Photo: Renault Sport/DPPI
We review the 2012 Formula Renault 3.5 season, in which a rookie Formula Renault 2.0 graduate prevailed against a better-than-ever grid full with proteges of Formula 1 teams and other highly-rated youngsters…
A growing reputation, a calendar minus any Formula 1 clashes and a budget lower than its main rival meant that the new era of the Formula Renault 3.5 Series featured drivers on the books at Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes, Lotus, Force India and Caterham. And yet, up against two drivers coming from two seasons at the front in GP2 in the form of Jules Bianchi and Sam Bird, it was the unsigned Robin Frijns who won the championship in controversial fashion, in the year after he’d triumphed in the supporting Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0.
We rate each member of the title fight and the supporting cast in-turn…
Netherlands, Fortec Motorsport, age 21
189 points, 3 wins, 8 podiums, 4 pole positions, 1 fastest laps
Frijns had won back-to-back titles in the entry-level Formula BMW and Formula Renault 2.0, but having made the somewhat bigger step to 3.5 for 2012, few would have thought he could make it three in a row. Yes, his predecessors as Eurocup champion Albert Costa and Kevin Korjus had immediately found success after that jump, but with an even quicker car and a stronger grid, Frijns managing the same looked unlikely. He was quickest in the pre-season tests with the new car, but surely you’d still have received some strange looks if you said he was going to win the title. Yet he won Race 2 at Aragon and took the championship lead, and was still up there a few weekends later, resulting in a Red Bull drive at Moscow, where he added a second win. After another assured drive to victory in Hungary, the pressure of a title fight at this level seemed to get the better of him in France, but then capitalised when Bianchi threw it away in race one in Catalunya. The terribly poor manoeuvre that settled the title in his favour tarnished his achievements, and was a shame given up to that point his rookie success had been as much about maturity and keeping it on the road as it had been outright raw speed.
Frijns has secured a reserve role at Sauber for 2013, but it remains to be seen how much driving he’ll actually get to do. He doesn’t have the funding to do GP2, but DTM could be an option. Season rating: 9
France, Tech 1 Racing, age 23
185 points, 3 wins, 8 podiums, 5 pole positions, 7 fastest laps
Alongside his Friday practice runs with Force India, Bianchi’s FR3.5 campaign was an opportunity, after two third-place finishes in GP2, to prove he’s ready to make that very last step into an F1 race seat. He didn’t need to win the title, just be quick, mature and remind everyone once and for all that he’s one of the top drivers around. And on the whole, that’s what he did. Things were looking good after victory on home soil put him into the points lead going to Barcelona. But then the Bianchi of the previous two years reared its ugly head again. From pole position he made an awful start, and then under pressure to regain ground he spun after a desperate move on Magnussen. He was innocent in what happened the next day, and had pulled off a great overtaking move seconds earlier, but his Saturday error was the kind you’d have expected from a rookie like rival Frijns. Frijns and Bird had a head start after a technical exclusion from second place in the Aragon opener followed by a car failure the next day, but between the two trips to Spain he put in the quick and mature season he needed. A shame then that so many will remember that Catalunya clanger.
The title might have given him that final boost into F1, but being beaten by a driver who in 2011 was racing the category that he had back in 2007 has certainly not helped his cause. With the support of manager Nicolas Todt’s financial backers, he’s fighting experienced F1 names for the second seat at Force India. Season rating: 8
United Kingdom, ISR, age 25
179 points, 2 wins, 7 podiums, 1 pole position
Bird joined Bianchi in making the switch from GP2 in order to greater accommodate his F1 commitments with Mercedes on Grand Prix weekends. After finishing behind his friend and former teammate Bianchi in each of the last four seasons through F3 and GP2, things started well for Bird. After a second place to Frijns in race two at Aragon, Bird was supreme in Monaco, qualifying on pole and leading the entire race under pressure from Bianchi. He led the standings over the next couple of weekends until a collision in Moscow followed by an off in the rain at Silverstone dented his hopes. A win in the second race on home soil kept him in contention but he struggled at the Hungaroring – his team taking the blame for setup issues. Despite that, he finished the year close to the warring title rivals, having led the opening race in Barcelona until succumbing to the unstoppable Felix da Costa. Just like previous seasons from the Briton, it was one that promised much at times but ultimately didn’t deliver enough.
