F4 UAE: Bianca Bustamante back in the points, Bühler tops personal best
Bianca Bustamante is making leaps forward weekend after weekend in F4 UAE and, in Dubai, the Filipina was back in the points. Léna Bühler had two very solid races and collected her best finish of the season so far, while Hamda Al Qubaisi battled issues and contacts to still complete a very positive recovery in race 1.
Since the previous round at Kuwait Motor Town, two of the female racers currently competing in the F4 UAE Championship have been announced to be part of the inaugural F1 Academy season: Bianca Bustamante will in fact continue her F4 adventure with Prema, as well as Léna Bühler will represent ART Grand Prix in the new all-female championship. The news provided even more interesting talking points for the final rounds of the spectacular Emirati-based F4 season, which returned to the track after a 10 day break. 40 drivers - a new record for the series - joined the action at Dubai Autodrome, already stage of the first championship round, on the same track layout. A few changes in the team's line-ups though meant that Emely de Heus - who just turned 20 a couple of days ago - was not part of the weekend, as MP Motorsport is rotating cars between its entries as announced at the start of the season. In her place, Uzbek driver Ismoilkhuja Akhmedkhodjaev made his first appearance of the season in the #60 Tatuus; Pedro Clerot also joined the Dutch team, while Nandhavud Bhirombhakdi joined PHM Racing. Al Qubaisi and Léna Bühler showed plenty of pace in pre-event testing, when they both proved to have top-ten worthy potential. Al Qubaisi was P11 and P9 in two of the sessions, as Bühler set the 13th fastest time in FP1. In qualifying, Al Qubaisi was the better placed, slotting into P17 for race 1 despite having mechanical problems that the team worked hard to fix but couldn't be fully solved. Bühler followed in 20th - mentioning some lack of grip - as Bustamante and Blokhina had even more troubled qualifying sessions in P29 and P37. Tuukka Taponen took pole position in race 1, with Mumbai Falcon's teammate and fellow Ferrari Driver Academy member James Wharton alongside him. Arvid Lindblad was looking to turn his luck around after the latest weekends and would start P3; on the other hand, there was no luck for Ugo Ugochukwu, who was ninth and then had to serve a 3 place grid drop due to a accident in Kuwait with Taponen.
Taponen had a spectacular launch and left Wharton in his mirrors, as Lindblad, Al Azhari and Piszcyk kept positions. Hamda Al Qubaisi battled in the midfield and soon gained a spot, but was down to 18th at the end of the first lap, while Bühler held P20. Bianca Bustamante - slightly out of position after an unfortunate qualifying - recovered 4 places, just as the Safety Car was deployed for an accident involving Rishon Rajeev and Theodor Jensen. The green flag waved again with 10 minutes left on the clock: Taponen had a clean restart, as did the rest of the pack. Al Azhari made a move stick for third on Lindblad; the Briton fought back but made contact with the Emirati and both dropped out of contention. Hamda Al Qubaisi, Léna Bühler and Bianca Bustamante were on the move, navigating through the midfield. Bustamante's sterling recovery soon brought the Filipina up to 17th, just behind Al Qubaisi and Bühler, who tried to find a way past Rifai and Lisle. Further ahead, Rinicella overtook Piszcyk - and the battle gave Ugochukwu the chance to attempt a double pass at Turn 1. The move didn't work out for the American, who went deep and rejoined in ninth. With 2 minutes to go, the Safety Car was once again deployed for the stranded car of Flavio Olivieri. Before the neutralization, Al Qubaisi had managed to get ahead of Lisle, slotting into P14 with a convincing drive. Blokhina kept her nose clean throughout the race and, consistently making steps ahead, the R2Race driver climbed 12 places, advancing to P25. The race ended behind the pace car, as Tuukka Taponen took his second win of the season, ahead of James Wharton. Taking advantage from Ugochukwu's difficult race, Wharton's second place was enough for the Australian to grab the championship lead. A good recovery resulted in a P14 for Hamda Al Qubaisi; Léna Bühler equalled her best result of the season so far with P16 and Bianca Bustamante gained 12 places to finish P17. During the first safety car phase, Jesse Carrasquedo had opted to pit and bolt on a new set of tyres and, having set the fastest lap of the race, the Mexican will start from pole position in race 2. Bianca Bustamante's great pace in Race 1 also resulted in a top-ten start for Race 2: she in fact recorded the sixth fastest lap of the race.
"We managed to progress from P29 to P17 in the race", Bianca commented. "Made a good start and also some cool overtakes despite a shortened race due to safety car. Best thing of all is I managed the sixth fastest lap of the race out of the 40 cars, which means I start race 2 tomorrow in P6!"
"Overall I'm really happy with my race pace, but I need to work hard on improving my qualifying times", Bustamantecontinued. "I need to be able to switch on the lap immediately, instead of getting on pace only on lap 4 or 5. Lots of work to do but today was a good day. Let's see what tomorrow brings!"
