Win Apiece for Wharton and Taponen but Ugochukwu Leads Title Charge

Feb 02,2023

  • James Wharton slashes Ugo Ugochukwu points advantage after Kuwait drama
  • Standout Rookie Tuukka Taponen takes maiden overall victory
  • Championship wraps up successful debut at spectacular Kuwait Motor Town facility

Kuwait, February 1, 2023: There was no letup to the drama in the third round of the Formula 4 United Arab Emirates Championship certified by FIA (F4 UAE) at Kuwait Motor Town. McLaren’s American Formula 1 protégé Ugo Ugochukwu took a race win and continues to lead the standings with two events remaining, but his advantage has been slashed to just 11 points over James Wharton. Australian Wharton and Finn Tuukka Taponen, both backed by the Ferrari Driver Academy, claimed the other two race victories, but it was Wharton who comfortably outscored all his rivals across the event thanks to a clash between Ugochukwu and Taponen that put both out of the final race.

With 38 youngsters all battling for recognition combined with a high-speed circuit, it was inevitable that the incidents would flow thick and fast, and each of the first two races was characterised by plenty of running behind the safety car. The 15-year-old Ugochukwu took a convincing pole position for race one, but the Prema Racing driver was pressured throughout the green-flag running by the Mumbai Falcons car of Wharton, who fell just short at the finish. Taponen, also driving for Mumbai Falcons, made terrific progress from ninth on the grid to pip MP Motorsport’s Valerio Rinicella to third position, and claimed the Rookie Cup prize.

Taponen’s form continued in race two. Between safety car interludes he passed Ugochukwu for second, and then on the penultimate lap of action the 16-year-old Finn made a race-winning pass on Wharton to claim his maiden F4 UAE race victory. Ugochukwu also briefly took advantage to overtake Wharton for second, but got on the kerbs immediately afterwards, dropping to fourth behind Wharton and Rinicella.

These young guns were once again the quartet to watch in the final race, which ran for its first 12 laps without a safety car. An awesome start launched Jesse Carrasquedo into an early lead, but the R-ace GP-run Mexican had dropped to fourth on lap two by the time he ran wide and plunged into the midfield. Wharton led, but it was Ugochukwu on the move. First he passed Rinicella for third, and then moved in on Taponen as the top three concertinaed together. Finally, Ugochukwu made an overtaking bid on Taponen that ended in a collision and both were out of the race. With the safety car out, victory was assured for 16-year-old Wharton from Rinicella and R-ace GP’s Maltese-Filipino Zachary David, who claimed honours in the Rookie Cup in which Taponen had been denied a treble.

It all means it’s very much game on in the championship prior to the return to Dubai Autodrome on 11-12 February and the finale at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina circuit one week later. Not only is Wharton now right on Ugochukwu’s coat tails in the standings, but the ever-consistent Rinicella is also within one win of the leadership, just 23 points adrift.

Driver quotes:

Race 1 winner: Ugo Ugochukwu / Prema Racing

“It was definitely one of my hardest races out there in the lead. The start was good and I managed to defend into T1, and then every time I was starting to get a bit of a gap, the safety car came out. I had to keep on doing safety car restarts. It was important to get on top of those and try to break tow down in to T2. It was so hard. Visibility was also tricky today and there was a lot of sand offline so it was quite easy to get your tires dirty and also keep the temperature behind the safety car. I’m super happy to bring it home and I’m already looking forward to tomorrow.”

Race 2 winner: Tuukka Taponen / Mumbai Falcons

“My first race win feels good! I started from P3. [With] two safety cars again today it wasn’t an easy race, but the tires were every time ready after the safety car. I don’t want to say it was easy, but it was easier to have the tires ready and push immediately. James [Wharton] was defending but I saw there was room a little bit to go on the inside. I went inside but it was really dirty so I didn’t know where I should brake as there was no marker 100 board where we normally brake. I braked a bit later than James and made the move.”

Race 3 winner: James Wharton / Mumbai Falcons

“The whole race was very difficult. It’s the first race we’ve done here with no safety car, so everyone was trying to save tires. Obviously the Prema cars are really fast at the moment, and the Mumbai cars, so we were a lot down the road from everyone else but within the team we were pushing each other. They got a little bit too close for comfort but it helps me to get 25 points ahead of them. But now we need to fight for the championship in Dubai and try and win the title.”

Race 1

Ugo Ugochukwu was on stunning form as he claimed pole position for the first race by almost 0.6 seconds, and he converted that into his fourth F4 UAE victory – but it certainly wasn’t an easy run for the American in a dramatic race that took place in misty conditions. Ugochukwu held off front-row partner James Wharton at the start before the race very quickly went under the safety car, due to Kai Daryanani being stuck on the circuit after spinning at Turn 2.

Ugochukwu rebuffed a challenge from Wharton at the restart, before one lap later there was a collision in the battle for sixth. Arvid Lindblad spun across the bows of Zachary David as they headed over the start-finish line, and the contact put both drivers out of the race – and meant the safety car was called out once again. Wharton kept Ugochukwu on his toes at the second restart, before Emely de Heus spun into the gravel at Turn 14 resulting in the third and final caution of the race. It left time for one more lap of racing, with Ugochukwu pipping Wharton to the finish line.