26-years-old in January, time is running out for Bird. He doesn’t have the financial backing to buy himself into an F1 race seat, and although Mercedes clearly value his input as a development driver, he stands little chance of a promotion when the likes of Hulkenberg and Di Resta are loitering in the midfield. Season rating: 8
Portugal, Arden Caterham, age 21
166 points, 4 wins, 6 podiums, 2 fastest laps (6/9 rounds)
At the time of his signing to replace the underperforming Williamson in the Red Bull Junior Team, Felix da Costa seemed like a strange choice. Sure, he’d shown potential before, but he’d had a lacklustre campaign of his own in GP3 in 2011 and his 2012 campaign hadn’t exactly got off to the best of starts. He immediately got a better handle on the Arden Caterham machine than his predecessor though, finishing his first race in the points. Things got better for him with each passing weekend, so that he finished second in his third weekend in the car at Silverstone, and then claimed a maiden win at the Hungaroring. In race trim, the package of him and his car were now quicker than anyone and he took a win and a second at Paul Ricard, before totally blowing the opposition away with two dominant wins at the season finale at Barcelona. He was the top scorer in the races that he contested, and finished the year just 23 points shy of Frijns.
With similarly convincing performances in GP3 and at the Macau Grand Prix, many will argue Felix da Costa is ready for F1. But at the moment there’s no space at Toro Rosso, and he’s far better off having a full year in FR3.5 to prove truly that his form was no fluke. Season rating: 10
United Kingdom, Comtec Racing, age 22
122 points, 2 wins, 4 podiums, 1 pole position
While Yelloly’s 2011 GP3 campaign was a struggle, he’d shown promise after appearing in FR3.5 at the end of the year, finishing second in the season finale at Barcelona. With a stronger grid and a new car for 2012, it was unclear whether he could transfer that form into the new season, but he removed those doubts by winning the season opener at Aragon from start to finish. At the Nurburgring he became the first man to win twice, but while that came in tricky weather conditions, it was becoming clear that he and the team didn’t have the pace of their rivals at the front in the dry. He therefore slipped away from the three title contenders as the season came to a close, but secured a strong final position with a second and a fourth in mixed conditions at Paul Ricard.
The goal for Yelloly will be to secure himself a seat with a frontrunning team for 2013 to allow him to consistently show what he can do, but that will depend on getting the funding together in time. Season rating: 7
Denmark, Lotus, age 22
122 points, 1 win, 3 podiums
Recruited to the Gravity Sports Management stable and their Lotus-badged, Charouz-run FR3.5 squad after impressing in testing in late 2011, Sorensen did not let his new backers down. At the first weekend in Aragon he led race two until his car broke down, and went on to get the win he deserved at Spa. A second podium finish came at the Nurburgring, but more misfortune hampered him over the next two rounds. He was chasing Frijns for victory in Moscow when he spun, and was wiped out by a collision early in the second race. One of many caught out by the conditions in race one at Silverstone, he led race two comfortably until a final lap puncture. Sixth in the final standings was a good result for his rookie season, but the 50 more points he deserved would have seen him well inside the title fight.
After such a promising campaign he will be expected to be retained for a title assault in 2013. Season rating: 8
Denmark, Carlin, age 20
106 points, 1 win, 3 podiums, 3 pole positions
Another Dane, another fast but unlucky driver. Magnussen and his Carlin team were not always on the pace like they might have been expected to be, but when he was on form he was as good as – or even better than – anyone. After a second place at Spa he claimed a double pole at Spa, showing his class in the dry and the wet. Race two in Belgium would turn out to be his only win of the year though. He took a third pole at Silverstone but went off in the rain, and after chasing Frijns home in second place in the opening race in Hungary, he led the second one until his gearbox gave up on the last lap. That was one of eight races that he failed to complete – nearly half of the 17 race calendar.
