The 2020 SCCA Pro Racing Formula 4 United States Championship Powered by Honda season-opener didn’t go quite to plan, although the recovery was a sight to behold. Truly, the June 25-28, 2020, weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course – delayed by months due to the coronavirus pandemic – had all the makings for a stellar doubleheader. That weekend, 33 anxious, mostly young, mostly series-rookie drivers were itching to hit the track to launch their pro careers. There was, however, Mother Nature to contend with.
Saturday’s scheduled Race 1 ultimately would be waved off due to a deluge; then Sunday’s first race of the season didn’t “start,” per say, as much as it exploded into action. The result was a few on-track incidents, yellow flags, disqualifications, and protests leading to final results being delayed for days. The initial mayhem undoubtedly rattled drivers, but one 15-year-old saw opportunity.
Keeping his head when it counted most was Hunter Yeany, who raised eyebrows with his pace and maturity in the hectic opening rounds, and he would go on to become the youngest F4 champion ever in the global FIA single-seater series.
When the protest dust settled, series returner Dylan Tavella was credited with the solitary Mid-Ohio race. But also rising above the general level of Mid-Ohio mayhem was Yeany, who officially split Crosslink Racing/Kiwi Motorsport teammates Tavella and Jose Blanco, earning second-place honors.
More impressively, Yeany won two of the three races on his home track, VIR, in July to take a commanding early season points lead.
So, who is this clearly talented teenager, just turned 15 (the minimum age to compete in F4), mixing it up with the experienced Crosslink/Kiwi crew of Tavella, Blanco, and well-traveled F4 series rookie Spike Kohlbecker?
Though relatively unknown in SCCA circles, Yeany was already well-regarded by his Velocity Racing Developments team and team manager Dan Mitchell, who’d spotted him in kart racing, drafted him into the British/American VRD Academy in 2018, and prepared him thoroughly for his American F4 debut.
“I met my coach [and] engineer Dan Mitchell at the karting SuperNationals in 2017 or 2018,” Yeany remembered. “He had his two F4 cars out front and he introduced himself and said, ‘You want to sit in it?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, sure!’ Then he started it up. He was like, ‘You ready to drive one of these?’ And I was like, ‘I’m not so sure.’
“But then I drove it for the first time at Roebling Road and I spun out my first lap in the chicane, the first corner. Got my fear over with pretty quick, actually.”
Yeany’s first impressions of the 160hp Honda-power Ligier JS F4 single-seater mirror those of most experienced karters making the same transition: “The first thing I noticed when I got in the F4 is that you have that full rear end behind you – a lot more car behind you than what you actually think there is.
“The second thing is it feels a lot slower than a go-kart just because, in a go-kart, you’re always doing something; you’re always throwing it around. But in an F4 you want to be as smooth as possible.”
With direction from Mitchell and staff, as well as full family support, Yeany embarked on a testing program many young drivers, anxious to ‘get started’ don’t think about, the equivalent of a gap-year between high school and college for one intent on a pro racing career.
“I tested a lot, mostly at [VRD’s home base] Atlanta Motorsports Park,” Yeany explained. “Testing through the 2019 season was actually pretty good to me. I thought it was pretty good, a real learning experience because I could learn from all the other drivers making mistakes – watching their videos, because I wasn’t allowed to race then. Watching them, I was, ‘Okay, so don’t do this,’ taking notes in my head.”
Yeany, a freshman in high school, planned for an F4 U.S. debut in 2020, but, given the schedule’s original iteration, might have had to join the series already in progress. “Yeah, my [15th] birthday was on May 11 and they said [before COVID] they weren’t sure if I was going to be able to make the first race [which] was in April and I was still 14.”
Ultimately, he received a waiver, but it became irrelevant when COVID hit and the season launch was delayed until June.
“When I first got [to Mid-Ohio] I kind of knew what to expect, but I didn’t know where I would pan out against some other people, because I’d only raced some teams a little bit at a time,” Yeany recalled. “Like at the Yacademy Winter Series, I raced against Primus and I won all three of those races; then I raced against the Kiwis and Jay Howard guys [in the Formula Pro USA West Coast Championship Winter Series].
“I never really knew how I’d do against all of them at their best [and] I’d never driven Mid-Ohio, though I did drive it on the simulator a lot,” he continued. “It ended up being a very good learning weekend. And VIR (three weeks later) was great. VIR is one of my favorite tracks. [It’s] a really nice place and I really love it there. It’s also my home track, and some people came to watch me, from my family, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. So, I tried to do as good a job as possible.”
Wheeling his No. 11 VRD Ligier-Honda, Yeany won both the first and third VIR races. In between the two wins was a third-place finish.
On to Alabama at the beginning of August. “Barber’s a pretty cool racetrack,” Yeany says. “The thing that’s kind of hard about it is that there is really no place to pass.
