Formula Renault 3.5 has enjoyed a brilliant level of grid quality for many years now, but it’s 2013 that really established the series as, quite possibly, Formula One’s best and closest feeder series. With a reputation of favouring pure talent in favour of experience and some star-studded graduates, the category is currently in its prime.
And, yet, things look to be even better in 2014 – as the series has managed to assemble a grid that could very well be unrivalled by any other championship in 2014. The top seats are filled by the best in business – rookies and proven series contenders alike – and there are some good additions down the grid.
At the same time, there’s some cause for concern, as the season opener at Monza will only see 21 cars take to the tack. Established squads like Tech 1 and ISR have not managed to get together a full lineup while some other teams could only go for a last-minute one-off deal.
Still, that isn’t enough to overshadow the sheer quality of the drivers who are set to battle it out for the championship this year. Below, we go over the 21 competitors who have signed up for Monza, their hopes, chances and pre-season pace.
2013 was by far the best year DAMS has had in Formula Renault 3.5, as the team collected both the drivers’ championship and the teams’ title by a landslide. Now recognized as one of the championship’s go-to leading squads, the French team will need to build on last year’s success and appears to have both the drivers and the car to do so.
2013: 10th in GP3
One of the mainstay names in the Red Bull Junior Team, Sainz Jr. has been touted as the next biggest thing in junior single-seaters ever since the a prodigous first two years in cars in Formula BMW and FR2.0.
However, the more recent years have not been so kind. He endured a tough double campaign in F3 in 2012, with his blinding sheer pace overshadowed by crashes and inconsistency. In 2013, he was one of GP3’s quickest drivers but couldn’t convert pace into points and would only settle for tenth while stablemate Kvyat took the title and got an F1 promotion. He was reasonably quick in his nine-race part-time campaign in FR3.5 last year, but expectations will be far greater this time.
Stepping into the very DAMS team that allowed Kevin Magnussen to dominate the championship in 2013, Sainz has a crucial year ahead of him – especially given the presence of mighty quick fellow Red Bull junior Gasly in the series. The Spaniard has shown his immense raw pace in pre-season testing, demolishing the lap record at Motorland Aragon. If he has managed to work on his consistency and wheel-to-wheel confidence, he will be a massive threat.
2013: 13th in FR3.5
Something of a dark horse on his way up the single-seater ladder, Nato has enjoyed a fine career in open-wheelers so far, but often found himself overshadowed by competitors of similar experience on pretty much every level he competed at.
He finished runner-up to the highly-rated Stoffel Vandoorne in the 2010 F4 Eurocup 1.6 and narrowly missed out on the prestigious Formula Renault 2.0 Alps title in a last-race collision with champion Daniil Kvyat. He had a solid if largely inconsistent debut year in FR3.5 in 2013, which included an impressive maiden pole on his way to 13th in the standings. He looked promising early on, but seemed to slip into the background as teammate Magnussen really began hitting his stride.
With DAMS, he has team continuity and a really strong car. He’s shown in pre-season that he could make the most of that this time around, comparing well to Sainz at Jerez in particular. This could be the year he comes out from the shadows and really makes a name for himself.
Reliable frontrunners in the Formula Renault 3.5 category since 2010, Fortec are still eyeing their first teams’ championships. In 2014, they’ll have their strongest lineup in years – perhaps the best on the grid – and will certainly remain a force to be reckoned with.
2013: 9th in FR3.5
Russian youngster Sirotkin didn’t have the best introduction to the F1 public at large last year, when the very distinct possibility of him getting a Formula One seat in 2014 drew heavy criticism. While he hasn’t yet had a proper shot at one of the major junior single-seater titles, most of the critique was wide off the mark, as he has spent most of his car racing career proving his immense talent.
The Russian starred in his first full-time season in single-seaters in Formula Abarth in 2011, made light work of a switch to much more powerful machinery in Auto GP in 2012 and had a very strong rookie season in Formula Renault 3.5 last year, at times showing immense pace that allowed him to take two podiums in an ultra-competitive field.
His rumoured 2014 F1 switch didn’t pan out and, perhaps, that’s for the best. Having signed with Fortec, the young Russian now has the opportunity to silence his critics. His pre-season testing pace was second to none and he will go into the campaign as a title favourite.
