Formula Renault Eurocup has managed to weather the turbulent off-season storm, which affected the majority of the single-seater ladder.
Its emerged from the chaos with a strong grid of drivers and teams to race its brand-new car, as the series adopts Tatuus’ regional Formula 3 car. Despite losing out on the official tender to run the official Regional F3 championship, Eurocup appears in better shape than the WSK-run series that won the tender.
While two of its most successful teams of all time, Josef Kaufmann Racing and Tech 1 Racing, pulled the plug on their Eurocup programmes, they were replaced by three new teams, including Fernando Alonso’s FA Racing team (run by Drivex) and dominant Toyota Racing Series champions M2 Competition.
The top four from 2018’s field have progressed to the new FIA F3 championship, a testament to the success of the series in recent years in furthering the career of its successful drivers.
The starting grid for the opening race is only two drivers behind its final 2018 count and its quality remains high.?2019’s grid features a mixture of returning drivers and rookies from across the Formula 4 spectrum, with race-winners from British, French, Italian and Spanish?F4.
We pick out the 10 drivers you need to watch in the 2019 Formula Renault Eurocup season.
A fine rookie season in Eurocup last year made good on Martins’?excellent pedigree ? having followed-up a dominant run to the CIK-FIA World Championship title in 2016 with the runner-up spot in French F4 a year later.
His assured transition into cars saw him inducted into the Renault Sport Academy and translated into impressive Eurocup performances from the outset in 2018. Martins would score six podiums (including a pair of third-place finishes at Monaco) and two wins en-route to fifth in the standings. A maiden win on the back of a thrilling duel with Lorenzo Columbo in the second race of the weekend at the Red Bull Ring was particularly impressive.
Although Martins has perhaps wisely dodged the bullet of a bumper field in FIA F3, a bit of a sideways move for 2019 from reigning teams? champions R-ace to MP Motorsport perhaps adds somewhat of an unnecessary variable into the mix.
However, as the highest placed returner from 2018, the 17-year-old certainly has the look of a championship favourite. Whilst the new Tatuus chassis arguably robs Martins of some of his sophomore advantage, that hasn?t looked to hinder the Frenchman in preseason testing ? topping both days of the final preseason test in Barcelona last week – setting a record-breaking pace in the process.
Following on from Martins, Colombo is the next highest-placed driver from 2018 to return. He’s also changed teams over the winter, switching from JD Motorsport to MP Motorsport alongside Martins and rookie Amaury Cordeel.
His pre-season testing form has been strong with times in the top 10 in every session aside from one wet day at Magny-Cours.?His consistency paid dividends last year, as despite been the top rookie in just one of the 20 races, he finished sixth in the championship and as the fourth-highest rookie in the championship.
Even more impressive was the fact that he did it with the plucky Italian outfit JD – the previous best finish of its current stint in the series was 10th in the drivers’ championship back in 2015. Switching to MP Motorsport, the team which so nearly took rookie Christian Lundgaard to the title last year, is an excellent move that should give Colombo the platform to step up to a title challenger.
Colombo’s raw one-lap speed was also rarely in doubt, but a race win eluded him last year, and it was a similar story during his Italian F4 days, with just two of his six pole positions converted into wins in his second year. If he’s going to step up to a title challenger, the obvious initial target has to be to take his first Eurocup win and make the most of his strong qualifying form.
Having made such a big splash in his first year out of karts – finishing runner-up in British Formula 4 in 2017 – the Australian?s move onto the international stage last year perhaps didn?t fully live up to expectations. Piastri?s step up to Eurocup with Arden was by no means a catastrophe ? finishing eighth in the standings with a trio of podiums to his name. However, there wasn?t much evidence of the combative, intelligent racecraft that allowed him to compare so well to 2017 British F4 champion Jamie Caroline.
Despite outings at the GP3 post-season test in December, the 18-year-old confirmed plans to remain in Eurocup for 2019, announcing his move to reigning teams? champions R-ace GP.
Piastri has already looked to have gelled with his new team and with the championship?s new Tatuus chassis ? topping two of the three days of the Mangy-Cours preseason test in March.
Fellow returnees Martins and Columbo perhaps pip Piastri to the title of pre-season favourite, however, the tools for a title assault are certainly at the Australian?s fingertips; especially if he can rediscover some of the intuitive flair that distinguished him in British F4.
