Emirati F4 racer Hamda Al Qubaisi kicked off her 2021 racing season with a double podium finish in the opening round of the F4 UAE Championship at Dubai Autodrome, as the series now moves to her native Yas Marina Circuit in a week time.
It certainly was a short winter break for F4 racer Hamda Al Qubaisi, the younger of the Al Qubaisi sisters as she makes her way up the ranks of international motor racing.
After an impressive campaign in the 2020 Formula 4 UAE Championship where she secured 3 race victories and 12 podium finishes, the 18-year old from Abu Dhabi went on to compete in her rookie season in the very competitive Italian F4 Championship powered by Abarth, claiming more top-10 results.
A little over one month from the final round at Vallelunga in the Italian-based series, Hamda made her return to the UAE championship - this year featuring a compressed 5-round calendar, all to be contested at Dubai Autodrome and Yas Marina Circuit over five weeks of back-to-back racing.
The FIA F4 UAE effectively kicks off the international motorsport season, with its first four-header at Dubai in support of the 24-Hour race. In its fifth year of races, the championship has become an exciting category for drivers and fans of feeder series: with its winter program, F4UAE is increasingly a popular destination for young racers moving their first steps into the world of single seater racing, as well as to prepare the teams and drivers European campaigns.
Fourteen drivers from 11 countries lined up on the grid of the inaugural round, confirming the healthy state of the championship despite the difficult global situation.
Making his debut for the Xcel Motorsport powerhouse team was Dutchman Dilano Van't Hoff, who quickly emerged as the man to beat in the qualifying sessions.
16-year old rookie Van't Hoff claimed three pole positions, as his second-best lap was also good enough to top the timesheets for Race 2.
Abu Dhabi Racing's Hamda Al Qubaisi was fourth fastest in the first session with a best lap of 2:00.744, while she improved and signed a 2:00.042 that gained her a front row start for the third race.
Coming from his strong showing in the morning's qualifying, Van't Hoff immediately hit trouble as the lights went off for the first time in 2021: the Dutch driver had a slow getaway and the pack stormed past him. Hamda Al Qubaisi had a good start and, despite the driver of the #88 Abu Dhabi Racing by Prema was slightly squeezed on the main straight, she managed to advance to second place, behind Spaniard Pepe Marti.
SMP-backed driver Kirill Smal - coming from positive season in the German F4 and a partial campaign in the Italian championship - quickly made up positions, while Saudi racer Saud Al Saud spun into the first corner.
Enzo Trulli - son of former F1 driver Jarno and making his formula car debut - started to put pressure on Hamda Al Qubaisi in second. Trulli seized an opportunity and moved up into the runner-up spot on the second lap, as Van't Hoff recovered to fourth after his starting issue.
Trulli, racing for the Cram Durango outfit, closed on Marti after setting a fastest lap and caught up with the leader on lap 3.
The race was then red-flagged following Marti's huge crash coming into turn 16: the leading Xcel Motorsport car went off at high speed and impacted with the barriers backwards, coming then back onto the track on fire. Marti was out of the heavily damaged car under his own power.
When the green flag was again waved with three minutes left on the clock, Trulli led from Al Qubaisi, Van't Hoff and Smal.
The recovering poleman went past Hamda soon after the restart - but it was a short green-flag stint as Al Saud crashed at Turn 6, bringing out the Safety Car. The race was not restarted - meaning that Enzo Trulli took the chequered flag to win his first ever single-seater race, ahead of Dilano Van't Hoff and Hamda Al Qubaisi, who defended well in the closing laps from the fast charging Smal and claimed her first podium of the season.
Thursday's second race saw only 12 cars lining up on the grid, following the heavy shunts by Marti and Al Saud.
It was another very good start off the line for Hamda Al Qubaisi, who once again gained a position and moved up to third place. Van't Hoff had a better getaway and held the lead, while Peruvian driver Matias Zagazeta reported issues befor ethe starting procedure and was forced to a pitlane start.
While Trulli again quickly into the gearbox of Hamda Al Qubaisi, she held position and then increasingly reduced her gap to Francesco Braschi, but the Italian BWT Mucke Motorsport driver held off.
Behind them, Kirill Smal engaged in a battle with Xcel Motorsport teammate Jamie Day and, ultimately, the Russian could make a move stick for fourth on lap 6. Ukrainian driver Oleksandr Partyshev also made a good move on Ried with three minutes left, but he then dropped to the tail end of the field in the closing laps.
As Van't Hoff opened a small gap of just over two seconds from his closest pursuer, Al Qubaisi led a train of four cars battling for the final step of the podium.
