Home Featured 2013 Formula Renault 3.5 Series season review

2013 Formula Renault 3.5 Series season review

by Peter Allen
Formula Renault 3.5

Photos: Renault Sport/DPPI

The Formula Renault 3.5 Series reinforced its strengthened position as an important series at the top of the junior ladder in 2013. The depth of the field was probably not as strong as last year but, crucially, the title fight was again played out between some of the most exciting drivers around.

While the series has traditionally allowed Red Bull proteges to demonstrate their abilities, this year McLaren stars Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne upstaged Antonio Felix da Costa and the rest.

Kevin Magnussen1. Kevin Magnussen

Denmark, DAMS, age 21

274 points, 5 wins, 13 podiums, 8 pole positions, 3 fastest laps

Always highly rated but without the big championship title to back it up, Magnussen put that right this year with an outstanding campaign. He might have been pushed hardest by a rookie, but FR3.5 is a series that rewards talent over experience and he has that in spades.

Things didn’t go quite to plan last year with Carlin for various reasons but his DAMS switch resulted in him being on the pace every single weekend. Much of his season was built on that fine consistency, winning only two of the first 13 races but finishing off the podium just three times. He threw caution to the wind at the end of the year and proved he could dominate, winning all of the last four races but for a technical exclusion in Paul Ricard.

McLaren have been so impressed that they’ve promoted him straight into one of their race seats for 2014. Given the maturity, confidence, consistency and speed he’s shown in 2013, he ready for it. Season rating: 9/10

Stoffel Vandoorne2. Stoffel Vandoorne

Belgium, Fortec Motorsports, age 21

214 points, 4 wins, 10 podiums, 3 pole positions, 2 fastest laps

After the success of Robin Frijns with Fortec last year, his successor as Eurocup champion Vandoorne began his rookie season expected to do well. He lived up to those expectations immediately with a win on his debut at Monza.

His highs were higher than Frijns’, with a dominant double victory in Moscow a particular highlight. That put him back in the points lead after a slightly below-par run of form through Aragon, Monaco and into his home round at Spa – where he languished down in 13th on Saturday but brilliantly won on Sunday. A double retirement in Spielberg however put him on the back foot, and he resigned himself to defeat even before Magnussen’s late run of wins.

In terms of potential he lacks nothing to fellow McLaren junior Magnussen, but he’s not the finished article yet and would benefit from the planned season of GP2 he’ll do next year. On testing form there, he could buck the recent trend of experience winning out. Season rating: 9

Antonio Felix da Costa3. Antonio Felix da Costa

Portugal, Arden Caterham, age 22

172 points, 3 wins, 6 podiums, 1 pole position, 2 fastest laps

Although Felix da Costa began as the favourite off the back of his incredible late-2012 form, Magnussen and Vandoorne were always going to challenge him. He started well enough with a win in Monza but a tough weekend in Aragon left him playing catch up.

He couldn’t find the wins he needed to close the gap, though. Sometimes he blamed his machinery, but at other times he was refreshingly honest, admitting in Spa he should have beaten Magnussen. Red Bull kept faith despite a tough time in Austria, only to blow it with an unnecessary move on the opening lap at a damp Hungaroring. A return to the top step in race two reminded us what he’s capable of and made his future look more certain, but it wasn’t to be.

He’s good enough and ready for F1, there’s no doubt. But Red Bull aren’t sure he’s capable of any more than that, and perhaps rightly. His career had stalled before Red Bull picked him up and they’re keeping hold of him for now, so as he so gracefully admits, it’s not all bad. Season rating: 8

Will Stevens4. Will Stevens

United Kingdom, P1 by Strakka Racing, age 22

148 points, 5 podiums, 2 fastest laps

Stevens had been somewhat under the radar in his single-seater career to-date, but he significantly bolstered his reputation by finishing up as best of the rest behind the three main title contenders. Shaded at Carlin last year by Magnussen, he clicked with P1 in winter testing.