The start of Sunday morning's first race turned out to be a more hectic one, with a few cars stalling: Aleksandr Bolduev's stationary car was clipped by Ugochukwu, who lost his rear wing and parked a few hundred metres ahead. Taponen and Wharton had been fighting for second behind Carrasquedo, when the Safety Car picked up the field at the end of the first lap. A great launch for Bianca Bustamante saw the Prema driver almost moving into sixth, before she retained seventh place at the first caution. Bühler proved once again her skills at the starts and gained five places moving up to P18, followed by Blokhina in P23. Unfortunately, Al Qubaisi was caught in an incident and, sandwiched, dropped to the back of the field. The green flag waved with 10 minutes to go and the fierce battles in the mid pack resumed: Léna Bühler defended superbly in a three-wide action on the back-straight and completed a double pass to slot in 15th, in one of her best races to date in the series. Bustamante also fought elbows-out with Rinicella and Beeton, eventually dropping to ninth. Kluss spun at Turn 1, second before Jensen went around and collected the blameless Zhuravskiy, triggering once again the safety car. The race ended once again under caution: Jesse Carrasquedo was first on the road, but was handed a 10 second time penalty for missing the pit entry line when the Safety Car led the pack in pit road during the first lap accident. Tuukka Taponen therefore claimed his second win of the weekend, taking second place in the championship standings. Again on the second step of the podium, Wharton also gained a significant amount of points to title rival Ugochukwu. Noah Stromsted rounded out the top three. Ninth across the finish line, Bianca Bustamante secured her second point scoring finish of the season - in yet another stellar performance for the Filipina, who was the best placed Prema driver.
With 15th place, Léna Bühler topped her best result of the season so far. In the few clean races she's had, the Swiss racer has consistently been around the top-15. Blokhina was P23 - which also represents the best finish of her 2023 campaign. Hamda Al Qubaisi managed to recover to P34 after the opening lap troubles, despite a battered car.
The final race at Dubai was again a battle between Mumbai Falcon's teammates Taponen and Wharton, now both clearly in contention for the title after Ugochukwu's nightmare weekend. The FDA Finnish star lined up in pole position in race 3, eyeing another strong finish to further cut the points' gap. Hamda Al Qubaisi was targeting a comeback after an unlucky second race and took the start from P22, one position ahead of Bianca Bustamante and four grid slots in front of Léna Bühler. Blokhina would start from P37. A second formation lap went underway when Jesse Carrasquedo - whose weekend went from bad to worse - and Flavio Olivieri were wrongly positioned on the starting grid and had to take the start from pit lane. The lights finally went out soon after, with Taponen firing away in the lead and Keanu Al Azhari well defending his second place from Lindblad and Wharton. Three drivers hit trouble: Beeton, Bhirombhakdi and Bühler were forced to pit at the end of the first lap for repairs. Léna had suffered a left-rear puncture. Some action-packed first laps saw continuous position changes in the midfield; Hamda Al Qubaisi was quickly up to P20, but was hit by one of her teammates; the contact bent Hamda's steering rod and she was forced to continue with a damaged car.
Bustamante meanwhile kept the positive trend by gaining two positions. Rinicella drove around the outside of Lindblad with a stunning move on lap 3, but the Briton was back ahead at turn 1, having gone deep in the run off. Taponen, Al Azhari and Wharton pulled away, with Lindblad and Rinicella swapping places almost 3 seconds behind. Ugochukwu struggled again to recover and couldn't get further up than ninth. The former championship leader was then overtaken by Piszcyk in the latter stages and had to settle for tenth - the American having suffered a big blow in the title battle. On the final lap, Al Azhari increased the pressure on Taponen, but the Finn achieved a spectacular triple-win at Dubai, beating the Yas Heats driver and Mumbai Falcon's teammate Wharton. Bianca Bustamante was P21, preceding Hamda Al Qubaisi by six tenths of a second; Victoria Blokhina recovered ten places and completed race 3 in P27, while Léna Bühler crossed the finish line having recovered to P32 after the first lap puncture. The fourth round of the F4 UAE season was another important step forward for Bustamante, who had a remarkable progression since the start of the campaign. In her rookie year in F4 cars, Bustamente is making the most out of the competent Prema work and, taking advantage from proper track time, Bianca is finally showcasing her talent. While the often unfortunate Léna Bühler has probably not maximized her potential yet and certainly collected less than she would deserve, the R2Race driver has been strong in battles and made great recoveries, coming increasingly closer to a top 10. Similarly, Hamda Al Qubaisi's results at Dubai are surely not representative of her pace - but she will have another chance in a week's time, when Hamda will return to Yas Marina Circuit for her home race, on a track where she has previously collected race victories and podium finishes.