Starting to race early is important. Starting in a country with motorsport heritage is crucial. Ismail Akhmed, the first-ever Uzbek F4 driver, is experiencing what it feels like to have done neither. F1 Feeder Series had a chat with the young man about his rapid ascent through his country’s karting ranks and the immense challenge European racing presents.
By Alexander Studenkov
“I am the first ever driver from Central Asia to compete in a European F4 series. I started quite late, because in Uzbekistan, of course, motorsport is not very popular. We don’t have a motorsport culture or anything like that. We have some karting championships going on in the country but they’re very low level.
“They exist because we were part of the USSR, and in the Soviet Union back then there was a big passion for racing and it was quite popular, but obviously it was popular in Russia so we had some rounds and karting races going on in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Somehow, they opened a rental go-kart track in my country where me and my dad went to. I did a few laps and I immediately liked it and fell in love with racing.
“Back then I didn’t know that there was a professional league of karting and things like this, I just knew there was Formula 1 and a rental go-kart track, I didn’t even know how to become a race car driver. I raced there for maybe three months, when I met a guy who was one of the members in a team that [does] karting professionally, and so he invited me to his team. We bought a chassis and he was my mechanic [so] he coached me and helped me for a year.”
The modest level of the national championship became evident quickly, as Akhmed, who had only just commenced his career, began fighting for the 2018 title.
“Immediately from my first year, I started at 13, I started to battle for the championship. Obviously, I wasn’t experienced enough, because I didn’t know how the go-kart works, how the engine works, and so I had a couple of mechanical failures throughout the year, which cost me the championship. Also, in the last round, when everything was quite tight and I was leading the race, I had small contact with another driver, which meant that I got disqualified from my first ever championship.”
The plight of Central Asia
Despite this setback, the young Uzbek driver, officially known as Ismoilkhuja Akhmedkhodjaev, remained confident in his abilities – and so did his peers. With his remarkably quick rise to the top level of the Uzbek racing scene and the lack of a competitive international benchmark, Akhmed’s stock was elevated to unseen heights.
I’ll be able to just do another year of karting in Uzbekistan and then immediately switch to Europe and be competitiveIsmail Akhmed on what he was told by his peers
“Even at that point people told me things like, ‘You’re so talented; you just started and you’re battling for the championship immediately’, and because I didn’t know anything about motorsport back then, I’ll be able to just do another year of karting in Uzbekistan and then immediately switch to Europe and be competitive out there.”
His plan seemed to work initially, as he took home the Uzbek Championship in the junior class, as well as the national cup in 2019. However, at that stage, Uzbek motorsport was not even recognised by any official international committees since there was no formal governing body for the sport up to that year.
Founding international recognition for his country
“I did another year, I won everything completely. Back then, it was 2019, we still didn’t have an ASN Club which could give me a professional FIA licence to compete in Europe. There was no Uzbek motorsports licence. Somehow, Jean Todt – he was the UN Special Envoy for Road Safety – got invited to Uzbekistan to develop road safety in 2019. We have a friend of our family who somehow got into contact with him and met him and gave him this idea of opening an ASN Club in Uzbekistan, which could give out a licence.
At the end of 2019, everything was ready: The ASN Club opened up and we started to talk to some European karting teamsIsmail Akhmed
“At the end of 2019, everything was ready: The ASN Club opened up and we started to talk to some European karting teams. We signed the contract with Birel ART for the FIA European Karting Championship, but then COVID hit. The situation with COVID in Uzbekistan was quite tough and there was no racing. The place where my go-kart used to stay got completely shut down so we couldn’t take my chassis to even go to the track and do some testing. From December 2019 till the end of November 2020, I didn’t drive anything, so we can say that I missed out on a year of driving.
“Even at this point, I didn’t understand that in Europe the culture of motorsport and everything is completely different to Central Asia. I did a race in Kazakhstan and people used to tell me that if I was competitive there, I’d be competitive in Europe, and I believed them because I thought that they were older and more experienced than me. We went to Kazakhstan, and I won one race, retired from one and finished second in the final one, which meant that I finished third overall. So I thought, ‘I’m competitive out here so I can go immediately to Europe’; I just didn’t have anybody close to me that could tell me the things I should do.”
The structure of the Central Asian motorsport scene is, despite the recent changes, nowhere near its European equivalent. Having previously been organised by the national Ministry of Defence, the Uzbek karting landscape is still unable to properly develop local talent.
“In the senior classes they use a KZ chassis and put an OK engine in. Very stupid, I know. We don’t have any tracks that are comparable in Europe, we don’t have fast corners like in Europe, so the driving style over there is completely different, the grip is completely different. We have the Mini category, then we have the Junior category, which is from 13 until 18; from 18 you can either do KZ or OK Senior.”
A rude awakening
Akhmed, who had missed out on a year of sporting development, got back into the kart in March of 2021, a mere two months before the start of the European Karting Championship at Genk, where he finally found out that his confidence in his own abilities had been inflated beyond reasonable assumptions.
“Because people told me that I would be faster in OK Senior if I first went immediately to KZ (gearbox karts), I drove KZ for two months, we had a few races going on; I won them all in Uzbekistan, and I thought ‘I’m ready for Europe now’.
