The “McLaren Driver Support Programme” started in 1998 and the Formula One team signed two young kart drivers, 12 year old Wesley Graves (who was dropped after one season) and a 13 year old whom you may have heard of, Lewis Hamilton. After having no one in the program since 2019, in 2021 they signed a 13 year old American Ugo Ugochukwu Orlandi. In 2022 he graduated to Formula 4, running a full season in the British championship with Carlin, as well as making late season appearances in the ADAC (German) and Italian championships with Prema Racing. It’s fair to say he acquitted himself nicely.
His full season in British F4 started with a podium finish (on his 15th birthday) and over the course of 30 races Ugochukwu scored 2 wins, 11 podiums, 2 pole positions and 8 fastest laps on his way to 290 points and a third place finish in the championship. He was beaten only by two drivers each with a full season of F4 racing already under their belt, Williams Racing Driver Academy’s Oliver Grey and eventual champion, Alex Dunne.
Meanwhile with Prema he scored 4 podium finishes in 6 races in the Italian F4 series, plus 2 more podiums in 6 ADAC F4 races. Quite the accomplishment in his first season of open wheel car racing.
Many think he could be the next F1 superstar, though he still has a long way to go to follow the incredible trajectory set by Lando Norris who took 4 seasons (and 3 championships) to go from karting to F1 and, of course, Lewis Hamilton (6 seasons and 3 championships).
Born in New York to Nigerian-born supermodel Oluchi Onweagba and her Italian fashion designer husband, Luca Orlandi, Ugochukwu began karting at age 6 and quickly stepped up to national competitions, winning the Micro Max class of the Florida Winter Tour in 2015 and the Junior ROK class of the Challenge of the Americas in 2018.
Then a huge change came when the young driver moved to Italy with Ugo taking his maiden European karting title in the X30 Mini Cup in 2017, before joining Ricky Flynn Motorsport for the 2019 season – the team that had run Lando Norris and Dan Ticktum in the past – managing eighth position in his first year of the FIA Karting European Junior Championship, including a podium at Le Mans..
For 2020 Ugo moved to the Sauber KR Team and claimed the OKJ European title. He remained with the team for 2021, but McLaren’s Zak Brown was already working on signing up the youngster and did so in March 2021.
Fast forward to 2023 and young Ugo is running a full program with the Italian Prema Racing team, beginning with finishing 3rd in the winter Formula UAE series with 5 wins, 8 podiums, 2 pole positions and 4 fastest laps. Then he returned to Europe where he currently leads the inaugural Euro 4 Championship after 6 of 9 races, and lies a close 3rd in the Italian F4 Championship with 3 races to go in the 22 race calendar.
Though his management may keep him in F4 for another full season, don’t be surprised to see him in a Formula 3 car in 2024 – most probably with Prema Racing – on at least a few occasions. We’re going to be hearing his name a lot more in years to come.