While he didn’t win a race, he was quite often the closest man to the McLaren pair. He charged from 11th to take second to a dominant Magnussen in Aragon, and passed the Dane to finish second to Vandoorne at Spa. More consistent points took him up to third in the points, only to drop to sixth with a bad Hungary weekend. He claimed fourth in the end though with a superb double podium in Barcelona, pushing the usually error-free Magnussen into a couple of mistakes in race one.

A mid-season recruit to Caterham’s roster of young talent, a move to their GP2 team is on the cards but he might choose to remain in FR3.5 and start adding to his tally of four race wins in cars so far. Season rating: 7

Nico Muller5. Nico Muller

Switzerland, International Draco Racing, age 22

143 points, 2 wins, 3 podiums, 1 pole position

Budget restrictions limited Muller to a second campaign with Draco rather than a move to one of the truly top teams, and his greatest successes would come when his driving could make the difference rather than the speed of his car.

In Monaco he dominated from pole position, thrusting himself firmly into the limelight on the morning of the Grand Prix while he put the F1-contracted drivers into the shade. Things would be quiet again until the Hungaroring where he won the wet first race by a massive 26 seconds. He lacked the consistency of Stevens though, claiming just one other podium finish.

Muller’s links with the Audi DTM team intensified when they asked him to test for the second time in August, but he’s also been testing GP2 with some seemingly strengthened sponsorship. He’s more than worthy of a chance in either series. Season rating: 7

Nigel Melker6. Nigel Melker

Netherlands, Tech 1 Racing, age 22

136 points, 4 podiums, 2 fastest laps

After a podium on a one-off appearance last year, Melker opted for a full-time switch into FR3.5 this year having struggled in GP2 with the dying Ocean team. He and Tech 1 struggled for qualifying pace early on but Melker managed three top six finishes from the first four races.

Once he began starting inside the top ten at Spa he started scoring podiums, with third place finishes in Belgium and Russia followed by a pair of second-places in Austria (seeing off Magnussen on both occasions). Another pair of top sixes in Hungary brought him up into joint third in the standings, but a couple of retirements saw him lose ground in the final two rounds.

He could be a title contender next year, particularly if he could find a more consistently fast package, but his known post-season activity has been limited to a DTM test with Mercedes, who backed him in F3 in 2011. Season rating: 7

Marco Sorensen7. Marco Sorensen

Denmark, Lotus, age 23

113 points, 2 wins, 3 podiums, 2 pole positions, 1 fastest lap

After an impressive but unlucky campaign in 2012, Sorensen came into 2013 as the chief outsider for the title behind the main three but it quickly became clear that he and the Lotus team did not have the expected pace.

After mustering just three points from the opening two weekends, he was able to drive around any car problems to take a fine second place in Monaco. At Spielberg he had no issues as he took a dominant double victory but although he was able to qualify inside the top five in each of the remaining three weekends, he lacked the race pace to ascend the podium again.

Lotus overlooked him for the young driver test but the Austrian performance may have helped secure an F1 run he had after Paul Ricard. His management at Gravity could start looking at career options outside of single-seaters but a third FR3.5 campaign could also be on the cards after testing for Tech 1. Season rating: 7

Arthur Pic8. Arthur Pic

France, AV Formula, age 22

74 points, 1 podium, 1 fastest lap

After a slightly surprising switch to new team AV Formula (motivated by the presence of his brother Charles’ old GP2 engineer Philippe Gautheron), Pic began his third campaign brightly as he raced superbly from lowly grid spots to claim a sixth and a fourth at Monza.

That was promising for a driver who qualified better than he raced in 2012, and when he started fifth at Aragon he was able to make a superb start and finish on the podium. He took a fourth at Spa but his season fizzled out after that. Sometimes he lacked pace but when he was in contention his hopes of a strong result were ruined by a strategy error (Spielberg), a racing incident (with Melker in Hungary) or a badly fitted wheel nut (Barcelona).

