James Wharton crowned 2023 Formula 4 UAE Champion

James Wharton crowned 2023 Formula 4 UAE Champion

19.02.2023: • Australian Mumbai Falcons ace clinches title after dramatic final round • Title challenger Tuukka Taponen wins Rookie Cup • Mumbai Falcons dominate Teams title chase James Wharton was crowned Formula 4 United Arab Emirates (F4 UAE) cham

• Australian Mumbai Falcons ace clinches title after dramatic final round


• Title challenger Tuukka Taponen wins Rookie Cup


• Mumbai Falcons dominate Teams title chase



James Wharton was crowned Formula 4 United Arab Emirates (F4 UAE) champion in a dramatic conclusion to the 15-race, five-round series at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit.


The 16-year-old Australian led home main title rival Tuukka Taponen – his stablemate not only in the Ferrari Driver Academy but also at Mumbai Falcons – in the first two races to give himself a healthy, but not insurmountable, points advantage.



A collision between the duo as they battled for the lead on the first lap of the finale left them both out of the race, and confirmed Wharton as champion.



Ugo Ugochukwu and Valerio Rinicella were the other drivers in the championship hunt as the teams arrived in Abu Dhabi for the final event, but their hopes ended after the first race, and from then on it was all about Wharton and Taponen. Wharton had led that opening race throughout in between safety car interruptions.


His 16-year-old Finnish team-mate Taponen held second, but had to focus on keeping Hitech Grand Prix’s British Red Bull Junior Arvid Lindblad behind him in third.



The second race followed a similar pattern to the first, with Wharton, Taponen and the safety car playing prominent roles. Once again Wharton led all the way, while this time Taponen had to concentrate on keeping just out of reach of 15-year-old American Ugochukwu before securing another second position.


Once Wharton and Taponen had departed the fray, the final race was all about Ugochukwu and Rinicella. McLaren F1 protégé Ugochukwu, driving for Prema Racing, finished the season as he started it with victory from Italian MP Motorsport racer Rinicella and Yas Heat Racing Academy’s local talent Keanu Al Azhari. The race was red-flagged on the final lap due to an incident involving Al Azhari’s team-mate, Hamda Al Qubaisi.



Wharton defeated Taponen by 20 points in the final reckoning, with Ugochukwu 47 adrift in third and Rinicella 61 behind in fourth. Some consolation for Taponen was that he had already secured the Rookie Cup crown before the final weekend, with Lindblad claiming second and Al Azhari third.



 Likewise, Mumbai Falcons Racing had already clinched the Teams title before the teams arrived in Abu Dhabi.




Driver quotes:


Race 1
James Wharton / Mumbai Falcons


“I think at the moment I feel really calm and really in my element. I feel like I’m really in my zone at the moment and not really doing anything wrong. So, just keep my head down for the next two races and try and extend the lead again like in this race to have a good margin going into the last race so I don’t need to do anything crazy. In a good position now, but still a long way to go.”


Race 2
James Wharton / Mumbai Falcons

“Tomorrow will be a little bit easier on where I need to finish. I don’t need to win, but I still need to make sure I finish the race, and in a good spot. But, overall, I’m happy with how I’ve gone so far. I’m proud of the team around me and it’s time to finish the job tomorrow and finally get the championship.”



Race 3
Ugo Ugochukwu / Prema Team

“I think overall it’s been a pretty positive championship – five wins overall. I’m really happy to get another win now to finish the season off on a high, and also P3 in the championship. I can’t complain too much about the season. It’s been great. I want to thank the whole Prema Team. They worked hard the whole way and overall I’m just quite happy.”






Race 1



James Wharton qualified on pole position after leading the way in qualifying, and survived a fierce attack exiting the first corner on the opening lap from team-mate Tuukka Taponen to lead all the way. Keanu Al Azhari continued his excellent recent form to qualify third, but appeared to stall at the start, and there were some superb avoidances from the field behind before he finally got going. But a three-car incident at Turn 5 left Jack Beeton stranded on the circuit, and the race went under safety car so that the Australian’s machine could be recovered.




From the restart, Wharton gradually began to inch away from Taponen, while the Finn had to focus on remaining out of reach of the shadowing Arvid Lindblad. With a lap remaining, Wharton had the gap out to 1.618 seconds at the front before the safety car was called midway round the final tour, with Flavio Olivieri’s car stuck just off the circuit. That confirmed the win for Wharton from Taponen and Lindblad.



Brazilian Pedro Clerot held fourth in his MP Motorsport car from the start but, on the second lap after the safety car restart, he was passed by Xcel Motorsport-run Emirati Federico Rifai. In the jostling on the following lap, Rifai lost several positions when he was edged wide by Ugo Ugochukwu, who had made good progress from ninth on the grid but would receive a five-second penalty for his incident with the local driver. Clerot finished fourth from Ugochukwu and Kanato Le. But as well as penalising Ugochukwu, the stewards also handed out five-second punishments to Clerot and Le for speeding under double waved yellow flags.