“And then when I arrived to Europe, immediately, from the first session, five seconds off [chuckles]. After my first European race, I understood that we miss a lot in our countries and I should start working in a completely different way. Obviously, I knew it was gonna be very competitive, but I didn’t know that I was missing the knowledge from all the good drivers that are fighting for the top positions in Europe.
I understood that we miss a lot in our countries and I should start working in a completely different way.Ismail Akhmed
“I expected myself to be at the back of the pack, but I didn’t expect it to be this much. I thought after a few races I would improve and start winning races and championships, but it wasn’t like this.”
Jumping into the deep end
A lowly 61st in the overall results made Akhmed question his move into European karting and had an effect on his decision to progress into Formula 4 in 2022, which he would begin by racing for Xcel Motorsport in F4 UAE.
“I thought about doing KZ karting first, but then I realized that it was already too late because back then I was 16 already. In August, when the championship ended, I came back to Uzbekistan and I talked to my dad who told me that I should now go into car racing; we hoped it was going to go better over there. He said that I wasn’t in the age for karting and if I wanted to achieve something in car racing, I should go there now.
“I tested a formula car for two days in August with R-ace GP and then we signed the deal with Xcel [to compete in F4 UAE]. I thought I would do a proper amount of test days in Dubai, just before the season starts, and the team had confirmed six private test days to us, but then, a week before it started, they told me that all the teams had voted against private testing during the season in Dubai. So, I came to Dubai with zero experience in the new car and hadn’t driven anything for four months. Then, it was my first run [during the official test days] I did ten laps and then crashed. It was a big knock to my confidence, but then I understood that I somehow needed to do some more private test days before the championship starts.
“I told this to the head of the ASN Club in Uzbekistan and he spoke with Marco Antonelli (owner of F4 team AKM Motorsport), so immediately after the official test I went to Adria, where we had six private test days before the championship in Dubai started, so I got some experience in the car. I was five seconds off of P1 on my first day, but then I built up to it and by the end of the first round I was only two seconds off and could fight some cars.”
Being asked about the challenge of wheel-to-wheel battles in cars compared to karts, the Uzbek driver explained his initial fear of getting into squabbles with his fellow competitors.
“[It was] very different obviously, and in the first races I was very scared to do overtakes, because I thought the speed is too high and we could easily crash, but then I just got used to it and now it’s easier for me.”
Experience over everything
Given his lack of experience in racing, Akhmed was always going to struggle in the 2022 Italian F4 season. Going in with AKM Motorsport, a team that had often found itself in the lower midfield in prior years, Akhmed has had a tough campaign and currently sits 45th, with a best result of 21st at the Red Bull Ring. But gathering experience has been more important to him than his position in the standings.
I think I’ve made a big step in terms of my learning.Ismail Akhmed
“I knew that it was going to be a learning year and that I should just act like a sponge. Get as much information as possible into my head and just use this as a starting point. After each session we do data comparisons. For example, we get my data and [teammate Valerio] Rinicella’s data, and then the engineer tells me what I’m missing and what I should do, where are my mistakes and things like this.
“I think I’ve made a big step in terms of my learning. I think I became a bit more consistent and I started to understand how the car works, how the chassis works, different weathers, basically, everything works better.”
A new kind of motivation
Despite his improvements on track, Akhmed admitted that his results had created a mental challenge for him, having been accustomed to wins and podiums in his native country. The shift in his mentality was difficult but has, according to him, added to his love of racing.
I feel more motivated now to improve than when I was winning all the timeIsmail Akhmed
“At the beginning it was very tough to swallow mentally. I got used to fighting for the top positions and first place in Uzbekistan. It wasn’t a good day for me when I didn’t win a race over there. I got used to that, and when I arrived to Europe it was very tough to cope with. But then I just spoke with myself, I sat down and I understood that I have to go through it to be in the top positions in Europe.
“To be honest with you, with those results I started to have more of a passion for racing and I want to do more every day to end this tough scene in my career. I feel more motivated now to improve than when I was winning all the time.”
What does the future hold?
A pair of events at Monza and Mugello cap off the Italian F4 Championship, which Akhmed enters with a new partnership with Pro Racing Management. This decision will help him to decide his next career move, allowing him to develop at an appropriate pace and focus on racing rather than being rushed through his career like he had been up to this point.
“I signed a contract with Pro Racing [Management] and so now they are going to take care of my career. We [will] see how it goes in the next two rounds and we’re going to decide what we’re going to do next year, whether that’s F4 or some other Formula 3 championship such as GB3 or Euroformula, for sure not regional.”
No matter anyone’s results, the end goal for the vast majority of young racing drivers is to reach the championship with the highest level of international prestige: Formula 1. But does Akhmed share this aim?
“First of all, my first goal is to learn as much as I can and to sit in the car at the point where I know that I’m on my limit and I know that I’ve done everything to be fast. But yeah, at the end of the day the goal is the same for me as for every other driver fighting on the grid, whether that’s in Formula 4, karting, or Formula 3. Everyone has the same goal of achieving Formula 1.”
Header Photo Credit: AKM Motorsport
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