Emirati racer Amna Al Qubaisi made her FRECA debut by completing the enormous tasks of getting back in the car after over 8 months and learning a new track - but showed significant improvements throughout the sessions, as she now gets ready for the season finale at Mugello.
When she stood on that first step of the F1 podium, in December 2019, Amna Al Qubaisi felt on top of the world. Her win in the F4 Trophy race at the Abu Dhabi GP made global headlines and Amna - the first ever Arab woman to win a single-seater race - had proved her point: all her work in the highly competitive Italian F4 was starting to pay off. No one could, at that time, predict was a global pandemic and its consequences. Forced to take a year off in 2020, Al Qubaisi then struggled to secure funding to move up the ladder of formula racing and would return behind the wheel only in the winter of 2021, as she made her debut in the Formula Regional Asian Championship, in one of the most competitive grids in the series to date. With several drivers from FIA F2, F3 and FRECA eager to maximize their Super License points, the field of the Formula Regional Asia was in fact no easy environment for Amna to make her debut in F3 regional machinery. Yet, after over one year hiatus, Amna scored her first top ten and points in the home round at Abu Dhabi in the winter of 2022, impressing once again. When a sponsorship deal fell through, though, her racing career was once again on hold and she had to postpone her return to European championships. Eight months later, she was finally able to get back behind the wheel, announcing a deal with Prema for the final two rounds of the Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine. In a 35-car field of some of the most promising drivers on the F1 ladder, Amna faced another big task: learning a new track - Circuit de Catalunya - and getting back in the rhythm with the Tatuus T-318 car, with also a different technical package and tyre difference to make up for.
The European series, in fact, uses Pirelli tyres - which are significantly different to the Giti Tire used in the Asian championship.
Crucially, her first weekend would be all about getting comfortable again, running the most laps as possible and improving lap times at each session. From Friday practice to Saturday's qualifying, Al Qubaisi managed to take three seconds off her lap times. A significant improvement that carried onto the race later in the day.
Paul Aron had claimed pole position for Prema Racing in Race 1, preceding Dilano Van't Hoff (MP Motorsport), Eduardo Barrichello (Arden Motorsport) and Victor Bernier (FA Racing), who had been really fast throughout practice on Friday.
The qualifying had been delayed by over one hour due to the fog in the morning and saw a slightly altered format as all cars had to share the track rather than the usual two groups.
In her first time around the Barcelona circuit, Amna Al Qubaisi would start 32nd out of a 35 ca field.
Despite the crowded grid, everyone had a clear getaway: Van't Hoff had a good launch off the line but then had to defend from Bernier at turn 1, who then came under pressure from Barrichello and everyone held positions.
Al Qubaisi also had a clean start, as she focused on logging laps and maximizing her track time, avoiding troubles.
Dino Beganovic tried to recover after a difficult qualifying - having started from P10, the championship leader tried to make up positions, as he aimed to wrap up the championship this weekend. Unfortunately for him, he dropped to P14 on the opening laps and then engaged in a battle with Prema teammate Montoya.
On the other hand, R-Ace GP's Hadrien David was up to fourth place, with Bernier losing positions. Ahead, Paul Aron had opened a 2-second gap to Van't Hoff and Barrichello, both under pressure from the fast charging David. He would ultimately find his way past Barrichello for third on lap 10.
Amna ran laps on her qualifying pace, steadily improving in the 1:45 range. She then gained one position on Armanni, who had an off track moment in the gravel earlier. She then managed to get ahead of Nicolas Baptiste as well, advancing to P32.
A scrap between Mini and Dufek at Turn 2 gained MP Motorsport's Kas Haverkort two positions, as he moved into P6; Durksen would also overtake the struggling Dufek with 9 minutes to go. A few seconds later, Hadrien David made another late lunge at Turn 1 and passed Van't Hoff - but Paul Aron was at that point already 3 seconds up the road.
It all went wrong for Victor Bernier on lap 13, when the Frenchman parked his FA Racing Tatuus on the outside of Turn 3 after he had slowed down dramatically on the main straight. Marshalls, though, were able to clear the car without the intervention of a safety car.
In an all-Italian battle, Mini and Fornaroli almost banged wheels at Turn 9, as the ART driver made a bold move stick. Fornaroli then lost momentum and slipped behind Dufek and Bortoleto as well.
David, though, was the star of the race: the Alpine-supported driver managed to close the gap to Aron by the incredible pace of almost one second per lap and attacked the Estonian in the final minute of racing - but Aron defended masterfully and held on, taking victory in Race 1 at Circuit de Catalunya.
Unfortunately, Amna Al Qubaisi pitted with four laps to go and could not complete Saturday's race due to technical issues.
Al Qubaisi's progression was again proven by the young Emirati taking one further second off in Q2 on Sunday morning, as she qualified P34. Gabriel Bortoleto claimed pole position, preceding Pierre-Louis Chovet, Hadrien David and Paul Aron.
At lights out, it was a more hectic start than the previous day: following multiple contacts, Tangavelou, Haverkort and Mari Boya hit trouble even before turn 1. Al Qubaisi was cautious and smartly avoided the chaos unfolding just in front of her, slotting into P33.
Bortoleto, meanwhile, had a brilliant getaway and preceded David, who could leapfrog Chovet at the start. The safety car, though, was soon deployed to retrieve the stationary cars after the first lap incidents.
The race went back to green with 22 minutes to go; Aron took the opportunity to attack Chovet for third but the Frenchman defended well. Meanwhile, championship leader Beganovic attempted a pass on Bernier and the two cars made contact. The Swede kept the position, but was placed under investigation by the stewards. Both continued.
Amna Al Qubaisi kept it clean and moved into P31 midway through the race. She would then have to settle in P32 after the recovery of Mari Boya.
Making the most of some mistakes ahead, Al Qubaisi overtook Revesz - but the Hungarian was able to get back ahead for P30.
Just like for Saturday's race, Hadrien David closed in on the leader in the last 10 minutes of the race and started to apply pressure on Bortoleto - as also Chovet had to defend from Aron for the final step of the podium.
Bernier and Beganovic then came together once again on lap 14 at turn 5 - which required the safety car deployment for the stricken FA Racing car. Bernier had shown some real speed this weekend in Barcelona, but was met with all sorts of misfortune and could not complete either competitions.
The race ended under safety car conditions and Bortoleto claimed his second victory of the season, ahead of David - who once again was second - and Chovet. After a difficult race, points' leader Dino Beganovic was P10 and bagged one point in Race 2, still retaining the top of the championship standings. His main rival Mini, in fact, couldn't do better than seventh.
Paul Aron's fourth place, on the other hand, was enough for Prema to seal the team's championship with one round to spare. The Italian team totalled 516 points so far, 131 more than R-Ace GP.
With a clean race, Amna Al Qubaisi was P31 and completed her first Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine race since her European return to racing.
"Jumping into the car after a while was a bit challenging, as well as driving on a track I’m not familiar with." - she commented. "However, the whole point for me was to get to some laps and mileage done so I could prepare myself better for the upcoming races."
She will now have one week before the season finale in Mugello - a track that she already knows from her Italian F4 campaigns in 2018 and 2019 and where she will aim for an even bigger progression.