F4UAE: Hamda Al Qubaisi just misses out on points, big progress for Bustamante in qualifying
The first ever weekend of open wheel racing in Kuwait saw Hamda Al Qubaisi just missing out on her first top-10 of the season despite difficult qualifying sessions; Bianca Bustamante showed huge improvements in qualifying and in race 1; Léna Bühler had also proved to be capable to reach the top-10, but had the most unlucky weekend by being crashed out in all the races.
Two weeks after the first championship round at Dubai Autodrome, F4 UAE returned to the track for a historic moment: the first ever single seater race in Kuwait, at the brand-new facility of Kuwait Motor Town. The 5.609km-long layout was designed by well-known F1 architect Hermann Tilke and features 20 corners, a few long straights and a very technical final sector that challenged the F4 drivers. The five women on the grid had spent the opening weekend at Dubai learning and adapting to the Tatuus F4 car, which only one of them had raced previously. In the 40-car field, Hamda Al Qubaisi, Léna Bühler, Victoria Blokhina, Bianca Bustamante and Emely de Heus all made progress throughout the sessions - and aimed to further climb the order as they got up to speed with the new generation Tatuus T-421. For Bustamante - who spent her rookie season in single seater in W Series in 2022 - it was her first race in a F4 championship, while Buhler, De Heus and Al Qubaisi returned to F4 after contesting a season in Formula Regional machinery. At Dubai, Al Qubaisi had really strong qualifying sessions and battled around the top-10, eventually just missing out on a point-scoring position. Bühler was also making good progress, as the Swiss driver had last raced in May of 2022, having had to halt her 2022 campaign and focused on getting back into the rhythm. The new Kuwaiti circuit represented a new challenge for everyone - and one of the drivers that showed the biggest improvements was undoubtedly Filipino star Bianca Bustamante, who set the 15th fastest time in Q1 and was 23rd in Q2. The Prema driver also made appearances in the top-10 during the 15-minute qualifying sessions, proving she has a big margin of improvement with some more mileage under her belt. In the practice sessions, Léna Bühler also climbed up the order, in a sign that once adapted to the car, she is capable of fighting for points. Unfortunately her weekend turned out to be a complete nightmare with no fault of her own. After strong performances at Dubai, Hamda Al Qubaisi could not make the most out of the qualifying sessions in Kuwait and she was out of position, having to start from P19 in both race 1 and race 3.
MP Motorsport's Valerio Rinicella claimed pole position for the historic first race in Kuwait, followed by Ugo Ugochukwu, James Wharton and Keanu Al Azhari. Al Qubaisi and Bühler shared the tenth row of the grid.
A plethora of contacts resulted in chaos at Turn 2: Bohra, Gowda, David, Zhuravskiy and Abkhazava made contact and collected both Léna Bühler and Hamda Al Qubaisi. The Safety Car was deployed, with five cars already out of the race on the first lap. Hamda Al Qubaisi could continue after a pit stop to change the front wing, while Bühler was hit and had to retire two corners into the race. The red flag was shown soon after, to allow a faster recovery of the damaged cars.
Bianca Bustamante was able to avoid the accidents and held 15th place, De Heus and Blokhina were P30 and P31 after the first lap.
Cars resumed the race behind the Safety Car; Wharton led Rinicella, Ugochukwu and Nael. The MP Motorsport poleman soon went side by side on the run towards turn 2 once the green flag waved again, but Wharton held on. Bustamante lost a few places and dropped to P19, while Al Qubaisi tried to recover from the back of the pack - soon making her way up to P30.
Ferrari and Red Bull juniors Taponen and Lindblad had a brilliant battle for fifth, with the Finn having the upper hand. De Heus was also making up places, having passed Narac and Morano for P26.
Meanwhile, Bustamante was having her best race in F4 to date and slotted in 18th place with consistent pace, ahead of her Prema teammate Nicola Lacorte. Unfortunately, she slipped behind Lacorte and Jensen in the final laps, but kept her #19 Prema Tatuus in the top-20.
With two minutes to go, Wharton had gained a few crucial tenths as Rinicella and Ugochukwu engaged in a battle for the runner up spot. The American launched an attack on the final lap, but RInicella slammed the door and held position.
James Wharton crossed the line to win the first ever single-seater race at Kuwait Motor Town, ahead of Rinicella and Ugochukwu. Nael and Lindblad rounded out the top-five.
Bianca Bustamante finished P20, claiming her first top-20 in the series.
