Going into Donington Park last year, the F4 British Championship was as bright-eyed as ever, bragging about the road to Formula 1 it was developing for young drivers. By the end of the weekend though, the paddock had shifted.
Billy Monger’s accident in the second race put a damper on the whole event up and down the ToCA package. The incident itself shaped the rest of the season and Jamie Caroline’s charge to eventually take the crown at Brands Hatch at the end of the year.
One year on, British F4 returns with a new air about it. Monger has already made his racing return in the BRDC British F3 Championship, picking up a podium, while the FIA series has welcomed a new breed of young drivers to the field. Despite the new additions, it was an old staple of the series; Ayrton Simmons, who left the round as the man to beat.
Two wins and a second place (albeit through penalties for other drivers) meant the JHR Developments driver left Brands Hatch as the championship leader and potential powerhouse for the rest of the season. Times may be changing already though, as Thursday testing proved.
He ended the day with a 1min 08.234. This time was only 0.688 seconds off the pace of eventual fastest man Keirn Jewiss, but in F4 that left him down in ninth overall. The morning hadn’t been much better, leaving questions about Simmons ability to maintain his spot at the top.
Should we be concerned though? Friday testing at Brands Hatch hadn’t seen him dominate either, with Jewiss and Hoggard dominating the day. With now three years of experience under his belt, Simmons knows that Saturday and Sunday are the only days that count.
Speaking of Jewiss, the Double R Racing driver was untouchable in testing, not only topping the morning and afternoon sessions, but also breaking Dan Ticktum’s record from 2015.
The Ginetta Junior graduate has made a swift leap into the series and with the times from Friday, coupled with his podiums from round one, could be a favourite to star this weekend.
He’s not the only Ginetta graduate though, with Seb Priaulx having also made a swift transition to the series. His 49 points puts him second in the standings, but only managed seventh and fifth in testing. Priaulx benefitted in the reverse grid race last time out and will need to prove that he mix it at the front during the main events of the weekend.
Testing at Donington threw up a few surprises yesterday, with both Finnish drivers finishing under half a second behind Jewiss in second and third.
Patrik Pasma looks to have put his Brands woes behind him, going second in the afternoon having been fifth during the morning running. His experience should have seen him lead the team at Brands, but instead struggled towards the base of the top ten, jumping the start in the second race.
He’s yet to pick up a win despite his year at Carlin, but could finally have the opportunity to make a mends for his dire 2017, where a technical issue saw him almost stall in the second race, only to be collected by Billy Monger.
His biggest competition could come from Paavo Tonteri. The Infinity Sports Management driver went under the radar pre-season, but stormed onto the scene last weekend, looking to continue his run of strong results at the Derbyshire circuit.
Behind them, Johnathan Hoggard, Priaulx and Manuel Sulaiman rounded out the top six during testing.
Hoggard especially will need a strong weekend after he failed to turn his testing performance into race pace on Saturday. He lies seventh overall with 18 points knowing that a championship challenge this year could rest on his results with Fortec.
As the only major team without a podium, Fortec Motorsport will have a lot of ground to make up, though a double podium last year after a sub-par opening round for Oliver York will certainly spur them on to return to the top of British F4.
Elsewhere, Sulaiman will hope to take the fight to teammate Simmons, while Jack Doohan and Sebastian Alvarez look to secure rookie wins. The latter was only driver to not score at the opening round. Finally, Dennis Hauger will be aiming to return to the front, after a failed overtake cost him a podium at Brands Hatch. Testing has not been favourable for the Norwegian though, as the only driver to not improve during the afternoon.
There’s no change to the grid after the opening round, with fourteen drivers taking part in testing yesterday and expected to continue tomorrow.