Formula 4 UAE: A thrilling first round in Dubai
The first round of the Formula 4 UAE Championship kicked off the single-seater season at Dubai Autodrome and saw Bianca Bustamante (Prema Racing), Emely De Heus (MP Motorsport), Hamda Al Qubaisi (Yas Heat Academy), Léna Bühler and Victoria Blokhina (both with R2RACE) taking the track and making progress through the weekend.
The first round of the Formula 4 United Arab Emirates Championship went underway last weekend at Dubai Autodrome, as a support event to the 24H of Dubai, and saw three thrilling and action-filled races, full of twists and turns for the 40-car grid.
The championship will host four more weekends, two at the new Kuwait Motor Town, a brand new circuit, before coming back to Dubai in the first week of February. The final round will then be held at Yas Marina Circuit.
With 39 drivers on the grid, the F4UAE championship already promised some great action, as it does every year. Hamda Al Qubaisi made her comeback to the championship for the third time - after last year's participation in the Formula Regional Asian Championship - this time representing local team Yas Heat Academy.
"I'm proud to be a part of this family and can't wait to get started" - said Hamda. Another experienced driver on the grid is surely Léna Bühler, racing with R2RACE CAVICEL and making her come back to F4 after two years in Formula Regional machinery. The young Swiss had to halt her 2022 campaign after a few rounds, but is excited to return behind the wheel, as she focuses on getting back into the rhythm.
Bianca Bustamante completed her debut season in car racing with W Series, where she had the opportunity to be supported by the championship's Academy program and showed good potential; Bustamante joins the F4UAE grid with PREMA Racing, as the Filipina is looking forward to learn as much as possible.
Also from the W Series' grid is Emely De Heus, racing with MP Motorsport. Having shown promising skills, the young Dutchwoman returned with the team she had previously contested the F4 Spanish Championship with in 2021.
Last, but definitely not least, Victoria Blokhina continues her Formula 4 development - having competed in the Italian championship last year - with R2RACE CAVICEL, ready to showcase her improvements.
After two days of pre-season testing, the weekend was off to a great start for Al Qubaisi, who managed to score a 9th and 8th place in the two qualifying sessions, only a few tenths off of pole sitters Ugo Ugochuckwu (PREMA Racing) and Arvid Lindblad (HITECH Grand Prix) and with a grid of 40 cars separated by barely 2 seconds.
Bustamante qualified 28th in Q1 and managed to improve her lap times in Q2, where she snatched a P25. Léna Bühler was 29th in Q1 and 24th fastest in Q2, after a positive pre-season testing where she had shown potential to run close to the top-15.
Blokhina and De Heus struggled a bit more, but still managed to close their gaps and then were protagonists of good recoveries in the races.
"The last 3 days of testing have been the best days I have ever experienced in a race car, but also the most challenging. I have pushed every single lap and developed my driving in technique, form, and mental focus" -Bustamante said.
The first race of the season was a proper drama-filled start, as per tradition for most Formula 4 championships: at lights-out many drivers went off track - either by being pushed or by going deep - but luckily no neutralization was required. Hamda Al Qubaisi was pushed off line during the first lap and she struggled with her tyres throughout the race, with not many chances to overtake. She still managed to finish 15th, after a clean race.
"I was pushed on the dust and ruined my tires; bringing them back to life was very difficult, so I actually struggled a lot" - Al Qubaisi said.
Half of the race was under Safety Car conditions, after Nicola Lacorte (PREMA Racing) and Flavio Olivieri (CRAM Motorsport) collided. The neutralization denied the five female drivers from making up more places, after a very positive first part of the race: De Heus started 38th and finished 27th, Bustamante moved up from 28th to 26th - after stalling on the grid and closing the gap to the pack - and Bühler gained eight places.
Blokhina, on the other hand, had an issue before the race start, as her car wouldn't start on formation lap; luckily, she still managed to rejoin but had to start from the pitlane. Once catching up with the pack, she eventually crossed the finish line in 30th.
The race was ultimately won by Ugochuckwu, followed by Valerio Rinicella (MP Motorsport) and James Wharton (Mumbai Falcons).
The second race of the weekend went green on Saturday morning. The whole field luckily avoided James Wharton's stalled car, before the battles began. All the female drivers once again tried to gain as many positions as possible, having all started outside the top-20. The second race in fact saw the starting grid being shaped by the fastest laps from race 1.
From the back of the grid, de Heus had an outstanding start, overtook the three cars in front of her and finished in P29, having gained ten positions.
Jakob Bergmeister (PHM Racing) damaged his car and triggered the entry of the Safety Car, as racing resumed with five minutes left on the clock. Blokhina had pit for a new front wing due to a contact, but as soon as she got back out on track, she had good pace and regained her position. Al Qubaisi made up four places and finished in P20, while Léna Bühler - who also was recovering well - was unfortunately crashed out in the latter stages.
Ugochuckwu won again, this time joined on the podium by the rookie Tuukka Taponen (Mumbai Falcons) and Arvid Lindblad (Hitech Grand Prix), after a thrilling battle with Kirill Smal (MP Motorsport) that lasted until the chequered flag.
In the last race of the weekend, Hamda Al Qubaisi lined up in eighth place and targeted her first top ten of the year. Unfortunately, while battling, she was again ran wide and lost some positions. Despite some great fights, she ended 12th, just outside the points-paying positions. Nevertheless, Hamda's opening weekend was highly promising, as she returns to F4 with a new team and a new car. Al Qubaisi clearly showed that she remains one to watch and, in one of the most competitive F4 grids ever, she is likely to break in the top-10 very soon.
Unluckily, Bianca Bustamante's race ended early: she had to stop her car at the end of the first lap after being hit from behind - as the first Safety car of the race was deployed. The green flag waved with eight minutes to go and the restart was wild. Léna Bühler, while defending her position, was also hit and lost a couple of positions. The Swiss racer, who returned behind the wheel after last racing last May at the Monaco GP, was also showing promising speed and had progressed through the sessions. While on course to claim her first top-20, she ended P23.
"Unluckily I was hit from behind in Race 3. Pace still was good and I could recover some places. I keep all my motivation for the next round in Kuwait, and keep pushing" - Léna told us.
Victoria Blokhina, on the other hand, seemed to have found some pace: she had a great race 3, where she completed a few great overtakes: "The first races were not very successful, but in the third race I was able to win back 9 positions and finish in 25th place" - Blokhina said.
Arvid Lindblad took home his first Formula 4 win, joined on the podium by Ferrari junior Taponen and Ugochuckwu. The race ended under the Safety Car, as Federico Rifai (Xcel Motorsport) crashed in the closing minutes.
"For sure not everything went our way this weekend, but I learned so much from every single experience and I leave here a much stronger driver." - Bianca Bustamante said.
The first round of the championship saw many twists and turns on track and surely the five female drivers on the grid had crucial track time in order to learn the car and re-adapt to F4. Al Qubaisi, Bühler, Bustamante, Blokhina and De Heus will be back on track at Kuwait Motor Town - a new track for everyone - during the last weekend of January: "I've never been there but I'm excited to go. Let's see how it goes!" - Hamda concluded.