How do you improve on six titles out of a possible six? That was the question facing Van Amersfoort Racing’s F4 squad as it started 2022 after taking the driver, rookie and teams’ titles in ADAC and Italian F4 last year
Formula Scout sat down with the Dutch team’s chief executive officer Rob Niessink to discuss the phenomenal success of 2021, VAR’s move into Spanish Formula 4 and the next wave of talented teenagers making their first steps in single-seaters.
“Last year was really amazing,” says Niessink. “We had a couple of years where the drivers we had were really good: Jak Crawford and Jonny Edgar and Dennis Hauger. For many years it was really strong and Ollie Bearman was the same, an extremely good driver.”
Bearman, now racing as a Ferrari junior in FIA Formula 3, became the first ever driver to win Germany’s ADAC F4 and the Italian F4 titles while racing for VAR in 2021 and he did so by taking 17 wins and nine further podiums across the two series.
“Sometimes you have years where everything is perfect and it was a year like that. Ollie was prepared to work hard, during COVID-19 he was for weeks living in the Netherlands or living in Italy. Any time he had he was with us in the workshop, or doing simulator work or in meetings. He used one of our offices as a classroom with online lessons. The atmosphere with the other drivers was good.”
Bearman sweep of both titles included a run of nine consecutive on-the-road wins in Italian F4, although his eighth win at Imola was lost to a disqualification over what ACI Sport saw as a non-compliant engine. It’s a decision which still rankles with VAR, though the points loss was unsubstantial, as for Niessink it was a matter of honour and the team’s reputation.
“If we had accepted that instantly it would have been ‘sorry, we’re caught’ and that’s it. But I said, ‘we didn’t do anything’. It cost a fortune – we had an attorney in Italy, because it was all done in Italian, we had another attorney in the Netherlands, we had to travel up and down [during the appeal of the DSQ].
“It took six months and several hearings, and the outcome is that as a team we are responsible [for running a non-compliant part] but there is no proof of something which makes us guilty and that’s good enough for me.”
As a result, the original exclusion from race three at Imola stood, although at one stage “it could theoretically have been that we’re excluded for the whole event”.
“It wouldn’t have made a difference but I didn’t want to have the reputation damage, I didn’t want that somebody could have said ‘yeah, I’m not sure’.” Which leads into Niessink’s next point.
“It was almost embarrassing to see how dominant we were with Bearman.
“I said to Frits [van Amersfoort, founder of the eponymous team] at Imola, ‘if I were another team I would do everything to completely strip the VAR car, to see what is happening here’ because we were so strong. At the moment they took that engine we were 100 points ahead or something like that in the championship. Let’s imagine that we had done something that was not correct, then we would already have switched back to standard for some time, of course.”
Following that domination of Europe’s strongest F4 championships, as well as titles in the previous years with Joey Mawson (2016), Hauger (2019) and Edgar (2020), the start to VAR’s 2022 campaigns has been a tough one as its inexperienced driver line-up has struggled to make an impression against the Prema steamroller.
Nikita Bedrin mirrored Bearman’s successes by winning the titles in the two series’ rookie classifications with VAR in 2021. But events beyond the team’s control before the current seasons started threw its 2022 plans into the air with the Russian.
“The original plan was, of course, that we would have had Nikita in his second year until the moment the Ukraine war started,” Niessink confirms. “We had a signed contract. Everything was lined up.”
But the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the consequent international sanctions meant the budget was no longer available to run Bedrin and he found a way to continue his racing career by joining rival team PHM Racing.
“Although we’re a big team, I couldn’t afford to let him drive for free. Personally, I still have a good contact with him. Of course, I want to win the race myself and I want to beat PHM, but I’m really happy for the kid if he wins the race.
“Nikita is really a very nice guy. I get along with his manager, Peter Aleshin, very good. We all felt really sorry and we were trying to look for a solution for a couple of weeks but then there was another opportunity where it was more doable for the team where he’s driving now than it was for me.”