Smolyar couldn’t make much of a positive impact as a rookie in 2018 with a struggling Tech 1 team. The SMP Racing protege is a highly-rated talent though, who took the fight to last year’s star rookie Christian Lundgaard when the pair were in F4.
There were promising signs last year too, taking an early fourth place at Monza before overcoming a tough mid-season patch to score consistently in the run-in as Tech 1’s strongest challenger.
He now joins R-ace GP, which should provide him with the competitive package that he was missing last season, even though the new car and tyre supplier eliminates any pre-existing advantages the French squad had.
Smolyar has been among the leaders in pre-season testing, topping both days at Paul Ricard, and could well be his team’s leading contender if he can turn his undoubted natural speed into wins. Whether the 17-year-old has the temperament required to win the championship remains to be seen.
The Brazilian makes the step up to Formula Renault Eurocup having won the French F4 championship last season in his first year out of karts.?As a part of the prize for winning the title, the 17-year-old was offered a place in the Renault Sport Academy, which he has taken up for 2019.
Collet – a protege of Nicolas Todt?s All Road Management firm that has taken Charles Leclerc to F1 ? joins defending Eurocup champion R-ace GP, which steered Max Fewtrell to the title in 2018. Collet has often featured in the top six during pre-season testing and set the third fastest overall time of the final two days in Barcelona, lapping quicker than teammate Piastri, who has a year of Eurocup experience from last season.
The momentum he carries from his title success in French F4, plus the promising pace shown in pre-season testing, makes Collet the favourite to be top rookie. With a new car, his experience disadvantage is somewhat negated, so the title may not be out of his reach either.
Following a dominant karting career, Lorandi?has spent the first two years of his single-seater career?in Italian F4 with Bhaitech. After?a respectable sixth in the overall standings and comfortable rookie class title in 2017, he?mounted a 2018 title challenge that would go down to the wire. He narrowly missed out on the championship win,?having been?too often unable to match the pace of champion Enzo Fittipaldi?s Prema in qualifying.
Having also tried his hand at Formula 3 machinery with two impressive races in the Euroformula Open championship at Monza last year, Lorandi?s rookie year should be one to follow with interest.?
Missing the opening test at Magny-Cours may have put him on the back foot, but he showed competitive pace from the off at Paul Ricard, placing eighth and seventh respectively across the two days. The Barcelona test was then a tough one for the JD Motorsport squad, but Monza ought to be kinder to team and driver.
Despite enjoying a promising career in karts ? culminating in fourth in the 2014 CIK-FIA World KF Junior Championship ? Kush Maini?s transition into cars has been a slow-burner. After a disappointing couple of seasons in Italian F4 which yielded just three podium appearances, Arjun Maini?s younger brother found his feet as a driver in 2018 en-route to third in BRDC British Formula 3.
Although the young Indian never looked to mount much of a challenge for the title, a maiden win at Rockingham and an impressive haul of eight podiums would put Maini on a more promising trajectory ahead of his transition into international racing.
Maini will make the step up to Formula Renault Eurocup with M2 Competition ? which will expand its operations into Europe having been a stalwart of New Zealand?s Toyota Racing Series.?
Pre-season testing wasn’t completely plain-sailing for the team, or for Maini in particular, but their speed improved throughout, and Maini ended up fourth on the final day in Barcelona.?On current form, the 18-year-old looks set for a season of respectable midfield results, with the genuine prospect of podiums later in the year.?
Ugo de Wilde
De Wilde makes his step up to the international stage as a 16-year-old with no shortage of experience. The Belgian made the move into car racing aged just 14. His first season in French F4 would yield just 12th in the standings, however, third in that year?s F4 SEA series would prove a springboard to a stronger 2018. Lights-to-flag victories at Nogaro, Dijon and Paul Ricard would headline a fine second season of French F4 ? with de Wilde ending the year second in the standings.
While he doesn’t benefit from huge personal funding – his father is a motorsport journalist – he was able to secure support for his move to Eurocup early in the winter, and joining JD Motorsport enabled him to gain some experience in the team’s Formula Regional-specification Tatuus before anyone got their hands on the new Formula Renault.
A solid programme of pre-season testing distinguished by top five appearances at Paul Ricard and Magny-Cours could become the foundations of a strong campaign. Whilst the Belgian?s F4 rival Caio Collet arguably starts the season with even loftier expectations, podiums will be a realistic target for de Wilde right from the off in 2019.
