Formula Renault 3.5 has long been home to Red Bull’s highest-profile juniors as they look to stake a claim to a future in Formula 1. Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne have all found success in the category before, but not until 2014 has a driver backed by the firm actually won the championship.
Carlos Sainz delivered on all the promise he’d shown earlier in his career by delivering the title as his bosses expected, and rookie and new Red Bull recruit Pierre Gasly made it a one-two for the brand.
There may not have been a capacity grid, but at the sharp end several top racers fought for victories, including Roberto Merhi making a convincing return to single-seaters, the latest Racing Steps Foundation product Oliver Rowland making a positive impression, and F1 hopeful Sergey Sirotkin trying to prove the doubters wrong.
Below, we review the contenders’ seasons.
Spain, DAMS, age 20
227 points, 7 wins, 7 pole positions, 6 fastest laps
Fast but flawed in his single-seater career prior to his year, this was a big season for Sainz to turn his obvious abilities into results and prove he was still relevant in Red Bull’s conveyor belt of driving talent. And he delivered.
The pressure was on, taking Kevin Magnussen’s place at DAMS and defending Red Bull colours after they had been put into the shade by McLaren last year. When Sainz was out front, he was usually dominant, and convincing early wins at Monza, Motorland and Spa gave him a buffer for the tougher weekends. When doubts did arise, he responded perfectly with a double win at Paul Ricard.
It wasn’t a perfect season – when he wasn’t winning, he wasn’t even on the podium. There were also still a few moments of contact with others. But, as champion in reasonably convincing fashion, he’s done enough to deserve that next step. The question is, are Red Bull convinced that he’s their best man for the future? Season rating: 9/10
France, Arden Motorsport, age 18
192 points, 8 podiums, 1 pole position, 3 fastest laps
Gasly also had big footsteps in which to follow, graduating as Eurocup FR2.0 champion after Frijns and Vandoorne. But Gasly was younger than his predecessors were, and it was his first year with Red Bull – would he be allowed a learning season?
Perhaps fortunately, he didn’t need such an allowance. Third on his debut, he would rack up seven further podiums – more than anybody else. The only thing beyond him was a race win, somehow. When he did finally qualify on pole, at home, Sainz beat him out of the traps and the chance was gone. Still, just 35 points adrift of his stable-mate was an impressively mature effort in a team that perhaps lacked a little outright pace.
The sensible thing for 2015 would be for Gasly to do a second year in FR3.5, switch to DAMS and dominate. But Helmut Marko doesn’t always opt for the safe option – if he sees Gasly as a better long term prospect than Sainz, he might just promote him straight to F1. Season rating: 9
Spain, Zeta Corse, age 23
183 points, 3 wins, 6 podiums, 3 pole positions, 1 fastest lap
Ditched from Mercedes’ DTM squad after never really getting to grips with the ultra-competitive tin-top series in two seasons, the 2011 Euro F3 champion was given the chance to resume his single-seater career thanks to Zeta and their new Russian owners.
Expectations were low after pre-season testing, and second place in the season opener seemed to be a flash in the pan as he mustered no higher than sixth from the next six races. But he then took three wins and two second-places from five races in the middle of the year, putting him within 16 points of Sainz. However, he had no answer to his fellow Spaniard in France, and would lose the runner-up after a nightmare at Jerez.
Nonetheless, it was a fine season in a developing team and rebuilt the reputation of this former rival of Ricciardo and Bottas as a top single-seater racer. A surprise chance arose for him at Caterham in F1, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem that chance will exist again next year. Season rating: 9
United Kingdom, Fortec Motorsports, age 22
181 points, 2 wins, 7 podiums, 3 pole positions, 1 fastest lap
Moving into FR3.5 with Fortec as Frijns and Vandoorne did before him gave Rowland some similar pressures to Gasly, and the two would continue the rivalry that they had in the Eurocup as they fought for the honours of top rookie.
Rowland would fall 11 points short of Gasly in the points race, but can claim some bragging rights in the form of two races victories. The first came at Motorland Aragon, where he looked like a serious Sainz rival. Three non-finishes from Spa, Moscow and the Nurburgring and one other non-score in Paul Ricard would hamper his progress, but when things went smoothly he was always a top five finisher and ended the year with another win and a close second in Jerez.
