Home Featured Why Jeddah marks the start of Prema’s most important winter ever

Why Jeddah marks the start of Prema’s most important winter ever

by Ida Wood

Photos: Formula Motorsport Limited

There was jubilation at Prema on Friday night in Jeddah as it locked out the front row in Formula 2, and began the first leg of a lengthy winter which is scheduled to take in four different corners of the globe

Despite changes to reduce the number of rounds to help cut costs and ease pressure on employees after a super condensed 2020 season, Formula 2 in fact just ramped up the workload this year with more flyaway events and weekends that included three races rather than two and an even more difficult separation of the support paddock to Formula 1’s. The series organiser did the same to its Formula 3 championship too, and after evaluation of the format it has made a u-turn for 2022.

What this has meant is F2’s season will not conclude until December 12 this year, but teams will actually be obliged to stay at the Yas Marina Circuit for another six days before they can even consider flying back home, and it’s really looking like a return of lockdowns and quarantine procedures across Europe could make that journey back more painful than ever.

In countries where restrictions will be in place over winter, F2 team members may have to spend Christmas Day alone.

But many of them will be heading back to the factories as soon as possible afterwards to build cars and prepare drivers for 2022, with busy testing programmes already planned out for January in countries across Europe.

Some teams are even going beyond that, committing to winter series in the United Arab Emirates through January and February before the expected pre-season F2 and F3 tests across the Persian Gulf in Bahrain at the start of March.

Then there’s Prema, which is doing all that and has also decided to add four resource and labour-heavy projects for 2022: a first venture into sportscars in the World Endurance Championship and European Le Mans Series’ LMP2 prototype class in conjunction with its new sister company Iron Lynx, as well as helping run every single driver in the new Formula Regional Indian Championship and Indian Formula 4 series.

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

That’s potentially 29 more cars to turn attention to, in addition to the two F2 chassis racing in Jeddah this weekend, the three F3 cars, the four FRegional-spec Tatuus T-318 chassis it already owns and runs in the Asian and European championships and the first-generation F4 cars it has campaigned across Europe and the UAE. Then there’s also the FRegional and F4 cars that compete under the Abu Dhabi Racing and Mumbai Falcons banners in the Middle East but are operated by Prema.

And on top of that, those F4 cars will be replaced imminently in racing series by the second-generation machine which is set to make its debut in a non-championship F4 UAE race next weekend at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. There was some doubts over whether that would go ahead due to supply chain issues involving the electronics, but F1 has now published the official schedule for the event and two F4 races are included. Once that confirmation came, the cars could be shipped east.

Last week there was no racing for Prema, but it was still at a track as its Oreca 07 LMP2 turned a wheel (publicly) for the first time in a two-day test at Paul Ricard. Sauber junior Juan Manuel Correa was known to be at the wheel, and was believed to have been joined by former F2 racer Louis Deletraz, Sophia Floersch and a recent Euroformula graduate.

None of these drivers have been linked particularly strongly to driving for the team in 2022, with two of them in fact aiming for F2 seats next year, but they are the kind of drivers Prema is targeting for its latest project. The outfit’s F4 team manager Grazia Troncon explained to Formula Scout the logic behind the new venture.

“For us as Prema, in this moment we have all the junior categories, so we cannot have additional categories in formula apart from F1. That in this moment, we are not ready for,” Troncon said.

“So this is the project we were thinking before, to find the same partner as the [F4 with Iron Lynx]. So we share with their side, we share [our owner as] Prema, so this is a project that will become ready as a company, as partners, to redevelop for the future of the company.

“We will be continuing with the new-generation F4, we are involved in the FRegional, F3, F2. But we are ready for the mentality in terms of company to do another step. And in this moment we think that LMP2 is the right way to have an additional category. Also for quite a lot of drivers that we are running, that want to go into [F1], and to develop a career  – it’s not the same kind of cars, but for sure in terms of mentality, in terms of organisation, it’s highly demanding, and to become a stronger team also in another high-level category there is a lot of interest for this.

“So this is just a step in terms of where we end up, looking at our partners it’s the same [goal]. They are starting to develop now the company in a different area, but in this moment we are working for this with professional driver, but until now [Iron Lynx] has only been with gentleman, or some [silver-rated drivers]. So different staff, different target. For us it is mainly to develop the young drivers to become professional [when entering series].”

