Star Trio Take Victories in Dubai as Tuukka Taponen Extends Title Lead

Published on Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Star Trio Take Victories in Dubai as Tuukka Taponen Extends Title Lead

Three different drivers stood atop the podium during a thrilling Formula Regional Middle East Championship Certified by FIA (FRMEC) Round 3 at Dubai Autodrome, but it was a fourth who emerged from the action with an expanded points lead. While Taylor Barnard, Nikhil Bohra, and Rafael Câmara tasted glory on the weekend, in the longer game it is Tuukka Taponen who is looking ever more difficult to beat to the ultimate prize, with two events – comprising a total of six races – remaining.

British star Barnard arrived in Dubai with a 31-point deficit to Taponen, but the 19-year-old PHM AIX Racing driver narrowed that with victory in the first race, despite constant pressure throughout from R-ace GP’s Ferrari Driver Academy protégé. Taponen didn’t let up for one moment, and the duo were covered by just half a second at the chequered flag.

In the reversed-grid sequel, 17-year-old Taponen restored some of his lost points advantage after a fraught battle with Barnard ended in his favour with seventh place. Up front, Nikhil Bohra gave the MP Motorsport team its first win of the 2024 series, the 19-year-old Singapore-Indian-American leading home Barnard’s PHM team-mates, Thai Tasanapol Inthraphuvasak and Italian Brando Badoer.

The weekend saw Badoer came of age in Formula Regional. The son of ex-Formula 1 driver Luca Badoer impressively passed Barnard to take another third place in the finale. Up front, it was a battle of the Ferrari juniors. Brazilian racer Câmara’s third place on the road in race one had been handed to Pinnacle Motorsport-run Spaniard Mari Boya due to a post-race penalty, but this time the 18-year-old prevailed in a titanic dispute with Taponen, which also featured Barnard, Badoer and Boya in the early stages in the most exciting racing of the weekend. Câmara’s victory was his first of the campaign, and the second for the Prema-run Mumbai Falcons Racing squad.

Taponen now sits 32 points clear of Barnard in the standings, while Martinius Stenshorne is 42 adrift in third place. Not content with his overall exploits, the Finn was also twice a winner in the Rookie class, with Badoer taking honours in the other race, and is 84 points clear of Théophile Naël in that classification.

The 2024 FRMEC continues at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, with Round 4 from February 9-11.

 

Race 1

The competitiveness of the series was vividly illustrated in qualifying. The fastest four drivers were all from different teams, split by 0.085 seconds over a lap of almost two minutes. Bouncing back to form after a tough second round was Taylor Barnard, who claimed pole position from Rafael Câmara, Tuukka Taponen, and Mari Boya, and an absorbing race ensued.

Barnard made a good start to lead from Taponen and Boya, while Câmara slipped to fourth and only just held off the R-ace GP car of Norwegian Martinius Stenshorne. Taponen, seeking to extend his championship lead, was forcing Barnard to defend all around the opening lap before, after successfully repelling the Finn, the Briton settled down in front. After a few laps of respite, Barnard once again came under attack from Taponen, but a move to the outside of Turn 1 was rebuffed. Barnard composed himself once more, before a sprinkling of rain just after half-distance encouraged Taponen to launch another challenge. Once more he tried on the outside of Turn 1; again Barnard stayed in front. The track dried out again, and Barnard kept Taponen at arm’s length to win a superb race by 0.521 seconds.

Boya held third place for the first five laps, but then Câmara launched an audacious dive down the inside of Turn 10. Side-to-side contact was made as Câmara went through, Boya ran wide, and only just kept Stenshorne at bay. They finished in this order, but Câmara’s move was too ambitious for the stewards, who penalised him five seconds and down to fourth position in the final results behind Boya.

Behind fifth-placed Stenshorne, Nikhil Bohra hung on in sixth place until the 10thlap of 16, when Mumbai Falcons’ American McLaren F1 junior Ugo Ugochukwu pulled off a superb move around the outside under braking for Turn 1. Bohra attempted to fight back, but that allowed Brando Badoer to dive down his inside at Turn 10 for seventh. To complete Bohra’s gloom, Tasanapol Inthraphuvasak passed him before the end of the lap to take eighth. Badoer’s performance also gave him a Rookie podium, behind Taponen and Ugochukwu. This quartet had some distance over the next group. Saintéloc Racing’s French youngster Théophile Naël passed James Wharton (Mumbai Falcons) early on for 10th and, although the Australian tried his best to reclaim the position – which would also provide reversed-grid pole – the Frenchman held on, while Wharton stopped in the run-off area at Turn 1 on the penultimate lap.

