The Formula 4 class of 2017 was a particularly strong one, which showed once again that the FIA’s decision to bring back F4 as a centralised concept was an extremely effective way of sourcing driver talent.
For this year there’ll be at least four F1 juniors on track – two from Ferrari, two from Red Bull – and many other drivers who have marked themselves out as ones to watch in the future.
There is one new championship for 2018, although not with FIA status, while the French have decided to align their championship with that of the international governing body, and have an exciting grid of drivers, as previewed here. There’s a talented crop in British F4 too, as previewed here.
Two race-winners return from last season, but really it will be mostly the rookies that grab the attention this year in Italy.
Successful karter?Leonardo Lorandi, younger brother of Pau Grand Prix winner Alessio, made his single-seater debut last year with Bhaitech, and won one race at Adria early in the season. The Italian took the rookie title at a canter, and has returned for a second season with Bhaitech to take overall honours.
If anyone can dispel the idea that this year will be all about the rookies, it’s him, and Bhaitech did after all win the teams title last year, beating bigger name teams like Prema Powerteam and Jenzer Motorsport.
Guatemalan?Ian Rodriguez?has won once since making his debut in 2015, and has stuck with the DRZ Benelli team in what will be his third full attempt at the championship.
Prema has two returnees in their line-up, with underperforming Ferrari junior?Enzo Fittipaldi?and British racer?Olli Caldwell. Although results weren’t particularly strong for Caldwell in either his British or Italian part-seasons, with the assistance of former GP3 drivers?Matt Parry and Kevin Korjus he has won three of the eight F4 UAE races he has competed in over the winter. Not a likely title contender in Italy, but certainly within reach of causing an upset.
Ferrari junior?Gianluca Petecof?and Emirati?Amna Al Qubaisi?fill the other two seats at the team. Petecof has a lot of expectation on him thanks to the F1 backing, and finished sixth in the World Karting Championship in the OK Class last year, his first season at a senior level. The Brazilian has been testing in one of Prema’s cars since last year, so should be well prepared for his debut. Al Qubaisi has also been testing regularly, although mostly in the Middle East.
Mucke Motorsport field F4 UAE stars?William Alatalo?and?Niklas Krutten, who finished ninth and 11th in the standings over the winter, but only because of how few races they entered.
Alatalo won twice in the UAE, although his composure in a F4 car was probably not surprising considering he had raced in Formula STCC Nordic throughout 2017. Regardless, it’s a good start for the 15-year-old Finn, whose lowly fifth placed finish in the Nordic standings shouldn’t rule him out of title contention in Italy.
Only once did Krutten stand on the podium in the UAE, but the German karting graduate was stepping into the unknown at the time, and should now be up to pace in an F4 car. It will be exciting to see how he fares against his team-mate, and the rest of the field.
Other drivers to look out for include Bhaitech trio?Petr Ptacek, Alessandro and?Anthony Famularo?(a Czech who impressed in the UAE, and two Venezuelan brothers),?Aaron di Comberti, a former BRDC British F3 driver, and?Ilya Morozov, a talented Russian karter.
The ADAC championship has slightly less crossover of talent with the Italian one as it has in the past, but has produced another top grid regardless.
It’s truly difficult to pick a standout driver for this year’s title, but it bodes well for the health of the championship that there is a realistic title prospect at four of the six teams.
Lorandi is one of the top picks for the double German-Italian crown, but he’s driving for the new KDC Racing team, co-founded by former Sauber F1 boss Monisha Kaltenbourn. Being at a new team may act as a blessing, especially with the experience Kaltenbourn brings, but Lorandi’s own lack of experience of the German circuits will make the title a difficult task.
Van Amersfoot Racing expands from three cars to five in its search to win the teams title, and has three drivers that may end up fighting each other for the ADAC F4 crown.
Frederik Vesti?is one of the highest placed of the returning drivers, and a race winner, and he doesn’t necessarily need to make a large step up to become title winning material. He finished second in Danish F4 last year despite missing several races, and had a consistent end to last season in Germany, finishing in the top five three times in the final six races. He was also the man on top in pre-season testing at?Oschersleben.