Magnussen’s year ended on a definite high though. First he impressed McLaren on his F1 test debut with the team, and dominated much of post-season testing with DAMS, who he has since signed for for 2013. Season rating: 7
France, DAMS, age 21
102 points, 1 win, 2 podiums, 2 pole positions, 2 fastest laps
While his brother Charles was making positive first impressions in Formula 1, Pic was embarking on his second season in FR3.5, and keen to do well after a disappointing rookie campaign in 2011. Things started rather well when he surprised everyone to claim a double pole at the Aragon opener, but the fact he only had a third place race finish to show for it largely summed up his season. He only had one further visit to the podium in the form of a commanding maiden win in Moscow. When things were going well he showed some good consistency with six other top-six finishes. He was lacking in top results though, and also had five retirements – few of which were his own fault.
A graduation to GP2 had been expected, but instead he has opted for a switch to FR3.5 newcomers AV Formula, motivated by the appointment of his brother’s old engineer from Addax. Season rating: 6
Switzerland, International Draco Racing, age 20
78 points, 1 podium
Largely under the radar in his two strong GP3 campaigns in 2010 and 2011, it was a similar story for Muller’s rookie FR3.5 season. When he finished he was almost always in the points, and enjoyed a strong run in the opening half of the season with four straight top fives, including what would be his only podium of the year at the Nurburgring. After that he had to make do with largely sevenths and eighths, but he was also another driver to suffer from the regular retirements and reliability woes that the title contenders avoided – six of them in total. Even still, ninth overall was still a fine effort for a rookie season in such a competitive field.
He probably deserves a place with a top team for 2013, but there have been few clues that will happen and another year with Draco may have to suffice. Season rating: 6
Estonia, Tech 1 Racing and Lotus, age 19
69 points, 1 podium
It’s safe to say that Korjus was the disappointment of the season. After his very impressive rookie season in 2011 he was expected to mount a serious title challenge, even with the strengthening of the grid around him. And it seemed it was the new arrival on the other side of the Tech 1 garage that had a serious impact on his season. Bianchi was now the focus of attention in the French team, with Korjus’ car reportedly suffering from regular reliability and setup issues. After Silverstone, his Gravity management had had enough and pulled him out of the team and put him in the vacant second seat at Lotus instead. It understandably took him a little while to settle in, and the team were having issues of their own as Sorensen’s form showed, but he seemed something like his old self in Barcelona.
With Stanaway and Sorensen around, it seems Korjus may have to look outside of FR3.5 for 2013 even if he retains Gravity’s support, with GP3 a possible option. Season rating: 5
United States, Arden Caterham, age 21
63 points, 1 podium, 4 fastest laps
Kept in FR3.5 for another season by Caterham, Rossi’s new team were clearly struggling as the season got underway and it was clear there was going to be no repeat of his third place from 2011. Topping his qualifying group at Monaco and finishing the race in third was something of a miracle. The team improved as the year went on to get itself into the position it did with Felix da Costa, but Rossi was still struggling for results. It couldn’t have been a lack of pace though – while his teammate had four wins from the last five races, Rossi claimed the fastest lap each time. Unfortunately for him he was always just recovering from some piece of misfortune.
That won’t have gone unnoticed by Caterham, who are promoting him to their GP2 squad for 2013. Sadly, that isn’t the most competitive team either. Season rating: 6
United Kingdom, Carlin, age 21
59 points, 1 podium
A one-time protege at Honda/Brawn, the step up to FR3.5 provided Stevens with a chance to show what he could do after a largely quiet three years in two-litres. As expected he didn’t have the pace to match teammate Magnussen on his day, but did lead following the Dane’s off in those tricky Silverstone conditions – until he binned it himself. That would be his only retirement of the year though, and he benefited from that reliability to be a consistent points-scorer. Came on stronger at the end of the year with a third-place at the Hungaroring – again after Magnussen had retired – but also a fine fourth on merit at Barcelona.
