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The Story Behind Nikola Tsolov’s Rookie Struggles

Written by Sean McKean, Edited by Mara Simion

Bulgarian Nikola Tsolov entered the 2023 Formula 3 season as one of the most talked-about rookies. However, despite a record-breaking Spanish Formula 4 campaign in 2022, he has fallen way short of similar performances. But, the question is simple: why has this happened?


2022: Defying the Odds


Little did we know that in 2022, the Spanish F4 season was about to be like no other. Going into the season, everybody in the paddock had honed in on the Australian Hugh Barter to win the title following a spectacular second-placed overall finish in French F4 the year prior.


Though Barter dazzled with an early win in round one, single-seater debutant Nikola Tsolov began to steal the show. The 15-year-old clinched eight consecutive wins, earning his first single-seater title in his debut season.


After his commanding title victory, Tsolov got the attention of Alpine, who swiftly signed him to their junior programme. In addition, a promotion to Formula 3 was earned with ART Grand Prix, the team that won the drivers’ championship with Victor Martins the year prior. With driver coach Fernando Alonso expecting top-five performances throughout the season, the pressure was on the Bulgarian talent.


A Rocky Start?


Despite the hype surrounding him, Tsolov got off to a rough start. In the first five rounds of the season, he only managed a best finish of P11 at Monaco and Catalunya. With how much he won in 2022, it was a fair surprise to see him dwindling down towards the bottom of the order.


In Hungary, the 16-year-old’s season took a turn for the better after qualifying a season-high seventh. Although his weekend looked great, it all went down the drain in the races. In the sprint, what started as a poor getaway turned into him dropping like a rock down the order, culminating in a rather clumsy collision with Pepe Martí in turn 1.


The feature race wasn't much better, struggling with getting tyres up to temperature and finishing on P25. With the disappointment of Hungary fresh on his mind, Tsolov headed to Belgium with a point to prove. There, he qualified for another career-best fifth. Though many expected the same as in Hungary to happen in the Belgium sprint, he managed to hold his ground, scoring his first career Formula 3 points in seventh.


What Went Wrong?


Though Tsolov has hit the ground running recently, it all comes a bit too late, however, as the next round in Monza is the season finale. With him sitting P23 in the overall standings, it’s clear that the season did not go to plan.


The obvious explanation for these struggles could clearly be the transition from F4 to F3. Historically, this change hasn’t treated many too kindly. For instance, further down the standings in P26 is fellow rookie Oliver Gray. So far this season, he has not scored any points, experiencing similar issues to Tsolov.


More likely than not, Nikola Tsolov will race another season in the FIA Formula 3 in 2024. With his late-season surge, we may very well witness a championship run for the Bulgarian prodigy.


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