At the penultimate round of the 2022 Formula Regional Asian Championship, Swiss driver Léna Bühler joined the grid and topped her best finish in F3 machinery to date. Despite some bad luck for a technical issue Hamda Al Qubaisi and her sister Amna had solid races and gained positions battling in the midfield.
The world's top feeder series in winter time is about to reach its final stages, as the 2022 Formula Regional Asian Series approaches the season finale of Abu Dhabi next week. Four rounds are in fact in the books in just as many weeks and, as per tradition, the series formerly known as F3 Asia has provided plenty of interesting action and hints into the next European campaigns. 35 drivers have so far started at least one race in the season, raising the bar for the competitive level at a historic high. Arthur Leclerc (Mumbai Falcons) entered the third round with a 35-point advantage over Pepe Marti, as early contender Sebastian Montoya left the championship to focus on his next commitments. Isack Hadjar and Dino Beganovic are increasingly battling in the front-running positions, while Gabriel Bortoleto, Gabriele Minì and Hadrien David all managed to win races despite contesting only selected rounds. Dilano Van't Hoff and Michael Belov both scored their first podium last week at Dubai, and are back for more; as series newcomer and fresh F4 double-champion Oliver Bearman - FDA's next big thing - will be under the spotlight at his F3 debut. An outstanding quantity of young talents will graduate to either FIA F3 or FRECA - turning this Formula Regional Asia season in one of the most exciting junior formulae in recent memory. Among the almost 30-car field, the Al Qubaisi sisters are climbing the ladder; after two years in Italian F4 Amna, the first Emirati female racer, unfortunately had to sit out the entire 2020 season and returned behind the wheel in F3 Asia in 2021. The lack of track time compared to the competition could have been massive, yet Amna improved steadily and scored her first points at the season opener, where she was 10th in Race 2. She would luckily walk away unscathed from a scary crash in Race 3, which resulted in a new chassis from the second round at Dubai. Despite the difficulties of having a new car prepared during practice, Amna continued to gain positions in the races at the following rounds. Her younger sister Hamda also had the opportunity to cut her teeth in the competitive Italian F4 and became the first woman to step on the podium in the championship's history. Her F4 career was also crowned with six race wins in the UAE-based series over two seasons, making her the most successful woman in F4 worldwide. At her F3 racing debut in Abu Dhabi, Hamda was fast straight away and narrowly missed out on a Top-10. She was an impressive 12th and, despite a few technical troubles, she continued to battle hard in the midfield and collect crucially-important experience. Joining Hamda and Amna at the last two rounds was Léna Bühler: the Swiss driver competed in Formula Regional European Championship in 2021 and is also preparing her 2022 program. After an important karting resumé, Bühler made her debut in Spanish F4 in 2020 with a very promising campaign: she would often fight for the top-five and qualified on the front row at Jarama. A wrist injury at pre-season testing in 2021 was a hard start for Bühler, who missed the season opener and had to make up for a lack of track time in the first half of the season. Still, she finished in the top-20 on the streets of Monaco. Just back from the W Series assessment test in Arizona, Léna is also targeting a debut in the all-female championship. At Dubai, she joins 3Y Technology by R-ace GP.
Estonian Mercedes affiliated driver Paul Aron scored two back-to-back pole positions on Saturday morning and would thus start from the front row in both Race 1 and Race 3. He lined up alongside Isack Hadjar and Pepe Marti in the first race, while championship leader Arthur Leclerc was fifth.
Hamda Al Qubaisi was 19th in Q1, in a very tight field. Her sister Amna also had a good session and slotted in P22, while Léna Bühler - who had a strong practice session as she got up to speed with the new track - was 24th fastest. She would then be demoted to P27, after her fastest lap was deleted for track limits.
At lights out, Hadjar went past Aron at Turn 2 - but the Safety Car quickly interrupted the action: Iwasaki had spun at the first corner and Dino Beganovic had made contact with the outside barriers. The Al Qubaisi sisters had a strong start and both gained two places, slotting in P17 and P20 respectively. Bühler was on the move as well: the Swiss leapfrogged a few cars and advanced to P23.
The race went back to green two laps later and Hadjar covered the attacks of Aron. Bearman, fifth on the grid after a stunning first qualifying, seemed able to carry momentum and pass Minì, but ended up losing out to Jak Crawford.
Further behind, both Bühler and Amna Al Qubaisi gained one more position, as the Emirati battled Morales. Hamda was also trading places with Marinangeli in 18th place.
With five minutes left on the clock, Aron set the fastest lap and started to put pressure on Hadjar: a small mistake by the Frenchman at Turn 14 opened the door to Aron and the two brushed wheels until the first corner - allowing Pepe Marti to close in.
Aron made a mistake on the final lap, which forced the Estonian to watch his mirrors from Marti and left room to Isack Hadjar to seal his first win of the season. Aron edged Marti by 0.050s across the finish line, while Arthur Leclerc was a safe fourth.
Léna Bühler was running a very solid race at the doorsteps of the top-20, when she pitted and had to retire for a technical issue.
Hamda Al Qubaisi got ahead of series newcomer Ido Cohen and finished in P17, gaining two places from her starting position. Amna was set for a P19 finish, when she was passed on the final lap by David Morales, still completing Race 1 in the top-20.