What Troncon is explaining is that, without F1, the LMP2 programme becomes Prema’s means of completing a route where it can take a driver into cars through F4 and then move them up the junior series until they can be a professional Prema driver.

“So this is mainly the different story, the different ground that we have [in our sportscar approach]. Another step in a higher category that seems more interesting; for younger drivers, and also for us as a company.”

The plan is to enter a single car across the world’s two biggest endurance racing series, and Prema will test as much as it can this winter to learn a car that in some ways is very different to anything it’s engineered before.

Time is tight though, because the flyaway aspect of its other programmes has meant it’s already been having to spend workshop and office hours getting ready for those races that are two months away and prioritising having the staff available for those racing events (and therefore providing adequate holiday time before then) over tests now.

Then like all teams there will be a period where there is no engineering activity at all in the Grisignano di Zocco headquarters as a winter factory shutdown is observed, although that doesn’t stop urgent work going on outside of the office.

And for team principal Rene Rosin and his staff, they will be savouring the days where they can relax at home with their families because once 2022 arrives the show will soon be quite literally back on the road.

The first F4 UAE round begins on January 12, but a pre-season test is likely to take place before that and the cars, accompanied by some skeleton staff, should arrive before then in case there’s any logistical disruption like F1 suffered as it tried to move equipment from the United States Grand Prix on to the next races in Mexico and Brazil last month.

After one week of F4 UAE action, Asian F3 (which uses FRegional cars) is then racing too and that means Prema will be in the UAE for at least six consecutive weeks. The Abu Dhabi GP event “is the first test” with the new F4 car, and Prema “have not decided yet with how many cars” it will then do the full season but it is likely to be three.

“We want to develop our drivers there in a period where in Italy and Europe in general there is no good weather to run. So we’re there, looking at this with the new car coming,” said Troncon.

“Honestly we have enough work to do here in Europe. More than before. But to have the drivers to run with the new car, take the experience for the drivers and for the team can be interesting in the nice weather condition. And also on nice tracks.

“Asian F3, they will only do races in the UAE, because there is the COVID-19 situation [preventing racing] in China. And also because the drivers are more interested to run in the UAE, more easy to travel, more comfortable from all aspects.

“So to arrange our people for UAE is not a big problem because we are working with quite a big number. Last year we did six FRegional cars plus one F4 there. This year the [initial] idea is that we do three and three.

“We have a package of people [we send], and also with the help of the [Iron Lynx] staff we can have a good series.”

Troncon with a former F4 crop (L-R) Schumacher, Correa & Vips

Those staff are having to manage the cars of Abu Dhabi Racing, Mumbai Falcons and Prema in the UAE, and as well as being a great learning ground for young drivers with repeat visits to tracks, it also provides an opportunity for young mechanics and engineers to learn the cars, how to work with drivers, how to work with Prema and how to handle a travel-heavy job.

Prema’s preparations for who goes where in this period begins at the end of summer, when it’s also very busy preparing for the second half of seasons in the year-long series and bringing in drivers to test who may then end up contesting the winter series. An example would be Mercedes-AMG F1 junior Andrea Kimi Antonelli, who joined Prema in Italian F4 in September

“So at the end the winter period is the most important for the organisation for the season. So we cannot [slack]. Normally, we take on people coming from outside of our own mechanics, working on the race weekends, normally we do the job there, and that means some more [break] for people in our company. For example last year some engineers did a few races in the second part of the UAE season, then the others came [and they swapped around].

“And that [rotation of staff] becomes training also for the young mechanics. To work with the car, and to find a good compromise [working with new people] is not easy to organise. Really it’s very difficult to do it I suppose. And the bigger [ask] for them becoming available if it’s not matching well with the race schedule.”

In this instance, Troncon is saying that if a driver has signed for F4 UAE and is then considering doing a 2022 campaign in Italian F4 or Formula Regional Europe with Prema, then the team will want to make sure the engineer and mechanic that would likely be running them in Europe is available to work on their car over winter.

It not only makes for better preparation for when the regular season arrives, but it’s often the creation of strong driver-engineer relationships in winter series and tests that helps gets deals over the line when fighting for drivers’ signatures.

