivers from those championships out too, although Japan did at least send a worthy alternative in Formula 3 racer Kazuto Kotaka.
The F4 event’s prospects looked bleak in the run-up, with the number of publicly confirmed drivers still in single digits while other disciplines hit capacity with weeks to spare. But, to the credit of those involved, a full 20-driver field was pulled together.
OK, so a few of the names had even the most committed of F4 followers reaching for Google. But while Hong Kong’s Hugo Hung was to be thrown out after qualifying for being woefully out of his depth despite his Asian Formula Renault experience, others such as Brazil’s Joao Rosate and Portugal’s Mariano Pires – who both took alternative routes into car racing after karts – impressed in their first single-seater outings.
And this, it would turn out, would be the great success story of the F4 event: Its ability, perhaps unexpectedly, to provide an important chance to shine on a big stage to talented drivers who otherwise don’t have one. And nobody showcased that more than the winner, Andrea Rosso.
The Italian, who only celebrated his 16th birthday two weeks before the event, was perhaps the perfect gold medal winner for the inaugural Motorsport Games, impressing throughout in what was just his fifth weekend racing a single-seater.
While he has a suitable name for a fast Italian driver, Rosso personifies the problem for just about anyone trying to make it from Italy to Formula 1 at the moment.
Italian F4 has been understandably praised for frequently achieving grids of 30 cars or more this season, but that success disguises a serious problem. One exposed by the list of champions produced by the series since its 2014 inception, or by the top 15 in the 2019 standings. Neither of those lists features a single Italian.
The issues facing young Italian drivers could have an article all of their own, but they fundamentally come down to money, and the lack of it is clear even in F4. Ten Italians took part in their local series this year – more home-grown talent than there was in Germany or Britain – but the best-placed at the end of the season was 17th-placed Lorenzo Ferrari. Six of the Italians failed to score, and Rosso fared only a little better, scoring two points in the 12 races he contested before his campaign came to an early end.
No single season should be looked at in isolation, and just last year, Leonardo Lorandi finished runner-up, and Lorenzo Colombo was a contender the year before that. But just as in 2014, when Mattia Drudi, Andrea Russo and Leonardo Pulcini couldn’t compete with Lance Stroll, Italian drivers continue to be held back while a lack of funds restrict their access to top teams. Prema has yet to run a single home-grown driver after six years of Italian F4.
The problem is by no means restricted to Italy. While F4 is relatively affordable as a category, the top teams are able to charge a premium, leaving lesser-off drivers with a choice; to abandon their single-seater ambitions altogether, or try to persevere with a ‘lesser’ outfit. Sometimes, a driver taking the latter route can still impress those who matter, earning better opportunities for the future. But, too often, it can end in frustration.
That could have been the case for Rosso’s first season in single-seaters were it not for the Motorsport Games. His talent was clear to see in karting, with his WSK Super Master Series title in 2017 and Andrea Margutti Trophy successes that season in OK Junior and a year later at senior level. But on stepping into cars, it was only the level playing field provided by the centrally-run Motorsport Games that gave him the opportunity to shine.
In his strongest rivals during the weekend – Niklas Krutten and Ido Cohen – Rosso was up against two drivers with bags of F4 experience, who raced this season for arguably German and Italian F4’s strongest team, Van Amersfoort Racing, achieving wins and podiums respectively. All three, like many others, knew the circuit, and none of them knew the car. But through all conditions, it was Rosso that had the upper hand and, in the end, the gold medal.
The inaugural edition of the Motorsport Games F4 Cup failed to bring together the season’s best performers, but maybe that didn’t matter. After all, those drivers already have the wins and championships to their names, and many are well-equipped for a successful step up to the next level.
Far more valuable perhaps was its provision of a level playing field as part of a high-profile event, at the relatively low fee required for a single weekend’s racing. Furthermore, the new car ran largely trouble free despite its novelties, and raced well.
While Rosso is set to defend his gold medal in the second edition of the Games, whenever or wherever that is held, it remains to be seen whether he gets the full-season opportunity he clearly deserves for 2020. But he could just be the first in a long line of new stars unearthed by the unique Motorsport Games.