F4UAE: Hamda Al Qubaisi and Bianca Bustamante in the top-10 in Kuwait
The third round of the F4 UAE season proved to be a break-through moment for several of the female drivers on the grid: Hamda Al Qubaisi scored points and returned to battle at the top-end of the field; Bianca Bustamante made huge steps forward and clinched her first top-10; Léna Bühler finally broke a streak of bad luck in race 3, where she could claim her best finish to date; Emely de Heus showed significant improvements both in qualifying and race pace, almost breaking in the top-20.
Just two days after the second round of the 2023 F4 UAE season - and the first ever weekend of open wheel racing in Kuwait, on the brand new facility of Kuwait Motor Town, cars hit the track once again for the third championship round, in a slightly unconventional schedule that saw qualifying and race 1 on Tuesday and Race 2 and Race 3 on Wednesday.
The first three races at the 5.609 km new racetrack brought mixed emotions for the five female drivers of the F4 UAE season: Hamda Al Qubaisi had a very solid race 2, where the Emirati star finished just outside the points-paying position in P11. The result once again showed how the driver of the #78 Yas Heat Academy team has top-10 worthy pace, after marginally missing out on points also at the opening round in Dubai; a difficult qualifying in Kuwait, though, turned out to be a key point in Al Qubaisi's second weekend.
Léna Bühler (R2Race) was coming off an almost eight-month hiatus from motor racing and therefore used the first weekend in Dubai to adapt to the car and get back in the rhythm. In Kuwait, Bühler showed big improvements in practice - but unfortunate qualifying sessions, and the most unluckiest races ever resulted in three DNFs with no fault of her own. Bühler was in fact taken out of the race on all occasions, often after very good starts.
Both Victoria Blokhina (Race2Race) and Emely de Heus (MP Motorsport) struggled a bit more in qualifying, but were protagonists of impressive recoveries in the races. Amidst all sorts of chaos, contacts and safety car interventions, Blokhina and de Heus kept their nose clean and were able to move up the order in each race. Blokhina recovered 8 positions in race 1 and 12 positions in race 3.
But arguably the driver that made the best step forward was Bianca Bustamante. The 18-year-old Filipino, at only her second year of single-seaters, is noticeably more at ease in her Prema car session after session and was almost in the top ten in qualifying, then scored her first top 20 in race 1. An accident in race 3 left Bustamante with an injured hand, but she was cleared by doctors to participate in the third championship round.
"Happy to report that after X Rays were taken last night, there is no fracture on my hand or wrist, just bruises", she wrote. "So for now, I just need to rest as much as possible today and aim to be fully fit when we hit the track again for Round 3 of the F4 UAE."
After a further test day at Kuwait Motor Town on Monday, it was race time again - this time in very different weather conditions: a thick layer of fog covered the track and teams found colder temperatures compared to the previous days.
Round three would prove to be a break-through for most of the female drivers.
Qualifying was off to a difficult start: the fog and the traffic made for two challenging sessions, as Léna Bühler and Hamda Al Qubaisi could not set representative lap times in traffic and were relegated to P30 and P36. Bustamante again made good progress in the final minutes and slotted in P22 - but the driver that had improved the most from the previous weekend was Emely de Heus: the Dutchwoman clinched a P23 on the grid of race 1, and clearly aimed at her first top-20. Bustamante carried a 3-place penalty from the previous round, therefore de Heus moved up the grid to the eleventh row of the grid.
In Q2, Bühler had finally found a clean lap that brought her up to P20, with Al Qubaisi just behind in P22; Bustamante, de Heus and Blokhina were hampered by a red flag in the final minutes of the session, just as Al Qubaisi, who took the chequered flag just before her final attempt once the session was resumed.
Championship leader Ugo Ugochukwu (Prema) took pole position, ahead of James Wharton (Mumbai Falcons), Noah Strømsted (PHM Racing) and Zachary David (R-Ace GP).
At the start, Wharton tried to cut across Ugochukwu, but the American held on and retained the top spot on the first lap - which inevitably ended with a Safety Car intervention after a multiple-car tangle at the infamous Turn 2.
