When you look through the names that have come through Formula 4 championships in the past, you come across quite a few familiar faces. Lance Stroll and Lando Norris have both stood on Formula 1 podiums, while Jean-Éric Vergne is a two time Formula E World Champion.
There may well be an Irish name to add to that list in years to come. 15-year-old Alex Dunne from Offaly makes his debut in the Spanish Formula 4 Championship this year and - whisper it quietly - he's showing some very good pace.
Dunne hails from Clonbullogue in County Offaly, and his dad is former Irish Champion Car driver Noel Dunne. Alex says he was always a racing fan, and that his love for the sport came from being around tracks with his dad as a kid.
I’ve been a racing fan my whole life. Ever since a really young age I was always around my dad racing, helping him with the cars. I’d always – I’d even fall asleep when I was little to the sound of the engines! So, I’ve always loved racing since a very young age. He introduced me to karting when I was 9 and we went to our local kart track, Athboy in Meath, and ever since then I’ve loved it.
Michael Schumacher until his accident was probably one of my favourite drivers and then for the next few years my favourite was probably Sebastian Vettel.
The grá for racing was too much to resist, and soon Alex was travelling around Ireland with his dad, competing in karting championships across the country. He says that Watergrasshill in Cork has his favourite karting circuit in Ireland.
If motor racing was to be a serious proposition, though, Dunne needed to get out of Ireland and start competing in Europe - he says himself that, by the time he made the move to the British karting championship in 2017, he had "won everything" in Ireland. Since then he has seen impressive success in national and international championships.
This year sees Alex make the move up from karts to cars, and he made his debut in the Spanish Formula 4 championship last weekend. Formula 4 is the third tier on the ladder up to F1 and, unlike Formulas 2 and 3, it is run on a regional basis. It's the natural step up from karts, and the natural stepping stone towards the bigger leagues of Formula 3, 2, and ultimately F1. The Spanish F4 championship takes in 7 tracks - 5 in Spain, 1 in Portugal and 1 in Belgium.
The Belgian round was the season opener last weekend, and Alex saw some incredible success on his very first race in cars. It's hard enough to fathom making the move from karts to cars, but Dunne grabbed pole position in his first qualifying session, before taking P3 in the first of three races over the weekend.
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Making his debut at a track as iconic as Spa-Francorchamps - the track where Eddie Jordan and his team won their first F1 Grand Prix in 1998 - didn't daunt the youngster, who says it was an incredible experience.
I think having my first race at Spa was definitely very cool, but also very nervous. I was extremely happy for it to be my first race at Spa, and to get my first pole position in my first qualifying.
Dunne is not there to make up the numbers, though. The Offaly native believes that the car is there to regularly challenge for wins and podiums throughout the season.
I definitely think – even though it’s my first season in F4 - I definitely think I’m one of the contenders. I believe that with a bit more experience, it’ll definitely start to come to me a bit more.
COVID, lockdowns, and all those buzzwords we have heard over the past few years, actually afforded Alex an opportunity to get acquainted with the handling of his car before the championship got underway. He bought himself a simulator at the start of the latest lockdown, and has been hard at work getting to know the F4 car.
He has also taken part in several "E-races" and virtual events, and was recently signed up to the eSports division of Williams F1 team.
At the start of lockdown I actually bought a simulator. So it’s been very beneficial to do a lot of practice in a sim which…kind of, going into cars, I already had an insight of what things were going to be like, and I also had some help from my dad because he has a lot of experience in cars. So, from that aspect, it wasn’t too bad to jump from karts to cars.
With the sim on iRacing, there’s actually a lot of things that you can relate to life. It’s actually all very realistic and feels very similar to the real car, so I kind of already had an insight into what it was gonna feel like when I jumped in. It feels nice to drive.
I’ve actually done a lot of virtual racing on iRacing – I actually got signed to Williams eSports recently for iRacing, so I do quite a lot of sim racing on my free time.
It's quite the step up from karts to cars, and Alex is hard at work getting to know the intricacies of his car. He drives for Pinnacle Motorsport - an Irish team, based at the Sepang Circuit in Malaysia. He says that he's had a blast driving the car so far, but that it hasn't been without its challenges.
The main thing was…you know there’s a lot more things you have to look at, with temperatures and you have to make sure all your upshifts and downshifts are all perfect. There’s a lot more things to worry about.
You have to make sure you’re very physically fit with all of the G Forces going through the corners.
Into the last chicane at Spa, we were pulling 250 kilometres an hour. It’s crazy.
Moving from driving karts in Cork to driving over 250 kilometres on one of the most iconic racing tracks in the world has been quite the journey and, at 15 years old, there's still a long way to go on the journey for Alex Dunne.
Looking to the immediate future, he has six more rounds of the Spanish F4 championship to contend with, with a trip to Navarra in Spain next up at the end of May. The championship will take in the Portuguese and Spanish Formula 1 circuits, and Alex says he's most looking forward to the trip to Portugal.
I think I’m most looking forward to Portimao, I’ve watched a lot of Formula 1 races there and it looks like a nice fast, flowing track and there’s a lot of elevation changes, so that looks like it’ll be quite fun.
So, what's the end goal for Alex Dunne? Where does he go after his time in the Spanish F4 championship concludes?
He has his sights set on Formula 1 and, even though he says that he'd be content with a career in motorsport if the F1 dream doesn't work out, you get a great sense talking to him that he already has his path to the top set out.
Probably at least try and win the [Spanish F4] championship this year. The best way to get to Formula 1 is I need to win this year, then go to Formula 3 next year hopefully, win Formula 3, go to Formula 2 and then win Formula 2.
Simple as. Several Irish faces have popped up in the lower Formulae over the last few years, but none have made quite the immediate impact that Dunne made last week in Spa.
15-year-old Alex Dunne from Offaly is a talent to keep an eye on and, with his immense pace so early in his car racing career, and his down-to-earth, driven nature, you wouldn't be at all surprised if he followed the Formula 4 alumni of the past right to the top.