FRECA: Despite unlucky weekend, Al Qubaisi's pace shows promise for rest of the season
"At least I now know that I'm competitive in the car, I know I can be around mid-pack, which is where I'm supposed to be." – Despite an unlucky weekend, Hamda Al Qubaisi's FRECA debut in Monza showed a glimpse of the young Emirati's pace, who aims for a solid learning-oriented season.
While the unlucky results are certainly a frustrating end to Hamda Al Qubaisi's debut weekend in the highly competitive Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine, the take-away point from the Monza round should definitely be the huge progress the young Emirati made since pre-season testing.
Al Qubaisi stepped up from Formula 4 in 2022, contesting the Formula Regional Asian Championship in the winter. At her first experience of F3 machinery – in the same Tatuus F3 Regional cars, albeit with a few different features - Hamda was immediately close to the top-10, in a field that included drivers from FRECA, FIA Formula 3 and FIA Formula 2.
At the start of the European campaigns, Hamda announced she would remain at Prema Powerteam for her rookie season in Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine - arguably one the most competitive F3 championships in the world.
With a new seat at the eve of the FRECA new season in Monza, Al Qubaisi was able to significantly improve her driving position, solving some of the issues in pre-season testing.
On Friday in Monza, Hamda ran close to the top-ten.
"I've definitely improved a lot from the pre-season tests, so I'm happy about it", Al Qubaisi told us on Friday.
She had a transponder issue in FP1 which did not officially record her lap time - but the team's data confirmed a time fast enough for P11.
"That's also a motivation to keep doing better" – she said.
In FP2,she further improved her time and was again for most of the session again just outside the top-ten, despite encountering some traffic in the final minutes, when everyone went on the fresh tyres.
"This is how Monza is, everybody is looking for the slipstream, so we have to see in qualifying tomorrow" – Hamda explained. "If I just put everything together and I focus on getting a good gap and trust myself I think it can be really good."
Returning to FRECA was Swiss racer Léna Buhler, who had raced in Europe in 2021 and also contested selected rounds of the Asian Formula Regional series, where she was really competitive and quickly climbed towards the point-scoring positions on circuits she had never driven on before.
Buhler returned to French-squad R-Ace GP, which ran the Swiss driver both in FRECA and in FRAC.
The first qualifying session – divided in two groups due to the almost 40-car field – went underway in sunny yet damp conditions. Dino Beganovic (Prema) took the first pole position of the year by topping the Group A session, while Lorenzo Fluxa (R-Ace GP) was fastest in Group B. Both Hamda Al Qubaisi and Léna Buhler were in group A and finished P13 and P19.
Al Qubaisi was for most of the session well inside the top-10 but couldn't put her sectors together, which could have resulted in a sixth place in her group. Nevertheless, a start from mid-pack in her first race of the season was another encouraging step.
The rain did come to disrupt the day, just before the cars headed to the grid on Saturday afternoon. Teams bolted on grooved tyres and the run down towards the tricky Monza first chicane became a gamble for drivers starting just behind the front rows: plenty of contacts at Turn 1 saw Eduardo Barrichello spinning and hitting other cars, as Hamda Al Qubaisi had to take the escape road to avoid a crash and lost several positions.
Dino Beganovic held on to the first place, ahead of Gabriele Minì – who had a great start from fourth – and Fluxa. The Safety Car was then soon deployed for the stopped car of rookie Laurens Van Hoepen (ART GP), making his FRECA debut straight from karting.
At the restart, Beganovic bunched up the pack and, just before he went back on the throttle, was hit by Gabriele Minì who damaged his front wing and had to pit.
Unfortunately, the race of Léna Buhler ended in the gravel at Parabolica while she was in 29th place and had recovered eight positions.
Belov made the most out of the situation and climbed to second, ahead of Fluxa, Haverkort and David. Hamda Al Qubaisi gained two positions at the restart and slotted into 26th place.
Aron, Delli Guanti and Van't Hoff picked up damage from a contact at the second chicane and the Estonian dropped down the order.
Conditions remained tricky but Beganovic was able to keep the lead despite going deep at Prima Variante on lap 6.
