F4UAE: Hamda Al Qubaisi ends season in the points despite injury
The final round of the 2023 F4 UAE season brought mixed feelings, as Hamda Al Qubaisi equalled her best result in the championship and scored points again with a superb race 3, but injured her wrist in a last lap accident. Léna Bühler had brilliant recoveries in the final two races, recording her strongest result of the season - just like her teammate Victoria Blokhina.
Five weeks of intense racing across the Middle East came down to the championship decider at Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, one of the most iconic racing venues in the region. Over the course of the 2023 Formula 4 UAE rounds, a total of 45 drivers took the start of at least one race, with grids often up to 40 cars. Arguably, the popular winter series has been the most competitive feeder series in the world. With teams and drivers from all over the world gearing up for their main programmes, five young talented women were also part of the field: local hero Hamda Al Qubaisi, Léna Bühler, Bianca Bustamante, Victoria Blokhina and Emely de Heus, who missed the last two rounds as MP Motorsport alternated its young drivers on its cars as announced at the start of the season. Al Qubaisi - a multiple race winner in Formula 4 and with experience of Formula Regional machinery as well - returned to the championship having to learn the new Tatuus T-421 car, but soon proved to be fast: the Emirati battled for points and scored a P7 in Kuwait. Part of the new Yes Heat team, Al Qubaisi had plenty of bad luck and certainly did not capitalize on her pace in most of the races - but she knew that her home track, the Yas Marina Circuit, was another good chance to prove her point. And, as soon as cars hit the track in practice, Hamda was up there, fighting for the top positions. In the official practice, Hamda was merely 27 thousands of a second behind the pace setter, the American Ugo Ugochukwu - suggesting that she would be back where she belongs - fighting at the front of the pack. A driver that has certainly impressed this year is Bianca Bustamante. The 18-year-old Filipina moved to F4 after a rookie year in W Series - which was also her single seater debut. With a big learning curve, Bustamante had a spectacular progression, climbing the very competitive order weekend after weekend. Working with top team Prema Racing certainly gave her the tools to learn in the best environment and, at only her third weekend, Bianca scored her first point. She then topped her best result at Dubai, finishing ninth with another strong weekend. Coming off such positive results, though, Bustamante had a more troubled round at Abu Dhabi: a practice crash resulted in a tricky qualifying - and consequently in three difficult races from the back of the crowded pack. For Léna Bühler, also at her return to F4 after two partial FRECA campaigns, the F4 UAE was also a training ground ahead of her F1 Academy debut, like for Bustamante. Having only raced the previous gen F4 car and with an over 8 months hiatus from racing, Bühler got back in the rhythm and had often pace for the top-15, but had some of the unluckiest weekends: in Kuwait, he recorded three DNFs for incidents outside of her control. In the clean races, though, Bühler could showcase her racecraft and completed remarkable recoveries. A good weekend in Dubai saw the Swiss driver claiming her best results, with a P16 and a P15, after gaining almost 10 positions. Bühler - who was just announced as part of the Sauber F1 Team's Academy - was again quick in Abu Dhabi, a track where she had marginally missed out on points last year in a Formula Regional Asian Championship appearance. In practice, Bühler was closer than ever to the top ten. Bühler's R2Race teammate Victoria Blokhina contested her second season in the UAE-based series, and had a mix of strong recoveries - making up over 12 places per race - with unfortunate incidents. In the second half of the season, though, Blokhina had cleaner races and battled steadily around the top-20. In qualifying, though, Al Qubaisi struggled to get a clean lap and had most of her fast lap deleted for track limits - leaving the young Emirati in P16 and P14, having previously set also times good enough for a fifth or sixth place. Similarly, Bühler couldn't capitalize on her speed and had to settle for P36 and P23, while Bustamante - with very few laps under her belt in practice - was P27 and P34.
Championship contenders James Wharton and Tuukka Taponen, both racing for Mumbai Falcons and representing the Ferrari Driver Academy, shared the front row, ahead of Yas Heat's Keanu Al Azhari - protagonist of a superb weekend - and Arvid Lindblad.
The 40 cars lined up on the support series starting grid, as the new long left-hander turn 9 became the first corner.
Al Azhari almost stalled on the grid and was luckily avoided by everyone, as Taponen and Wharton sprinted towards the first corner side by side - with the Australian holding position. It was a messy start further back, as Bianca Bustamante was involved in a three-car tangle at the turn 5 hairpin that brought out the Safety Car before the end of the first lap.
Hamda Al Qubaisi also had lost a few positions, while Léna Bühler had a stronger getaway and had started her recovery drive from 36th.
Under the Safety car, though, many drivers opted to pit for new tyres - in order to set a fast lap that would shape the grid of Race 2. Among them were Bühler and Al Qubaisi.
Wharton timed the restart perfectly, as Lindblad moved up to third passing Clerot and Rifai.
Blokhina, who had started from the pit lane, had stayed out during the neutralization and climbed up to P25.
From ninth on the grid, Ugochukwu was also making up positions, just like Al Azhari, who had a superb run to charge from the back of the pack to the top ten in a few laps.
Olivieri and Murray made contact under the Yas Marina Hotel, but both managed to continue. Blokhina, Al Qubaisi and Bühler were all making progress in the second half of the race and reached the doorsteps of the top-20.
