The Formula Renault Eurocup remains an under-appreciated goldmine of junior single-seater talent.
It’s the championship where drivers including Stoffel Vandoorne, Pierre Gasly and Lando Norris confirmed the potential they had shown at Formula 4 level was genuine up against tougher opposition.
This year, a 27-car field includes a whole host of promising drivers trying to do just the same: both those just stepping up to this level as rookies and also some who have already gained experience of the ultra-competitive series. Here, we select 10 of the names to watch out for.
It was already a surprise to see Defourny back in the Eurocup last year, so his return to spend a fourth year racing Formula Renault in 2018 came as even more of a shock.
The Belgian is determined?to show “that last year was not the real me and there were other things going on that stopped me reaching my full potential”. To remind people of his ability, he could just show them his outstanding scrap with Lando Norris at the Red Bull Ring in 2016, but the Eurocup title and the Renault Sport Academy place that comes with it would be very useful to help him finally make that next step under ideal conditions.
Even with his experience advantage, to become champion with MP Motorsport would be quite an achievement, such was the Dutch squad’s struggles last year with a talented but all-rookie line-up. But while his own pre-season running was disrupted by issues, the team’s package is looking far-improved in the hands of his team-mates.
For many, Fewtrell starts as title favourite by default after becoming the rookie champion last year.
During 2017 he confirmed what he’d shown by winning the British F4 title as a rookie the previous season: that he has a level head on young shoulders, capable of consistently bringing home good points and staying out of trouble in even the most fraught of environments.
Now he needs to add more outright speed, and more repeats of his solitary win (and overall podium) at the Red Bull Ring. A move from Tech 1 to R-ace GP over the winter could well help that: having four strong drivers can only help keep the team at the top end of the timesheets this year.
Much of Fewtrell’s winter was quiet, but by finally topping the times on the very last day at the Nurburgring last week, perhaps he has peaked at just the right moment. While?he already has the Renault academy status that many of his rivals are gunning for, he probably needs to be right up there if he’s to remain a valued member going forward.
The dominant French F4 champion of 2016 was always trailing Fewtrell and Dan Ticktum in the rookie standings last year, but three overall podiums in the second half of the year showed strong progress, as did a double win in the Northern European Cup at Hockenheim.
When pre-season testing began at the same German circuit four weeks ago, the Chinese driver topped all three sessions he contested, before also lapping fastest of anybody at Paul Ricard.
While the other returning drivers on this list will all hope to gain competitiveness from a change of teams, Ye has needed to find that step in himself, given that Josef Kaufmann Racing was already the team to beat at the end of last year with Sacha Fenestraz.
If he has indeed found a step forward in speed and turns it into a proper title challenge, he will surely be flooded by offers from junior programmes and managers hoping to strike it rich with China’s first F1 driver – if he hasn’t already been.
After winning two F4 titles in dominant fashion after stepping up from karts, Verschoor failed to live up to expectations last year, and found himself dropped by Red Bull before his 17th birthday.
Fortunately, other sponsors stepped in to fill the void, and Verschoor quickly signed with Josef Kaufmann Racing to effectively succeed champions Norris and Sacha Fenestraz in its line-up.
That too gives him a lot to live up to, but although his winter testing was pretty muted (he didn’t top a single session before or after Christmas), he did make an impact over the winter in a different way, with a very strong performance in the Toyota Racing Series, which he was unfortunate not to win.
If he doesn’t carry that speed over to the Eurocup this season, it will leave only one reasonable conclusion: that he simply doesn’t get on with the car.
Verhagen came only 11th in the standings in his rookie campaign last year, but a switch to Tech 1 Racing was followed by complete domination of all three days of official testing at the end of 2017, marking him down as an early title favourite.
Curiously, that speed has been nowhere to be seen in the three pre-season tests – he made the top 10 just five times in 16 sessions. But while he admits the times “may not have been what some people were expecting”, he insists that was down to the team’s programme and that he remains confident.
It’s a believable statement, given that his quickest team-mate Alexander Smolyar was also unable to replicate his late-2017 speed in dry conditions, but only qualifying on Friday evening at Paul Ricard will reveal the truth.
Verhagen did enough in his first year in Europe, by frequently matching team-mate Verschoor, to earn Red Bull’s faith for a second season, but Helmut Marko will be expecting a big step forward this time around.
?and five rookies
Lundgaard tops our list of rookies by dint of the fact that he’s already a double F4 champion after winning the NEZ and Spanish series in his first year out of karts.
That suggested Renault was right to invest in him, but this year he faces a tougher challenge, and that includes having to go up against three other members of the same academy.
By making the move with MP Motorsport, the Dane follows in the footsteps of Verschoor, but is confident the team will be in a much better position to challenge this season thanks to the experience of his team-mates.
That has been backed up by his testing form, which has gradually improved over the winter to the point where he topped a day in the dry at Paul Ricard and in the wet at the Nurburgring in recent weeks.
While Lundgaard has gradually looked stronger as testing has gone on, Martins was immediately impressive last autumn, rivalling Verhagen for the top time on both days at Paul Ricard in November.
That form was the latest step in an impressive rise for the Frenchman, who only started karting regularly four years ago yet was world junior champion by the end of his third and final season.
