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The Italian youngster hoping to become Mercedes' next F1 superstar

Picked up by the Mercedes Formula 1 team's junior programme aged just 12, Andrea Kimi Antonelli has already drawn huge attention through his junior career. With his graduation to the Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine, the odds are now even higher for the Italian rising star

Andrea Kimi Antonelli, Prema Racing

Prema Powerteam

The leafy glades of Imola’s public park play host this weekend to the opening round of the 2023 Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine, and the two races – one on Saturday, one on Sunday – will properly capture the attention of single-seater aficionados and talent spotters.

Every now and then a young driver comes along surrounded by a massive buzz: think Max Verstappen in the 2014 Formula 3 European Championship; Mika Hakkinen in British F3 in 1990; or a certain Ayrton Senna da Silva in the early 1980s. And now we have one again.

Like Verstappen, Andrea Kimi Antonelli is 16 years old as he embarks upon his maiden pan-European championship in cars. Unlike Verstappen, who did not become a Red Bull Junior until the middle of his F3 season, the Italian has the patronage of a top Formula 1 team in the form of Mercedes. And also unlike Verstappen, he already has one full season in cars under his belt; one in which he won no fewer than 26 races.

Antonelli makes the graduation, for which he remains with Prema Racing, as the reigning Italian Formula 4 champion, the final German F4 title winner, and also the F4 Motorsport Games gold medallist. What’s more, again under the guidance of Prema, he’s already become a champion in 2023 after a hotly contested FRegional Middle East Championship.

The Bolognese moved under the wing of the Mercedes F1 team at the age of 12. The squad’s junior driver chief – its Helmut Marko if you like – is Frenchman Gwenael Lagrue, who has been in Prema’s orbit since he managed Guillaume Moreau in the old F3 Euro Series.

He then went on to be a prime mover at the Gravity Sport Management/Lotus F1 Junior stable, where he guided Esteban Ocon from karting to the European F3 crown with Prema in 2014. After he joined Mercedes in 2015, Lagrue was key to Ocon arriving in F1, signed up George Russell, provided considerable help to Alex Albon, and has also placed more of the Three-Pointed Star’s juniors at Prema, including Frederik Vesti (now in FIA F2) and Paul Aron (FIA F3).

Ask Prema boss Rene Rosin about the arrival of Antonelli at his squad in the summer of 2021, and he acknowledges: “With Gwen we’ve always got a good relationship. When he was asking me about Kimi, of course it became everything easy, because he’s one of the most promising junior drivers, and we always want to work with young drivers, even more if he’s Italian.”

Antonelli makes the graduation to FRECA as the reigning Italian F4 champion and final German F4 title winner

Antonelli makes the graduation to FRECA as the reigning Italian F4 champion and final German F4 title winner

Photo by: Prema Powerteam

Antonelli grew up surrounded by the sport, and Rosin – for whom the same is true – says that “in Italy, you say that he’s somebody who has grown up on the bread of motorsport”. His father Marco raced a BMW M3 in the early years of Super Touring in Italy three decades ago, and still competes occasionally in sportscars. He is the chief of Antonelli/AKM Motorsport, which has enjoyed plenty of success over the years in sportscar racing and also operates an F4 team.

No wonder Kimi, as he is known, is nuts about the sport, to the extent that, during his F4 season last year, he suddenly arrived at the Le Mans 24 Hours, where Prema was competing for the first time.

“He’s humble, he’s very easy to work with, he what he’s doing,” laughs Rosin. “On a free weekend, a 15-year-old kid travelled on their own to Le Mans to see the 24 Hours – to do that you have to be really fanatical about motorsport, and last year he has done that!”

Unfortunately, a collision in qualifying for the Motorsport Games at Paul Ricard last October left him with a fractured wrist. Yet he still competed, and won both races. But for his graduation to FRegional, according to Rosin, “basically he lost all the winter preparation.

Like Verstappen with Ocon, Hakkinen with Mika Salo, and Senna with Martin Brundle, the attention on Antonelli could refract upon another

He did just two days in Mugello and two days in Barcelona, but in Barcelona it was very step by step into the Formula Regional because we didn’t know how well he would be with the fracture on his arm.” Then he went to the Middle East, and won the Regional title. “There he was very very good, as a rookie, doing what he has done against much more experienced drivers,” adds Rosin.

With such a remarkable F4 record, why not go straight to F3? “It can be an opportunity as Ollie Bearman has done, but Kimi is still 16,” says Rosin. “He will not be ready for Formula 1 in two years, so better to do everything step by step, doing the proper stuff, doing the proper ladder, having the chance of testing, because once you arrive in Formula 3 and Formula 2 you cannot test anymore. Use the FRECA to do a good amount of mileage, to learn two quali per event, two races per event, and prepare yourself for the future.

"You arrive in Formula 3, you do well, you go to Formula 2 and you are good, and then you don’t have the age to go to Formula 1 or you don’t have the experience to go to Formula 1. Just do what is needed to grow up mentally, physically.”

Antonelli will commence his FRECA campaign this weekend at Imola

Antonelli will commence his FRECA campaign this weekend at Imola

Photo by: Diederik van der Laan / Dutch Photo Agency

Like Verstappen with Ocon, Hakkinen with Mika Salo, and Senna with Martin Brundle, the attention on Antonelli could refract upon another. Alongside him at Prema are Ferrari junior Rafael Camara and FRegional veteran Lorenzo Fluxa. Elsewhere are promising drivers such as Kas Haverkort, Dilano van’t Hoff and Tim Tramnitz. Can they trip up Antonelli?

“The kid is good, the kid is unbelievable, the kid has a big heart, which is something very important,” enthuses Rosin. “We need to look day by day doing the best as much as we can, and only with that we can see what the future will bring. Nothing is written, he just has to ask himself to write his future.”

Andrea Kimi Antonelli is 16 years old as he embarks upon his maiden pan-European championship in cars

Andrea Kimi Antonelli is 16 years old as he embarks upon his maiden pan-European championship in cars

Photo by: ACI Sport

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