“Race 4 at Barber [technically the make-up race for the cancelled Mid-Ohio Race 1] was actually our first race with no yellows,” said Yeany, who led all 21 laps. “That was really great. I really liked that, and I won by quite a bit. That was a pretty good weekend.”
From there, the series headed to two weekends in Florida, at Sebring International Raceway, and Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“[Sebring] was a pretty fun weekend – but kind of like Mid-Ohio for me, to be honest,” Yeany admits. “I really wondered how I would do against Jose Blanco because he has won there and everybody told me he’s really good there.”
In the first race, Blanco’s teammate Kohlbecker, winner of the third race at Barber and on a midseason roll, led the first eight laps before being caught out on a restart, Yeany and Blanco scooted past with Yeany clinching to the win.
In the second race, Blanco led for the first 11 laps as a ninth-starting Yeany methodically chased him down. “I had to run him down from like, I don’t know, maybe five seconds back,” Yeany said. “That was hard, and it ended up coming down to the next-to-last lap. I [got ahead but] had a big snap in Turn 1, and he also had a big snap there trying to go around the outside as well. It was really good racing from both of us I believe, but he ended up hitting the wall and I came out with the win.
“Jose [Blanco] and Dylan [Tavella] were probably the most tough competitors,” admitted Yeany. “Jose didn’t really seem to have very good luck in the beginning of the season; he got taken out a couple times I saw. But once he was actually up there [in points], he got really, really good – really tough competition because he has so much experience. He’s been in it for about three years. I learned from him as well, some of his moves, and I used them back towards him.”
With drafting so important in F4, it appeared the four-car Crosslink/Kiwi Motorsports team, boasting three drivers in the points top four had an important advantage. Indeed, the Dallas, Texas-based team would win the Team’s Championship for the third consecutive year by a significant margin courtesy Blanco, Kohlbecker, and Tavella, who finished second, third, and fourth in the Driver’s Championship.
But Yeany says teammates did play an important role in his success, notably fellow F4 rookie Erik Evans who wound up sixth in the championship.
“Erik, in the first part of the season was kind of going through the same thing I was going through,” Yeany remembered. “Once he got it down after his problems in Virginia, he came back really strong and gave us a lot. I mean, I’ve got to say, he was a really great teammate.”
Evans scored his first podium finish in the first race at Sebring, then notched his first win in Race 3 at Homestead when on-track winner Yeany received a five-second time penalty during the race.
Having all but mathematically clinched the Drivers’ Championship – and a scholarship valued at $230,000 into the SCCA Pro Racing Formula Regional Americas Championship for 2021 – Yeany was content to finish second behind Blanco in the first two races at Homestead, and given it meant an Evans victory, was happy with his third-place finish in Race 3 that weekend.
As it turned out, that would be Yeany’s last race in F4 as, with the title locked up, he could turn his attention to FR Americas during the Circuit of The Americas finale for both the F4 U.S. and FR Americas series, stepping into VRD’s Ligier raced by Mathias Soler Obel and Matt Round-Garrido earlier in the season.
“Stepping up to the F3 car [at COTA] was definitely a big learning experience because I really did want to get into that FR Americas car before the end of the year,” Yeany says. “Thank you to all at the SCCA and FIA for helping me to get into the last race of the year.” (Yeany was given an age waiver to compete but would receive no official finish, points, or prize money.)
“I really had to learn a lot about aero,” he admitted. “I did some sim training with that with Dakota Dickerson – he’s a former F3 champion who helped me out a lot, all the way from the simulator to the driving side of things. He was a big help. He was teammates with some of the kids as well; he knows how all of them race, so I knew what to expect before I went into the races. on the sim 24/7 before each race, just trying to find out every little thing to make me go faster and working out really hard in the gym – anything that makes me better.”
If there’s one thing Yeany knows, it’s how to find speed. In the end, Yeany, the youngest F4 champion in the world, claimed his F4 title by leading 79 laps in 15 rounds, finishing the season with eight wins and six additional podiums. He also notched five pole-position starts and captured the overall fastest times at three of the five circuits during the season.
“It was a great season in F4, but this is just the starting point of my racing career,” Yeany concluded. “I still have a long way to go before I reach my final goal of F1. I’d really like to just go over there and show everybody what Americans can do and that we can race like the Europeans. That’s what I’m looking forward to right now – the chance to go over there and race against all those kids.”
“I’m really looking forward to [the 2021 race season] because now I know a little bit about [FR Americas], how everybody races in the series, and I know some of the tracks,” Yeany adds. “I’ll probably be practicing on the sim 24/7 before each race, just trying to find out every little thing to make me go faster, and working out really hard in the gym, all sorts of stuff – anything that makes me better.”
This feature originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of SportsCar magazine, the official publication of the Sports Car Club of America. A print and digital subscription is just one of the many benefits of SCCA membership.