The last few years have seen Formula Renault 3.5 emerge from GP2’s shadow to become a major feeder series for Formula 1. The grid quality has been unceasingly solid and both of their recent champions have graduated to F1.
But this year, while GP2 is on the rise, FR3.5 appears to be facing some difficulties – the grid number has remained at just 20 despite Carlin’s return, while the FIA’s decision to reward the series champion with only 30 superlicense points out of the required 40 can’t have helped either.
Despite that, it’s definitely far from doom and gloom as the championship secured high-profile returnees in Oliver Rowland and Roberto Merhi and big-name rookies in Tio Ellinas and Dean Stoneman.
A steady flow from graduates from the feeder series Eurocup FR2.0, meanwhile, ensures that there will be depth to the field.
Below, we take a look at the 20 names who will contest World Series by Renault’s top single-seater event in 2015.
After returning to Formula Renalt 3.5 in 2012, DAMS have become a juggernaut in the series, leading Kevin Magnussen and Carlos Sainz to titles and subsequent F1 seats. But both Magnussen and Sainz had previous FR3.5 experience heading into their title campaigns – neither of their 2015 drivers do. Going by the pre-season, the French team will face a tough title defence.
1. Nyck de Vries
Netherlands, age 20
2014: Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0, champion; Formula Renault 2.0 Alps, champion
After dominating Formula Renault 2.0 in 2014, the Dutchman heads into his rookie campaign in an unenviable position – of the three last Eurocup champions, none finished lower than second in a subsequent switch to FR3.5.
And de Vries, a karting superstar back in the day, has been rated as highly as any of his predecessors. His reputation was damaged with a tough 2013 season but 22 podiums in 28 races last year should have gone a long way to convincing McLaren he’s worth retaining as a junior.
The DAMS team that de Vries will be tackling FR3.5 with appears as good as they get, but his pre-season has been somewhat muted – often outside of the top ten and never troubling the top three.
Still, the Dutchman’s obvious accolades are no fluke so don’t rule him out of contention just yet. And, even if this proves to be a learning year only, he’ll probably start fighting for wins as he gains more experience.
2. Dean Stoneman
Great Britain, age 24
2014: GP3, second
Stoneman’s debut in Formula Renault 3.5 took place in 2010 ahead of a planned full-time switch the following year. But a cancer diagnosis ended his rookie campaign before it even began and made it seem unlikely he’d ever return to the series.
And yet here he is, back against all odds and very much on merit, too. His full-time return to single-seaters in 2014 was nothing short of immense as he won five races on his way to runner-up in GP3.
Red Bull were certainly impressed, handing him a spot in their junior programme. And, as he enters FR3.5 in the colours of the Austrian energy drink company, expectations will be high – after all, Red Bull juniors did lock out the top two spots last year.
But in Stoneman, Red Bull have a very versatile and rapid driver who adapts to new surroundings in no time. Pre-season suggests he’ll be up there from the get go and, running with DAMS, he’s likely to have a say in the title fight.
They’ve been a top-three Formula Renault 3.5 team since 2011 and took Robin Frijns to the drivers’ title in 2012, but Fortec are yet to take the series’ teams’ championship. They narrowly missed out on the honours last year with a powerhouse lineup of Sergey Sirotkin and Oliver Rowland but, as the latter makes his return, 2015 might just be the year.
3. Jazeman Jaafar
Malaysia, age 22
2014: Formula Renault 3.5, tenth
After narrowly missing out on the British F3 crown, Jaafar has been steadily improving in Formula Renault 3.5 as he now enters his third season in the category.
A tough rookie season for an off-form Carlin side did feature a Monaco podium and he was much better last year as ISR’s sole entrant in their outgoing campaign.
In Fortec, he has as good a team as an FR3.5?driver can ask for to take himself to that next level and, as such, 2015 will be a huge year for Jaafar. The Petronas-backed driver now?absolutely?has to deliver on his earlier potential.
