F4 dominator Antonelli on FRECA move: ‘F3 is a bit early for me’

On the face of it, the newly crowned Italian and ADAC F4 Champion Andrea Kimi Antonelli has had it all going his way: two dominant campaigns, in which the Italian took 22 victories, capped off with a clean sweep at the FIA Motorsport Games. But behind the numbers hides the truth of a hard-working kid with the mentality of a fighter. F1 Feeder Series had a chat with the Mercedes junior about his remarkable season.

By Alexander Studenkov

Contrary to what the numbers may suggest, Antonelli only took the lead of the Italian F4 Championship at the halfway mark of the season, owing to a disastrous opening weekend. Having led Race 1 at Imola, a mechanical failure prevented him from taking the advantage early, and more collisions, including a clash with teammate James Wharton on Sunday, meant that Antonelli would only take home one point from the event. Reflecting on his season the 16-year-old sees Imola as the catalyst for his dominance throughout the rest of the campaign:

“I mean, it was a tough weekend because we only came away with one point, but obviously the speed that weekend was really good; it just was a mix of bad luck and mistakes on my side, so that made for a terrible weekend. I knew I could still get the lead of the championship back but also knew that it was gonna be hard, because after that weekend I was already 60 points [behind] the leader.

“It was tough mentally, but I think it was also a turning point for me, especially as a person and on the mental side, because I forgot that race and started working really hard to recover the points loss. I think it was really bad weekend, but it was also positive because it turned something in my mind that makes me work super hard; trying to make as few mistakes as possible, trying to get as many points as possible, win as many races as possible, just to get back that lead.”

To get those victories, Antonelli had to get to grips with his machinery, the newly introduced Tatuus F4-T421 chassis. Despite his limited racing experience in that car compared to his teammates, most of which completed most of the F4 UAE winter series campaign, Antonelli was able to demonstrate speed in every weekend from the beginning of his European season.

“I had a really good feeling with the car. On the physical side in the first part of the season I improved quite a bit; in the last part of the season, I was improving slightly, but there was no major improvement like at the start of the season.”

Combatting complacency

The numbers Antonelli was able to put up during 2022 are staggering: he set a record of most wins during an Italian F4 season, 13 to be specific, and achieved an overall winning percentage of 64 percent, numbers, which exceed even the accomplishments of 2021 Champion Ollie Bearman.

In the Italian’s own words, winning this often did not get boring, although the habituality of his victories was able to creep into his mind, leading to the dangerous issue of complacency, which Antonelli cites as one of his main learning points across this season:

“Obviously [winning] is always a good boost of confidence, because you win and you prove to yourself that you’re able to win, but you never get ‘easy’. A race is never easy and every weekend is a different story. One weekend you can be flying, being super fast and win without any problems, the other weekend you struggle a bit more.

“It happened to me this year, I’ll make an example: after the triple-header of Italian and German [F4] at Zandvoort, Spa and Vallelunga, where all three weekends went super well – I took the lead in Italy – I arrived at the Nürburgring after the summer break. Let’s say, I struggled a bit, maybe because I had too much confidence. We were struggling with the car a bit, but also driving I wasn’t as smooth, let’s say, as the previous races. That was a race I struggled at together with the team, but mostly on my side I was struggling.

“After that race, I learned that I should never get easy, don’t arrive with too much confidence because that can be damaging yourself. That was another important lesson for me.”

As Antonelli concurs, being shown that each victory must be earned is vital for every successful racing driver. No matter how good you are, or how many titles you’ve won, being humbled is a necessary evil to reach bigger heights.

“Exactly, [humbled] is the right word. Every weekend is a different story: you need to work hard each weekend because you never know what the opponents are gonna do, if they’re gonna be really fast. So, every weekend you need to keep working hard and focus on the job. If you start thinking that it’s gonna be easy because the previous races you were fast and were winning, that is going to be the race where you’re gonna get beaten by your opponents, and that’s what happened to me in Nürburgring.

“After Imola we achieved great results because we were working hard and I need to keep doing this for the next few seasons because it’s gonna be really important and with every step you make it’s gonna be harder and harder. To be humble and to work hard is gonna be important.”

Always improving

One week after the end of the Italian F4 season, which Antonelli finished off in style, taking three wins in three races at Mugello, the Italian was representing his country at the FIA Motorsport Games within the F4 category. There, he ended his stint in the series in the only way possible: in dominant fashion, setting pole, winning the quali race and taking home a gold medal with a victory in the main race.

When questioned about the importance of that win, at the motorsport version of the Olympic Games, in comparison to his titles in Italian and ADAC F4, Antonelli responded in a reasoned manner:

“The championships are really important, because it’s about more races, the consistency is the key that it gonna make you win the championship. FIA Motorsport Games was a very prestigious race because I was representing my country and I was very honoured to represent Italy. It’s a one-shot race, where it’s all or nothing, whereas in the championship must be more consistent. I will say it’s as important, not more important, because of these reasons.”

The win came under extreme circumstances, as a collision with another competitor at the end of qualifying broke Antonelli’s left wrist, meaning that he had to drive with one hand for the remainder of the weekend, only using the left hand to shift down gears. Despite this situation, Antonelli won by nearly seven seconds, having looked thoroughly in control throughout.

“I will say that it’s most likely one of my best wins, because I was driving basically with one hand due to the wrist. I think it was a good performance because we were all in the same cars and they were pretty equal during the weekend, so it was one of my best performances, but I hope I can do even better in the future.

“You can always do better, so the best is yet to come, you know. I hope I can perform even better in the future, you can improve, even in details. Obviously, if we speak about this year, I told you that that was one of my best races, but I believe an even better one can come.”

Why not F3?

Despite his monumental success in Formula 4 and public expectation of a move into Formula 3, Antonelli was recently announced as Prema’s first driver in FRECA, a category lying in between FIA F3 and F4. The expectation came as a result of the success F4 champions – in particular Theo Pourchaire and Ollie Bearman – have had after their respective moves directly to F3. Antonelli, even if he remarks that he would have done well had he taken that bigger step, remains assured that the more linear career progression is the right way to go.

“It’s a decision we took with Mercedes. We decided to go to Regional not because we were afraid of going to FIA F3, because we knew the speed there could’ve been good, but maybe we feel that I’m still lacking a bit of experience, so going to F3 is a bit early for me, not because of speed, but experience. If everything goes well [in FRECA] I could move up to F3. It’s still a good category with a high level and it’s a closer car to FIA F3 because it’s a bit faster than F4, so we decided to do that to gain even more experience.”

“The Regional [car] is a bit tougher on the physical side, it felt good, obviously I felt it was a nice car, fast, because you can also feel the aero working. It’s a bit heavier compared to the F4, but it has more horsepower and more downforce. I drove it at Mugello, and I have to be honest, I struggled a bit physically, also because I was coming from a triple header, so I was more mentally tired and struggled a bit, but the speed was still quite good. I’m really excited for next season.”

As the runaway champion of Italian F4 and the comfortable winner of ADAC F4, which he conquered despite missing the penultimate round, it is anticipated that the Italian starlet will continue this form going into 2023, with Mercedes, in particular academy manager Gwen Lagrue, expecting big things from Antonelli. But does the youngster have the same expectations for next year?

“[Mercedes] expect good results, because they fully believe in me. They helped me a lot during this season, and they will keep helping me. Obviously, they have high expectations, because when you come away from a good season in F4 there’s no point to not do well in Regional. I know I can do well, but I have to keep working hard, same as F4. If I improve on those aspects I’m lacking a bit, I think we can be a contender for the season and even fight for the championship.”

Header photo credit: Prema Racing

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