Belgian team-mate?Charles Weerts definitely did need to step up over winter, and he did just that, throwing away his backmarker status to become UAE champion. It’s plausible that he’ll carry that kind of form into the ADAC season, especially going off his testing pace, in which case he’ll be firmly in the title fight.
New Zealand-born 16-year-old?Liam Lawson is the third of VAR’s expected title challengers, and it’s amazing how packed the teenager’s CV already is. The reigning NZ Formula Ford champion and Australian F4 runner-up is also a finalist in the Mazda Road to Indy Shootout, in which he was the fastest driver present, and was previously a winner in Formula First.
With no prior experience of Europe, a podium on his German debut at Oschersleben was a promising sign.
Mucke has replaced Alatalo with fellow UAE star?Leon Kohler?for?its ADAC line-up. His?first races in single-seaters came in a one-off in the UAE championship, and the 2017 CIK-FIA European KZ2 champion won twice, immediately marking himself out as a driver to watch, although Oschersleben proved to be a tough start.
One of the most exciting line-ups is at US Racing, part owned by Ralf Schumacher, where son?David Scumacher and race-winner?Lirim Zendeli head a four car entry.
Schumacher finished second in the UAE standings, despite missing the first four races, in his first experience of single-seaters. Zendeli meanwhile already has F4 experience, having finished fourth last year with three wins to his name. In normal circumstances he’d be the clear title favourite, but such is the level of talent in the rookie field, and the improvement in pace in some of the other returnees, the German can’t be seen as anything more than an equal to his rivals. His double win at Oschersleben was a good start, though.
The team is also running?Mick Wishofer, who won the rookie title last year despite only finishing in the top 10 once, and?Tom Beckhauser, who finished third in the UAE standings with one win.
Prema has the same three lead drivers as in Italy, and will expect the same sort of results. Fittipaldi was quick in testing, and consistent across the first weekend, so that first win may be on its way soon.
Andreas Estner has been joined at Neuhauser Racing by his younger brother Sebastian, who steps up from karting.
Ten drivers and no calendar are indicators that the North-European Zone championship is in poor health.
There are a few stand-out names, although none that match the 2017 calibre, but if the championship gains no more entries, the drivers in question would be unlikely to receive Super Licence points.
Mikhail Belov?is the lead driver in the SMP Racing team, having finished eighth in the standings last year. He only got one podium, but did finish in fourth on five other occasions, and completed 19 of the 23 races he entered in the top 10.
Kart In Club Driving Academy’s?Konsta Lappalainen?is the most likely to challenge him for the title, having finished on the podium in his NEZ F4 cameo at the end of last season, and as runner-up in the FSTCC Nordic standings.
Other returnees include points scorers?Ivan Berets?and?Ivan Shvetvsov.
The top rookie will likely be karting graduate?Pavel Bulantsev, runner-up in the 2017 CIK-FIA European Karting Championship – OK Senior standings, with?Morozov also joining him in the SMP ranks.
Of the 46 drivers that raced last year, only 10 are set to return, but US F4 is still putting together a strong entry list for its third season, which is once again set to be one of the biggest in F4.
Of the returning drivers,?Dakota Dickerson?is best placed to do well, having finished third last season. The 21-year-old also has experience in USF2000 and Formula Ford 1600, but only has one career win, in a Skip Barber winter race.
Braden Eves?may be more suited for success, having won last year on the way to sixth in the standings.?Jacob Loomis?and could?also impress, but is with an inexperienced team, which should count against him.
Sam Paley?only finished 26th in his part-season last year, and is expected to return this year for a full-time campaign. He scored points on several occasions, so will be one to watch.
Of the championship debutants, Kiwi?Conrad Clark has marked himself out as one of the most impressive,?coming to America as a race-winner in Formula Vee, and has the support of his home country behind him.
Top karters?Joshua Car and?Oliver Clarke come from Australia and Britain respectively, while one of the most exciting signings has been?Eduardo Barrichello, son of former Ferrari F1 driver Rubens, who has been karting in the USA.
None are as well qualified for the title though as?Matthew Cowley. The 20-year-old is a British and American champion in Formula Ford 1600, and won the Historic classification of the 2015 Walter Hayes Trophy.