Noah Strømsted, going great guns in his PHM Racing car, held third early on, while a good start for Valerio Rinicella lifted him from seventh to fourth. Rinicella continued his progress after the first restart, when he superbly passed Strømsted around the outside of Turn 4. Also on the move was Tuukka Taponen from ninth on the grid and, by the time of the final restart, he was up to fifth. As they slipstreamed on the straight following Turn 1, both Strømsted and Taponen towed past Rinicella, and Taponen then made it up to third when he slipped ahead of Strømsted at Turn 2. But Rinicella fought back, passing Strømsted at Turn 5 and then getting an overlap on third-placed Taponen at the finish line.

Emirati talent Keanu Al Azhari worked his way nicely up the order from 11th to finish sixth in his Yas Heat Racing Academy car, while German Valentin Kluss (PHM) got ahead of Kanato Le (Hitech Pulse-Eight) on the final lap for seventh. There was another change just behind them, with Hiyu Yamakoshi (Pinnacle VAR) passing Frenchman Théophile Naël (Saintéloc Racing) for ninth. Taponen won the Rookie Cup class from Al Azhari and Le.

Race 2

From pole position, earned for setting fastest lap in race one, James Wharton held onto his advantage at the start. Ugo Ugochukwu was alongside on the front row, and he braved it out around the outside of Turn 2 to defend second position from Tuukka Taponen. But as in race one there was a safety car caused by the stranded machine of Kai Daryanani, who was off the road at Turn 4.

After the restart Wharton defended from Ugochukwu, but the American’s bid ended with him being vulnerable to Taponen, who got in front for second as they exited Turn 2. As the field entered the following lap there was an incident on the run to Turn 2 when, just outside the top 10, there were several cars side by side before a collision. This ended the race for Hiyu Yamakoshi, and the safety car was called out again in order to retrieve the Japanese racer’s machine.

Three laps of racing awaited the field once the race went green, and Wharton initially held off Taponen and Ugochukwu. On the penultimate lap, Taponen braved it out down the insideof Wharton to grab the lead into Turn 2. Wharton attempted to fight back, but this brought Ugochukwu and Valerio Rinicella, the Italian from ninth on the grid, into play. While Taponen extended a winning margin of just over one second, Ugochukwu passed Wharton around the outside of Turn 2 on the final lap, but over the following corners he got on the kerbs. The lost momentum allowed Wharton back up into second place and Rinicella into third.

Noah Lisle held on in fifth place for much of the race, but Valentin Kluss slipstreamed past the Australian Xcel Motorsport driver as they exited Turn 1 on the final lap, and Lisle dropped out of the race as he battled to conserve a decent result. Hitech Grand Prix’s British youngster Will Macintyre therefore completed the top six in front of the Yas Heat Racing Academy’s Emirati pair Hamda Al Qubaisi and Keanu Al Azhari. Théophile Naël crept into the top 10 again in ninth, ahead of the Prema car of Filipina Bianca Bustamante. Taponen won the Rookie Cup class from Macintyre and Al Azhari.

Race 3

It was James Wharton on pole for the final race of the Kuwait Motor Town visit, but a blistering start from fifth on the grid allowed Jesse Carrasquedo to emerge in the lead by the time the field got to Turn 2. The Mexican’s advantage didn’t last long, with Wharton squeezing past during the opening lap, and then Tuukka Taponen further demoted Carrasquedo into Turn 1 the next time around, with Valerio Rinicella also slipping past down the following straight.

Carrasquedo then ran wide at the Turns 14/15 double-right and dropped into the midfield, and this allowed Ugo Ugochukwu up to fourth. At this point, the American championship leader did not look a threat for victory, but he rolled up his sleeves and got to work. Bit by bit, Ugochukwu inched closer to the leading trio and, when Rinicella went wide at Turn 14 on the seventh lap, he moved up into third.

By this stage Wharton was having to be aware of the threat from Taponen, drifting across the road in an attempt to break the tow, and a few laps later Taponen was having to do the same in a bid to deter Ugochukwu. As the race entered its closing stages, Ugochukwu thought he saw an opportunity to pass into Turn 2. As Taponen turned into the corner, it was too late for Ugochukwu to back out; contact was made and the duo slewed across the road, coming to rest on the inside of the turn. Further round the course, there was an all-Danish tangle between Noah Strømsted, attempting to recover following a first-lap incident with Théophile Naël, and Theodor Jensen. All this meant a late appearance for the safety car, and Wharton took victory from Rinicella as the race finished under caution.

The Taponen/Ugochukwu collision elevated Zachary David to the final podium position but it was all action behind the R-ace starlet. Hiyu Yamakoshi had held sixth position for much of the race, but he was reeled in by the battle behind, and it was Federico Rifai who overhauled him to take what was an excellent fourth place for the Xcel-run Emirates driver by the chequered flag. British Red Bull Junior Arvid Lindblad and Australian James Piszcyk were embroiled in this fight too, and the Hitech team-mates finished fifth and sixth respectively ahead of Yamakoshi. Alexander Abkhazava (R-ace) had also been involved in this group, but the Georgian was passed by Dion Gowda just before the safety car, so it was the Indian Rodin Carlin racer who claimed eighth, with Akshay Bohra (PHM) winning his battle with illness to be the final driver in the points. David also scored Rookie Cup honours ahead of Rifai and Lindblad.