A move to GP2 is on the cards for 2014 having tested with ART and Arden, but in the meantime he could add a title to his resume in the MRF Challenge. Season rating: 6

Sergey Sirotkin9. Sergey Sirotkin

Russia, ISR, age 18

61 points, 2 podiums (16/17 races)

In the context of the high profile attempts by Sirotkin’s people to land a Sauber F1 seat, his season doesn’t look great. In the context of a series rookie, it’s not bad at all. Pre-season we said second-best rookie and a top ten spot would be a good campaign.

He began well, remarkably qualifying second, fourth, second and third for the first four races and finishing second in the wet at Aragon. A quiet run then preceded the Sauber announcement, before he raced to fourth in Austria and another podium (again in the wet) in Hungary. Sochi demo made Paul Ricard a write-off, but ran well in Barcelona until retiring with damage. While Sam Bird carried ISR through 2012, they couldn’t keep up with a driver eight years his junior at the helm and Sirotkin suffered as a result.

Expecting FR3.5 to be a one-year programme was always asking too much. He’s got the ability to be a leading contender next year and the resources to land a seat at one of the big teams, and has tested for Fortec. Season rating: 7

Andre Negrao10. Andre Negrao

Brazil, International Draco Racing, age 21

51 points, 1 podium, 1 pole position

Negrao enjoyed his most convincing campaign yet in 2013. Even though it was his third season in the series, he did well to be the only ‘number two’ driver to make it into the top ten of the final standings, particularly when Draco have far from the best package.

His season started quietly but began to come together with a pair of sixth places in Moscow. His best performances last year were in the wet and he adapted best to the atrocious conditions in Hungaroring qualifying to claim pole, but an error allowed team-mate Muller through to a dominant win and he retired on the penultimate lap. After a sixth in the dry on Sunday, he then finished third next time out at Paul Ricard after a fine start.

After arriving in FR3.5 with a serious lack of experience, Negrao is now showing good ability on occasion even if consistency is lacking. A GP2 move appears to be next, having tested with Racing Engineering, Carlin and Hilmer. Season rating: 6

William Buller11. William Buller

United Kingdom, Zeta Corse, age 21

46 points (10/17 races)

Buller continues to blow hot and cold in his career but his FR3.5 part-campaign is one for the positive pile. Promising in F3 with Carlin but largely quiet in GP3, a slightly surprising decision to stay in F3 with T-Sport didn’t work out and he failed to win the British title with Fortec.

Slightly later than might have been expected, he made the step up to FR3.5 with Zeta and looked handy from the off with the newly-revamped team, qualifying fourth for his debut at Moscow and finishing fifth. A sixth and a fifth followed in Spielberg, and he finished the year with two eighths in Paul Ricard and another fifth in Barcelona.

On that form he should be a leading contender in one of the top seats next year, and he’s tested with four different teams across the five days of post-season testing including DAMS and Arden Caterham. Season rating: 7

Mikhail Aleshin12. Mikhail Aleshin

Russia, Tech 1 Racing, age 26

33 points

After returning to the series last year to lead the now-defunct RFR project, new backers SMP saw the 2010 champion land Tech 1’s #1 seat. Unfortunately for him the team lacked qualifying pace early on, and while Melker managed to push on, Aleshin continued to struggle.

He only had five points to show for the opening eight races but then grabbed a fifth on home soil at the halfway mark of the campaign. He qualified third in the wet Hungaroring session behind the Draco pair and survived an opening lap hit from Felix da Costa to get another fifth, but a sixth at Paul Ricard was his only other points finish.

With progress not being made towards F1, it’s time for Aleshin to focus elsewhere next year. He’s been involved in SMP’s burgeoning sportscar project but has signed up for an IndyCar switch. You don’t beat Daniel Ricciardo to a title without some level of ability. Season rating: 5

Norman Nato13. Norman Nato

France, DAMS, age 21

33 points, 1 pole position

Nato’s season was a bit of an odd one for a rookie, starting promisingly but going backwards as the campaign went on. Given that DAMS had one of the fastest cars in the hands of Magnussen, that was disappointing from a career-long rival of Vandoorne.