With the star drivers from last year’s field gone, you would’ve expected a weaker entry in the Japanese championship, but there were still 30 drivers who turned up for the first round of the season.
Honda Formula Dream Project drivers?Teppei Natori?and?Yuki Tsunoda were triumphant in the first round, and it was Tsunoda who laid down a marker for the title.
He was span out of the first race, but he struck back in the second with the type of domination that is scarce seen in F4.
HFDP team-mates Natori, Takuya Otaki and Ren Sato will be the best placed to beat Tsunoda to the title, but it would be foolish to rule out attacks from beyond the Honda stable.
Field Motorsports’ Kiryu Hosoda is second in the points leaving Okayama, something unthinkable a year ago. His level of improvement has heen mightily impressive, but one weekend is very different to a full season.
Shinji Sawada, of Media Do Kageyama Racing, is just behind Hosoda in the standings, and has an impressive 2017 form to back up his early results this year.
There were six Independent Cup class drivers at the opening round, with?Keizi Nakao and?Masayuki Ueda winning
Another season, another small grid in Australia. Racing is already underway down under, and it is?Cameron Shields?who leads the standings after?three races?at?Symmons Plain Raceway.
Shields finished third last season, and is looking to be the Australian champion in both F3 and F4 this year.?Ryan Suhle, a fellow race-winner, has also returned, and he currently sits second in the standings.
Their closest opponent so far is state F1000 champion Aaron Love, whose brother finished third in the F4 standings in 2016. He took one podium last season, and his 2018 tally is already double that.
MP Motorsport duo Isaac Blomqvist and Patrick Schott, who are also set to compete in NEZ F4, are the only two confirmed entries for the Spanish championship. Blomqvist was a top karter in his home country of Sweden at a junior level, and was sixth in the National championship’s senior standings last year.
Denmark had some talented drivers in its ranks last year, although grid sizes often benefited from the inclusion of Formula 5 (FFord) cars. There are only three drivers signed up so far but all three are strong prospects.
Reigning F5 champion?Aske Nygaard Bramming, who got six overall top five finished last year, steps up to the F4 class, and is joined at Team FSP by?Malthe Jakobsen, a top junior karter. Going up against them will be 15-year-old Mikkel Grundtvig, who has bought his own car and set up his own team to go racing.
Formula Academy Finland, a breakaway from the NEZ championship launched this year, aims to promote Finnish talent. It will use the same cars as many of the same rules as NEZ F4, and will hold a four-to-five date calendar before expanding in 2019.
The other ‘new’ F4 championship this year is the F2000 Championship Series, which is allowing US F4 cars to enter. Although there’s no trip to F1 track COTA, drivers do get to race around Watkins Glen, and against the usual FFord 2000 runners.
Charles Leong dominated the Chinese championship last season, and BlackArts Racing have signed Alex Yoong protege and successful Asian karter Daim Hishammudim to replace him in their championship ambitions.
Racing in the JAF Japan F4 series has already got underway, with?Masayuki Ueda controlling the first race of the Western championship at Suzuka. The Eastern championship is set to start at SUGO in May.
Races to watch
Pau?12-13?May? ?French F4: street circuits are a rarity in F4, and none come much better than Pau
Ningbo?12-13?May? ?Chinese F4: Ningbo only opened last year, but is already a driver’s favourite. See why for yourself
Watkins Glen?12-13?May? ?F2000 Championship Series: An iconic American track, and possibly multi-class racing
Thruxton?19-20?May? ?British F4: Several tracks can claim to be Britain’s fastest, but none are as challenging as Thruxton
Suzuka 19-20 May? ?Japanese F4: Many drivers don’t visit Suzuka until F1, these F4 drivers are the envy of Europe
Mexico City 17-18?June? ?F4 NACAM: The 2017-18 season ends in the capital after starting there in support of F1
Rudskogen Motorpark 13-15?July? ?Danish F4: It is a Tilkedrome, but it’s Norway’s Tilkedrome. The country’s first F4 race
Circuit of the Americas?19-21 October? ?US F4: On the US Grand Prix undercard, Turn 1 will be exciting with big grids
Pukehoke 3-4 November? ?Australian F4: The first ever F4 race in New Zealand, on one of the country’s best circuits