Michael Belov rounded out the top10 - a crucial position that would have gained him the reverse grid pole - but was handed a 10 second time penalty after the race. Pierre Louis Chovet was also penalized, and therefore pole position for Race 2 went to Francesco Braschi (3Y Technology by R-ace GP), ahead of Patrik Pasma.
A grey and overcast sky over the Dubai skyline welcomed the drivers on Sunday, as they had to adapt to different track conditions compared to the previous weeks.
Former championship contender Patrik Pasma had a great getaway from second on the grid and fired into the lead, followed by Bearman and poleman Braschi - the latter having to defend from Crawford. From the front row, Dilano Van't Hoff almost stalled on the grid and was avoided by the whole pack.
The Safety Car was soon deployed when Hamda Al Qubaisi's car came to a halt on the main straight at the end of the first lap. Unfortunately, Hamda's race was over and the #88 Abu Dhabi Racing by Prema Tatuus was retrieved by the marshals.
From 26th on the grid, Léna Bühler had a great start and was already up to P21 when the Safety Car neutralized the race. Amna Al Qubaisi had a more difficult start and had dropped from 20th to 25th.
At the restart on lap 4, Pasma held the lead but all the action was for third place: rookie Braschi was busy defending from Red Bull junior driver Crawford - the two having been joined by Gabriele Minì, Pepe Marti and Arthur Leclerc. The Monegasque's main focus throughout the weekend was to bring the car home, score as many points as possible and avoid unnecessary troubles. Minì went wide in a passing attempt and opened the door to Pepe Marti, while Crawford would eventually get ahead of Braschi on lap 7. A few corners later, despite a strong defensive driving, Marti also gained a position. The Italian would receive a drive through for his defense.
Amna Al Qubaisi, meanwhile, had started to recover several positions and re-gained her starting position in P20 after a convincing run. Léna Bühler was also making up places and, after passing Ido Cohen, she advanced into 18th place.
Pasma was able to stretch his lead to over 3 seconds ahead of Bearman, who was coming under pressure from the return of Crawford. They banged wheels on lap 11 after the American had tried a lunge at Turn 1, but the Mumbai Falcons rookie held on until the very final metres, when Crawford stripped him of second place by 0.092 seconds across the finish line. Still, Bearman scored his first podium at his first weekend in the series, and Patrik Pasma sealed Evans GP's first win of the season.
With the 18th place, Léna Bühler claimed her personal best result in F3. Amna Al Qubaisi battled with Francesco Braschi on the final lap and finished 20th, recovering after a difficult start with some determined passes.
The final race at Dubai Autodrome was contested in the afternoon, with the sun already dropping over the horizon. After his double-pole position on Saturday, Paul Aron shared the first row of the grid with Arthur Leclerc. Race winners Dino Beganovic and Isack Hadjar followed on the second row, while Léna Bühler, Hamda Al Qubaisi and Amna Al Qubaisi were respectively P19, P20 and P25. In a three-car battle towards Turn 1, Aron managed to keep the lead from Leclerc and Beganovic; Hadjar quickly closed in and attacked Mumbai Falcons' Beganovic, but couldn't complete the pass and went wide after a few corners of side-by-side action: Hadjar would then lose out to Minì as well, in a series of hectic first laps. Léna Bühler and Hamda Al Qubaisi both gained a position, while Amna - who had slipped to 26th on lap 1 - bounced back and passed her father Khaled for P24. There was action throughout the field and positions changed all over the top-ten. Leclerc caught up with Aron and went for the move on lap 5: the Estonian went wide but rejoined ahead, forcing Leclerc to a second offensive that would reveal successful two laps later. After clearing Aron, Leclerc pulled away and was never challenged again. Bühler continued to gain positions and advanced to P16. Hamda and Amna Al Qubaisi also kept climbing the order once Oliver Bearman dropped down the order and ultimately pitted. Showing some great pace throughout the race, Bühler caught up with Nicola Marinangeli and tried to find a way past the Italian. In a similar situation, Hamda battled with Levent Revesz for 17th, but despite being faster than the Hungarian, the Abu Dhabi Racing driver had to give up one position to Lorenzo Fluxa during the midfield battles. There was drama for Dino Beganovic: the Swede was the fastest driver on track and, once closed the gap to Aron, he had his eyes on a second place finish before his car suddenly slowed down on the back straight, losing positions. Beganovic would eventually retire. Arthur Leclerc took a comfortable win and extended his championship lead over Marti. The Spaniard - fourth at the finish line - was then promoted to third once a 5-second penalty was applied to Minì, guilty of a track limits infringement. Isack Hadjar dropped off the title contention, as it will be a duel for the title at Yas Marina: Leclerc now leads the tally by 40 points over Pepe Marti. With a very competitive race, Léna Bühler finished in P15, topping her best result in F3 machinery. Hamda Al Qubaisi also had a solid race in the midfield and finished 18th. Amna confirmed her racecraft and managed once again to climb 5 positions to finish P20. With one round to go, the Al Qubaisi sisters will return to their home track at Abu Dhabi, where they had a strong opening round, aiming for more progress. Léna Bühler, after a season in FRECA, is already showing to have made a significant step forward, as she continues her preparation for the 2022 season.