He scored points in both Monza races, then a fifth in race one at Aragon which he followed with a pole position on Sunday. He threw away his chances of a win though when he went off at the first corner after a safety car start in the rain. His best result for the rest of the year was a ninth until he equalled his series best of fifth in the final race.

While it could have delivered so much more, it was still a decent season out of Formula Renault 2.0. There will be plenty of competition for his DAMS seat over the winter though. Season rating: 6

Carlos Huertas14. Carlos Huertas

Colombia, Carlin, age 22

30 points, 1 win, 1 fastest lap

Huertas was the benefactor when Nato went skating off out of the lead in that wet Aragon race, leading the rest of the distance and winning by 12 seconds despite an off, having started alongside the Frenchman on the front row of the grid.

He would however go on to score just five other points during the season – a tenth at Spa and an eighth a the Hungaroring. His qualifying results restricted his points-scoring potential, managing a best of ninth in the dry. In the final four races, the highest he started from was 23rd. It’s become clear that Carlin haven’t got to grips with the latest generation car though, and Huertas did look better with Fortec last year.

His only post-season action has been a single day with Carlin’s GP2 team, where he would be unlikely to set the world alight either. Season rating: 5

Oliver Webb15. Oliver Webb

United Kingdom, Fortec Motorsports, age 22

27 points

Webb was up against it on his return following a year away in Indy Lights, paired up with Vandoorne at Fortec. He made a promising start at Monza, but fourth in the season opener would be the highest point of his campaign.

It was maybe telling that his best turn of speed came at Moscow when he qualified fifth for both races while his team-mate dominated the weekend. After he managed a ninth and a seventh in the races that weekend, the run-in was tough with nothing better than a trio of tenth places.

It’s a shame that Webb’s single-seater career has stalled after such a promising campaign in British F3 in 2010 when he finished third behind Jean-Eric Vergne and James Calado. He’s also been driving GTs for Fortec this year, which might be a good option for his 2014 focus. Season rating: 5

Christopher Zanella16. Christopher Zanella

Switzerland, ISR, age 24

25 points, 1 podium

A relatively late arrival onto the FR3.5 grid during pre-season testing, Zanella burst out of the traps with a surprise podium in the opening race at Monza after starting third on the grid. In race two he went from 18th to eighth and qualified third again in Aragon, finishing seventh.

But if you’re looking for something to backup the claim that ISR losing their way was to blame for Sirotkin’s underwhelming progress, see Zanella’s season. After Aragon he failed to score points again all season, and only qualified in the top ten on two occasions. He did also seem to suffer more unreliability than most though, failing to finish on five occasions.

After that promising beginning it would be nice to see the ex-Formula Two racer come back with another team next season if he’s got the budget to make it happen. Season rating: 6

Jazeman Jaafar17. Jazeman Jaafar

Malaysia, Carlin, age 21

24 points, 1 podium (15/17 races)

Jaafar’s season was rather disappointing after a strong F3 campaign in 2012, but there was one result that suggested there was more to his year than met the eye. On his first appearance in Monaco, he topped his qualifying group and finished the race in third place.

Monaco junior series races traditionally allow drivers with cars that lack ultimate pace on regular circuits to prove themselves, just as Muller and Sorensen did that weekend. Like Huertas, Jaafar managed to bag a top result once any setup deficiency of the Carlin car was taken away. It’s fair to add that the drivers still have an influence on whether the team gets on top of its problems, though. Jaafar scored points in four other races, but missed the final round to an infection.

