F4 UAE: 5 female racers gear up for Dubai round
Five female drivers are set to kick off the 2023 F4 UAE Championship this weekend in Dubai; after two days of pre-season testing, here's how the 40-car field performed ahead of the inaugural round.
The 2023 single seater season is about to get underway with one of the most anticipated championships, the F4 UAE. The series - which is run for the first time under the management of Chinese company Top Speed - has witnessed a huge increase in entries in the last couple of years, also thanks to the work of the previous management as well as the Covid situation in the Emirates, which allowed the Middle Eastern country to establish itself as the best place to host a winter series.
The 2023 season will feature a record-breaking 40 car field - with five women set to take to the grid: home hero Hamda Al Qubaisi joined YAS Heat Academy, returning to F4 after a season in Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine; similarly, Léna Bühler was signed to R2Race, alongside Victoria Blokhina in an all-female line up for the local team; W Series drivers Bianca Bustamante and Emely de Heus will race respectively for Prema and MP Motorsport. For Bustamante, it will be her second year in race cars, while de Heus returns to F4 after contesting the 2021 Spanish F4 championship with the same Dutch squad.
The opening race at Dubai Autodrome will support the CREVENTIC 24 Hours of Dubai - the event that traditionally opens the sports cars calendar. A two-day pre-season test therefore preceded the F4 UAE season, with the Tatuus T421 cars hitting the track on Monday and Wednesday. Overall, six sessions allowed each driver to complete approximately 100 laps.
Mumbai Falcons' Tuukka Taponen dominated the timesheets on both days, setting a 2:01.961 as the overall best. The Finnish new Ferrari Driver Academy signing preceded teammate James Wharton by almost half a second after Monday's three sessions, but Prema's Ugo Ugochukwu would claim second fastest on Wednesday - and overall - two tenths off Taponen's reference time.
Valerio Rinicella (MP Motorsport) and Muhammad Ibrahim (Mumbai Falcons) were third and fourth fastest, both setting their best laps on the second day, like most of the top 10. Wharton was the only driver in the top-25 not to improve on Wednesday, which dropped the Australian from second to tenth.
With six wins and 20 podiums across two seasons in the series (2020-2021), Hamda Al Qubaisi's experience paid off and the 20-year-old Emirati emerged as the fastest of the female racers in both days. With a 2:03.644, Hamda ended day 1 in 19th position; a seventh place in Wednesday's first morning session, though, meant that Al Qubaisi was steadily back in the top ten and eventually finished the day in P12 with a 2:02.740, completing 122 laps around the 5.390 km-long Dubai Autodrome. Only three drivers (Bolduev, Lisle and Rifai) completed more laps.
Léna Bühler's last F4 season dates back to 2020, when she raced in the Spanish championship in the previous Tatuus car. The Swiss racer therefore spent the two-day test learning the new machinery - but, just like Al Qubaisi, Bühler was clearly in the first half of the timing screens.
Bühler was P15 in a positive first session,, before further improving in the fourth session, where she was 13th fastest and set her best lap in 2:03.053, after 76 laps out of her 113 completed. The whole field continued to be incredibly tight, with 37 cars within 2 seconds and 17 cars in one second.
19-year-old Dutchwoman Emely de Heus was often just outside the top-20, especially in the final two sessions of Wednesday. De Heus improved by over one second on day 2, and set her personal best in session 5, with a 2:03.308 that put the MP Motorsport driver in P32 in the combined classification.
Victoria Blokhina completed 107 laps throughout the two days, also signing her best lap in session 5 on Wednesday, with a 2:03.633. At her second participation in the UAE-based F4 championship, Blokhina was in the midfield for most sessions, with a P14 on Monday as her best placed session. She ended the second day in P31.
New Prema signing Bianca Bustamante, 17 from the Philippines, made her single-seater debut less than a year ago, when she was selected by W Series as one of the two Academy drivers. Bustamante transitioned from karting to Formula 3 Regional machinery, and is now extending her experience with F4 cars.
Bustamante tested with Prema in Barcelona before traveling to Dubai, where she continued her learning process. She completed 103 laps, with a best time of 2:03.701 in session 5. The Filipina was 19th fastest in the opening session on Monday, showing encouraging times. She then settled around the top-30, eventually finishing in P35 in the aggregate lap times classification - less than 2 seconds from the top of the timesheets.
The highly competitive grid is set to tackle official practice on Thursday, which kicks off the first championship round.
The first race will go green on Friday at 16:25 (local time), while Race 2 and Race 3 will be contested on Saturday, at 09:40 and 12:25 local time respectively.