O?Keefe will return to Eurocup in 2019 having had a year away from racing. He was last in action in British F3 in 2017 ? scoring a trio of podiums on his way to sixth in the standings.
The experienced South African previously raced in Formula Renault in 2014 and 2015, finishing seventh overall in the Northern European Cup in both seasons and 16th and 14th in the Eurocup. The first of those seasons came as part of the Lotus F1 junior scheme, having also spent time with the Red Bull Junior Team during campaigns in Formula BMW and ADAC Formel Masters.
The 22-year-old was the last driver to be announced for Fernando Alonso?s FA Racing with Drivex, which will join Eurocup in 2019 under the stewardship of the double world champion. O’Keeffe had previously enjoyed successes with Alonso?s FA Kart project, winning the British KF3 title and coming second in the CIK-FIA World Cup in 2011.
Alongside two inexperience team-mates, O’Keeffe will be relied upon to lead the FA team. But having missed the opening test – when the team only had one of its cars ready – and then placing frequently outside the top 10, it could prove to be a tough start. Having not started a race since September 2017, a clean start to his Eurocup return must surely be a central goal.
Sixteen-year-old Czech driver Ptacek remains with Bhaitech as the Italian team expands to the Eurocup this year. In his first year out of karts in 2018 he won the rookie class in the Italian F4 championship, with 11 class wins and 6 overall podiums. He?also scored one win during selected appearances in Spanish F4 during 2018, and achieved podiums in the MRF Challenge and Toyota Racing Series over the European winter.
He has been a regular in the top 10 during pre-season testing, lapping consistently quicker than team-mate Federico Malvestiti, and was sixth fastest on both days of the final test at Barcelona.
Ptacek is unlikely to start the season as a leading candidate for rookie honours given the strength of some of the other teams and drivers, but he could be an occasional overall podium contender.
And the rest…
After Italy, Belgium is the best-represented nation on the 2019 grid, with de Wilde joined by two other promising rookies. Amaury Cordeel steps up to join Martins and Colombo at MP Motorsport after winning the Spanish F4 title in 2018 with the team. He’ll start off a step behind his team-mates, but should learn a lot from them.
Esteban Muth has already been picked out by this website this year after his highly-impressive Toyota Racing Series campaign with M2. Having undertaken his debut single-seater campaign in French F4 last year, he now moves to the Eurocup with the team, which has set up its European expansion in his own hometown of Uccle on the outskirts of Brussels. He’s been very much second-best to team-mate Maini in testing, but evidently has potential.
New Yorker?Yves Baltas completes the M2 line-up, with a repeat of the top-10 finishes he took in a partial Euroformula Open campaign last year a sensible target.
One driver who should be within the top 10 when present is?Sebastian Fernandez, who has added a six-round Eurocup programme with Arden to his commitments in FIA F3 with Campos. Team-mate?Frank Bird moves into his third year in the Eurocup looking to build on the strong progress he made with Tech 1 in 2018, while?Patrik Pasma steps up after British F4 wins with Arden last term.
Another looking to use prior Eurocup experience to his advantage is?Xavier Lloveras, who heads up the Barcelona-based Global Racing Service team born out of the ashes of Monisha Kaltenborn’s failed KDC Racing project, with ex-AVF man Josep Trinidad at the helm. Alongside Lloveras is?Alessio Deledda, the 24-year-old former motorcycle racer gaining extra experience alongside his move up from Italian F4 to FIA F3.
Alongside Deledda and O’Keeffe, the grid has a third 20th century child in?Joao Vieira, who finally lands a step up the ladder more than two and a half years after bringing an early end to his third season in Italian F4. He’s at JD alongside de Wilde and Lorandi.
Bhaitech’s?Federico Malvestiti is another with plenty of Italian F4 experience under his belt, the Monza native finishing sixth last year at the end of his third full season.
Completing the somewhat left-field line-up at Alonso’s team are?Patrick Schott and?Brad Benavides. The former was nothing special in North European Zone F4 last year but threatened the top 10 during pre-season, while the latter is in at the deep end in his first full season of cars but has shown promise.
Contributions from William Brietry, Alison Finlay, Peter Allen, Steve Whitfield and Josh Suttill.