Without Bedrin to lead VAR’s assault, the line-up features some exciting talents, but ones who need some time to develop. Martinius Stenshorne, in his first season out of karting, has impressed in the first two Italian rounds, scoring three fifth places at Imola and lying seventh in the standings, while Emmo Fittipaldi and Arias Deukmedjan scored a point apiece at Misano.
“We tested a lot in the past with Fittipaldi and [Brando] Badoer and testing went well. Stenshorne the same, we did a lot of testing with Martinius in post-season, before the winter and during the winter. And he’s also a very fast driver. And Deukmedjan can be a surprise, he’s probably faster than he shows but he’s typically the raw diamond.
“Jules [Castro] was originally planned to run in Spain with us. The idea was that he would have been interested in doing the Italian and German programme, but we were full with Nikita so he went to Spain because he definitely wants to drive with us. When Nikita left we said we have a seat here but in his experience he’s quite far behind the other guys.”
All of the drivers mentioned is the complete VAR line-up for now, but there’s another name on the way, and potentially the most exciting driver within the VAR squad is still too young to race.
Oliver Rowland’s Red Bull-backed protege Arvid Lindblad will debut in car racing once he turns 15 in August, meaning he will only be able to do the final three Italian F4 rounds, starting appropriately enough at Austria’s Red Bull Ring in September.
The Anglo-Swedish karting sensation follows a line of racers such as Crawford, Edgar and Hauger to have been placed in a VAR F4 seat by Red Bull.
“We have a very good relationship with [Red Bull’s driver advisor] Dr Helmut Marko, and he asked us to give him some outings this year as preparation for 2023,” says Niessink.
In addition to his current karting programme, now he is recovered from his scary February crash in the Champions of the Future Winter Series, last month Lindblad started his journey to F4 by testing in a single-seater for the first time in Italy.
Lindblad ran in a first-generation F4 car, the Tatuus T-014 that was replaced in many European series at the end of 2021, in his two tests at Vallelunga and Misano as VAR awaits delivery of a sixth T-421 chassis.
Unsurprisingly the 14-year-old has impressed Niessink with his approach as well as his speed. “OK, the old car is at the peak of its development so might not be slower than the new car,” he says, referring to Lindblad topping the times in both of the in-season tests, but even so to adapt so quickly to cars is incredible. “And Arvid listens to the engineers, gives good feedback and takes on board what we tell him.”
It’s not just Lindblad who has had to wait for a first race appearance of the year, as VAR missed ADAC F4’s Spa-Francorchamps season opener in April and cited the “late delivery of cars, which has already strongly disrupted our pre-season testing so far, [and] has caused a serious lack of preparation time” as the cause of its absence.
Niessink is quick to make clear that the decision was in no way a criticism of chassis supplier Tatuus, a company which has been working flatout to built and deliver over 100 of the T-421s in the face of global supply chain complications.
“I have apologised to Giovanni [Delfino – Tatuus CEO] for all the messages I gave you that were harsh or pushing but he’s also fated,” explains Niessink. “Tatuus did what they could but there are more teams that still don’t have the cars, lack of raw materials, transport capacity.”
Niessink doesn’t blame Tatuus for the situation. “The teams gave the promoters the information, the promoters gave Tatuus the information and Tatuus did their production planning and delivery based on the information they received. I don’t want any special treatment but I don’t want anything less than somebody else.”
Naturally keen to defend its ADAC F4 titles, VAR pushed the series organiser to postpone round one, but with no success. “The only proper solution that would have worked for everyone would have been postponing the first rounds but ADAC had difficulty because they could never come back to that Spa event.”
Having missed one round out of a scheduled six, Niessink is sceptical that his team can make up for the lost points to have a successful title defence. Discussions with the ADAC had raised the possibility of a dropped scores mechanism being introduced but this now seems to be off the table.
“We decided last year to continue with the championship based on the results we got. The initial programme was to do a couple of rounds and then we’ll see. I think it was the same with Prema.
“But the whole Spa thing and the lack of co-operation to support us in postponing the first event means the chances that we do the whole series are smaller than they were a month ago. I told them if we don’t compete in Spa it will be hard for us.
