James Wharton Snatches Championship Lead in Penultimate Round

Feb 13,2023

  • Mumbai Falcons Australian takes lead from Ugo Ugochukwu
  • Finnish star Tuukka Taponen takes triple crown in final Dubai stop
  • Title chase to go down to the wire at Abu Dhabi finale February 18-19

Dubai, February 12, 2023: Ferrari Driver Academy protégé Tuukka Taponen was unquestionably the star on the Formula 4 UAE Championship’s return to Dubai Autodrome for the fourth triple-header event of the 2023 season. The 16-year-old Finn, embarking on his first full season of single-seater racing, won all three races and topped both qualifying sessions with Mumbai Falcons Racing.

While it was a tremendous performance from Taponen, his Ferrari and Mumbai Falcons stablemate James Wharton was never far away. The Australian claimed two second places and a third, and this has allowed him to leap into the championship lead with just one round remaining. Ugo Ugochukwu, the McLaren Formula 1 junior who had led the points from the opening race in Dubai one month ago, had a tough weekend with Prema Racing, and the American scored just three points for ninth and tenth-place finishes.

Taponen led Wharton throughout the opening race, while an entertaining battle for third between British Red Bull Junior Arvid Lindblad and Emirati talent Keanu Al Azhari ended when Lindblad spun his Hitech Grand Prix car and was collected by the Yas Heat Racing Academy machine of Al Azhari. This promoted Pinnacle VAR’s Italian talent Brando Badoer to third.

The second race was led throughout on the road by R-ace GP-run Mexican Jesse Carrasquedo. But a startline accident, which sidelined Ugochukwu when he made contact with a stalled car, had precipitated an early safety car. Because of the location of the stranded machines, the safety car led the field through the pits, and Carrasquedo erroneously crossed the white line at the pit lane entry. The resulting penalty dropped him to 10th, allowing Taponen and Wharton another Mumbai Falcons 1-2 and PHM Racing’s Dane Noah Strømsted into third.

Taponen led all the way in the finale, but came under intense pressure from the ever-improving and impressive Al Azhari. Wharton found his way around Lindblad for third early in the race and made it a three-way fight at the front. Despite the closeness of the action, there were no further changes of position, allowing Taponen to complete his weekend hat-trick, not only in the overall results but also in the Rookie Cup.

It all means that, with just one round remaining at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi next weekend, Wharton leads Taponen by a mere six points. Ugochukwu is now 37 points adrift in third position, with Italian Valerio Rinicella, who enjoyed yet another consistent weekend in Dubai with MP Motorsport, making it a four-way fight for the title on the same tally as Ugochukwu.

Driver quotes:

Race 1 / Tuukka Taponen / Mumbai Falcons

“I don’t think about the championship. I go race by race. In this race I had a really good start and won the race and all the time everything was under control, so stretch or think about the championship. I had a good restart. I was able to get some gap to the back immediately, and after that the pace was good and I was able to pull away a little.”

Race 2 / Tuukka Taponen / Mumbai Falcons

“[Jesse Carrasquedo] had really had quite good pace. But then he made a mistake and got a five second penalty, so I crossed the line second but won the race. The pace was not so good today. I was a bit surprised, but I think for the next race it will be the same as yesterday, so I need to make a good start and just focus on my own race.”

Race 3 / Tuukka Taponen / Mumbai Falcons

“For sure I had pressure the whole race. It wasn’t easy at all. [Yas Heat Racing Academy] had a really good car to stay and follow really close. I needed to look the whole time to the back and try to lead the race, as when you have to follow, it’s not easy to overtake. [Winning three races out of three] is not every day coming like this – it’s also making it a perfect weekend with two times pole position and three race wins.”

Race 1

Tuukka Taponen topped qualifying for the first time in F4 UAE, beating James Wharton to pole position for the first race by 0.170 seconds, and it was these two who dominated. Taponen led all the way from Wharton, via two safety car periods, to take his second win of the year.

It was all action behind them. Arvid Lindblad qualified third and got away well to retain his position, and it was the ever-improving Keanu Al Azhari alongside him on the second row. Al Azhari lost fourth spot at Turn 1 to the Hitech Pulse-Eight car of James Piszcyk, but pulled off a superb manoeuvre around the outside of the Australian at Turn 10 to wrest the position back. The field had only got to Turn 6, however, before Theodor Jensen and Rishon Rajeev came to grief, and the safety car was called out to recover the stranded cars.

While Taponen and Wharton went about their own business at the restart, Al Azhari managed to grab third from Lindblad. The Red Bull Junior successfully fought back and repassed the Emirati at Turn 10, but then he made a mistake at Turn 11 and spun. The unfortunate Al Azhari was unable to avoid him, and the two cars made contact, sending both to the pits. Lindblad did rejoin, but lost three laps having repairs so was not classified as a finisher.