That could be a sign of things to come. Stevens had signed with P1 Motorsport for 2013 having gone well with them in testing both this winter and last. Season rating: 6
Russia, Team RFR, age 25
46 points, 1 podium, 1 pole position, 1 fastest lap
The man who pipped Daniel Ricciardo to the 2010 title returned to help out the new RFR team. The going was tough, with just a couple of top six finishes to show from the first half of the year. The second half of the season brought quite a lengthy barren spell, but fortunately for him that ended before the final race of the season. At the Barcelona finale he claimed pole position and finished the race in second place behind Felix da Costa, just ahead of new teammate Vainio. Sadly for the team, that would be their last race in FR3.5.
With funding limited, Aleshin can only hope his experience can land him another drive somewhere. Season rating: 5
Austria, P1 Motorsport, age 23
42 points, 1 podium
Grubmuller was embarking on his third year in FR3.5 with the team owned by his father, enjoying his best campaign yet despite the increased level of the competition. He enjoyed a strong run of four points finishes between Monaco and the Nurburgring, while he claimed his first podium finish with a second place at Moscow. Things went a bit quiet after that, with just three top ten finishes from the remaining weekends. He showed a bit of progress this year, but he’s not going to become a title contender any time soon.
Three years at this level is enough – Grubmuller should really switch his attention to GTs now. Season rating: 5
Brazilian, International Draco Racing, age 20
36 points, 1 podium
Another man racing in a team owned by his father, Negrao enjoyed some promising moments in his second year of FR3.5. These tended to come in wet conditions, taking a third place finish at the Nurburgring. He qualified fifth at Silverstone, a result he repeated for the opening race at Paul Ricard. In mixed conditions he took the lead, and was still running fourth when his car stopped on him. In normal conditions though he was rarely a contender.
Negrao is all set to return for a third season with Draco next year. Season rating: 5
Colombia, Fortec Motorsport, age 21
British F3 graduate Huertas began life in FR3.5 with a bang as he took an impressive fourth place finish in the season opener, but that would be as good as it would get. After Aragon he only twice started a race in the top ten, relying on races of attrition to score consecutive sixth places at Moscow and Silverstone, with a seventh place at the Hungaroring his fifth and last points-scoring race. It’s safe to presume most of the Fortec team’s attention was on the other side of the garage, but Huertas should have managed more.
The plan for Huertas would have been another year of FR3.5 for 2013, but it remains to be seen where he can get a seat. Season rating: 5
Russia, P1 Motorsport, age 27
29 points, 1 podium
Embarking on his sixth year in FR3.5 and his third with the P1 team, Move had previously finished tenth overall twice but could not match those achievements this time around. He scored points on just four occasions, with the highlight being a third place at Paul Ricard after keeping it on the road in wet conditions. But with his best qualifying results being a ninth and a couple of tenths, he was not fast enough for a driver of his experience.
Move should move on, and that looks likely with P1 having signed Stevens. Season rating: 4
Finland, Team RFR, age 19
27 points, 1 podium (3/9 rounds)
Vainio seemed in at the deep end when he switched to FR3.5 after the end of the GP3 season, qualifying stone dead last for his first race at the Hungaroring. At Paul Ricard he’d got the hang of it though, qualifying 12th for the second race and finishing a fine sixth. After coming home eighth in the opening race at Barcelona, he qualified in fifth place for the season finale. He had the pace to jump title contenders Frijns and Bianchi in the pitstops and push more experienced teammate Aleshin home in third place. His campaign was short, but he showed great progress.
Vainio has been absent from any post-season testing, seemingly due to national service at home in Finland, but continuing in FR3.5 looks quite likely. Season rating: 7
Netherlands, Lotus, age 21
15 points, 1 podium (1/9 rounds)
Seemingly keen to stay race-sharp during GP2’s summer break, Melker took the second Lotus seat for the Silverstone round, and finished up with a podium in his first race. He certainly benefited from half of the field aquaplaning off the track, but did amazingly well in his first race in the car not to join them and come home just 17 seconds behind winner Bianchi and ten ahead of anybody else. He retired from the second race with a technical problem.