 

Race 2

From second place on the grid, Nikhil Bohra made a slightly better start than poleman Théophile Naël and bravely managed to squeeze through a diminishing gap to assert himself in the lead. Any thoughts that Naël might be able to repeat his race-two win from the previous round at Yas Marina soon dissipated. While Bohra extended a gap at the front, Naël found himself under a dual attack from PHM AIX Racing pair Tasanapol Inthraphuvasak and Brando Badoer. Side by side they raced for much of the opening lap before Inthraphuvasak managed to sweep around the outside of both of them at Turn 1 on the second tour to lay claim to the runner-up position.

While Naël began to slip down the field, the leading trio of Bohra, Inthraphuvasak, and Badoer began to stabilise. Bohra kept his lead at around a second, but Inthraphuvasak was chipping away before the MP Motorsport driver extended the margin once more to finish 1.5 seconds in front. Badoer, in turn, was very close to his team-mate, and his third place gave him Rookie honours.

A move by Ugo Ugochukwu on Naël at Turn 14 on lap three not only got him up to fourth but opened the door for Mumbai Falcons team-mate Rafael Câmara to take fifth. This duo remained very close, with Câmara briefly getting past at Turn 1 on the penultimate lap, only for Ugochukwu – who was second Rookie – to fight back and hold on. Mari Boya sat close behind them to take sixth.

A superb battle took place in the early laps at the bottom end of the top 10 between leading championship trio Martinius Stenshorne, Taylor Barnard, and Tuukka Taponen. A bid by Taponen to pass Barnard into Turn 10 on the fourth lap forced a fightback by Barnard, who so nearly overtook Stenshorne while defending from the Finn. This delayed both Barnard and Stenshorne, and Taponen ambushed both of them into Turn 12. Taponen, third in the Rookie class, thereafter held off Barnard for seventh, with Stenshorne ninth. Naël succumbed to all of this group and was running 10th before retiring with five laps remaining. That promoted Xcel Motorsport’s Noah Lisle to the top 10, only for the Australian to concede the final point to Mumbai Falcons’ British Red Bull Junior Arvid Lindblad in the closing stages.

 

Race 3

It was the same four drivers and quartet of teams who led the way in the second qualifying session as we’d seen in the first but in a different order. This time, Rafael Câmara emerged on pole position for the final race by just 0.010 seconds from Tuukka Taponen. But the Finn certainly had no intention of giving best to his Brazilian fellow Ferrari junior in the race.

Taponen got alongside Câmara on the run to the first corner and narrowly squeaked through into the lead. Half a lap later, Câmara drew alongside on the long back straight approaching Turn 10, then took to the outside line, which became the inside for Turn 11, and reclaimed the advantage. That was followed by a sensational second lap. Taponen set up Câmara beautifully for a pass into Turn 9, but the Brazilian repeated his outside-at-Turn 10 move, Taponen ran wide at Turn 11, and Taylor Barnard briefly got past both of them for the lead into Turn 12, but he got caught on the outside line on the exit. Mari Boya and Brando Badoer made it an impossibly close five-car battle at the front before Câmara’s move on Taponen into Turn 14 restored his advantage.

Taponen continued his strenuous efforts to pass Câmara, the Finn making numerous attempts on the fifth lap, before on the halfway tour he dropped time, and the gap between the duo ballooned to over 1.5 seconds. Now all Câmara had to do was remain free of mistakes, and looked nailed-on to do so until the 14th lap of a likely 16 when, having run caution-free for the entire weekend, the FRMEC field finally encountered its first safety car of the event. That was caused by Jesse Carrasquedo spinning at Turn 16, with the Mexican unable to get his car fired up again. As the safety car emerged, Arvid Lindblad also pulled off the road on the entry to the same corner. The marshals did an impeccable job in getting the cars pushed away as quickly as possible, but time had run out and Câmara’s victory from Taponen was secure.

Badoer had passed Boya for fourth during that hectic second-lap fighting, and he wasn’t finished yet. The young Italian did a superb job to hunt down PHM team-mate Barnard and grabbed third spot on lap 10. Behind them, Martinius Stenshorne closed in on Boya for fifth, but their fight ended at Turn 10 midway through the race with contact that eliminated Boya and delayed Stenshorne.

Lindblad had done plenty of overtaking early in the race and now found himself in fifth place before his late heartbreak. Up to fifth, therefore, came his team-mate James Wharton, the Australian also completing the Rookie top three behind Taponen and Badoer. Stenshorne finished sixth ahead of Bruno del Piño and the Spaniard’s MP Motorsport team-mate Nikhil Bohra, but the Norwegian was handed a 10-second penalty for his part in the clash with Boya, relegating him way outside the top 10. Tasanapol Inthraphuvasak recovered from a fraught first few laps to be classified eighth, with Ugo Ugochukwu ninth and Théophile Naël completing the top 10.

 

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