Sabbatical. According to its dictionary definition the word means ‘a period of leave granted to a university teacher or other worker for study or travel, traditionally one year for every seven years worked’. But in the world of motorsport it sometimes carries a very different meaning.
Who can forget Mika Hakkinen’s ‘sabbatical’ from racing for McLaren in Formula 1 at the end of 2001? That ended up being much more than just a sabbatical with the Finn never racing in F1 again.
So the confirmation that Carlin will be taking a sabbatical from British F4 this year raises a number of questions.
Before there’s any consideration of what this means for the future of the series it’s important to look at whether this really will be a sabbatical.
Well, it appears to match the traditional definition as it has been caused by Carlin’s ‘travel’ to America for an expansion into IndyCar, along with a return to F2. And the early indications are this isn’t going to be a Hakkinen-style never-ending sabbatical but one that really is just for a year.
The first important point here is Carlin has not sold any of its cars. That is hugely significant – especially considering those cars are heading towards the end of their lifetime.
F4 championship promoter Sam Roach has said that the series would like to introduce the halo cockpit protection device “sooner rather than later” and when that happens all of the existing Mygale chassis will be redundant.
Carlin won’t just be keeping the cars, the team is also set to embark on a full testing programme with them this year. And those are not the actions of a team that is about to turn its back on a series for good.
So, if Carlin does indeed return for 2019 then the news the team is out for this year is not as significant as it first appears.
But where does it leave British F4 for 2018?
Actually, the answer seems to be in pretty good shape. Teams are reporting more interest than there was last year so, although there is only a tiny number of drivers currently confirmed, there will be many more announced imminently.
The second point is that although Carlin was comfortably the most successful team in British F4 since it became an FIA F4 series in 2015, it is not the only single-seater giant competing. With Arden, Fortec and Double R all present – and supposedly fully-booked for 2018 – there is no shortage of contenders ready to step into Carlin’s position as the team to beat.
And Carlin’s absence should also boost the smaller teams as there are fewer seats with the top outfits so more chance for the other squads to bag extra drivers.
The expectation is that there will be around 18 to 20 cars on the grid this year, even without Carlin. If that is achieved (and based on the number of announcements expected in the next few days and weeks, it should be) then it’s more than the series managed in 2017.
As JHR Developments boss Steve Hunter says: “Teams move from one championship to another all the time.”
Carlin will certainly be missed from the F4 paddock but its departure does not spell the end of the series. And if it really is a sabbatical then the 38th F4 win for the boys in blue won’t be too far away.