FRECA: A special weekend for Léna Bühler and Hamda Al Qubaisi at Monaco
"When you go back to your home, you start to realize how lucky you are to have driven there" - it was a special weekend for Léna Bühler and Hamda Al Qubaisi, who tackled the highlight of the Formula Regional European Championship's calendar: the most famous street circuit in the world.
The Sainte Devote right-hander. Then uphill, almost looking up to the sky, in between the buildings that rise above the tight Avenue d'Ostende – Beau Rivage and Massenet. The scenic Casino appears, but quickly disappears out of sight after a fast left-right. There is no time to breathe or appreciate the famous plaza, as we go downhill into the incredibly tight Mirabeau Haute, which offers one of the most iconic views in all of motorsport – the Grand Hotel Hairpin.
Two right handers later and we’re under the Tunnel, at full speed into the darkness, only to be blinded by the sudden light before the heaviest braking, at the Chicane du Port. Tabac, a fast left-hander where millimetres are left between the outside wall.
The impressively fast direction change under the statue of Louis Chiron brings us into the final section, into the tricky chicane at Piscine, where there is zero room for error. Rascasse – another world-famous location indelibly linked to the motor-race and finally Antony Noghès, again brushing the outside wall to have a good exit for the slightly-curved start-finish straight under the shade of the maritime pines of Boulevard Albert 1er.
There are no corner numbers here, only names that evoke almost a century of history. Graham Hill, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher are among the names to have mastered a track that first hosted a race in 1929.
Anyone who has ever walked the course or driven around in a daily car will certainly know how narrow the streets of the Principality are – and how big of a challenge it represents for the protagonists of one of the biggest events on the calendar. Let alone in a race car.
Certainly, those who have been privileged enough to have raced around these streets belong to an elite group of racing drivers.
The skills required to bring a race car to its limits at Monaco are unimaginable: it is first and foremost a challenge with the drivers themselves, who try to ride that edge from the first to the last lap.
Traditionally the most difficult track to overtake at, Monaco rewards qualifying as the ultimate pursuit of the perfect lap, making it one of the drivers’ favourites throughout the decades.
After missing the 2020 edition for the first time since WW2, the Monaco GP returned in 2021, albeit with limited public. Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine made its first appearance as a support event of the renowned F1 GP, taking the slot of the previous Formula Renault.
In 2022, a full-house of spectators welcomed FRECA again to the streets of Monaco, with two female drivers on the entry list: Hamda Al Qubaisi and Léna Bühler. Swiss R-Ace GP driver Buhler returned to the track after missing the previous round at Imola – and was back at Monaco for the second time in her career. At her debut last year, Bühler finished 20th in one of the most competitive fields in junior formulae, claiming her best result of her rookie season.
“It means something really special”, Léna tried to put into words how it feels for a driver to be on the grid at Monaco.
“I think when you're there, you don't really realize that you will drive on such a mythical track like this, alongside F1 and F2”, she continues. “Especially this year was much more special, because there was a lot of public.”
Al Qubaisi, 19, is contesting her first campaign in F3 machinery in Europe and, at the wheel of the #88 Tatuus operated by Prema Powerteam, the young Emirati is on a learning-oriented season after a few highly-competitive years in Formula 4.
With almost 40 cars, Formula Regional European Championship had to alter its weekend format to fit the F1 schedule as well as track homologation – which meant that the only practice session on Thursday was split in two sections, with the latter four drivers in the championship only able to take part in 25 minutes. This meant that both Al Qubaisi and Bühler had to find confidence with the track in the shortest of times.
Nevertheless, Hamda – at her debut at Monaco – was left in awe: “It was amazing. I only had four push laps sadly, because we were only allowed to do half the session and with the red flags and Full Course Yellows I barely got a lap in”, she told us. “But either way, it was amazing and I hope to make another step in qualifying.”
Al Qubaisi went out in the first group of qualifying on Friday and set the 17th lap time. Léna Bühler was 18th in the second group – which set the fastest times and handed Prema’s Dino Beganovic the pole position for Sunday’s race. Hadrien David, on the other hand, claimed pole for Saturday’s Race 1, alongside Beganovic, Haverkort and Minì. Both Al Qubaisi and Bühler qualified for Race 1 – respectively in P25 and P26 – with the final rows having to alternate.
Frenchman Alpine Academy member David held position at lights out and, after St. Devote, all the pack was safely through. Léna Bühler had a good getaway ahead of Cenyu Han and Paul Aron – as Al Qubaisi battled with the KIC Motorsport's cars of Braschi and Ramos. Eduardo Barrichello was able to sneak into 12th position with a bold pass around the outside at the hairpin, while Montoya and Bilinski traded places in P18.
FDA driver Beganovic closed in on David – as well as Minì started to put pressure on Haverkort in third, before a red flag halted the action with 21 minutes left on the clock: Esteban Masson had blocked the road at the Hotel Hairpin, tagged by Sami Meguetounif. As everyone entered the pits, Montoya had to put on a new front wing after the Colombian bumped into Masson at the traffic jam.
The delay meant that the race went back to green behind the Safety Car with barely 5 minutes left to run; Hadrien David managed the restart ahead of Dino Beganovic, who was close yet not close enough to attempt a move. The leading duo opened a small gap over the rest of the pack, where Minì was under pressure from a fast Michael Belov.
David brought home a precious win on the most famous street circuit in the world, preceding Beganovic and Haverkort.
Having gained three positions, Paul Aron finished P25, after a really unlucky qualifying compromised by a suspension failure in the opening minutes. Léna Bühler had a solid run in P26, maintaining her starting position after a strong start. While Bühler had a tougher task due to the shortened practice and thus limited track-time, the Swiss driver continued her positive runs at Monaco: “For sure I enjoy a lot driving there”, she told us. “I was missing some confidence but anyway it was not bad”.
Similarly, Hamda Al Qubaisi completed her first ever race at Monte Carlo, crossing the finish line in P27. The young Emirati became the first Arab woman to race on the historic track and overall had a lot of fun, as proved by her consistent improvements session after session.
"Unfortunately we didn’t get as many laps as the others in free practice, and being for the first time in Monaco I felt the need for more laps to gain some confidence”, she said. “However, I cut down the gap a lot from free practice to qualifying and the race so I’m really happy about the improvement."
“I enjoyed the track a lot, it was such a privilege to race in such an amazing circuit and I can’t wait to come back here in the future."
Léna Bühler further stressed how magical the place feels and how big of a challenge it represents for drivers, regardless of the end result.
“It's amazing to be there, to see F1 drivers and an atmosphere like this”, Léna continued.
“When you go back to your home, you start to realize how lucky you are to have driven there regardless of the results. I'm very happy to have had this opportunity to drive in Monaco for the second time. I will never forget this.”