Nation: Great Britain
2013: 2nd in Eurocup FR2.0
Rowland started 2013 amid rumours that he might be let go by the Racing Steps Foundation due to performance and fitness issues, in spite of taking a respectable third in the 2012 Eurocup. He needed a strong campaign last year to retain his support from the RSF and delivered on that.
Despite narrowly missing out on the crown to Pierre Gasly, Rowland made a solid impression and earned a well-deserved step up to Fomula Renault 3.5. He was phenomenal in post-season testing in both FR3.5 and, even more so, in GP3. His pre-season testing in FR3.5 was a little more low-key, but, amidst apparent car troubles, he shone through to run at the front of many sessions.
Robin Frijns and Stoffel Vandoorne have set the bar very high for rookies at Fortec, and Rowland may not quite be able to live up to that, but he’s certainly capable of winning races and being solidly among the top five. He’s a brilliantly quick driver, but doesn’t seem to have a particular abundance of confidence – if he’s managed to work on that ahead of his season, he will be consistent threat.
International Draco Racing
Having managed to retain their 2012 lineup for 2013, Draco seemed to really benefit from driver continuity and produced one of their best seasons in recent memory. Both Andre Negrao and Nico Muller have now moved on, but, going by the pre-season, their new crop seem to be eager to maintain Draco’s newly-acquired frontrunner status.
2013: 21st in FR3.5
Fantin’s graduation from F3 to FR3.5 did not go as smoothly as he would have hoped – his debut season with Arden Caterham saw him completely overshadowed by Antonio Felix da Costa as the Brazilian generally lacked pace and had too many various incidents and issues to reliably make the points.
However, having signed with Draco rather early in the off-season, Fantin seemed completely rejuvenated and would go on to prove it in the pre-season testing. He exceeded all expectations both at Aragon and Jerez, remaining comfortably at the front by the end of most days of running.
It is unclear whether he can convert sublime testing form into race pace but, if he does, he might very well be a reliable podium contender, returning to the kind of form he managed during his two seasons in British F3.
2013: 2nd in Formula Renault 2.0 Alps
Ghiotto’s move to Formula Renault 3.5 comes much earlier that most onlookers would’ve expected, but that doesn’t mean it’s an undeserved one.
After finishing runner-up in Formula Abarth in 2012, he had a superb rookie year in Formula Renault 2.0 – winning the 2.0 Pau Trophy, taking a maiden race victory in the Eurocup and finishing second in the Alps series. Although FR3.5 is a big step for him, Draco can provide him with a good car and he may continue to spring the odd surprise or too.
He’s often placed in the top ten in the pre-season and will hope to be a regular contender for points in what will surely be a learning year. Ghiotto’s proven himself to be a very promising racer, if a bit ragged, but this might just be the biggest challenge he’s faced throughout his career thus far.
2013 wasn’t a perfect season for Arden, then-affiliated with F1 squad Caterham, with the British team failing to be in contention for either the drivers’ or the teams’ title despite a solid lineup. Now, having split with Caterham, but keeping the Red Bull connection going, Arden looks to be coming back in a big way, with some very promising pre-season performances paving way for a big season.
2013: Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 champion
It’s not a statement one can make lightly, but I’ll make it anyway – in this author’s eyes, newly-appointed Red Bull protege Pierre Gasly is the most promising driver in junior single-seaters at this very moment.
The 18-year-old, whose first two years in single-seaters in 2011 and 2012 were solid but hardly career-defining, introduced himself to the mainstream racing community in 2013 with a powerhouse campaign to the title in the mega-competitive Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 series. Perhaps, he wasn’t the championship’s quickest man – those honours could go to Rowland or, in the latter stages, Nyck de Vries – but he was certainly the most complete driver of the field.
He wasn’t particularly noticeable in the post-season testing, but fears of a tough rookie campaign in FR3.5 were silenced by his pre-season form, which was pretty much on-par with testing leader Sirotkin. Gasly’s young, he’s quick and he has the ability to put in a superfast lap just at the right time – reminiscent of a certain other Red Bull driver. He’s sure to make some headlines this year and could very well challenge for the title if the cards fall right.
Nation: Great Britain
2013: 3rd in British F3
Will Buller’s tenure in junior single-seaters seemed to stalling midway through 2013, when he struggled for results in his fourth year in F3, failing to make the podium in four races with T-Sport.
However, his career was revitalised when he managed several very impressive guest outings in Formula Renault 3.5 with Zeta Corse, making it to 11th overall despite having missed the first seven races of the season.