Smal attacked Trulli and forced his way past the Italian - but the race 1 winner fought back in spectacular fashion. In the midst of the hectic action, it was jamie Day to make the most out of the situation and seized the opportunity to pass Trulli. While Al Qubaisi initially gained few tenths from this battle, the young Emirati driver couldn't hold back Smal on the final lap and dropped two places in the closing corners.
Van't Hoff crossed the line and took his first championship win, preceding Braschi and Smal. Day was fourth, ahed of Hamda Al Qubaisi and Enzo Trulli.
In Friday's Race 3, all the 14 cars were back on the grid - after a monumental effort by the mechanics who worked late in the night to fix the crashed cars of Pepe Marti and Saud Al Saud.
Hamda had the best start of the lot and fired into the lead, but Van't Hoff came charging back and regained the top spot in the second sector of the opening lap.
The Safety Car was brought out by Pepe Marti, who spun and could not restart due to an electrical problem on his #13 Xcel Motorsport Tatuus.
Just as the pace car was making its wat back to the pits, Enzo Scionti and Jonas Ried made contact and were forced to a pitstop to replace a front and rear wing. While Ried rejoined, Scionti retired his Cram Durango F4 car, having sustained extra damage to its front-end.
When the race went back to green, Hamda Al Qubaisi remained within the one second gap to Van't Hoff and put increasingly pressure on the Dutchman. Hamda pushed hard and got closer - but never into striking distance.
Dilano Van't Hoff took victory again, while Al Qubaisi scored her second podium of the season.
Kiril Smal was once again protagonist of a solid race and finished third, edging Jamie day and Francesco Braschi. Thai racer Tasanapol Inthraphuvasak was sixth after some good midfield battles and Enzo Trulli managed to recover to P8 after stalling on the grid.
The fourth and final race of the opening round of the 2021 F4 UAE Championship saw rookies Enzo Trulli and Nikita Bedrin sharing the front row, while Hamda Al Qubaisi lined up in seventh place, alongside race 3 winner Van't Hoff.
When the lights went out for the final time this week in Dubai, Trulli got away well and held the lead, in front of Inthraphuvasak who moved ahead of Bedrin from third on the grid.
Showing clear improvements from her 2020 starts, Al Qubaisi advanced into sixth and banged wheels with Smal into Turn 1, but the Russian continued to cut his way through the field: an impressive battle emerged for third and Smal forced his way past teammate and compatriot Bedrin, just as Al Qubaisi attacked Braschi - but also had to defend from Van't Hoff.
Ahead, Trulli and Inthraphuvasak slightly pulled away from the rest of the field, as a series of hectic yet exciting fights slowed down the pursuers. The leaders' run was cut short by the intervention of the Safety Car at the end of the second lap, when Partyshev parked his car right before the pit entry with a right-rear puncture.
The race resumed with 7 minutes to go: it was a good restart for Trulli, while Smal immediately moved up to second and Van't Hoff also fought his way up to fourth with a good move on Braschi.
Al Qubaisi overtook both Day and Braschi following an outstanding restart and held sixth, before further advancing to fifth as she temporarily had the better of Bedrin. The Excel driver was in fact back into the top-5 at the first corner, forcing Hamda to take a defensive line to cover the recovering Braschi.
Meanwhile, Smal - on fresher tyres - had closed in and passed Trulli for the lead, as the Italian struggled to keep up with the SMP-supported driver.
As time ran out, Day went deep and off track at the final corner, taking Scionti with him.
Kirill Smal crossed the line and claimed a convincing victory, 2.2 seconds ahead of Enzo Trulli and with a four-second advantage over Tasanapol Inthraphuvasak.
Van't Hoff was fourth and led a train of three cars across the finish line, with Bedrin, Al Qubaisi and Braschi finishing P5, P6 and P7.
“Overall I think the race weekend went ok", told usa Hamda after the first event of the season. "I’ve had a few issues in quali and didn’t manage to get my sectors together and all, so it was a P4 in Q1 and P2 in Q2. But in Race 1 I managed to get a podium and also another podium in Race 3, with also a top-5 in Race 2 and a sixth place n Race 4.”
“I think the competition this year is very high, much higher than it was last year.", she added. "I think we’re off to an ok start and definitely we’ll be looking forward to YAS Marina this weekend and hopefully do our best to even get a win”.
After the four opening races, Dilano Van't Hoff leads the championship standings with 83 points. Kirill Smal is second and leads Enzo Trulli and Hamda Al Qubaisi.
The lady from Abu Dhabi thus kicks off her racing season with two podium finishes and more solid results, as the series moves to her home track at Yas Marina Circuit in a week time.