Lola Lovinfosse returned behind the wheel of a F4 car after almost eight months since last racing in F4 Spain and fought in the Formula Winter Series pack; her Campos teammate Maite Càceres, at her second race weekend in the series, also completed important mileage ahead of their season, making positive improvements.
Four weeks – two back-to-back – of racing in Southern Europe saw the first edition of Formula Winter Series completing its 2023 season at Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona. Usually hosted in Asia, the winter-season racing has significantly grown in Spain and Portugal thanks to the Gedlich-promoted championship, derived from the success of GT Winter Series – which continued to attract grids of over 40 cars. With five race wins and a second place finish, the inaugural champion was already crowned after last week's Navarra round and Kacper Sztuka missed the final double header at Montmelo – leaving US Racing's teammates Pradel, Lund, Liu battling for the runner up spot. Sztuka's place was filled by fellow F4 racer Zachary David. Joining the field were also Akshay Bohra (US Racing), as well as three female drivers. Racing for Spanish team Campos, two of the F1 Academy drivers that will represent the Valencia-based team hit the track at Barcelona: Maite Càceres – who had already made her Formula Winter Series debut at Valencia – and Lola Lovinfosse, who returned to Formula 4 after a partial campaign in the Spanish series in 2022. Amna Al Qubaisi also made an appearance in Formula Winter Series, returning behind the wheel after racing part-time in the last couple of seasons in Formula Regional Asian Championship and Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine. A F4 race winner – Amna has in fact famously won the Trophy round of the F4 UAE championship in support of the 2019 Abu Dhabi F1 GP – the Emirati driver joined GRS for the two races of the Barcelona weekend. One of the most popular circuits among the drivers for testing, the Circuit de Catalunya presented a further challenge last weekend, as all competitors had to learn the new final sector after the changes made to the GP layout: without the final chicane, the track now has 14 corners instead of 16 and a new track length of 4.657km. The 15-minute Q1 gave pole positions to Gianmarco Pradel (US Racing), just 10 thousands of a second faster than Akshay Bohra – and with six drivers in half a second. Lola Lovinfosse was eighth fastest, having set a 1:43.250. The young Frenchwoman had moved ahead of her Campos teammate Maite Càceres on her final push lap; the Uruguayan had in fact a good session, improving almost every lap. Amna Al Qubaisi was P10. In Q2, Lovinfosse gained two more tenths but kept eighth place, this time ahead of Al Qubaisi – who had a big improvement from the previous session – and Càceres, the latter only setting one timed lap, opting to save a set of tyres for race 2.
The five US Racing cars kept the top-five positions, with David and Bohra trading places at the top – the latter eventually settling in first. Pradel slipped down to third after a slower getaway. Lola Lovinfosse had a great launch and passed Jenzer Motorsport's Kim Hwarang; Maite Caceres attacked Hwarang at turn 2, but she then lost ninth to Amna Al Qubaisi. Ethan Ischer managed to get past Frederik Lund, while behind him, Kim and Lovinfosse continued to battle for seventh. On lap 3, Càceres and Al Qubaisi made contact under braking at Turn 1 and the Campos Racing car lost its front wing. Càceres pitted for a new front wing, while Al Qubaisi stopped on track with a puncture, triggering the Safety Car. Lovinfosse's #10 Campos car also came to a halt during the neutralization due to a mechanical issue, as the pack was waved the green flag again. Promptly the Safety Car was out again – which gave Càceres the chance to catch back with the pack after her earlier pit stop.
The race went back underway with 10 minutes left; Bohra, David and Pradel went wheel to wheel into turn 1 and David claimed the lead. Liu moved up to third with a strong restart, and Càceres initially overtook Ischer for seventh, but the Swiss driver then fought back. The five US Racing cars once again locked out the top positions, but it would be Zachary David and Gianmarco Pradel battling for the win during the final laps. David took the win in race 1, followed by Pradel, Liu, Lund and Bohra – in a US Racing 1-2-3-4-5.
Maite Càceres crossed the finish line in P8, in what was her personal best in the series after a tenth and ninth place finishes at Valencia.
"The race in terms of data, lap times and pace was positive", Càceres told us on Sunday. "We had a contact with another driver in Turn 1 and that meant we had to change the nose. Thankfully a safety car came out at the right time for me to catch back with the pack, actually because another car stopped on track so we did another lap under safety car."
"In terms of balance and of my driving, we came here for the track time for me to get used to the car – and running with the pack was positive", Maite explained. "Now, there are things to work on, things to improve as always and now we are dedicating ourselves to that, so that in race 2 we can take advantage of that pace that I have, advancing more positions."
Zachary David and Gianmarco Pradel battled for the lead into turn 1 at the start of race 2, but the pole-sitter held the top spot, followed by Bohra, Pradel, Lund and Liu. Lola Lovinfosse had a spectacular launch and, over the first lap, made a double pass on the two Jenzer Motorsport cars of Kim and Ischer, moving up to sixth. Maite Càceres had an issue at the start and lost over five seconds, then had to catch up with the pack. Also during the following laps, Lovinfosse battled elbows out with Kim and Ischer; the young Frenchwoman traded positions with the Jenzers. David and Bohra pulled away from Pradel, but the driver from Malta kept it under control. Kim Hwarang and Ethan Ischer battled for position, just ahead of Lovinfosse, who had settled in eighth. Càceres, meanwhile, closed in on Al Qubaisi midway through the race. Càceres started to put pressure on Al Qubaisi and tried an overtake at turn one, but the Emirati closed the door. Unfortunately, the two would collide on lap 13, when Càceres ended making contact with the tyre barriers after turn 6. The race – and the inaugural Formula Winter Series season – finished under red flag conditions. Despite reporting pain in her hand, Maite luckily sustained no injuries. Zachary David took the final win of the weekend, ahead of teammates Bohra and Pradel. Eighth across the line, Lola Lovinfosse had a strong race, showing good pace and determination in the battles at her return to F4 after eight months since her last race in the Spanish series. "We made some changes in the car that were much better and went in the right direction", Lola Lovinfosse summed up.
"I'm happy about the good starts, we were fighting with the cars in front and improving in each session. In race 1 we had a mechanical issue, but overall, except for this one problem, everything was good." With drivers such as Léna Bühler and Bianca Bustamante contesting the F4 UAE season, and others like Nerea Martí, Maite Càceres, and Lola Lovinfosse getting important mileage under their belt in Formula Winter Series, the F1 Academy drivers will have the chance to drive the Tatuus with the specially designed aero kit for the all-female series at pre-season testing in Barcelona, on 11-12 April.
"I think F1 Academy is a very good opportunity for young women like me", Lovinfosse continued. "It's opening doors to us; we will drive on nice tracks, the program is very good for our experience and that's what we need."
Additional reporting: Xavier Salas