Once back to full fitness, the Petronas-backed driver did all three days of the GP2 test in Abu Dhabi with Carlin but it remains to be seen which series he will choose next year, having also tested FR3.5 with some alternative teams. Season rating: 6

Marlon Stockinger18. Marlon Stockinger

Philippines, Lotus, age 22

23 points, 1 fastest lap

There’s no denying that Stockinger only got his place on the Lotus F1 junior scheme thanks to commercial opportunities in the Philippines, after two relatively low-key years in GP3. But when the talented Sorensen brings no money for his place, it’s a fair compromise.

Stockinger didn’t perform badly in comparison to his team-mate, either. When the car struggled for pace, particularly through the opening rounds, he struggled too. But when the team was more competitive, Stockinger was often found in the lower reaches of the top ten. He qualified sixth and finished eighth in Moscow and scored two top eights in Austria when Sorensen dominated.

In the points more often than not from Moscow onwards, he just lacked a particularly standout result. Anything other than a return with the Charouz-run Lotus squad next year would be a surprise, and hopefully he can build on a solid rookie season. Season rating: 6

Carlos Sainz19. Carlos Sainz

Spain, Zeta Corse, age 19

22 points, 1 fastest lap (9/17 races)

With he and his father keen to sample more powerful machinery, his own personal sponsors happy to foot the bill and Red Bull giving it their approval, Sainz made his FR3.5 debut in Monaco with Zeta Corse and shone.

He qualified fifth and then ran fourth for much of the race, only slipping back to sixth – behind Magnussen and Felix da Costa, no less – after suffering from brake problems around the tight street circuit. Spa was more challenging, but Red Bull opted to bring him back into the car for the final three rounds during a break in his GP3 campaign. That period was affected by a number of issues and disappointments but he drove well for the most part.

He looks likely to come back for a full season next year – possibly in Magnussen’s DAMS car if testing meant anything – and it will be time to turn his superb natural talent into some proper results after failing to do so in F3 or GP3. Season rating: 7

Nikolay Martsenko20. Nikolay Martsenko

Russian, Pons Racing, age 20

20 points

Switching from the defunct BVM Target setup to recent backmarkers Pons for his sophomore campaign, Martsenko again seemed to do a decent job against the odds, scoring 20 points to his equally experienced team-mate’s eight.

He ran second in the first race of the season at Monza until contact from Stevens, but at Spa managed to net a sixth (after starting sixth) and a seventh (after starting 18th). More points came with another drive up the order from 17th to seventh at Paul Ricard. He would have done better though had he not got caught up in so many needless collisions, which played their part in him amounting a total of six retirements.

He has sampled GP2 post-season but it would be interesting to see what he would be capable of if he uses the money to get a more competitive FR3.5 package underneath him. Season rating: 5

The rest

British F3 graduate Pietro Fantin seemed to have some decent pace in the Caterham-backed car as team-mate to Felix da Costa, but qualified in the back few rows far too often to net a serious points haul. Still, fellow Brazilians Lucas Foresti and Yann Cunha managed none at all – Comtec’s Foresti failing for his second year to repeat anything like that form that took him to race wins British F3 while Cunha continued to usually be found on the back two rows of the grid and retired eight times in the second AV Formula car.

Foresti’s team-mate Daniil Move didn’t really fare much better in his seventh year in the category, only managing a best result of eighth after podiums in his past two campaigns. Matias Laine lost the momentum of his fifth in GP3 last year as he scored points on only three occasions with P1 by Strakka, while Pons’ Zoel Amberg only scored his first points since the 2012 opener in a race of attrition at the final round in Barcelona.

Mihai Marinescu was a double points scorer for Zeta at Monza and also did the Aragon, Spa and Moscow rounds with the team. 29-year-old Emmanuel Piget drove the other car at Monza, before being replaced by 16-year-old Matheo Tuscher for the F2 runner-up’s only drive of the year at Aragon. 2012 race winner Nick Yelloly joined Sainz in Monaco while Italian F3 champion Riccardo Agostini came in alongside Buller at Spielberg.