On the final lap, Nicola Lacorte spun and impacted with the barriers at Turn 14 - bringing out a safety car. The race ended under caution, with Wharton extending his championship lead over Taponen, second across the line, and Lindblad.
Despite a pit lane start, Blokhina recovered from P33 to P22 - and preceded Al Qubaisi in P23 and Léna Bühler in P27.
Wharton had also claimed the fastest lap after Saturday's morning race and therefore secured pole position in Race 2, ahead of Taponen and Ugochukwu. Having pitted for new tyres, Hamda Al Qubaisi's best lap was good enough for P17. Bühler lined up in P30, Blokhina in P34 and, following a first lap incident, Bustamante would have to start from the back of the pack.
Wharton and Taponen went again side by side at the first corner and Wharton, with a similar outcome from the first race, kept the lead - while Ugochukwu and Lindblad banged wheels behind them for third place. Hamda Al Qubaisi had a spectacular first lap to move up to 10th place, as Léna Buhler also navigated through the field and slotted in P23 - before the Safety Car was deployed for an accident involving Lacorte, Badoer and Piszcyk. Al Qubaisi, unfortunately, picked up front wing damage as she tried to avoid the accident in front of her and had to pit for repairs.
The race got back underway with 10 minutes to go: Ugochukwo attacked Taponen for second and, after a lot of waving on the back straight, the Finn held on. Léna Bühler advanced to P21, as also Al Qubaisi overtook Bustamante and tried to recover positions. The action, though, was short-lived, as Abkhazava and Daryanani crashed heavily at Turn 5 and, a few seconds later, Zachary David spun while attacking Bühler and was collected by Murray. The Safety Car had been deployed again - and the chequered flag fell, handing victory to James Wharton, who could see his F4 title almost materializing.
Tuukka Taponen and Ugo Ugochukwu rounded out the podium; Léna Bühler fought her way up to P17 from 30th with a great run; her R2Race teammate Victoria Blokhina had a clean race and gained 11 positions to finish in P23. With such a short green-flag time, Hamda Al Qubaisi couldn't recover higher up than P28, just ahead of Bustamante in P30.
Fourteen races in, the championship decider on Sunday morning was all about Mumbai Falcons' teammates Wharton and Taponen. But the odds were massively in favour of the Australian, as the young Finn had to win with Wharton failing to score in order to bring home the prestigious title. The front row for Sunday's final race was slightly different: Wharton had Ugochukwu alongside and Taponen right behind, but he knew that he only had to focus on finishing the race. Al Qubaisi had the best chance of scoring points of the weekend with a start from P13; Léna Bühler was also a lot closer to the top-20, while Bustamante and Blokhina would need to recover more positions to pursue points' paying finishes. At lights out, the final race of the season turned out to be a thriller from the get go: Taponen had a blistering start and attacked Wharton - the two banging wheels until the hotel section, where they went off and then took each other out in dramatic fashion. Ugochukwu inherited the lead and preceded Rinicella and Al Azhari, before the intervention of the safety car. Lindblad had also stalled on the grid and retired. Al Qubaisi had made it into the top ten and Bühler, with a fantastic launch off the line and great first lap, had gained six places. But, after only one lap, with Taponen and Wharton already out, the series had already crowned its champion. At the green flag, Ugochukwu sprinted away, while Al Azhari attacked Rinicella for second. Noah Lisle and Pedro Clerot made contact and the latter spun; Al Qubaisi seized the opportunity and moved into eighth place. Bühler also made up more positions and climbed to P15, battling elbows-out with Bohra and Kluss. Amidst all sorts of battles in the midfield, Bianca Bustamante had almost completed a brilliant double-pass on Abkhazava and Bhirombhakdi, when she was hit and sent into the barriers at turn 9 - rounding out a really unfortunate round for the Filipina. With four minutes to go, the Safety Car was deployed - leaving a two-lap sprint race to the finish. Ugochukwu controlled the race from Rinicella and Al Azhari, securing his fifth win of the championship - but there was further chaos just behind, when Federico Rifai drifted off at turn 12, rejoined and spun under the Yas Hotel, just ahead of Hamda Al Qubaisi. Hamda had nowhere to go to avoid the spinning car and unfortunately collected the rear of the Xcel Motorsport car, then hitting the barriers heavily. The race was immediately red flagged, as the young Emirati driver was given assistance and extricated. Transferred to a local hospital, Al Qubaisi was diagnosed with a fractured wrist and will have to undergo surgery. We wish Hamda Al Qubaisi a prompt recovery from her injury - certain that she will be back in full shape for the remainder of her racing season. The red flag meant that the result from the previous lap rewarded Al Qubaisi with seventh place and more points: Hamda equalled her best result of the season and totalled 12 points. Léna Bühler also had her best finish of the F4 UAE season with a very positive 15th place, gaining eight spots. Victoria Blokhina finished in 28th; with two P22 recorded at Abu Dhabi, Blokhina topped her personal best of the year as well. Overall, the 2023 F4 UAE season offered plenty of positive takeaways for the women of the championship; while Al Qubaisi and Bühler often missed opportunities to capitalize on their speed, they both showed glimpses of their potential; Bustamante is learning at impressive pace in such a short amount of time and Blokhina, with a second season under her belt, is expected to make a further step forward through the course of the year. With Bustamante and Bühler now focusing on F1 Academy, we await the other driver's 2023 racing programs.