Returning for a second season seems likely for 2015, and if he can repeat his Jerez form consistently, he could have the Magnussen-style campaign that this Racing Steps Foundation prospect probably needs if he is to really grab F1’s attention. Season rating: 8
Russia, Fortec Motorsports, age 19
132 points, 1 wins, 4 podiums, 1 pole position
Thankfully, the attempts of those around Sirotkin to get him to F1 before time didn’t work out and he instead embarked on a second year in FR3.5. A move to Fortec would in theory give him a platform to demonstrate his talents.
However, after a quiet start, he suffered four straight retirements through no fault of his own, which hobbled his season before it had barely got going. He put an end to that run with an emphatic win on home soil at Moscow, but he would get just two other podiums in the remaining nine races. Still, if that run of four non-finishes is discounted, he would have beaten Rowland to fourth in the standings by one point.
However, that one day in Russia aside, Sirotkin never really had the leading pace that had been anticipated. He’s certainly old enough for F1, but he’s definitely not the finished article. The potential is there, but it still needs work. A GP2 move would be a more appropriate next step. Season rating: 7
United Kingdom, Strakka Racing, age 23
122 points, 2 wins, 4 podiums, 1 pole position
As the highest-placed 2013 driver returning for more, Stevens was cast among the title contenders coming into the season. He needed to make a step up to start winning races, and he put that unwanted statistic right in the very race at Monza.
But his and Strakka’s qualifying troubles were not resolved – in fact, they seemed to get even worse, and so he was unable to replicate the impressive consistency that saw him finish fourth in the 2013 standings. Everything finally came together for the penultimate race of the year, which he won from pole. He then reverted to form for the finale, starting and finishing 13th.
A lower position and fewer points than the year before means 2014 has to be a disappointment, but the two wins did show what was achievable. He switched his F1 allegiance and his personal funding from Caterham to Marussia at the start of October, but it seems like his future may lie elsewhere. Season rating: 7
France, DAMS, age 22
89 points, 2 wins, 1 pole position, 1 fastest lap
Shaded by Magnussen during his rookie year in 2013, Nato’s second campaign with DAMS didn’t get off to a great start. While Sainz was right at the sharp end, Nato struggled massively for qualifying pace, and it took until the fourth race for him to score a single point.
Such difficulties would arise again later in the year, but there were also a couple of occasions when everything clicked and Nato proved what he’s capable of. The first was in Monaco where, on a weekend of domination for DAMS across GP2 and FR3.5, he topped practice, qualifying and took a clear win. In Hungary, a faster start than Merhi and Sainz propelled him to a second victory.
Only on three occasions did Nato qualify better than ninth. That made his life difficult, even though he often made good progress in races. His future is now unclear, but a change of environment seems likely. Season rating: 6
France, Lotus, age 19
83 points, 2 podiums (13/17 races)
After two disappointingly low-key seasons in FR2.0, the 2011 French F4 champion (ahead of Gasly) moved onto FR3.5 and had an impressive rookie campaign. That was despite missing two events due to a back injury.
He made a solid start with two top eight finishes in Aragon, before his season was interrupted by a fractured vertebrae sustained when he landed heavily on the first lap in Monaco. He was back in time for the Nurburgring, and almost immediately scored a second-place finish in the second race of the weekend. A P3 would follow at Paul Ricard, and he finished the last seven races inside the top eight.
Such a high championship placing was very impressive in the circumstances. Quick in the post-season test at Jerez, Vaxiviere could be well-placed to start winning races if he were to return for a second season in 2015. Season rating: 7
Philippines, Lotus, age 23
73 points, 2 podiums
Stockinger’s second season in FR3.5 with the Charouz run, Lotus-branded team began brightly with a second place to Sainz in race two at Monza, and a fourth in the following race at Aragon put him third in the championship standings.
He then lost momentum, only picking up a handful of points over the next races and falling to P10 in the points. He made good use of a strong weekend for the team at the Nurburgring to take a fifth and then a third, just behind his team-mate. But while Vaxiviere was a consistent scorer thereafter, Stockinger made the points just twice from the final six races.