A second Safety car was triggered by Axel Gnos spinning and hitting the barriers at Lesmo 2. The Swiss driver picked up a hand injury that would rule him out for the second race on Sunday.
The race went back to green for the final lap and Dino Beganovic secured his first ever win in Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine ahead of Michael Belov, Lorenzo Fluxa and Hadrien David.
After Hamda Al Qubaisi had managed to climb back after the start, she got caught in the battles and finished P30 in her first FRECA race.
The second qualifying session was contested yet again in cold and damp conditions in the morning. The group B drivers went out first, with home hero Gabriele Minì topping the time sheets for ART GP with a late 1:49.772 that beat Kas Haverkort's previous benchmark. But it would once again be the second group to go faster, as Paul Aron sealed pole position, ahead of Dino Beganovic and Sebastian Montoya. Hamda Al Qubaisi struggled a bit more compared to Saturday and was 16th fastest in her group. "In quali we had damp conditions, which I'm not so used to, so the confidence wasn't really 100% there" – she told us. "I think that overall, the lines I was good in, I just missed a lot of the braking points compared to my teammates. Obviously I will now know what to do the next time in these conditions. We qualified in P16 in our group, which put me around 30th." Léna Buhler continued to have engine troubles and rounded out the field, after pitting only one lap into the session for a technical issue. The Swiss driver was 4.4 seconds off the pace, with evident mechanical issues on the #15 R-Ace GP car. The sun was finally out for race 2: Aron had a great getaway – unlike Minì, who was passed by Beganovic off the line. At the first corner, there was more chaos and cars hitting each other: Leon went into the grass and several drivers had to cut the chicane to avoid contacts. Among them was Hamda Al Qubaisi. "I had not the best start, I hit the limiter a bit", said Hamda. "I was going into the chicane as normal but I saw there were a few people touching each other and I didn't want to get caught up so I cut the chicane and went straight. After that I lost a lot of positions, but I managed to make them up." Léna Buhler had a great start and immediately recovered 6 places in the opening lap. After a few laps, though, she was back to her starting position, with cars flying by on the main straight proving that her straight-line speed issue was not solved.
Aron checked out, but his gap was wiped out when the Safety Car was deployed for the spin of Delli Guanti at La Roggia, tagged by Barrichello. A few moments later, Pietro Armanni (Monolite Racing) lost it under braking coming into the yellow flag zone and took out Hamda Al Qubaisi. "There were yellow flags in the second chicane and one driver didn't see them, so he couldn't stop his car and turned on me at the braking point. I really couldn't do much." – Al Qubaisi explained. Using his push to pass at the restart, Belov was up to fifth place and chased down Haverkort, but the Dutchman defended – as the top-three pulled away. Léna Buhler again had a remarkable restart and gained two places, before having to give them up shortly after on the long Monza straights. Her weekend went from bad to worse with 6 minutes left on the clock, as she made contact with the barriers at Turn 1. Her race weekend was marred by returning issues that had also influenced her second half of the 2021 season – and in no way represent her potential, which she showed in a very positive Formula Regional Asian campaign. At the final restart, Beganovic attacked Aron with the final push to pass, as the two pulled away from Minì. R-Ace GP teammates Bortoleto and Fluxa pushed each other off at turn 1, with the Spaniard ending up in the gravel while fighting for ninth. Aron took the chequered flag to win race 2, preceding Dino Beganovic in a Prema 1-2. Minì was third and claimed a home podium. Haverkort and Belov rounded out the top five, while rookie Maceo Capietto scored his first point with tenth. Despite an unfortunate weekend, Hamda Al Qubaisi leaves Monza with significant steps forward, ready to carry this experience into the rest of the season. "I was being in the fights all race and I guess we just learn from that", she commented, as the series will head to Imola in two-weeks' time for round 2. "I hope Imola will be dry, but it's just a matter of learning and experience. I think I improved almost two seconds from testing – which is a big jump and I'm really happy about it. At least I now know that I'm competitive in the car, I know I can be around mid-pack, which is where I'm supposed to be."