Kai Daryanani had spun and his car had to be recovered, as Léna Bühler had to take the run-off to avoid the contacts and dropped to P31. Emely de Heus undoubtedly had one of her best starts in F4: the Dutchwoman was almost in the top-20 - as was fellow W Series driver Bianca Bustamante, up to P23.
Ugochukwu once again defended from Wharton at the restart - before a second neutralization was triggered by an accident involving Lindblad and David, battling for sixth place: the two collided on the main straight and the Red Bull junior driver was sent into a spin at high speed. While he initially continued, he had to eventually pit and retire. On the other hand, David's R-Ace GP Tatuus had sustained suspension damage and was parked at Turn 2. Both had been just overtaken by Tuukka Taponen (Mumbai Falcons), also quickly making up places from ninth on the grid.
Just before the safety car was called, Valerio Rinicella had completed a great pass on Stromsted for third place at the fast Turn 3-4-5 section. Rinicella had started from seventh, but confirmed his great pace on the Kuwaiti track.
With five minutes to go, Ugochukwu had Wharton and Rinicella right in his mirrors. Emely de Heus had got in the top-20 and was really looking to score her best result in the series - when unfortunately she spun in the gravel, and the third safety car of the race was deployed. Bianca Bustamante meanwhile moved up to P20, as also Léna Bühler made up places.
The green flag waved again for the final lap of the race: Taponen had a great run on Stromsted and claimed fourth - just meters before the Finn found a way past Rinicella as well. Ugochukwu had just enough safe gap to win over Wharton and Taponen.
Just as she was sealing another top-20, Bianca Bustamante dropped down the order for a tyre puncture. Léna Bühler gained six positions and, despite the tricky opening lap, she crossed the finish line in P24. Victoria Blokhina was P30, ahead of Hamda Al Qubaisi, 32nd at the finish line after starting from the back. The Emirati, though, once again showed her pace with the eleventh fastest lap of the race, which resulted in a fourth-row start for race 2.
Similarly, Bustamante could look forward to race 2, having set the eighth fastest time and therefore secured her best starting position in single-seaters.
The fog had finally cleared on Wednesday morning, leaving a clear view of the Kuwait Motor Town. Championship rivals Wharton and Ugochukwu once again shared the front row, while Taponen had Aleksandr Bolduev alongside in row 2, in the Xcel Motorsport's driver best start to date. Wharton had a good lead into Turn 2, as Ugochukwu initially had to defend from Taponen, but eventually managed to close in again with the Australian. Daryanani was again off the track on lap 1, while a great first lap for Victoria Blokhina was then thwarted by a tyre puncture before the end of the first lap; the R2Race driver was battling well within the top-20. The safety car was deployed, which allowed Blokhina to pit for new tyres and recover to the back of the field. Hamda Al Qubaisi was up to tenth place at the restart, one place ahead of Bustamante who had slipped behind in the hectic first lap. From 32nd on the grid, Léna Bühler had gained four places. But once again, there was no luck for the talented Swiss racer, involved in a multiple-car tangle at the final corner. Bühler had to pit but rejoined. A few seconds later, a big shunt on the straight leading to Turn 2 saw five cars going wheel to wheel - and Hiyu Yamakoshi spun across the track, ending his race against the barriers. The accident brought out the safety car once again with 12 minutes to go. Taponen had cleared Ugochukwu and then was hunting down his Mumbai Falcons' teammate Wharton just as the accident halted the action. Hamda Al Qubaisi also had plenty of pace and moved up to eighth, making her return to the positions where she belongs. Bustamente was battling hard just outside the top-ten, but would have to pass three more drivers to score her first points in the final three minutes of racing. At the restart, Ferrari Driver Academy new entry Tuukka Taponen launched his attack for the lead under braking at Turn 2, almost banged wheels with his teammate and grabbed the top of the leaderboard. Wharton tried to fight back and was almost sideways, but he could do nothing to deny Taponen his first ever F4 win. Rinicella drove around the outside of Ugochukwu one lap later, On the penultimate lap, Bustamante completed a great double-pass at the last corner and gained P11; Al Qubaisi was also in a close battle with William Macintyre for seventh place and, when Noah Lisle damaged his front wing just ahead, both Al Qubaisi and Bustamante were ready to seize the opportunity. Al Qubaisi - who sported a new helmet - claimed seventh, her best result of the season so far, and Bianca Bustamante crossed the finish line in P10. For the young Filipina, it was her first ever point in Formula 4. "After all the uncertainty we faced yesterday. We were able to turn it around and come home with our first ever point in F4 UAE", wrote Bustamante. "It was a tough battle starting P8 in race 2. Surely to finish p10 we needed to have raw pace and fight hard with 38 cars in the grid all so close together! In the end we managed to hold on, giving me confidence for race 3!" In the final minutes after the restart, Emely de Heus made up 7 positions to finish P21 - her best result to date, and again close to a top-20. Blokhina was 28th after the first lap pit stop.