His position relative to his rookie team-mate and the fact that he failed to maintain his early form was disappointing, but Stockinger did at times show good progress from 2013. If he returns for 2015, he’ll just need to work on his consistency. Season rating: 6
Malaysia, ISR, age 21
73 points, 2 podiums
Last year, Jaafar beat his fellow Southeast Asian Stockinger to P17 in the standings by a point. He too made progress in his second season in FR3.5 to make the top ten, but will probably be disappointed with how things turned out.
Switching to ISR after promising tests, being the team’s only driver wasn’t an ideal situation. There were strong qualifying performances in the first two rounds that should have delivered more than eight points, but at Monaco he repeated his P3 from 2013, and added a similar result at Spa one week later. That would be his final rostrum visit though, and fifth would be his best result after that and he fell from P5 to tenth in the points.
Petronas backing has led to Jaafar testing with the Mercedes F1 team in recent years, and he’s been linked to a greater role over at Lotus for 2015. Staying in FR3.5 may thus be preferable to GP2 if he is going to be busy on F1 weekends, and tested with Fortec in Jerez. Season rating: 6
Switzerland, AVF, age 22
66 points, 1 podium, 1 fastest lap
Breaking away from Pons after two years that yielded just two points finishes, Amberg moved to AVF for his third season in FR3.5 and things got off to a much more positive start. An eighth at Monza was followed by two fifths in Aragon and sixth in Monaco ahead of Gasly.
A double retirement followed at Spa but he bounced back in Moscow with a second place in the opening race after qualifying third. Three more points finishes followed, and after a fifth at the Nurburgring he sat seventh in the standings. However, after the summer break he failed to score at all and an encouraging season petered out completely.
In terms of his future, staying in FR3.5 more any more than three seasons would be a rare step, but may be a tempting option for Amberg. Moving on would surely be the wisest move, though. Season rating: 6
Denmark, Tech 1 Racing, age 24
47 points, 1 podium
The sad, downward fall of Sorensen’s FR3.5 career somehow continued in 2014 – his third campaign in the series, and his worst. New backing from Saxo Bank and a switch to Tech 1 promised much, but his struggles for performance were even greater than at Lotus.
Things couldn’t have got off to a more negative start than his violent aerial shunt on the Monza pit straight just one lap into the season after an uncharacteristicly dangerous move on Jaafar. He was running seventh at the time, and he only once finished higher than that – at Monaco when he drove around his lack of pace to repeat his P2 from 2013.
Fortunately, Sorensen – a rival of Frijns, Bianchi, Magnussen and co. in 2012 – has been able to show he’s better than this nightmare, thanks to a half-season in GP2 where he’s impressed and even won a race. A full campaign there in 2015 will hopefully follow. Season rating: 5
Finland, Strakka Racing, age 24
40 points, 1 fastest lap
Sticking with Strakka for his second season in FR3.5, Laine made a good step forward from his rookie campaign, moving up from 23rd to 13th in the standings, and scoring points on eight occasions rather than just three.
Tenth in the season opener, he then went four races without a point before a mid-season purple patch. That run began with a fourth place at Spa, followed by four more top-eight finishes. He was another to lose momentum towards the end though, with just three points from the last seven races. But although he was a long way behind team-mate Stevens in points terms, there were many occasions where Laine compared well.
A third season in FR3.5 with a change of surroundings is certainly a possibility, or this former karting rival of Valtteri Bottas may decide that his future lies away from single-seaters. Season rating: 5
Russia, Comtec Racing, age 21
36 points, 1 podium (4/17 races)
After finishing up 20th in both of his first two seasons in FR3.5, a move to Comtec for 2014 seemed to do wonders for Martsenko, despite the team’s poor 2013. A superb fifth and sixth in the opening races at Monza set a positive tone for the campaign ahead.
Even better followed in the next race with a second-place in Aragon, where he was the nearest man to Sainz in both that race and the standings, climbing to P2. But sadly, that would be the end of his season after encountering sponsorship difficulties. It was terribly unfortunate that after a big step up from German F3 to FR3.5 and two learning seasons void of grand results that things should come to an end as soon as he made the podium.