And he might just. He was outstanding in the pre-season, posting top-five times in each session, and could very well spring a title challenge if things go his way.
4. Oliver Rowland
Great Britain, age 22
2014: Formula Renault 3.5, fourth
Red Bull’s Pierre Gasly might have ended the 2014 Formula Renault 3.5 season as the top newcomer, but his 2013 Eurocup title rival Rowland sure gave him a run for his money.
On his day, Rowland was unstoppable, his two wins?an exercise in domination. He also comfortably beat his highly-rated sophomore teammate Sergey Sirotkin and, if luck had been on his side, could have very well ended the season as runner-up.
The Racing Steps Foundation-backed racer will now have another chance to claim the FR3.5 crown, returning for another season with Fortec as the overwhelming title favourite.
That is, of course, on paper. In the pre-season, Rowland was certainly quick, but didn’t end up actually?topping any of the sessions, coming 0.004s short at Jerez. Still, the Brit didn’t exactly have anything to prove in testing and, by all counts, remains the top dog as the series heads into the Aragon opener.
They’ve been a force to be reckoned with since Antonio Felix da Costa’s arrival midway through 2012, but this year will, in a way, be different for Arden. For once, the British team will not run a car for any Red Bull juniors – and those accounted for 18 of the squad’s 20 podiums in three years. But don’t mistake their season for a write-off as Arden’s ‘independent’ lineup is still very much solid.
5. Nicholas Latifi
Canada, age 19
2014: European F3, tenth; Formula Renault 3.5, 6 races
Is there another driver on the Formula Renault 3.5 grid as unpredictable as Nicholas Latifi? Probably not, going by the Canadian’s results in the 2014 season.
Latifi was just tenth overall in European F3, overshadowed by Prema teammates Esteban Ocon and Antonio Fuoco. And yet, he was nothing short of fantastic in the Ferrari-run Florida Winter Series and ended a part-time stint in Formula Renault 3.5 with a surprising yet merited podium finish.
With form as positive as that, he is certainly a welcome addition to the grid but it’s really hard to gage how well he’ll go or how he’ll stack up to his teammate.
And pre-season wasn’t much help – he was near the top on day one of four, but slid further down the order over the remaining sessions.
6. Egor Orudzhev
Russia, age 19
2014: Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0, eighth
Just like with his teammate, it’s not exactly clear what to expect from Orudzhev. He was tenth in the 2012 edition of French F4 but fared much better with the step up to Formula Renault 2.0 than any of his counterparts.
It took him just four races to get on the podium in the famously competitive Eurocup and he finished 2013 as top rookie. Yet a title onslaught in the sophomore year didn’t follow – instead, Orudzhev wound up just eighth, one spot down on his debut season.
He does have a reputation for being brilliant in the rain – Orudzhev’s first FR2.0 podium came in the wet, as did his guest win in British F3 and victory in Toyota Racing Series at Highlands.
The Russian has been all over the timesheets in testing but will probably be in the points for much of the season.
The Charouz-run Lotus team has been one of Formula Renault 3.5’s most reliable midfielders since joining the series in 2011 as they finished all four seasons between fifth and seventh. But their form in late 2014 coupled with the off-season suggests the Czech team could be making a step forward.
9. Matthieu Vaxiviere
France, age 20
2014: Formula Renault 3.5, eighth
Vaxiviere has struggled to live up to expectations since taking the French F4 title in 2011 as his two seasons in the Eurocup FR2.0 yielded just 58 points – 50 of which came in a phenomenal, but ultimately unrepresentative Aragon round.
His single-seater career seemed in peril when he got injured early in his FR3.5 debut season last year. But he returned a different driver, beating his more experienced teammate Marlon Stockinger in seven of eight races and clinching two podiums.
The Frenchman then ominously topped four testing sessions in the post-season and four more in the pre-season and was generally everpresent at the front.
