This is my inaugural season in the Formula 4 United States Championship powered by Honda. A U.S. F4 car is an open-wheel formula car with a carbon fiber monocoque and slick Hankook tires. It is powered by a Honda Civic derived four-cylinder, two-liter motor that is race prepared by Honda Performance Development in California. F4 is an FIA-sanctioned race category run at the national level. The U.S. has the largest entry list of any of the FIA-sanctioned F4 series.
Despite having a Guinness World Record for Fastest Vehicle Slalom in a 718 Porsche Spyder, I don’t have a lot of experience when it comes to cars. I started racing when I was eight years old. Like most aspiring car racers, I rose up the ranks of karting. In 2020, I moved up to the senior class in karting and won the World Karting Association Grand National Championship in Rok Senior. In 2019, I competed in arguably the biggest karting race in the world, SKUSA Supernationals in Las Vegas. I placed 3rd in the x30 Junior class against 80 of the world’s best drivers. My original plan for the 2020-2021 season was to race karts in Europe but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, those plans were brought to a halt. At 16 years old, I am now looking to make the transition from karts to cars.
Karting teaches you the fundamental racecraft and car control skills that will stay with you for the rest of your racing career. Young drivers must first master these fundamental skills before making their leap to cars. However, moving from karts to cars involves reworking some skills and learning new ones.
My biggest learning curve in the transition from my own karts to cars was brake pedal modulation. The technique used in karts is vastly different from the technique used in cars. In cars, you use your whole leg rather than just your ankle and you have to modulate the brake lots more in the car going into a turn. I discovered I enjoy the different driving style you use in a car more than the driving-style used in a kart. In a car, you have to be smooth because there is more weight transfer, whereas you can really throw a kart around more with quick short inputs. A racecar is more comfortable to drive too, with the custom fitted seat molded exactly to your body and the car’s suspension to absorb bumps. The hard seat and no suspension in a kart really take a toll on your body.
Tracks in the F4 Championship are all built to FIA certification and are extremely fun to drive. Compared to karting, these tracks are obviously much bigger, which gives you the feeling that you are actually going relatively slowly. Tracks such as Barber Motorsports Park and Road Atlanta both have enormous elevation change, unlike anything you would ever experience in a kart. This elevation change plays a role in car setup and driving style and the track a lot more fun. Plus, it’s crucial that you get a good exit out of every single corner so you can either set up a pass or prevent being passed down a super long straightaway. This teaches drivers how much their mistakes can affect their performance and how important it is to get the most speed out of the car as possible.
Going from old tires to new tires is a crucial part in getting a fast lap time in both karts and cars. The same principles from karts carry into cars but you really feel the difference between an old set of tires compared to a new set in karts. The F4 car feels like it’s more planted to the track than a kart does simply because it is much heavier, has stickier and bigger tires, and has downforce.
Logistically, karting is easier. You can decide on a whim to go practicing or racing at your local kart track. For cars, it involves renting a track, gathering the team, packing everything up and in some cases, driving hours to go to the nearest track. This may be obvious, but cars are much more expensive to run and getting spare parts is much harder too.
My first race weekend in the F4 U.S. Championship at Road Atlanta in March was a great learning experience. I drove my first F4 laps in the wet – which I really enjoyed – and on dry track. I found some key differences: the car responds to driver inputs much better than a kart simply because there are more areas on the car that can be changed.
I mentioned earlier that you will carry the racecraft you learn from karting with you for the rest of your racing career. The racing in F4 is super close and the style of racing is similar to karting. The F4 cars have lots of draft like karts do and the way you try to out brake your competitors entering the corner is similar. The only major difference is that you have mirrors. You can use these at your leisure pretty much whenever you want to. There is no more having to turn your head.
A notable difference though, there can be no contact in open-wheel race cars, which leads to cleaner racing overall. Karts have bumpers on all four sides which means that there will always be some sort of contact and usually, nothing major happens to either driver. In cars, the consequences are much bigger, and if there is contact, it will usually be substantial enough to end your race or even your entire weekend. Even something as simple as going off track can cause damage. In a kart, if you get stuck in the grass, you can get out and move yourself back onto the track. Getting stuck in a gravel trap in a car will bring the session to a halt and the tow truck will have to come tow you out of the gravel.
Unless you’ve raced shifter karts, the standing starts in race cars are a whole new learning experience. While I haven’t had vast experience in cars, what experience I do have is in manual transmissions with a clutch. Being familiar and comfortable with clutch control really helped me get a grasp on standing starts rather quickly. I also credit my good reaction time when the lights go out to my years of anticipating the buzzer from the starting block as a competitive swimmer.
In my first race weekend, I proved I have the race craft on a new track in varying conditions. I was disappointed my second race was cut short due to contact from another racer after starting P10 and making it to P6 in two laps of racing. In the third race, I was really proud of my performance, moving up 11 places.
At the end of 2020, my racing future was uncertain. The opportunity to race the F4 U.S. Championship with Future Star Racing came together rather quickly. I am thankful to Mark and Alora McAlister for the opportunity. Overall, my experience has been a huge positive. I’ve learned so much along the way from my coach, Al Unser Jr., and my team. I cannot wait to get back in the car again for an all new challenge. Road America, here I come!