“We ran at Hockenheim and will do the Zandvoort round,” he says, but after that VAR does not currently plan to continue in Germany. Niessink adds that the ADAC could have done more to generate interest in the series for 2022. With the Italian series able to make regular announcements of new teams and drivers as the new car maintained grid sizes of over 30, there was less communication from Germany and its full-time grid is set to be around 12 cars.
Niessink feels strongly that ADAC F4 “made a mistake” in not promoting VAR’s plan, which it had “since early days”, to run five cars in the series this year. “I said to them: ‘Why don’t you announce that? Why wait for us to announce drivers?’” The counter-argument is VAR was already a five-car team in ADAC F4, so there was little for the series to announce.
He gives credit to the ADAC for its work over the years in organising “a strong series and Sebastian Dietz is a strong series manager but they missed the boat on this one just by waiting to see what the other teams would do”.
As VAR is seemingly cutting back on its ADAC F4 involvement now, it has alspo expanded into the increasingly competitive Spanish F4 championship in a joint venture with local team and technical school, Monlau Motorsport.
The strength of Spanish F4 right now was the main factor behind VAR’s move to add it to its schedule.
“It used to be a kind of B class, if you understand what I mean, and from there on they grew and they grew. That is, of course, also because of the strong co-operation between the teams. We just want to be competing there to give drivers another alternative and that means that Germany is having a hard time.”
“It’s a really strong co-operation,” Niessink says of the Dutch-Spanish tie-up. “I’m really happy with it.”
“Operationally speaking it’s their team but in a way that we have signed the drivers, the drivers are ours. Our engineers are also involved there. In another industry you might call it outsourcing but there’s an intense supervision – two of our engineers live there in Spain.
“We exchange a lot of information and experience and I feel very comfortable with the relationship. Jaime [Serrano], the boss of Monlau, of the school, the university, is very relaxed and very solid. The agreements are fine and the work is fine. The team manager, David Simon, who is my main contact, is very experienced and really understands what it takes.”
Monlau’s lead driver is Robert De Haan, the 2021 FEED Racing France shootout winner, who impressed VAR when he joined for the ADAC and Italian F4 finales last year to get his first single-seater racing experience.
“He did an extremely good job in Monza with us last year and he did a really good job at the Nurburgring. I rate him very highly,” says Niessink.
“I think he will learn faster and more in Spain because there’s less pressure,” he explains but acknowledges that ultimately the decision to race in Spain “had basically to do with budget” which he estimates to be around 25% lower than Italian F4’s.
“We’re there to be successful. We as a team, together with the drivers, are still trying to work with the engines but we’ll be there. In Portimao we made really big steps during the weekend.” However, “again the cars arriving late didn’t help”.
Despite the one-off costs relating to purchasing the T-421s, VAR says that it hasn’t increased by a “single Euro in the price we have, not for the championship, not for testing” on the budgets it required drivers to bring in previous years, and “we are confronted with price increases such as raw materials but I don’t pass anything of that to our clients”.
Niessink is reluctant to keep harking back to the supply issues but is clearly frustrated that a super-professional team such as VAR, which is now racing in Formula 2 and FIA F3 for 2022 in addition to Euroformula, Formula Regional European Championship and F4, has not been able to perform so far to the maximum of its potential because of external factors.
“In honesty, only yesterday [Friday practice at Imola] for my idea the season started whereas normally it starts in January or even the months before, which is not to complain again about the cars but that has a big impact. We are behind and we are trying to catch up.
“We originally had in mind to start testing in January and February. We had F2 and F3, so a new team and a new organisation.
“So, we thought again not to do F4 United Arab Emirates but that was a decision based on the idea that we would have the first cars in December so we thought ‘OK, January, February, then we’re still okay’ but then the cars came so very late that we were behind in our programme.
“I’m sure we’ll catch up but the beginning of the season is always very important. You want to be there as soon as possible and then make it through the season.”
But, he concludes: “As soon as we feel strong, then it’s very hard to stop us.”