No other driver has been as noticable in testing but it still remains to be seen whether Vaxiviere is this quick in race trim. If he is, this season will make him a star.
10. Meindert van Buuren
Netherlands, age 20
2014: Formula Renault 3.5, 19th
A podium finisher in his sophomore season in FR2.0 NEC and in Auto GP, van Buuren made a surprise switch to Formula Renault 3.5 last year and was never going to make headlines, having joined a Pons Racing outfit that was going through a rough patch in the series.
With that in mind, scoring on five occasions and finishing 20th was a reasonable effort and van Buuren did secure an on-merit fifth place at the Hungaroring.
Now that he’s with Lotus, expectations will be much higher and he’ll do well to not be completely overshadowed by an in-form teammate.
But van Buuren did look very solid in the pre-season testing, posting top-ten times in six out of eight sessions. In FR3.5, he’s a capable pair of hands and should certainly contribute to Lotus’ teams’ championship campaign.
Nick Leventis’ sportscar team Strakka took a punt on Formula Renault 3.5 in 2013, buying the P1 Motorsport entry, and have proven to be a very solid addition to the grid. Sixth in both years, they should be going into their third season with high hopes after a very promising pre-season.
11. Tio Ellinas
Cyprus, age 23
2014: GP2, 8 races
Tio Ellinas making a full-time return to single-seaters is a very welcome sight for anyone who’s watched the Cypriot in Formula Renault UK and GP3.
He certainly deserved more than just a few GP2 outings in 2014, but a lack of funds and parting ways with Marussia F1 prevented him making his expected Formula Renault 3.5 debut last year.
But he’s gotten the deal together now, linking up with Strakka in what appears to be a long-term commitment – frankly nothing less than he deserves.
For someone who hasn’t raced in Formula Renault 3.5 yet, Ellinas looked immense in the pre-season, topping two sessions at Aragon. Expect him to fully repay Strakka’s trust in 2015.
12. Gustav Malja
Sweden, age 19
2014: Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0, 12th; Formula Renault 2.0 NEC, fifth
Malja’s Strakka deal was probably not met with much enthusiasm by those who only know him from his Eurocup Formula Renault efforts – a series where he did not make the podium in two seasons.
But the Swede’s clearly no slouch, having nearly beaten current GP3 star Marvin Kirchhofer to the ADAC Formel Masters title in 2012. And, while he was average in the Eurocup, it’s unfair to say he’s not proven himself in Renault 2.0, having amassed two NEC wins last year.
Still, he’ll need to deliver relatively early on to justify the move. But pre-season signs have been encouraging as he’s featured in the top ten for most of the running.
If Ellinas represents Strakka’s hopes in the drivers’ championship, it will fall on Malja to see them finish higher than sixth in the teams’ standings this time around.
15. Alfonso Celis, Jr.
Mexico, age 18
2014: GP3, 21st; Formula Renault 3.5, 2 races
At just 18, Celis looks set to be one of the busiest drivers in junior single-seaters as he’ll contest both Formula Renault 3.5 and GP3 in 2015. But it’s par for the course for a driver who’s already sampled most of the major junior formulae in Europe.
The Mexican’s first steps in Europe – sixth in the Formula BMW Talent Cup and a podium finish on his way to 11th in FR2.0 NEC – were fairly encouraging. But he was largely anonymous in GP3 last year.
But, to his credit, when he showed up at the Nurburgring for a FR3.5 one-off with Tech 1, he was not out of his depth, delivering two solid finishes.
Celis did not break into the top ten in any of the pre-season’s test sessions, though, and is unlikely to fight for points from the get go.
16. Beitske Visser
Netherlands, age 20
2014: Formula Renault 3.5, 21st
The 11 points and two top-ten finishes scored by Visser in 2014 have prompted some to lump her into the same category as other, less successful female drivers.