Despite a successful foray into FR3.5, Melker’s aim has been to return to GP2 for 2013 with a frontrunning team, although nothing has been announced yet. Season rating: 7
Russia, BVM Target, age 19
Martsenko’s place in FR3.5 at the start of the year was dubious with three uninspiring seasons in German F3 under his belt, so he certainly raised eyebrows with a fifth place finish in the season opener at Aragon after starting 14th. That would be as good as it would get though. He only once matched that starting position, and was usually found on the back few rows of the grid. He continued his early race promise with two top tens at Spa but failed to score after that. Almost certainly didn’t benefit from the revolving door in BVM’s second seat.
With BVM’s future in the series in doubt, so is Martsenko’s. Season rating: 5
United States, ISR, age 23
Rosenzweig was contesting his third season in FR3.5, but was outclassed by the more competitive field. He scored points on just one occasion – a sixth place at Spa – and finished the year with eight points compared to the 33 he got last season. While his teammate Bird was fighting for the championship, Rosenzweig had six straight races in the second half of the year where he failed to start higher than 17th.
Despite this awful form, he raced with Addax at the end of the GP2 season, tested with them post-season and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him race for them next year. Imagine if compatriot Rossi had access to the same funds. Season rating: 3
New Zealand, Lotus, age 21
8 points?(3/9 rounds)
Stanaway came to FR3.5 full of promise after back-to-back titles in ADAC Formel Masters and German F3, having topped the timesheets in testing at the end of 2011. His season sadly didn’t last long though, as an aerial shunt in the rain at Spa left him with fractured vertebrae and ruled him out of action for the rest of the year. He hadn’t had much luck up to that point either, only being a classified finisher in one of the five races he started as he battled technical gremlins.
Gravity promised to retain Stanaway into 2013. Season rating: 6
Brazil, DAMS, age 20
Foresti had shown some promise in British F3 last year, so his rookie FR3.5 season was somewhat disappointing. He had nothing like the speed of his DAMS teammate Pic, with tenth place his best starting postition. He didn’t do much better in the races either, with just three points finishes to his name. Not only was he not particularly quick, but he was involved in far too many collisions – most notably at the last corner in Moscow when he wiped out Rossi and Magnussen ahead of him.
Post-season he’s tested with numerous FR3.5 teams as well as Caterham’s GP2 squad. Whatever he does in 2013, he’ll need to perform better. Season rating: 4
Italy, Comtec Racing, age 18
With no points from his two years in GP3, Ghirelli had little right to be making the step up to FR3.5 for 2012. This time he did register some points finishes though – an eighth and a tenth at Silverstone. He never started a race inside the top ten (he did have three 11ths, to be fair), but at least he was inside the top 20 more often than not. With a decent karting record, Ghirelli could be a good driver but we’ll never know when he keeps racing at too high a level for his experience.
Rumours he will make his F1 debut in 2013 are said to wide of the mark. Season rating: 4
Italy, BVM Target, age 21
3 points (4/9 rounds)
With two wins in Auto GP in 2011, Venturini did deserve a place in FR3.5, but he didn’t stick around for long. Somehow he started all seven of his races outside of the top 20, but did race well to still get into the points on a couple of occasions. Left after the Nurburgring to compete in GP3 instead and did well to score two podium finishes, and is eyeing a return there in 2013. Season rating: 5
Switzerland, Pons Racing, age 20
Having failed to score in his rookie GP3 season in 2011, it’s fair to say that Amberg made the step up to FR3.5 too soon and that was reflected in the fact that he only scored one point – which came in the first race of the year at Aragon. After that he was fairly anonymous, with a best qualifying result of 14th. His deal with Pons was a two-year one so it was only ever meant to be a learning year, and he has shown more competitively in post-season testing. He should do better in 2013, but may be held back by the team. Season rating: 4
Italy, BVM Target, age 22
1 point?(1/9 rounds)
Former Ferrari Academy driver Zampieri lost his seat at BVM over the winter and was forced to look to GT racing instead, but was called up to race for the team again at Silverstone. He qualified in last place for his first race back, but finished up with a point in tenth as the last finisher in the wet race, a lap down. Qualified 23rd for race two but retired. Season rating: 5
Hungary, BVM Target, age 21
0 points?(2/9 rounds)
After completing his second season in GP3, Pal Kiss made his FR3.5 debut at his home round at the Hungaroring. He did well, qualifying 16th but falling back to 19th in race one, before qualifying 13th for race two and ending up just outside the points in 11th. He was back in the car for Barcelona, and after finishing 22nd in race one he qualified 13th again for race two and raced to 12th place.