Mumbai Falcons teammates Wharton and Taponen lined up on the two top positions later in the afternoon, as they tried to further close the gap to points leader Ugochukwu.
The run towards Turn 2 was incredibly clean this time, as everyone made it through unscathed. Between Wharton and Taponen, though, there was the impressive Jesse Carrasquedo (R-Ace GP), who slotted into second with a stunning first lap.
Léna Bühler had another very strong start, advancing from P20 to P16; Al Qubaisi followed in P19 and Bustamante in P21 - also having gained 5 places, just as many of Emely de Heus.
A contact between Frenchmen Raphael Narac and Teophile Nael luckily did not result in a race neutralization and both could continue, albeit they had to make a trip to the pits.
Carrasquedo's attempt to clinch his first podium ended on lap 2, when he went wide and dropped out of contention, promoting Taponen to second.
After Bühler's sterling start, the Swiss continued to make up positions and she went side by side with Macintyre at the fast turn 1 - but then she had to defend from Dion Gowda and Bianca Bustamante right behind her.
Strangely, Ugochukwu initially struggled to keep up the pace with the top three, who managed to slightly pull away. Rinicella - after a great third round at Kuwait Motor Town, started to put pressure on the Mumbai Falcons duo. With 10 minutes to go, though, Ugochukwu set a series of fastest laps that allowed the American to close in again - and all of a sudden moved into third place when RInicella made a mistake and went off, losing a position.
Bianca Bustamante got by Léna Bühler, who had slipped down a few places in the closely-fought midfield. Emely de Heus, again showing hugely improved pace, recovered to 25th.
Bustamante continued to make progress and got closer to the top-15 as the clock ticked down.
On the penultimate lap, Ugochukwu attempted an over-optimistic pass on Taponen - and the two drivers collided at Turn 2. The Prema and Mumbai Falcons cars tangled and both were out of the race, triggering the first Safety Car of an otherwise clean third race.
James Wharton won race 3 as the chequered flag waved under caution, ahead of Valerio Rinicella and David.
With another superb race, Bianca Bustamante finished P15, just ahead of Léna Bühler - also the protagonist of a positive race after breaking a streak of bad luck and retirements. While the R2Race driver likely has potential to finish higher up, the only clean race out of the last six, resulted in her personal best so far.
Hamda Al Qubaisi was P20, rounding out a good third round that gained her 6 points.
Emely de Heus found encouraging pace in both qualifying and races: "The first week I was struggling a bit to find the speed here on this circuit, but I think I made big improvements on the second week." - de Heus commented. "And was much closer to the top 20 out of the 39 cars."
Victoria Blokhina had a cleaner third race and gained again 10 positions to finish P27.
The second Kuwait Motor Town round has proven to be a pivotal moment for the season of a few drivers: Hamda Al Qubaisi finally made her return among the front runners, and Bianca Bustamante has possibly made her biggest steps forward since her single-seater debut.
"Race 3 was one of the best races I’ve ever had, just pure joy racing and driving making passes", said Bustamante. "Having bad luck with quali we started P26, I knew it would be tough to finish inside the top 20 again. But with the consistent pace we had and the confidence to make moves we made 11 positions finishing P15!"
"Huge thanks to the team Prema for the amazing car and environment that has been pivotal in my growth", she concluded.
F4 UAE will return to Dubai Autodrome for the fourth and penultimate round of the 2023 season, in support of the Asian Le Mans Series on February 11-12.