He got two run-outs in GP3 with Hilmer later in the year, but was unable to make much of an impression. His future is uncertain, but he has been one of several drivers involved in plans for a Comtec GT3 expansion. Season rating: 7
Brazil, International Draco Racing, age 22
34 points, 1 podium, 2 fastest laps
Fantin’s pre-season pace after an off-season switch from Arden to Draco set the bar very high for his 2014 campaign. Unfortunately, it was a height that he would be unable to reach for most of the time, a sole podium finish at Moscow aside.
That said, the speed was there in qualifying. Prior to Moscow, he qualified in the top six in four of the first seven races – including a front row in Aragon – but he yielded just five points in that time. After bagging that Russia result, his pace disappeared, before repeating his pre-season form at Jerez to qualify fourth and sixth. A pit-lane start denied him in race one, before taking sixth in race two – he set the fastest lap in both races.
He maintained that leading pace in the post-event test at Jerez and staying on for a second season with the Brazilian-owned Draco team seems likely for 2015, where he’ll want to convert his speed into more points. Season rating: 5
United Kingdom, Arden Motorsport, age 22
30 points, 1 podium
Buller came into his first full season of FR3.5 off the back of a very promising five-event run with Zeta Corse at the end of last year that included three top-five finishes. However, a switch to Arden for 2014 did not work out as planned.
Things began brightly enough with a fourth-place at Monza after starting on the front row, and he ended the season with a maiden podium finish at Jerez. But inbetween was an absolute disaster, with a complete lack of pace. Between Monza and Jerez, he qualified no higher than ninth and only three times above 13th – he made progress in races, but could only take three tenth places.
Up against rookie team-mate Gasly, Buller’s season doesn’t look good at all, but he did prove at either end of it what he can do when things come together. Given he had previously proven his ability in the series in 2013, Buller may be keen to try again at a different team next year. Season rating: 5
Italy, International Draco Racing, age 19
Stepping up to FR3.5 after finishing ninth in the FR2.0 Eurocup last year was a big step for Ghiotto, but he handled it well. Things started very well in fact when he qualified a magnificent third for the very first race on Ghiotto’s home track at Monza.
Unfortunately, he suffered a bad start and an off, but he put things right the next day with a fourth. Perhaps disappointingly, he wouldn’t hit those heights again, with his only further points coming with sixth at Spa and seventh at Paul Ricard. He struggled to pair his better qualifying results with his better race performances. However, being close to his team-mate as a rookie was a decent performance.
Ghiotto spent both days of the Jerez test with Fortec, so could well be in a position to get one of the most desirable seats on the market for 2015. That may help him to turn his ability into consistent results. Season rating: 6
New Zealand, Lotus, age 22
21 points, 1 podium (4/17 races)
A back-breaking crash in an FR3.5 race at Spa in 2012 had seemingly brought Stanaway’s single-seater career to an undeservedly early end, before being handed the chance to do GP3 this year with Status, where he got off to an encouraging start.
Then came the opportunity to return to FR3.5 in the most remarkable circumstances – with the same Lotus team and at the same Belgian circuit where he had his last appearance, to fill in after Vaxiviere has his own back injury. Immediately on the pace, he qualified fourth for both races, but a collision and a pitstop infringement restricted him to just four points. In his second and final event at Moscow, he got a podium.
After that, the team showed very competitively, and Stanaway possibly deserves some credit for that. Still managed by the Gravity concern that is involved in the Lotus FR3.5 team, it would be wonderful if they could give him a full-time chance next year. Season rating: 7
Netherlands, Pons Racing, age 19
21 points, 1 fastest lap
With FR3.5 teams crying out for drivers with a good budget shortly before the season, van Buuren opted to continue his rapid ascent of the ladder by signing with Pons after finishing ninth in Auto GP in 2013.
In a team that had struggled for points in the past two seasons, he got off to a very decent start, finishing ninth in the season opener, and perhaps even more impressively, taking tenth in Monaco. The middle of the year was quieter before an outstanding fifth at the Hungaroring – ahead of Sainz – after his one and only top ten qualifying result of the year. A seventh would follow at Jerez.
