He may not be the most well-known name in the Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine (FRECA) yet, but that could change very soon. 16 year old Laurens van Hoepen of ART Grand Prix is on the verge of a breakthrough, and he has a special teacher by his side. F1 Feeder Series spoke with the young Dutchman.
By René Oudman
There he was, on the list of participants for the 2022 FRECA season: kart driver Laurens van Hoepen stumbled, to everyone’s surprise, into the Formula Regional class, which normally only comes after drivers have been racing in Formula 4 for one or two years. But not for Van Hoepen: the young Dutchman dared to skip F4. His courage has not yet been fully rewarded, but two rookie victories in Monaco show that the young Dutchman is certainly talented.
Mentoring from Nyck de Vries
The thread running through Van Hoepen’s career is Formula E and Formula 2 champion Nyck de Vries. De Vries, who is 11 years Van Hoepen’s senior, has been advising his countryman for several years about life on and especially off track. How did this cooperation come about? Are De Vries and Van Hoepen friends by chance, or do the families know each other?
“We flew to Venice,” Van Hoepen tells F1 Feeder Series, “and I was standing in my Tony Kart jacket at the airport. Nyck saw that and came up to me. He was immediately very interested in my story and promised to contact my father at the end of the season. He did. We had dinner, and since then, there is a bond of trust. Nyck arranges a lot of things for me, but I can also go to him with questions.
“I learn an incredible amount from that,” the Dutchman acknowledges. “I can ask Nyck anything – for example, how would you warm up the tyres. But he doesn’t interfere with everything. He would never tell me to attack a particular corner this or that way. He is on top of things, reads everything the engineers and I write and shares his opinion, but he is more of a manager than a coach.”
His appointment at ART Grand Prix, the team that took De Vries to the 2019 F2 title, suddenly makes a lot more sense. But why would the top French team take on such an inexperienced driver for their FRECA line-up, with which they want to fight for the title every year? “Nyck obviously helped, but it’s not like I drive for ART because I know Nyck. I went to test for ART, and they had a lot of guys to choose from. In the end, they chose me because they thought I had the most potential, which is of course great to hear from such a renowned team.
“I had to show it myself during the post- and pre-season tests. Of course, Nyck has had a part in it. He brought me into contact with ART and held the talks, but in the end it is me, through the speed that I showed during the test days, who gets to race for the ART team.”
Work to do in qualifying
After seven race weekends, Van Hoepen’s tally stands at eight points. On the face of it, it’s not an earth-shattering achievement, but in a field of 30-plus drivers and with a minimal amount of preparation time, it’s certainly not bad either. The two eighth places in Monaco – two rookie wins – were rated especially highly.
“FRECA is a very strong championship, but I knew that even before the season started. The qualifying sessions are extremely important. It is quite difficult because we only have 15 minutes. Last year, it was perhaps a little easier. The drivers had much more time then,” Van Hoepen says, referencing the change from last year’s single 20-minute qualifying session to this year’s system of splitting cars into two groups for 15-minute sessions each.
“Maybe it would have been easier for me at the time because I have so little experience compared to the rest, as I didn’t drive F4 of course. When it goes well, it goes really well and then it’s great fun. Otherwise, you just have to work hard.”
Was there ever a moment when the Van Hoepen entourage, with the advice of De Vries, considered driving in a Formula 4 series in 2021? “Me, my father and Nyck together came to the idea of doing another year of KZ [karting] instead of Formula 4. That didn’t do me any harm. The only thing I have to do now is to overtake a lot, but the more experience I have, the easier it gets. It’s getting better and better. The speed is not the issue; it’s more the little mistakes that have a big effect on the result.
“I definitely still support the choice, and I think it will work out. So far I’ve had a bit of bad luck and made some rookie mistakes, but I do think I will be able to score some points again. Top seven or better is achievable, especially if you look at the speed we have, but it has to go well in qualifying. That has been difficult.”
Van Hoepen looked back on some of those challenging moments in qualifying, with one coming in the Saturday qualifying for Round 4 at Paul Ricard. “I had a first and second sector faster than [Group B] poleman [Gabriel] Bortoleto. In the third sector, I lost half a second because I made a mistake. I thought, ‘I’ll sacrifice this lap so I can maximize the next push lap’, but because we were all driving so slowly, nobody made it to the last push lap. Something similar happened at Imola. Those are stupid things that cost a lot of points.”
Building confidence on and off track
While Van Hoepen lacked experience relative to his peers at most circuits on the calendar, the Circuit of Monaco offered a more level playing field.
“At Monaco it’s a bit more equal. All the rookies haven’t driven there yet. Take a circuit like Zandvoort: almost everyone has driven there and I haven’t yet. By the way, I drove there from position 31 [on Lap 1] to position 20, so as far as overtaking is concerned, things are going well,” Van Hoepen adds with a laugh.
“Qualifying is the most important thing in this championship. You see that the experienced guys understand when they have to peak, and that is why they are always there. Funnily enough, I am almost always fast in practice, but we found out that I have more time to warm up. It is more than important to get the tyres in the right window.
“Take Monza: I thought I was fast there [and] I had really high hopes. However, because everyone was trying to get a slipstream for qualifying, the warm-up lap was significantly slower. As a result, I had much less temperature in my tyres, and the result was disappointing.”
And what are Van Hoepen’s plans for the rest of this season and beyond? “I expect things to work out. The team is confident and happy with me, which gives me confidence again,” the young Dutchman says. “I assume I’ll be back in FRECA next year.”
Header photo credit: Sebastian Rozendaal / Dutch Photo Agency
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