All of this promoted what had been a hectic battle for seventh on the road between Italian Brando Badoer (Pinnacle VAR), Dane Noah Strømsted (PHM Racing), Rifai and Frenchman Théophile Naël (Saintéloc Racing), with Naël exiting the race on the penultimate lap. Badoer moved up to fourth on corrected times, Strømsted fifth and Rifai sixth, with local driver Rifai also third in the Rookie Cup behind Taponen and Lindblad.



 Hitech-run Briton Will Macintyre claimed seventh ahead of Mumbai Falcons’ Indian racer Muhammad Ibrahim and the penalised Clerot, while a remarkable recovery allowed Al Azhari to take the final point for 10th. Ugochukwu’s and Le’s penalties dropped them to 11th and 12th respectively.





Race 2

 

Such was the supremacy of James Wharton in the opening race that he was even able to stamp in the fastest lap, earning himself pole position for the second encounter of the weekend. Again, it was Tuukka Taponen alongside Wharton on the front row, and once more Taponen tried his utmost to get past in the opening corners. As in race one, Wharton held on.



Ugo Ugochukwu survived a ferocious opening-lap battle with Arvid Lindblad to hang onto third, and Théophile Naël took advantage to move ahead of the Red Bull Junior and into fourth. Lindblad fought back into the Turns 6/7 complex at the end of the lap, but minor contact with Naël allowed Keanu Al Azhari to slip into fourth position from Lindblad, with Naël dropping back to eighth. In their wake, a tangle between Brando Badoer and Nicola Lacorte stranded them on the track, while another incident left James Piszcyk in the run-off area, and the safety car was called out.




This was Taponen’s chance to attack Wharton and potentially close the points gap going into the final race. But, once the race went green, he found himself more preoccupied with fending off the strenuous efforts of Ugochukwu to snatch his second place as Wharton made a break. It was crucial that Taponen didn’t fall any further down the order, and after three more laps of green-flag racing his prayers were answered when the safety car emerged again, putting the field under caution until the end of the race. This time, Alexander Abkhazava and Kai Daryanani found their cars locked together on track at Turn 9, with Flavio Olivieri just off the circuit, after an unfortunate collision. Round at Turn 1, Zachary David had made contact  with Léna Bühler, and the unlucky Sebastian Murray had spun into David as he attempted to avoid the incident, leaving the Scot stuck on track too.



That left Wharton to take the chequered flag again from Taponen, Ugochukwu, Al Azhari and Lindblad, with Taponen winning the Rookie Cup class from Al Azhari and Lindblad. MP Motorsport twins Valerio Rinicella and Pedro Clerot were sixth and seventh. Naël had an entertaining battle with Will Macintyre for eighth that led to both cars running wide at Turn 9 and Akshay Bohra (PHM Racing) getting past them. Naël ended up ninth from Aleksandr Bolduev (Xcel Motorsport).




Race 3



James Wharton claimed pole position for the series finale after topping the second qualifying session, with Ugo Ugochukwu separating him in second place from main title rival Tuukka Taponen. The points situation meant that Taponen needed to win the race with Wharton outside the top seven to steal the crown away. The Finn immediately set about the daunting task. He tried to go around the outside of both Ugochukwu and Wharton at the first corner, succeeded in passing the American, but ran wide and had to slot into second place. He then dived down the inside of Wharton at Turn 12, and both went into the run-off area. Taponen rejoined the circuit for Turn 13, while Wharton did so by bouncing off the inside kerb. This sent him onto a collision course with Taponen. While Wharton was out on the spot with deranged right-front suspension, Taponen retired to the pits, and the Australian was champion.




From sixth on the grid, Arvid Lindblad sat motionless at the start and was somehow avoided by the field, but he was also out of the race, while Kai Daryanani had come to a halt on the inside of Turn 9. All this meant the safety car was called out. At the restart, Ugochukwu led from Valerio Rinicella and Keanu Al Azhari for four more laps of green-flag racing, and Noah Lisle spun out of fourth place at Turn 15. But a three-car collision left Bianca Bustamante and Nandhavud Bhirombhakdi stranded on the outside of Turn 9. That led to another safety car, but once the incident was cleared up there was time for two more laps of racing.




Ugochukwu was leading Rinicella and Al Azhari on the final lap when the battle for fourth ended dramatically. Pedro Clerot was just about holding onto the position from Brando Badoer when Federico Rifai spun out of sixth at Turn 13. While Théophile Naël slipped through unscathed, Rifai’s car collected eighth-placed Hamda Al Qubaisi and she made heavy contact with the barrier. The race was immediately red-flagged. The results were backdated to the last completed lap, and Rifai was given a 10-second penalty for the spin and contact with Al Qubaisi. That meant that, behind fourth-placed Clerot, Badoer was classified fifth from Naël, Al Qubaisi, Prema-run Italian Nicola Lacorte, Noah Strømsted and Hitech’s Australian James Piszcyk. Al Azhari claimed Rookie Cup honours from Lacorte and Will Macintyre.





Nikki Kemp - photos F4UAE



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19.02.2023 / MaP

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