A string of points finishes put him the window for a top drive for 2014 and he duly landed one with Arden, but, while he has looked on the pace in FR3.5, he appears set to play second fiddle to his highly-rated teammate. At the same time, he’s pulled out shock results before and there’s no better time that now to produce a couple of eye-catching performances, even if his pre-season has been fairly low-key.
Tech 1 Racing
Since locking out the teams’ and the drivers’ titles in 2007, Tech 1 have taken the constructor’s crown on three further occasions – but none of their drivers would become champion. 2014 will not be getting off to an ideal start for the French squad – with lacklustre testing pace and the inability to fill one of the seats for the opener despite the team’s best efforts – but the man they have in their sole car might represent their best chance in the drivers’ standings in a while.
2013: 7th in FR3.5
He wasn’t anywhere near the front of FR3.5 pre-season testing this year, but no discussion of the title contenders in the series is complete without mentioning Lotus junior Marco Sorensen.
The Dane had a brilliant, if somewhat overlooked, rookie campaign in the series in 2012, as he finished sixth in the standings and claimed a maiden win at Spa. 2013, on the other hand, was what they call a “character building” year, as the Charouz-run Lotus team struggled with the car early on, ruling their team leader out of contention. He picked up most of his points at Spielberg with a sublime double win, but only wound up seventh overall.
Promoted to a reserve role in the F1 team and benefiting from their new deal with Saxo Bank, Sorensen is moved across to Tech 1 for a third season. With the French outfit he has a championship-winning team and, despite their lack of wins in 2013 and quiet testing form, it’s very unlikely that Sorensen will sit this title battle out.
Sportscar team Strakka purchased FR3.5 mainstay P1 Motorsport midway through last season and had little reason to regret said purchase, as the British squad took a respectable sixth in the teams’ standings. They’ve retained both their drivers for the 2014 season and will be aiming for much more, with pre-season testing form giving cause for optimism.
Nation: Great Britain
2013: 4th in FR3.5
He was a race winner in British FR2.0 and the Eurocup and took a maiden podium in his rookie year in Formula Renault 3.5 in 2012, but it was 2013 that truly turned Stevens into one of the big names in junior single-seaters.
The young Brit enjoyed a stellar sophomore year in the category, consistently delivering points for the P1 team and seemingly getting quicker with every round, which culminated in a career-best performance at the Barcelona finale, where he picked up two well-deserved podiums.
Having been picked up by Caterham midway through the season, he was tipped for a move to the F1 team’s GP2 squad, but instead opted to stay with Strakka for a third year. He was reliably among the frontrunners in pre-season testing and will certainly be a factor in this year’s title fight. The big question is whether he can now make the step up to start winning races on a regular basis against some very promising competition.
2013: 23rd in FR3.5
Finnish racer Laine scored points on three occasions in his rookie season in Formula Renault 3.5 last year, but it was a trying year in the context of a great sophomore campaign in GP3 the year before, when impressive consistency allowed him to finish fifth.
That in turn had followed a difficult couple of years in F3 and GP3, when he seemed to struggle to keep up with his own large steps up the single-seater ladder. A former karting rival of compatriot Valtteri Bottas, there was no surprise in seeing him retained by Strakka for a second season and the continuity should hopefully pay dividends for Laine.
He’s looked solid in pre-season testing, generally placing close to the top ten. He’ll be hoping to take a big step forward and consistently challenge for points, and he should be a good asset for Strakka’s teams’ standings challenge.
After a promising 2012 season, 2013 wasn’t really that great for Lotus as the team allegedly struggled with mechanical issues and couldn’t challenge in either the drivers’ or the team’s standings. Things seem to be looking up for this year, with pre-season pace placing them higher that most would expect, but it’s far from a certainty that they’ll manage to convert that promise into results.
2013: 18th in FR3.5
Another driver to go from GP3 to FR3.5 last year, Stockinger – a fully-fledged Lotus F1 junior – was largely anonymous for the first half of the season as the team struggled, but he managed to put in some impressive performances later on and performed respectably alongside his team-mate Sorensen.
He’s done well in both post- and pre-season testing over the winter, notably placing in the top ten in all the sessions at the recent Jerez test.
With Sorensen moving to Tech 1, Stockinger’s definitely the man who will be expected to lead the Lotus-Charouz team’s charge in 2013 and, while challenging for the title or victories doesn’t seem likely, expect him to pick up a couple of podiums.
