2023 has been a return to form for Frederik Vesti. Back in the red of PREMA Racing, the Dane has been rejuvenated and is putting together a Championship challenge, picking up from where he left off with the Italian outfit in Formula 3, back in 2020.
Six rounds into this season and Vesti has three victories and a further four top 5 finishes. It puts him on top of the Drivers’ Standings on 110 points as the only driver into triple digits ahead of Spielberg.
This isn’t a whole new Vesti though according to the man himself. Instead, it’s the return to form that he believes he has always been capable of. Now though, he’s in the ideal position to extract maximum performance and prove that he has what it takes to become Formula 2 Champion.
“I think it's an evolution of last year,” the PREMA driver explained. “I think it was pretty clear last year that my season started out very bad and then, with time, it just became better and better and around the summertime, I was one of the top scoring guys in the Championship. I was just so far back in the points that I could not do a good job in the Championship.
“This year, obviously we had a bad start in Bahrain with no points but then we have sort of been at the level we need to be and roughly where I want to be. Obviously, we still need to improve things but I don't think it's a different mindset, it's an evolution.
“I haven't been quite where I want to be in Qualifying. Taking pole positions and starting near the front helps in the Feature Race to score more points. I think that it’s been really good and just shows how strong we are in the races. We were definitely expecting to be at the top and that's why it's great to know that we're here even though we haven't had a clean season so far. So to be this well placed in the Championship already is a really good thing.”
While Oscar Piastri, Théo Pourchaire and Logan Sargeant fought over the 2020 F3 title, it was Vesti that had the most Feature Race wins that season, with three. Two subsequent seasons with ART Grand Prix across F3 and then F2 in 2022 didn’t bring the same results.
Vesti is quick to clarify that is not down to a lack of competitiveness at ART, but more so that at PREMA, he has the perfect environment in which to thrive and that suits what he needs as a driver.
Having worked with the team for plenty of time now, both know what is needed to get the most out of each other. Returning for 2023 has brought out the best in him and alongside teammate Oliver Bearman, driven PREMA back to the sharp end in Formula 2.
“It was a conscious move coming back to PREMA. There’s no doubt that my last season with them in F3 in 2020 was very strong, fighting for the Championship with Oscar and Logan and that was for sure very good. Then the change to ART, I think it taught me a lot and I've definitely become a better driver after working my way with the team, but then coming back to PREMA just feels like home. I still have my engineer from F3, Pedro (Matos), it just means that for example, when I struggle with things, he can quickly react and help me in the right direction. And that's the support I need to succeed in Formula 2.
“It helps because when you’re consistently struggling a little bit to make the top 10 or something like that, it's always in the back of your mind, you feel that pressure. So doing more consistently good results puts you in a better mood and just reminds you of the good things you have achieved in the past few weeks or months. So it definitely helps for the confidence and that carries over into the feeling you have in the car.”
The opening weekend of the season was a horror show for the entire team. Both Vesti and Bearman failed to score, and PREMA left Sakhir last in the Teams’ Standings, yet there wasn’t even a hint of panic from within the team.
As Vesti explains, the Bahrain Round was an outlier, and the team had the data to feel comfortable heading to Jeddah things would turn around immediately. That hypothesis was proved true as the Dane used his experience to seal his first win of the season, pressuring Victor Martins into a mistake and spin out of the lead.
Vesti describes the weekend as “crucial” noting that being able to jump right back up the standings and into contention was a key confidence boost.
“To be honest, Bahrain looked so much worse than it actually was. If you just focus on the points, neither of us scored and it looks terrible. But then we were P5 in Qualifying, we showed good pace on Friday, we just had a bit of a struggle on Saturday in the car, we went out of the points and then on Sunday, I had the crash and had to retire on Lap 1. It’s just something that can happen when you are racing closely. It will happen in racing, it happens all the time and will probably happen again in my career. So, looking at just at the points, it looks terrible, but actually the pace was roughly where it has been all year.