The signs are promising should he return for a full season in 2013. He told the Hungarian media earlier this month that BVM, Pons, P1 and Comtec were interested, but he needs to secure the necessary backing. Season rating: 6
Brazil, Pons Target, age 21
The fact that Cunha was the only driver from those who did the entire season that failed to score any points tells you all you need to know. He was an ever-present at the back of the grid, never qualifying further forward than the rear three rows. The highlight would be nearly snatching a point in the wet second race at Spa – other than that 11th place his best result was a 15th. Has still landed a seat with newcomers AV Formula for 2013. Season rating: 2
Brazil, Lotus, age 23
0 points?(2/9 rounds)
After a decent rookie season in 2011 where he finished up 11th overall, Ramos failed to secure a ride at the start of 2011. But when Stanaway got injured, Lotus went to the Brazilian. He qualified ninth for his first race back at the Nurburgring, and fifth for the second, but only had a 12th place finish to show for it at the end of the weekend. Qualified fifth again for race two in Moscow, but tangled with Bird and Sorensen on the first lap, and that was his final appearance for the team. Season rating: 6
Russia, Team RFR, age 23
0 points?(6/9 rounds)
Nebylitskiy embarked on his fourth year in FR3.5 after KMP became RFR, but after some very decent points hauls in 2010 and 2011 he failed to score at all until he was dropped to make way for Vainio with three weekends left to run. He had four retirements and two non-starts in his 11 races, but only qualified wiht a best of 17th and was ultimately not good enough for the new, higher level of FR3.5. Has since been taking a look at Indy Lights. Season rating: 3
United Kingdom, BVM Target, age 23
0 points?(3/9 rounds)
Looking back at Williamson’s short time in FR3.5, it’s a rather tragic story. Arden Caterham FR3.5 were struggling at the season got underway, and Williamson was off the pace at Motorland and Monaco. When he remained point-less at Spa, he was dropped by Helmut Marko in favour of Felix da Costa, who he’d beaten last year. The rest is history, but Williamson had proved what he could do in the rain in the second Spa race, qualifying fourth and racing with the leading pack. Had his race not been ruined by a safety car, it might just have been a totally different story.
He was later given a chance back in GP3 with Status and soon became the team’s best performer, but having needed financial support from Red Bull to race there back in 2011, his chances of a full-time return in 2013 would appear to be slim. Season rating: 5
Italy, BVM Target, age 26
0 points?(1/9 rounds)
Double Superleague Formula champion Rigon had his progress shunted by an injury picked up at the start of the 2011, but made his comeback by driving for Ferrari at the Young Driver Test at Magny-Cours in September. Less than two weeks later he was back? in action in France again, racing for BVM at Paul Ricard. He had a quiet weekend, but it was good to see him back. May look to GTs for more regular action in the future. Season rating: 5
Germany, Tech 1 Racing, age 20
0 points?(3/9 rounds)
Fresh off the back of nearly stealing the GP3 title at Monza, Abt made the next step with Tech 1 in FR3.5. Like Vainio he was in at the deep end initially, but did well to qualify tenth for race two at Paul Ricard, only to finish back in 18th after some early contact. A 16th place finish at Barcelona would end up being his best result, but one would imagine that all of the team’s attention was on its title contender Bianchi on the other side of the garage.
His initial tests in GP2 weren’t particularly outstanding either, but he will race there for Lotus next year and has the ability to do well. Season rating: 6
Russia, BVM Target, age 17
0 points?(1/9 rounds)
The teenage star in Auto GP made his FR3.5 debut on home soil at Moscow following Venturini’s departure from BVM. He qualified on the penultimate row for both races and finished the first one in 20th and retired from the same position in race two, but still did a good job to outperform his teammate on his first weekend in the car.
He will return to FR3.5 on a full-time basis in 2013 after signing with ISR. Season rating: 5