2013: 10th in Eurocup FR2.0
Up to this point, Vaxiviere’s career in single-seaters has been all about unfulfilled potential. He’s taken the title in the very competitive French F4 field in 2011, but struggled in the Eurocup in 2012. He began his second year in FR2.0 with a double win at Aragon, but then only scored seven points throughout the remainder of the season.
Vaxiviere was pegged for a move to Porsche Carrera Cup this year, but instead managed to get the budget together for a Lotus WSR seat. Alongside that, he’ll be racing in a GT Porsche in the World Endurance Championship as co-driver to his main financial backer.
For an FR3.5 rookie, he’s looked very much on the pace in pre-season testing. He’s clearly a very talented driver, but he’ll need to work on consistency to make a good impression in his new category.
Last season was a very interesting one for ISR as the Czech team hired two rookies for a full campaign and managed to get both of them on the podium during the first two rounds. However, the start did not set the tone for the rest of the season and ISR would only finish eighth overall. For now, they only have one driver signed, but pre-season suggests that if they get a full lineup sorted sooner than later, they can mix it with the usual frontrunning teams.
2013: 17th in Formula Renault 3.5
A Carlin man since 2010, Jaafar will be in for a serious challenge as he switches to the more competitive, yet unfamiliar ISR.
After finishing runner-up in British F3 in 2012, he made his debut in FR3.5 and had a decent, if unremarkable rookie year, punctuated by a shock podium at Monaco. Despite his long relationship with Carlin, he immediately liked what he saw when he tested with ISR at the end of last season.
He has been rather close to the front on most days of pre-season testing, even topping one of the sessions at Jerez. The Malaysian should be comfortably in the top ten this year and will hopefully add a couple of podiums to his Monaco success. The uncertainty over his teammate for the season, however, means that he’ll have to lead the Czech squad from the get go.
The ambitious spanish squad AV Formula made a solid 3.5 debut last year, taking Arthur Pic to the podium in the team’s second round in the series. The Frenchman has moved on, but the team – now AVF – looks set to build on what was achieved in 2013. Still, they’ll face the challenge of fielding a peculiar lineup – a complete rookie and an unproven series veteran – so good results may take a while to come by.
There’s no getting around it – the step up to Formula Renault 3.5 will be a gigantic one for Beitske Visser and any discussion of her goals and achievements in the series has to take that into account.
The young female racer only has two years in single-seaters under her belt – both in the highly competitive German entry-level series ADAC Formel Masters. She starred in her debut year in 2012, picking up two wins on her way to eighth despite having missed two rounds. However, 2013 didn’t live up to that promise – as she struggled alongside the Motopark squad and would end up eighth in the standings again.
For 2014, a decision was to be made between racing in 2.0 and 3.5 and, eventually, her backers settled on the latter. While she was impressively right at the front in Eurocup testing, her 3.5 pre-season was a lot more quiet. 2014 will be very much a learning year for her, but there’s reason to believe she’s talented enough to make a good impression in her first season.
Given his teammate’s lack of experience, expectations will be high for Amberg’s campaign to spearhead AVF’s further development in FR3.5. It will also be his year to prove that he can cut it at the top level.
The Swiss racer, who contested Formula Renault 3.5 for the previous years, placed 26th and 24th respectively and, prior to that, has a very quiet season in GP3 with the admittedly backmarking Atech team. At the same time, those stats probably don’t do justice to a driver who dominated the Formula Renault Middle European Championsip in 2010 and was absolutely stellar in his part-time campaign in the competitive F3 Open series in 2011.
He looked good in pre-season testing early on, although there was a significant drop in form at Jerez. To have a good season, Amberg will need to do what Arthur Pic managed last year – consistently deliver points.
Italian squad Zeta Corse (formerly BVM) had no consistent driver lineup over the 2013 season, which usually doesn’t bode well for any serious operation. Yet, they obviously prepared a good car, as was evidenced when Will Buller and Carlos Sainz took over in the closing stages of the year and started racking up points. For 2014, the team will now run under a Russian license and seems to have finally secured a full-time lineup – but, given that both the drivers are rookies, the heights of 2013 might prove tough to match.
Despite his relatively young age, Mavlanov already has three seasons in the Eurocup under his belt – a series which he entered immediately after leaving karting and which lived up to its reputation of being intensely competitive by denying him points in all three of his campaigns.