His qualifying pace needs a lot of work – only three times did he start higher than the eighth row – but van Buuren had a solid debut season from which to make progress next year, should he return. Season rating: 5
Canada, Tech 1 Racing, age 19
20 points, 1 podium (6/17 races)
Latifi’s second season in European F3 and a move to top team Prema didn’t go to plan, taking just a single podium finish in the opening round. However, a three-round programme in FR3.5 would see him end the year by matching that result, against all expectations.
Taking the second Tech 1 seat alongside Sorensen for the Hungaroring didn’t promise much, but qualifying 11th for the second race that weekend was encouraging after no official testing. At Paul Ricard he took ninth in race two from 18th on the grid, which was enough to opt for the FR3.5 finale at Jerez rather than the clashing F3 closer. That call paid off wonderfully as he claimed a superb second in the final race.
All signs now point to him doing a full FR3.5 campaign next year, including fast runs with Lotus and Strakka in the post-season tests. Season rating: 7
Netherlands, AVF, age 19
Visser’s career was left hanging in the balance when ditched by Red Bull after a tough second year in ADAC Formel Masters, but she ended up making the gigantic leap up to FR3.5 – no doubt with commercial realities in mind – after proving herself in FR2.0 tests.
Thrown in at the deep end, she performed solidly in the opening rounds and then grabbed a point in a race of attrition at Spa. Some superb qualifying results followed – ninth at Moscow, 11th at the Nurburgring – but she often lost out on the first laps. Her star moment came in the penultimate race at Jerez, where this time she avoided the start chaos to go from 12th to fifth, and then kept Gasly behind until the flag.
It was a result that repaid the faith that Adrian Valles and team had in her this year, and which should hopefully set her up for a repeat campaign in 2015, where she will hope to trouble the points on a more regular basis. Season rating: 6
Colombia, Pons Racing, age 18
11 points (12/17 races)
A solid tenth, seventh and sixth in three years in Eurocup FR2.0, Tunjo was set to step up to F3 for 2014 with the new Renault engine project, but he walked away after a testing nightmare. Ending his deal with the Lotus F1 Team, he joined Pons in FR3.5 for Spa onwards.
Despite only having brief testing mileage, it didn’t take long to get up to speed, qualifying eighth and finishing tenth at his second event at Moscow. A P8 finish followed at the Nurburgring in race one before a superb front row start in race two, which was unfortunately wasted in a turn one clash with Rowland and Sainz. A P5 start in Hungary led to him being upside down a few metres later.
It would take him until the final race at Jerez to score again, but his six-round run was certainly positive, seemingly bringing Pons forward despite his inexperience. His deal with them continues through 2015, when he should be even stronger after a full winter’s testing. Season rating: 6
The 23rd and last of the points-scorers was Esteban Ocon, who filled the gap prior to clinching the European F3 title with entries with Comtec in Hungary and Paul Ricard. A ninth place was quite a promising start, but that would be his best result from four races. It didn’t help that Comtec had missed two rounds in the summer and lacked experience since Martsenko’s departure, but nor did Ocon’s off in a damp Q2 in Hungary that ruled him out for the day. FR3.5 is an option for him next year, but GP2 looks more likely.
Roman Mavlanov was the only driver to do the majority of rounds who failed to score, which wasn’t a surprise after taking no points in three years in the Eurocup either. Team-mate to Merhi at a Zeta team bought by his father over the winter, he ran fifth during the very first race, and managed his best finish of 11th at Jerez after skipping Paul Ricard because of a GT clash.
Cameron Twynham returned Comtec to the grid at the Nurburgring and an unexpected P11 in race two there led to him cutting his Euroformula Open campaign short to make a full-time switch. He showed more good pace in Hungary, and although he didn’t make it to Jerez, he’s aiming to be back next year.
Oliver Webb returned to Pons to fill the vacant second seat until Tunjo’s arrival, but his tough FR3.5 career didn’t get any better, with 12th his best from five races. His European Le Mans Series campaign with Alpine was much better, collecting the title in his first season in LMP2.
GP3 driver Alfonso Celis drove the second Tech 1 car at the Nurburgring and finished just behind Twynham in 12th place. Auto GP race-winner Andrea Roda threw himself into the deep end in Monaco to make a one-off appearance in Comtec’s single entry that weekend, finishing 18th.