That could only come from them dramatically misreading the subtext of her rookie season – one that took place after just two years in cars, both of which were spent in the entry-level ADAC Formel Masters series, where she won three races.
The magnitute of the step from Formel Masters to Formula Renault 3.5 is outrageous and, in that sense, she’s coped fairly well, especially considering the breakthrough finish of fifth at Jerez.
And she looks to have improved greatly, enjoying a consistent pre-season which featured three sessions in the top five. Testing can be a fluke but it would be ill-advised to bet against her becoming the first female driver to claim a FR3.5 podium.
Tech 1 Racing
The times when Tech 1 bossed Formula Renault 3.5, taking four titles in sixth years, seem long gone and the French team has not won a FR3.5 race since September 2012. Unlike last year, they did manage to secure two full-season drivers in plenty of time, but with neither having any FR3.5 experience, the winless streak is unlikely to end this year.
17. Roy Nissany
Israel, age 20
2014: European F3, 17th
Nissany’s certainly not without potential – he’s been a podium finisher in his rookie ADAC Formel Masters campaign and won a race in his sophomore year.
But he does not have much to show for the two years he spent in F3, which yielded 22nd and 17th in the standings.
At 20, he still had the time hone his skills further at the lower levels, but has decided to progress to the powerful Formula Renault 3.5 machinery.
He was largely at the back in testing, with a best session result of 15th, but given Tech 1’s experience in the category, late-season points should be a realistic goal.
18. Aurelien Panis
France, age 20
2014: Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0, ninth
Aurelien Panis seemed to finally get the hang of Formula Renault 2.0 racing in his third season in the category last year, winning a race in NEC and another in the Eurocup – both from pole position in a very comfortable fashion.
He finished the Eurocup season as the top ART Junior Team driver, which must’ve seriously convinced his backers as he has been deemed ready for the move to Formula Renault 3.5.
His presence on the FR3.5 grid is likely to be fairly popular with fans due to him being the son of an ex-F1 French favorite and racing for a reputable French team.
But his pre-season results have been pretty similar to those of teammate Nissany and it might be a while before he becomes a regular points contender.
International Draco Racing
Draco have been a loyal Formula Renault 3.5 outfit since the series’ very inception and have certainly earned their share of plaudits, ending five seasons in the top three. 2014 was definitely not one of their best but there were plenty of encouraging signs – and, while fighting with the current top squads is probably too much to ask for, the Brazilian team might at least be back in form this season.
19. Pietro Fantin
Brazil, age 23
2014: Formula Renault 3.5, 15th
The first two seasons of Fantin’s single-seater career brimmed with promise – he took five podiums in a nine-race stint in F3 Sudamericana and beat some very strong names in his rookie season in British F3.
But the Brazilian has not been as noticeable since then. He was only eighth in his sophomore campaign in Britain and had two middling years in Formula Renault 3.5, albeit scoring a well-deserved podium at Moscow Raceway in 2014.
Continuing for another season with Draco, the testing pace has been encouraging – he was in the top ten in all but one session, which he finished in 11th.
But he was similarly quick in the pre-season of 2014 and only ended up 15th at the end of that campaign, so it remains to be seen if he can convert testing form into race results.
20. Bruno Bonifacio
Brazil, age 20
2014: Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0, sixth
His 2014 Eurocup title campaign might have run out of steam after just four races, but Bonifacio is still quite an exciting prospect.
Bonifacio has proven himself year after year in F3 Sudamericana, Formula Abarth and FR2.0 Alps and has surely done enough to get a Formula Renault 3.5 drive on merit.
Despite his prowess in Formula Renault 2.0, his pre-season ahead of the switch to its parent series has been a bit rocky. For most of testing, he’s certainly strugged to match experienced teammate Fantin on pace.
But he’s likely to get better as the season progresses and should certainly hope to significantly contribute to Draco’s points tally.
