Since the introduction of FIA Formula 4, it has arguably been Germany’s ADAC series that has stood out as the biggest hot-bed of fresh entry level talent, having given us names including Joel Eriksson, Robert Shwartzman, David Beckmann, Joey Mawson, Mick Schumacher, Juri Vips, Marcus Armstrong and Felipe Drugovich in just three seasons.
The sister Italian series has of course enjoyed a slice of the same talent pool – and produced stars of its own – while the British series can lay claim to the likes of Lando Norris, Dan Ticktum and Max Fewtrell.
Against these championships, and until now outside of the FIA circle, the French F4 series has struggled for a share of the attention in recent seasons. Now though, with a new FIA-rules car and a talented new intake of drivers could put it firmly back on the map in 2018.
In many ways, the French series was the original F4. It was the first of today’s FIA F4 series to use the moniker, back in 2010. Then known as F4 Eurocup 1.6, it supported Formula Renault 3.5 and 2.0 on the World Series by Renault, and although that particular name and setup lasted just one season, it did produce a notable champion in Stoffel Vandoorne.
In 2011 it became French F4, bringing the old Formula Campus series originally established in 1993 back home, under the organisation of the national federation’s FFSA Academy training centre. Over the next few years it remained an important series at that level, with graduates including Pierre Gasly and Anthoine Hubert, but as other championships benefitted from taking on FIA status and France kept on doing its own thing, its relevance wained.
After the nadir of 2016, when sophomore Yifei Ye swept the floor with a weak home-grown field, last year was an improvement, following modifications to the ageing Signatech car and the return of Renault support. While Arthur Rougier and Victor Martins fought out an exciting title battle, the decision was taken to finally adopt the FIA standard for 2018.
The choice of car was obvious: the French-built Mygale already used in Britain to be paired with a Renault engine – oddly, a combination that has already been used on the other side of the world in South East Asia.
If the strength of the entry list is anything to go by, the change has already had a positive affect, with a talented field promising an interesting season ahead. And the one driver whose presence is perhaps the biggest seal of approval for the championship’s new offering may also be the one driver to beat in the first year of the new look.
Having just delivered Charles Leclerc to Formula 1 in a blaze of glory, Nicolas Todt is arguably the most influential man in junior single-seaters. Just as his original protege Felipe Massa retires from F1, his next prospect – another Brazilian, Caio Collet – makes the move up from karts to cars. And Todt has selected French F4 for Collet’s first full season.
Now you might say there’s nothing remarkable in a Frenchman, who just happens to be the son of the FIA president, endorsing the country’s FIA F4 series. But Todt is an independent businessman who will always do what’s best for his client. Like placing Leclerc at Prema for F2, not the ART team he co-founded…
Collet’s status as a Todt protege alone – both an endorsement of his potential and a near-guarantee of commercial stability for the future – makes him worth watching this season. Some lacklustre results in international karting over the past couple of seasons meant that a few months ago, he wasn’t considered a sure-fire single-seater star, but even before his French F4 debut, he has put that right.
Firstly, he took a win and six other podiums from his first seven car races in F4 UAE at the start of this year, and then he won the revived Volant Winfield selection held in Mygale F4 cars at Paul Ricard, against many of his future competitors from French F4. That alone has to make Collet the early pre-season favourite, but he is up against some tough competition.
He isn’t the only one to have won a selection process in the Mygale on his way to getting onto the grid. Ulysse de Pauw won backing from the Belgian federation to secure his place on the grid, just like Vandoorne did to start his single-seater career in the same series.?A frontrunner in international karting over the past three years, de Pauw won the RACB backing after seeing off 2016 French F4 runner-up Gilles Magnus as well as Ugo de Wilde.
De Wilde has since secured funding from elsewhere to return for a second season and build upon his superb end to 2017, where he stepped on the podium three times in the final two rounds. Another returnee to watch will be South Africa’s Stuart White, a winner last year at Magny-Cours who was only narrowly outpaced by Collet in the final stage of the Volant Winfield by 0.06 seconds over six laps.?Winfield was sufficiently impressed to help him back on the grid.
Among the home-grown talent is Pierre-Louis Chovet, who won the French junior karting title last year before contesting the final three rounds of the F4 season, taking a reversed-grid win before the year was out. Adam Eteki, the 2016 European X30 Challenge champion, is also back after a one-off outing last year.
On karting pedigree alone, the most exciting French prospect on the grid is Theo Pourchaire, who will benefit from French F4 keeping its minimum age at 14. He was third in the world championship at OK Junior soon after his 13th birthday, and was similarly impressive at senior level last year.
Watch also for Belgian-German brothers Esteban and O’Neill Muth?as well as Omani Shihab Al Habsi, whose fourth place in the OK Junior world championship last year marks him out as one of the best prospects out of the Middle East yet.
Another name under the spotlight will be?Arthur Leclerc. A lack of funding meant his karting career was much more modest than his older brother Charles, but he did win a title from a rare full campaign in the Kart Racing Academy in 2014, and will surely have no shortage of advice to call on. He’s also been signed to the Venturi Formula E team’s new junior programme together with Chovet among others.
Theo Nouet came second to Pourchaire at French junior level in 2016 and took the same result in the Swedish championship last year.?Reshad de Gerus?was sixth in the French junior series that Chovet won last year, with?Romain Boeckler?and Mateo Herrero?also stepping up from that level.?Gavin Aimable and?Sacha Lehmann are also graduates of the French scene, while?Baptiste Moulin is a former champion of Benelux.?Baptiste Berthelot,?meanwhile, makes his racing debut aged 22.
There is a place on the Renault Sport Academy on offer to the champion, but with some of the talent on this year’s grid, it wouldn’t be a surprise if – as last year with Rougier and Martins – the French marque finds itself signing more than just one driver.