Emely de Heus gained one more position on the final lap and finished P25 in a convincing performance for the Dutchwoman; Victoria Blokhina recovered eight positions to finish P28 and Hamda Al Qubaisi, after the first lap incident, couldn't move higher up than P31.
The starting grid of race 2 was based on the fastest laps from the previous race - which meant that Ugochukwu lined up in pole position alongside Tuukka Taponen, with Wharton and Rinicella on the second row. After the first lap incident, Hamda Al Qubaisi was not stuck behind other cars and could show her true pace, which gained her the ninth fastest lap and a start from row 5. At lights out, Kanato Le stalled on the grid and was collected by Jakob Bergmeister, bringing out the red flag. Meanwhile, Ugochukwu had retained the lead as Wharton and Taponen battled for second on the run down Turn 2, before the race was neutralized. Bianca Bustamante had a strong start and was up to P22, while Hamda Al Qubaisi had slipped down to P11. A superb getaway for Léna Bühler saw the R2Race driver recovering from P35 to P25 on the first lap. After the debris were cleared, the race restarted under Safety Car and went back to green with 11 minutes to go. Ugochukwu, trailed by the Mumbai Falcons cars of Taponen and Wharton, had to defend his lead, while Lindblad battled Nael and Kluss for fifth. The heated fights in the fast and twisty second sector of KMT gave the opportunity to Hamda Al Qubaisi to join the group of cars ahead; Bühler gained one more position and continued her charge up the order. Lindblad had to pit with damage, leaving Hamda Al Qubaisi back in tenth place. Bianca Bustamante slipped down to P26, ahead of Victoria Blokhina in 28th and Emely de Heus in 31st. With 3 minutes to go, Wharton attacked Ugochukwu - and this time the Australian was successful, taking the lead. The American fought back a few corners later, when Wharton ran over a kerb. Ugochukwu edged Wharton to take his win in the F4 UAE championship, ahead of the fast Mumbai Falcons drivers and race 1 polesitter Valerio Rinicella. William McIntyre managed to get ahead of Al Qubaisi on the penultimate lap, as the Emirati also had to defend from Federico Rifai. Hamda finished P11, tenths away from scoring her first points of the season. Bianca Bustamante was P25, Victoria Blokhina P27 after a solid race away from troubles, and Emely de Heus P30. After a brilliant recovery, Léna Bühler had to retire with two laps to go.
After the fast first corner, a long straight precedes the tight Turn 2, which brought plenty of drama throughout the weekend.
Race 3 pole-sitter Ugochukwu and Taponen were involved in contacts with Wharton and Rinicella, and chaos erupted all over the field. Noah Lisle led in the #2 Xcel Motorsport Tatuus, ahead of Zachary David and Theophile Nael. From P19, Hamda Al Qubaisi was up to P13; Léna Bühler had again gained 10 positions in the first corners when the Safety Car was deployed.
Lisle perfectly timed the restart and held position even after the run towards turn 2.
Bianca Bustamante attempted an attack on Léna Bühler and unfortunately the two made contact, with Bustamante taking off over the rear wheels of the R2Race car of the Swiss driver. Both were out, triggering another safety car. Meanwhile, Ugochukwu - who had rejoined after the first lap tangle - was under the stewards' scrutiny for overtaking under the safety car.
The green flag waved with 5 minutes to go; Hamda Al Qubaisi resumed from P16 and battled with the recovering Wharton. At the top of the leaderboard, David had taken the lead from Lisle, and the Briton had to defend from Nael and Rinicella. David pulled away as he took advantage of the battles behind him, which eventually saw Nael overtaking Lisle on the penultimate lap. Rinicella also moved up to third and clinched a podium to finish off his strong weekend at Kuwait Motor Town.
David took victory in race 3, preceding Nael, Rinicella, Lisle and Kluss. A five second penalty for Nael, though, promoted Rinicella to second and Lisle to third.
Hamda Al Qubaisi had a difficult final part of the race and dropped to P20. From last on the grid, Victoria Blokhina kept it clean and navigated through the field to gain 12 positions, finishing P26. Emely de Heus brought it home in P31.
An unbelievably unfortunate weekend for Léna Buhler resulted in three retirements, having been hit in all three races in Kuwait.
Started off with a remarkable improvement in race 1, Bianca Bustamante's weekend ended with a hand injury after the accident. The Filipina was cleared by doctors to race at the following round, which will be held in just a few days at the same venue.
Qualifying and Race 1 for the third round of the F4 UAE season will in fact be contested on Tuesday 31st January, at 10:10 and 14:15 local time. Race 2 and 3 will follow on Wednesday.