In French F4 last year he was unsurprisingly rapid, even though that inexperience cost him the title. Renault was impressed regardless, and snapped him up.
In pre-season he hasn’t been among the headline makers, but he has gained more mileage than anyone else, and remains one of the absolute favourites for the rookie title, driving for a top team in R-ace GP.
Piastri was something of a surprise package last year in British F4, beating a more illustrious karting graduate to the role of top rookie, and even giving the vastly more experienced Jamie Caroline a fright or two in the run-in.
Now, the young man from Melbourne looks capable of making a similar impact against greater opposition in the Eurocup. Even with the since-distinguished talents of Dan Ticktum, Arden found it difficult at times in its first season in Formula Renault last year, yet Piastri has been consistently competitive throughout pre-season testing.
Against F1 juniors and seemingly leading his team despite his status, Piastri would be an outsider for the rookie crown or an outright title push, but he’s shown before that such goals are not out of his reach.
Sargeant was the more decorated karter that Piastri beat in British F4 last year. The American – who succeeded Enaam Ahmed and preceded Martins in the list of world junior karting champions – struggled at first to show a similar level of promise behind the wheel of a single-seater, but he improved well as the year went on.
He was also gaining Formula Renault mileage with R-ace GP alongside his F4 racing, winning a V de V race at Paul Ricard in May, before taking a fourth place on a Northern European Cup outing at Hockenheim and a pair of top 10s at the Eurocup finale at Barcelona.
He has followed that with a very strong winter, where he has been consistently among the frontrunners and certainly put his name down as a strong contender for best rookie honours.
Colombo is very much a dark horse in this company, but his rivals should certainly be aware of the threat he could pose after the impact he has made at times in testing.
He was the fastest rookie (just 0.004 seconds behind Verhagen) in the official rookie test day at Barcelona last October, prompting him to sign with the JD Motorsport team: not a frontrunner in recent times, but it enabled Matevos Isaakyan to rival Charles Leclerc in the Alps series in 2014 and has an illustrious past in the series, winning four straight drivers’ titles at the end of the 1990s, and the teams’ crown as late as 2006.
Third in his second year in Italian F4 last year, Colombo has continued to show strongly throughout testing. With his team-mates looking unlikely to be joining him near the front, he could find the going tough at some tracks, but he may be every bit a win contender at others.
Who else is there?
Narrowing this field down to 10 drivers isn’t easy, and one other returning driver who deserves a mention is Alex Peroni. From humble roots out of the V de V series, the Tasmanian was incredibly strong at the start of last year with Fortec Motorsports, holding off Fenstraz to win in Pau and taking five other top-sixes in eight races. Things tailed off dramatically thereafter, but moving to MP Motorsport alongside Defourny and Lundgaard could provide him with a more stable platform to perform.
Bigger things will also be expected of Alexander Vartanyan, the SMP Racing protege who won against Verschoor at F4 level. A move from JD to Arden may help the Russian, but during testing he has very much been second-best in the team compared to rookie Piastri.
The better hope for SMP to replicate some of Robert Shwartzman’s 2017 success may be Alexander Smolyar, who can make a case to be included on a level plane with the other rookies above. After pushing Lundgaard close in F4 last year, he appeared to adapt quicker to Formula Renault at the end of last year with some very impressive times, but like Tech 1 team-mate Verhagen has been quieter over recent weeks. He did however go very well in the wet at the Nurburgring, proving his talent. Second-year drivers Thomas Neubauer and Frank Bird complete the Tech 1 line-up.
As French F4 champion, and a new inductee to Renault’s academy as a result, Arthur Rougier should also be worthy of inclusion in theory. However, he may be hampered by being placed at Fortec: even though he has comfortably been the team leader in testing over Raul Guzman and Vladimir Tziortzis, he has struggled to trouble the top 10 on a regular basis.
One French F4 graduate who should be up there more often is Charles Milesi, who completes R-ace GP’s strong line-up. Although he’s officially a rookie, he did do a full Northern European Cup campaign last year and contested four Eurocup rounds at the end of the year, taking an impressive sixth place at Paul Ricard. He’s capable of mixing it with his team-mates on occasion at least.
Clement Novalak is every bit as talented as the rookies selected above, and has proved it in the Toyota Racing Series and BRDC British Formula 3, but is expected to find the going tougher against such opposition in what his first year out of karts. Learning from Verschoor and Ye at Josef Kaufmann Racing, don’t be surprised if his results improve as the year goes on. The same can be said for Sami Taoufik, the reigning European karting champion who completes the Arden line-up.
Thomas Maxwell starred for Tech 1 in the first round of 2017 at Monza but failed to repeat that form over the rest of the season. He now joins Colombo at JD Motorsport, together with former Fortec driver Najiy Razak.
AVF meanwhile lacks a stand-out driver but it’s four-man line-up is definitely solid, featuring the returning Axel Matus, French F4 graduate Christian Munoz and a pair of promising Spaniards who have been hard to separate in testing: Xavier Lloveras, who made his debut with the team late last year after rivalling Lundgaard in F4, and Eliseo Martinez, who steps down in machinery after impressing in Euroformula Open straight out of karts in 2017.