Italian F4: Battling Victoria Blokhina gains positions in Monza
"I take the battles as a positive. I've improved a lot in battles." - A stoic Victoria Blokhina recovered from a difficult qualifying to gain many positions over two hectic Italian F4 races at Monza.
15-year-old Victoria Blokhina, at her first full season in car racing, continues to make noticeable progress week in and week out. After a partial campaign in the UAE-based F4 last winter, Blokhina made her debut in the uber-competitive Italian F4, in one of the biggest field in single-seater racing in the world. The young driver - a Girls On Track - Rising Star finalist last year - impressed straight away in Imola, when she had a remarkable qualifying and scored her first top-20 at the season opener. From there, she continued to learn and improve at each round - until she was on the doorsteps of the top-10 at Red Bull Ring, where she also collected her first points in the rookie standings. She had high hopes for Monza - the track where she first drove in F4 testing - but a series of challenges put the young PHM Racing driver to the test in the sixth round of the 2022 Italian F4 championship. A record-breaking number of entries - 44 cars at the Temple of Speed - resulted in heavily disrupted practice and qualifying sessions that gave little chance to many drivers to capitalize on their pace in qualifying. Eight red flags interrupted the action on Thursday for collecting testing - and official practice on Friday continued the trend. Drivers struggled to complete more than a few laps in a row on the crowded track also in qualifying, when the 15-minute Q2 session saw three more red flags. Charlie Wurz (Prema) took pole position for Race 1, alongside Marcus Amand (US Racing). Just behind them, Rafael Camara (Prema) shared the second row with Kacper Sztuka (US Racing). In Q2, Kimi Antonelli managed to clinch pole position and preceded Martinius Stenshorne (VAR), Alexander Dunne (US Racing) and Rafael Camara. Victoria Blokhina struggled to put the laps in and was P33 in Q1 and P28 in Q2, having also run close to the top-ten in between interruptions. "Qualifying was not so good - I was unlucky with the red flags. I need more practice to be quicker on only one lap" - she explained. "I will work on quali."
The first race of the weekend - contested on a sunny and warm Saturday afternoon - was another chaotic survival drive: Charlie Wurz timed well his restarts from 4 Safety Car periods to claim his first win of the season in F4.
Conrad Laursen was deep into Prima Variante at the start, as the 44-car field approached the tricky first chicane. Championship leader Antonelli also hit trouble: having started from sixth on the grid, the Italian made contact and lost his front wing. He pitted at the end of the first lap.
Blokhina had a great start and soon moved into 30th position, before the first Safety Car was deployed after rookie Ruiqi Liu (AKM Motorsport) collided with FRECA star Hadrien David, making a one off start for R-Ace GP. David had also struggled to set a representative lap time in qualifying and was starting from 28th place.
At the restart, Wurz led Amand and Sztuka - but the Frenchman soon dropped down as Stenshorne was making up positions and gained third place. But the action was short-lived, as Giovanni Maschio parked in the gravel and the Safety Car was once again deployed.
With 13 minutes to go, Wurz was back up to pace and had to defend from his pursuers at the second chicane - but the third SC was out before they could compete a lap: Iron Lynx's promising rookie Nicola Lacorte was hit and spun at Prima Variante, with Machiels collecting him.
Meanwhile, Victoria Blokhina was battling elbows-out and making her way up the order in the few green-flag laps; her charge unfortunately was halted by a contact with Antonelli, as the two made contact at the first chicane and Blokhina lost her front wing after the restart.
With 3 minutes to go, Valerio Rinicella pushed Ivan Dominguez off track and Maya Weug - who was just behind them and looking for a way past - couldn't avoid the accident. Both the Iron Lynx drivers were out of the race, as the race was back under Safety Car conditions.
In a ona-lap shootout, Wurz held off the attacks of Alex Dunne - who had passed Sztuka for second in the closing stages - and took his first win of the season.
Despite the extra pit stop, Victoria Blokhina completed race 1 in P24, gaining 9 places from her starting position.
"The first race was not so bad", Victoria told us. "The first half of the race before the crash with Antonelli was quite fine."
"I had gained a lot of positions, but I was a bit unlucky that I broke my front wing", she continued. "From then, after the stop, I was quite lucky because some guys crashed ahead."
Weather conditions changed dramatically on Sunday morning, when a heavy downpour forced the series' promoters to alter the racing schedule.
As drivers went on the grid for Race 2, a big accident halted the starting procedure: Jonas Ried (PHM) spun just out of the pit lane and was collected by Victoria Blokhina. With Ried facing the pit exit and in atrocious visibility, he was hit head on by the incoming Giovanni Maschio, whose car went underneath the PHM Tatuus - in yet another accident that highlighted the importance of the Halo. All drivers were out of their cars, but the starting procedure was aborted and eventually called off as weather conditions remained horrific.
Blokhina's hand though - after receiving a hit on Saturday - got even more swollen; albeit in pain, Victoria would later start the postponed race.
"[What should have been] the second race was not so good", Victoria joked. "I had not even half a lap. I crashed at the start/finish line because of the weather conditions."
Race 3 was declared cancelled, and Race 2 moved to the end of the day's schedule - as drivers took to the grid at 17:00 local time. Rain had stopped and the track had dried enough for everyone to go out on slicks but grip remained challenging.
After a safety car start, Andrea Kimi Antonelli held the first place at the first chicane on lap 2, ahead of Stenshorne, Dunne, Camara and Wurz. Having started from P27, Blokhina made up three positions straight after the green flag.
Action was soon under caution when Frassineti spun in the gravel at Ascari.
Antonelli had another clean restart despite Dunne's pressure; the Irishman tried around the outside of Turn 1 and both had to cut the corner. One lap later, Dunne jumped on the kerb and pushed off Camara - allowing past both Wurz and Stenshorne to podium positions.
This battle gave Antonelli the chance to open a gap.
Maya Weug - who was also climbing the order with steady pace after difficult qualifying sessions - was hit by Nicola Lacorte at Turn 1 and spun around. While Lacorte had terminal front suspension damage, Weug could continue - but had dropped to P31.
Meanwhile, Rafael Narac and Frederik Lund collided at La Roggia chicane, and Nandhavud Bhirombhakdi was off at Ascari after coming together with Jonas Ried, triggering another Safety Car. Blokhina kept it clean and navigated through chaos, climbing to P20.
In the final two minutes of racing, Wurz was deep at Turn 1 but could keep his second place, ahead of Stenshorne. Wharton and Taylor straight lined the chicane and lost places.
Bringing an end to a crazy racing weekend for Italian F4, Akhmedkhodjaev parked in the gravel on the final lap; the red flag brought the results back to one lap before and Kimi Antonelli could celebrate his 10th win of the season, ahead of Wurz and Stenshorne.
While she had many difficulties thrown at her during the weekend, Victoria Blokhina still managed to finish P21, gaining 7 places in race 2.
"The third race was not so bad again. In the first part of the race I had a good car - then I had a massive flatspot, and from there I was just defending for all the rest of the race", she said.
"Nevertheless, I take the battles as a positive out of this weekend. I've improved a lot in battles."
Italian F4 will now return to the track in two-weeks' time for the season finale at Mugello.
"I was only there one time - and I was still very much a rookie then", Blokhina commented. "I will be there in the coming days testing, and we'll see".