Brando Badoer, returning to action after missing the two Kuwait Motor Town rounds, took advantage to move up to third from Hitech pair Will Macintyre and Piszcyk, with Valerio Rinicella also joining this fight. So too did Ugo Ugochukwu – the pre-weekend championship leader was carrying a three-place grid penalty from the final race last time out in Kuwait for an incident with Taponen, and that converted his ninth place in qualifying into 12th in the starting line-up. Ugochukwu soon sliced his way up to seventh and, when Piszcyk and Rinicella began fighting for fifth, he made a brave move on the brakes into Turn 1 to dive past them both. Unfortunately, Ugochukwu ran wide on the exit, and dropped back to ninth behind Japanese Kanato Le (Hitech) and Maltese-Filipino Zachary David (R-ace GP), and just ahead of his Italian Prema team-mate Nicola Lacorte.

Soon after this the safety car re-emerged, due to Flavio Olivieri being just off the track at Turn 11 following a collision. Taponen therefore secured victory from Wharton and impressive comeback man Badoer, and the Finn also won the Rookie Cup from British racer Macintyre and Le.

Race 2

A strategic masterstroke from R-ace GP for Jesse Carrasquedo had a huge influence on this race. The grid for race two is decided by fastest laps in the opening encounter, during which the Mexican was running in 19th position behind the safety car when the team brought him into the pits. Carrasquedo rejoined and, in relatively clear air after the restart, he set fastest lap and earned pole position for race two.

He then appeared to have completed the job on Sunday morning in another race much affected by the safety car. Carrasquedo got away nicely to lead Tuukka Taponen and James Wharton. But from sixth on the grid, Aleksandr Bolduev stalled and was clipped by none other than 14th starter Ugo Ugochukwu, the incident putting both cars out of the race and another dent in the American’s championship aspirations.

It was Carrasquedo again from Taponen and Wharton at the restart. Noah Strømsted ran in fourth position ahead of Emirati Federico Rifai (Xcel Motorsport) and MP Motorsport newcomer Pedro Clerot, the reigning Brazilian Formula 4 champion running well on his first outing in F4 UAE. Then, on the third lap of green-flag racing, Theodor Jensen spun at Turn 4 and could not be avoided by Georgy Zhuravskiy. Once again the safety car appeared, and Carrasquedo’s maiden F4 UAE win seemed to be confirmed. But due to the incident between Bolduev and Ugochukwu happening on the start-finish straight, the safety car had led the F4 machines through the pit lane during the early laps. On the first of these, Carrasquedo was late to react and crossed the white line at pit entry, earning himself a five-second penalty and promoting Taponen to another victory from Wharton, Strømsted, Rifai and Clerot.

Valerio Rinicella did well to climb from 11th to seventh in the limited green-flag racing, and this became sixth with Carrasquedo’s penalty. Some good battling in the lower points-scoring positions ended with Pinnacle VAR’s Australian contender Jack Beeton claiming seventh from Kanato Le and Prema-run Philippines racer Bianca Bustamante, with Carrasquedo classified 10th. Beeton also completed the Rookie Cup podium behind Taponen and Rifai.

Race 3

Tuukka Taponen headed qualifying again to claim another pole position for the weekend finale, while this time Keanu Al Azhari maintained his position on the front row – and the local hero made a proper race of it. After an aborted start due to a car being out of position on the grid and an additional formation lap, Taponen converted pole easily into the lead, while Al Azhari emerged from a three-abreast dive into Turn 1 with Arvid Lindblad and James Wharton to secure second position.

Lindblad held an early third, but Wharton looked threatening and the Australian managed to snatch the place away into Turn 10 on the third lap. Now Wharton began to close in on the leading duo, and on the seventh lap of 11 he feinted a move on Al Azhari at Turn 10. With Al Azhari now in defensive mode, that allowed Taponen to briefly escape, but with three laps remaining the top trio were together. Try as he might – including locking his brakes into the very last corner on the final lap – Al Azhari could not find an opening, and it was Taponen who completed a treble victory on the weekend, with Wharton close behind in third. The leading trio were covered by just 0.740 seconds after a fine race uninterrupted by the safety car.

Lindblad followed them home in fourth and completed the Rookie Cup podium behind Taponen and Al Azhari. But the Briton had to work for it. Valerio Rinicella passed him early on, before Lindblad reclaimed the position around the outside of Turn 1. He did so, however, by running wide and not taking the prescribed route back onto the circuit, but commendably slowed on the following lap to let Rinicella back ahead. Next time around, Lindblad did the job properly to make the position his.

Rinicella held on to fifth from hard-charging Frenchman Théophile Naël (Saintéloc Racing), who had battled his way through from 16th on the grid in his usual spectacular fashion. Naël got ahead of Singapore-licensed US-Indian Akshay Bohra (PHM Racing) on the penultimate lap, leaving Bohra to take a commendable seventh from Brando Badoer. Ugo Ugochukwu ran sixth in the early going, but continued his disappointing weekend as he was passed by Bohra, Naël and Badoer. Then, just two corners from the finish line, Ugochukwu lost another spot to James Piszcyk to claim a solitary point for 10th.