At the same time, he’s got speed – he picked up a podium in FR2.0 NEC last year and was fourth in International GT Open in the GTS class.
Pre-season form suggests he’ll be at the back early on so points are probably out of the question, at least for the early stages. At the same time, Zeta are a proper team and they should prepare him well for any possible subsequent years in the category. To that aim, they’ve brought in a team-mate that he can learn a lot from.
In 2011, Roberto Merhi was one of the biggest names in junior single-seaters – the year before, he impressed with Atech in GP3, while in 2011 itself he dominated the F3 Euro Series.
Mercedes, unsurprisingly, snatched him up with an offer of a DTM drive, but the Spaniard could not quite adapt to the German series – he scored no points in his first year and was not particularly competitive in his sophomore campaign, somewhat redeeming it with a shock podium in the Hockenheim finale.
Mercedes did not retain him, but touring cars’ loss is single-seaters’ gain and Merhi has managed to land a well-deserved FR3.5 seat with Zeta, having also tested with Status in GP3. In FR3.5 pre-season testing, he’s taken a bit to get up to terms with the car, but seemed to have improved significantly by Jerez. At this point, his season appears rather difficult to call, but delivering solid points to his Russian team would probably be a realistic goal for now.
Pons Racing might be the team that took Heikki Kovalainen to the 2004 World Series title (in the championship’s last season of being supported by Nissan), but those times are long gone – and, right now, the Spanish team is resigned t being a 3.5 backmarker. Given that their only full-timer so far is a rookie, 2014 is unlikely to change that, but they seemed to have improved going by the pre-season and could challenge for the top ten in the standings if they get an experienced driver in the second car full-time.
25. Oliver Webb
British racer Oliver Webb has only been confirmed for Monza and is unlikely to contest the rest of the year – his deal with Pons was noticeably last-minute and he has confirmed that his main focus for 2014 is definitely his move into LMP2 with Signatech-Alpine.
Pons having him guest for the opener, thus, makes a lot of sense – Webb has done two seasons in FR3.5 and is a well-known, capable commodity. His time in FR3.5 never lived up to expectations, but he had previously finished third in British F3 at the first attempt.
Given the fact that their other driver is a rookie, the Brit could be a serious asset for Pons in terms of bolstering their teams’ standings chances, provided he delivers the points in both races. Monza was his strongest weekend last year – claiming fourth in race one – in a season where he was otherwise overshadowed at Fortec by Vandoorne.
After two years in various FR2.0 categories, in which he had mixed success, van Buuren moved to Auto GP for 2013 and was one of the surprises of that season.
He got up to speed rather quickly and, despite Manor MP seemingly struggling for pace, he soon moved into contention for podiums, almost becoming a race winner at Mugello if not for a post-race penalty.
Formula Renault 3.5, of course, is a different level and his switch to the series could be seen as a bit premature, but he’s already an accomplished driver and shouldn’t be off the pace. He was mostly towards the back throughout testing and will hopefully focus on learning this season, using it as a first step of a multi-year programme in the series.
2013 proved to be an unabashed disaster for Comtec, which, running under the SMP banner, placed dead last in the teams’ standings. It is no surprise that they only have one driver for 2014 as of now, but a repeat of last year is not on the cards and, going by the pre-season, the British team should be back to the 3.5 midfield in no time.
Russian racer Martsenko remains a bit of an enigma in terms of his potential. On the one hand, he’s placed only 20th in both his prior years in FR3.5, but his switch to the category did come rather early on in his career.
Despite a lack of headline-grabbing results, most in the paddock seem to recognize his potential and there’s probably some truth to the fact he wasn’t flattered by the machinery he’s had to race – as he’s been the top driver in the standings for both BVM Racing and Pons in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
Martsenko knows this is his best chance to prove him at this level. He himself targets a top five finish, but that might a bit optimistic going by pre-season pace or the fact that he’ll have to make do without a teammate for now. For our money, if he can make the top ten in the standings, he should be able to count this year as a success.
Monza, Italy – 12-13 April
Motorland Aragon, Spain – 26-27 April
Monte Carlo, Monaco – 25 May
Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium – 31 May – 1 June
Moscow Raceway, Russia – 28-29 June
Nurburgring, Germany – 12-13 July
Hungaroring, Hungary – 13-14 September
Paul Ricard, France – 27-28 September
Jerez, Spain – 18-19 October