This will be a less of an issue for the Indian programmes that start just three days after Asian F3 concludes – although Prema does want to attract international drivers there as it’s not believed there will be enough local drivers to fill grids in both – as the collaboration with Mumbai Falcons there means more of the Indian team’s own staff will be hands-on with the cars over the five weeks there and Prema will act as a technical partner.

Every circuit there will be new to Prema, but at least it will know the new Tatuus T-421 being used in Indian F4, and two of the planned events will be on the new Hyderabad street circuit. It will be one big step in the unknown, made harder not only by the scale of the technical work but the fact that working with India’s COVID-19 and travel restrictions will all be new. By February it’s hoped there will be no quarantine in place, but the spread of the omicron variant means nothing can be predicted.

“COVID-19 has already changed a bit the plan for everybody, and [the series organisers] wanted to start this project at the end of this year,” added Troncon. “It’s impossible, so they postponed. But the collaboration is planned as a partner to, in charge for the technical staff.”

The India-bound chassis were in Prema’s factory in September at the end of some series’ summer break, and with it being the same cars as used in Europe it meant international drivers evaluating entering the series could get a stronger idea of what the series would be like. But it remains that “the main problem is the COVID-19 situation and all the logistical stuff that is really quite a risk”.

At this point, this writer is feeling quite stressed on Prema’s behalf, but Troncon reassures that with “more than 60 people fully employed at Prema, and with additional staff that we can bring” that 11 consecutive weeks of Asian racing will be fine.

But Formula Scout spoke to Prema before the 2022 F2 and F3 calendars were announced, and the staff that would have been available from a break in those programmes are now starting their on-the-road work in March and it leaves little room for any to appear elsewhere if workshop work has to be done through the months before.

On the March 17-20 weekend, the FRIC and Indian F4 seasons are set to conclude at the same time as the F2 and F3 ones begin, with FREC testing at Imola taking place as well and the WEC season opener at Sebring in the USA which could be the race debut for Prema’s LMP2 programme. That could be 36 cars-worth of work in one week.

Once F4 UAE begins, Prema will be at a circuit every week until May, and after that the testing schedule is set to ramp up for FREC and F4. Then there’s dates it’s yet to confirm as competing in, such as the ADAC F4 season opener at Spa-Francorchamps on April 22-24.

Below is the confirmed winter schedule for Prema. Not included in its tally of cars for Asian F3 or F4 UAE are the ones it will run on behalf of Abu Dhabi Racing, but at least one in each can be expected and with the Al Qubaisi sisters piloting the cars. The tally below does however include Prema’s commitment to Mumbai Falcons in India and the UAE, and how its sportscar schedule is now going to add to its workload.

Prema’s winter schedule

Weekend Series Circuit No. of cars
Dec 3-5 F2 Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) 2
Dec 10-12 F2, F4 UAE Yas Marina 5
Dec 16-18 F2 Yas Marina 2
Dec 24-26 Prema’s Christmas video Grisignano di Zocco
Jan 1/2 Factory shutdown
Jan 7-9 no racing or testing
Jan 12-14 F4 UAE Dubai 3
Jan 20-22 Asian F3, F4 UAE Yas Marina 6+2
Jan 27-29 Asian F3 Dubai 3+2
Feb 3-5 Asian F3, F4 UAE Dubai 6+2
Feb 10-12 Asian F3, F4 UAE Dubai 6+2
Feb 17-19 Asian F3, F4 UAE Yas Marina 6+2
Feb 23-27 FRIC, Indian F4 Buddh 27
Mar 4-6 FRIC, Indian F4 Hyderabad 27
Mar 11-13 FRIC, Indian F4, WEC Kari, Sebring (USA) 28
Mar 17-20 F2, F3, FREC, FRIC, Indian F4, WEC Bahrain, Imola (Italy), Madras, Sebring 36
Mar 25-27 F2, FREC, FRIC, Indian F4 Jeddah, Barcelona (Spain), Hyderabad 32
Mar 30/31 FREC Paul Ricard (France) 3
Apr 7-9 F4 Imola (Italy) 3
Apr 11-12 ELMS Paul Ricard 1
Apr 15-17 ELMS Paul Ricard 1
Apr 22-24 F2, F3, FREC Imola, Monza (Italy) 8
Apr 30/May 1 No racing or testing