Jagonya Ayam with Carlin
After a weak 2013 showing, Carlin didn’t manage to attract drivers with enough budget to even justify a 2014 campaign, instead focusing on other single-seater championships. But KFC Indonesia’s support means they can easily afford to participate this time around and the championship is very much richer for that.
25. Sean Gelael
Indonesia, age 18
2014: European F3, 18th
2015 might mark Gelael’s fourth year in junior single-seaters but the Indonesian is still very much a work in progress and will start the season as the grid’s youngest driver.
He’s enjoyed a great debut back in 2012 in Formula Pilota China, taking fourth, but seemed a bit inexperienced for FIA F3 in 2013 and improved only marginally amidst a series increase in grid quality the year after.
Getting to grips with Formula Renault 3.5 won’t be an easy task but he’s got a very prestigious team and a strong teammate to help ease the transition.
He started the pre-season at the back but seemed to get much better with sufficient track time, even logging the third-best time in the final Jerez session.
26. Tom Dillmann
France, age 26
2014: Porsche Carrera Cup France, third; GP2, 8 races
Dillmann’s not the most obvious choice to partner/coach Gelael in Formula Renault 3.5 – he doesn’t have any races in the category and seemed done with single-seaters just a year ago – but there aren’t many better free agents than him.
A German F3 champion and podium finisher on his sole outing with Carlin in GP3, the Frenchman is most well-known for his rookie win in GP2 as he took an against-odds race win at Sakhir in 2012.
After a learning first day of the pre-season, he did not drop lower than seventh over the remainder of testing.
A title campaign is probably not on the cards, but he’s definitely more than capable of helping Carlin back into the series and easing his teammate’s learning process. And he’ll surely add a Formula Renault 3.5 podium to his CV in no time.
Pons Racing are a team of huge historical significance for Formula Renault 3.5, having taken the last-ever title in its predecessor, World Series by Nissan. But they have no wins in the championship since 2009 and have finished the last three seasons either penultimate or dead last. Signing Roberto Merhi means their winless streak is likely to come to an end, but they’ll need to step up their game to make the Spaniard a title contender.
39. Philopaz Patric Armand
Indonesia, age 19
2014: Formula Renault 2.0 Alps, 19th
Patric Armand joining Formula Renault 3.5 two years out of karting and without any podium finishes in his two years in Formula Renault 2.0 is the definition of a bold move.
He wasn’t out of his depth in FR2.0, finishing just two seconds away from an Alps podium at Pau. But his 40 races in cars make for a much smaller tally than that of anyone else on the grid.
With that in mind, he’s done a reasonable job in testing, even breaking into the top ten on one occasion.
But it’ll definitely be tough for the Indonesian to strive for anything more than a one-off suprise finish in the points in this campaign.
40. Roberto Merhi
Spain, age 24
2014: Formula Renault 3.5, third
After losing his DTM drive, Merhi has done a monumental job in Formula Renault 3.5 last season, managing a proper title effort with underdog team Zeta Corse and revitalising his career.
He’s been rewarded with an F1 seat but, with that deal coming together on a race-by-race basis, he’ll continue to tackle Formula Renault 3.5 as well.
Merhi’s 2015 season has not been off to a smooth start – he’s been rather thoroughly and perplexingly outperformed by F1 teammate Will Stevens and does not appear to have any job security at Manor.
His pre-season testing form in FR3.5, meanwhile, has been erratic. He was quickest in the first session at Jerez, but was nowhere at Aragon.
Then again, he was also largely anonymous during the Formula Renault 3.5 pre-season in 2014 and everyone knows how that ended up. Merhi is still very much a superb driver and he is not to be counted out.
Aragon ? 25-26 April
Monaco ? 24 May
Spa-Francorchamps ? 30-31 May
Hungaroring ? 13-14 June
Spielberg ? 11-12 July
Silverstone ? 5-6 September
Nurburgring ? 12-13 September
Le Mans ? 26-27 September
Jerez – 17-18 October