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Analysis

The tough decision facing drivers climbing the UK single-seater ranks

Choosing between a second year in a series or progressing further up the single-seater ladder is always tricky for young drivers. But, now Formula 1 teams are increasingly favouring experience in their line-ups, it's become even more difficult - and a look at the UK categories shows some intriguing approaches

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Any junior single-seater championship that has attracted 25 drivers onto its grid is clearly doing something right. Even more so when such a strong entry comes at a time of financial hardship. GB3 supremo Jonathan Palmer and his MotorSport Vision team must therefore be congratulated for enticing exactly that many competitors to turn out for last weekend’s opener at Oulton Park.

Take a look at those 25 racers and there is an intriguing mix of backgrounds. Unsurprisingly, a significant number – nine, or 36% – are in their second full year of GB3 competition, seeking to put into practice what they learned in 2022 and progress further in their sophomore seasons. Eight (32%) have previously competed in other European, Asian or American single-seater categories and have been tempted by the GB3 offering – no doubt helped by it now racing on three current Formula 1 circuits. One has stepped up from GB4, another from karting, but a sizeable chunk, 24%, have switched from British F4, well-established as a feeder into GB3. However, if you glance at last year’s F4 standings, an interesting question is raised over when is the right time to climb the ladder.

Bearing in mind Alex Dunne blitzed the opposition for much of 2022’s F4 campaign, it is perhaps surprising to see four drivers who finished outside the top eight, and were far from regular frontrunners, have jumped up to GB3. These are drivers who you could argue have far from proven themselves at F4 level and are now switching to a car that is a mean machine, generating more downforce and lap times significantly faster than the F4 (at Brands Hatch Grand Prix, for example, the difference in pole between the categories was five seconds). It was therefore not a shock to see that quartet of F4 graduates near the bottom of Oulton qualifying and featuring at the front of the reversed-grid washout.

Every driver is different and there is a multitude of factors that come into play when making a decision over the next step in a career, but it is still interesting these drivers have opted to spend one year in F4 and then jump ship. Especially when the notion of leaping up the single-seater ladder at breakneck speed is being quashed somewhat.

Browning spent three years at F4 level before taking GB3 title

Browning spent three years at F4 level before taking GB3 title

Photo by: JEP/Motorsport Images

Last year’s GB3 champion, Luke Browning, is an intriguing example. The Aston Martin Autosport BRDC Award winner has never been blessed with particularly deep pockets and has made a steady climb up the ranks, starting out in Junior Saloons, followed by two years in Ginetta Junior, another two campaigns in British F4 (taking the title in the second), a year in German F4 and then his GB3 success. And he believes mastering each stage before progressing is important.

“I think it’s really interesting the way F1 is going and how drivers are coming into it,” Browning said on a recent Autosport Podcast. “It’s not necessarily these 17/18-year-old kids getting promoted into F1 anymore. Max [Verstappen] set the precedent for that but, ever since, it’s really starting to regress. Teams are really appreciating the experience of older drivers to hop in at the right point. Older drivers getting into F1 taking the right step, doing a couple of years in each formula and really gaining that traction of experience is crucial.”

“I think the second year was wise, just to get a bit more of a handle on car racing. I came straight out of karting last year, so that was quite a big step” Daniel Guinchard

When you take a look at the drivers joining F1 this year, he certainly has a point. Only one has stepped up directly from the F2 feeder series, Logan Sargeant. Then you’ve got Nico Hulkenberg returning to the fray with over a decade of top-level experience, Nyck de Vries getting an F1 shot having sampled sportscars and won in Formula E after taking the F2 title, and Oscar Piastri, who had a year out of racing as Alpine reserve last season.

Back to British F4, where not all of last year’s crop are moving on. Fourth-placed Louis Sharp and Daniel Guinchard (ninth) are set to continue, while Ugo Ugochukwu – third in the table – is not leaving F4 and is instead switching to the Italian series. Again, plenty of factors impact those decisions, with age being the key one for Sharp as he does not turn 16 until May. But he still feels a second year in F4 has its benefits.

Sharp's May birthday is a factor in him committing to a second season in British F4

Sharp's May birthday is a factor in him committing to a second season in British F4

Photo by: JEP

“In terms of driver development, you probably would learn more going up to something new but, at the same time, I think if you can learn to be in the running for a title and to deal with the pressure, that’s also a cool thing to learn as well,” says Sharp.

Guinchard adds: “I think the second year was wise, just to get a bit more of a handle on car racing. I came straight out of karting last year, so that was quite a big step.”

Ultimately, it will not be until the end of the season that we find out who made the correct decisions. Those jumping up to GB3 may progress rapidly and succeed with the move – after all, some drivers prove naturally better suited to higher-downforce machinery – while those staying in F4 may not be able to launch title campaigns. Regardless, with Joseph Loake being the star racer at the GB3 opener on debut (after two years in F4) and getting the upper hand over the title favourites, an enthralling season is certainly in store.

Loake was the GB3 pacesetter at Oulton, after two years in British F4

Loake was the GB3 pacesetter at Oulton, after two years in British F4

Photo by: JEP/Motorsport Images

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