“It was crucial to then win in Jeddah. I think that really allowed me to come back into the Championship very quickly because with a bad first weekend, you can be slowed down a bit in the progress to be in the Championship fight. To bounce straight back and to the top, I think I was fourth in the Championship after Jeddah, so it was straightaway back in the top, and I’ve been doing good, consistent results since then too.”
The margins were fine in Baku, as a few hundred metres separated Vesti from what at the time would have been his second win of the season. Instead, teammate Bearman claimed the Spinrt Race spoils and there was no hiding the disappointment in parc ferme in the immediate aftermath, even if it was a 1-2 for the team.
To have missed out on that win and followed it up with P4 on Sunday was a missed opportunity says Vesti, who has raised his expectations along with his game in 2023.
“We scored 20 points, we were on the podium in Race one and P4 and Race two. It's difficult to think of it as one of the better weekends for me this year. It just didn't feel that way because I wanted to win that race on Saturday, and I expected I could do better on Sunday as well. Even on Friday, we were so close to getting that pole position, so it was a weekend that had so much potential but just wasn’t that amazing a weekend that I expected it to be. We still scored a very good number of points and moved closer to the Championship lead.”
Wins in Monaco and Barcelona have established Vesti as one of the chief contenders for the ’23 crown. He described Monte Carlo Feature Race victory as one of the best weekends of his career, as he held off closest rival Théo Pourchaire for the victory.
Perhaps most worryingly for rivals is Vesti says he is still yet to unlock his full potential this season. The steps he and PREMA have made together have already propelled him to the top of the standings, but there are weak points that are becoming lesser with each passing weekend. Qualifying on pole in Monaco off the back of Barcelona testing was evidence of that. Improving that one lap pace will continue to help him deliver Championship-winning results says Vesti.
“I'm just focusing on each session by itself and trying to maximise one session at a time, and hopefully that is going to give us a lot of points. But also, I want to be starting out further ahead, I need to push myself to do better in Qualifying, and I know where that pace is. We had a really good test in Barcelona, and I know exactly the steps I need to take. It's just up to me to take those steps and that will allow me to be very, very strong in the Championship because starting in the top three is so crucial in the Feature Races.
“I would say our goal remains the same which is to be consistently in the top five in Qualifying. On our worst weekend, we need to be P5 and our best weekend we need to be P1. I really understand what I need to do to make that happen and it's just about chipping away every weekend to keep moving in the direction that we currently are. I'm sure that we will continue to become better in Qualifying which will then allow me to really succeed in the races because our race pace is really strong.”
As the old adage goes, winning breeds confidence, and that is no different within the walls of PREMA. The 2023 campaign has been much stronger than last year and the mood in the Italian camp is at a high point.
That is having a direct impact on performance. With morale as high as it is currently, the team continues to build and build each race weekend on an already strong opening to the campaign. Momentum is on their side and Vesti says it has made a direct impact on the effectiveness of the whole team, at the factory, trackside and beyond.
“With PREMA, it’s really good. It's good people, like friends, we love to spend time all together, if it's in the factory, on the simulator, the restaurant, playing tennis, it's just easy to be around. It's people that you really want to be with, and I think it just helps as a whole – the team environment. Then when you're doing well like we have done in the last few race weekends, it makes it an even better environment to be in.”
Heading to Spielberg as the leader in the standings, it is the first time since 2019 that the Dane has led a Drivers’ Championship.
Vesti says that there is nowhere he’d rather be and is briming with a new self-assuredness that is beginning to define his title charge. With ART in 2022, the European leg of the season was where he began to turn around his fortunes in Formula 2. This year, it’ll be where he hopes to stamp his authority on what could be a title-winning campaign.
“This is my favourite part of the season. These are tracks I've driven for many years. I have a lot of confidence in the team and myself and I'm just focused on taking one small step at a time every single day. I think together, we have as a team gotten pointed into the direction we need to go and now it's just making sure we do those steps every single day.”