In arguably the most open season of third-tier racing on the F1 bill to date, the Formula Scout team is firmly torn on who is expected to triumph in the 2021 FIA F3 Championship season. Regardless, we’ve had our say…
High-profile driver changes, surprising comebacks and highly-anticipated rookies from plenty of different championships makes this perhaps the most anticipated FIA F3 Championship season to date – and that’s before even mentioning the drastically-altered format. For the first time in a while, there is a realistic belief that several teams will be able to take it to Prema for the title.
This makes predicting the final top 10 in the championship all the more challenging, as we collectively expect at least five teams to be able to put in some serious frontrunning performances this year. Each of the 10 outfits also has a rather varied line-up with a range of experiences, and the unity between them may have an influence on the outcome.
Each writer was asked for their expected top 15 in the championship, producing this accumulated top 10.
Contributions from Bethonie Waring (BW), Peter Allen (PA), Craig Woollard (CW) and Ida Wood (IW).
10. Olli Caldwell Prema
Test pace 17th (100.634%) long run 7th (100.912%)
BW (5th): Caldwell hasn’t had the easiest couple of seasons. Last year he lagged a way behind team-mates David Beckmann and Lirim Zendelli, although both already had a season in the championship under their belts. He spent most of the season in the midfield, but that could work to his advantage this time. Even with Prema, it’s likely Caldwell won’t be at the very front of the order in every race, but being able to battle in the midpack in earlier races gives him a good chance of earning some good grid positions for the reversed grids. It will be a challenge for Caldwell to mount a full championship campaign, but he’s fought towards the front of the field with Prema before and after a year of learning he can’t be ruled out.
CW (11th): Just about outside of my top 10, but this would still mark a noted improvement from Caldwell in his second season. This placing assumes that Prema is about to be toppled and that the floodgates open for other teams to capitalise. Knowing what Prema is capable of, however, it’s a risky assumption to make. It’s not to downplay Caldwell’s abilities as such, although his performances with another top team last year were somewhat underwhelming as a whole. Saying that, he may well just spring a surprise this year, so it’s no wonder that our team is totally torn on where he will end up.
9. Arthur Leclerc Prema
Test pace 23rd (101.194%) long run 15th (101.312%)
PA (7th): Leclerc shares plenty of his older brother’s ability – his wet-weather drives at Mugello last year were further proof of that – and now that he has the backing to go with it, a solid winter testing programme in various different cars should have helped him to catch up the experience deficit he’s had to other drivers his age after missing out on a proper karting career and starting late in single-seaters. The bar for a Prema driver in this series has been set high – all six previous drivers were serious title contenders – and on the evidence of testing Leclerc may struggle to meet it, but his talent should at least shine through at times.
BW (8th): Coming into 2021 with second place in the Formula Regional European championship, continuing with a team he knows very well: it should be a good year for Leclerc overall. He has been speeding through the junior series, and finishing within the top five of every series he’s competed in so far. But this year seems likely to be the year he stops to take a breath and a learning year. Formula 3 is a very different series to FREC and with two very experienced team-mates along side him, this year will likely be preparation for a serious championship challenge for 2022. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expect strong results from him, but he shouldn’t be under too much pressure to fight for the title straight away.
8. Jak Crawford Hitech GP
Test pace 7th (100.331%) long run 14th (101.130%)
PA (6th): He might have only just turned 16 last week but Crawford is well-prepared for the step up to F3 and has looked on the pace in testing. Theo Pourchaire showed last year the leap from Formula 4 is not too large, although, equally, Dennis Hauger did struggle. The biggest question mark might be how well Hitech’s form will hold up with such an inexperienced trio of drivers, with just four years of European single-seater racing between them. If Crawford can build his own form over the course of the season though, the buzz at his local circuit of Austin in October will be considerable.
CW (9th): I’ve been impressed with Crawford to date, and his maiden outing in Euroformula last weekend was spectacular. That level of adaptability is the sort of thing that will suit him well when thrust into a wide range of scenarios across a weekend, which will inevitably be the case this year. There is this feeling that he may just be one of the revelations of the year, and he’s in a good position to showcase that. He might just thrive in this environment. I feel a title push may just be a bit too far for the newly turned 16 year-old, but notching up a number of podiums and a couple of wins? It’s absolutely doable.
7. Jack Doohan Trident
Test pace 12th (100.502%) long run 3rd (100.748%)
IW (5th): Like Hauger, Doohan is not part of the full Red Bull Junior Team line-up for 2021 but is still being supported by the energy drinks brand for his second season in FIA F3. That he didn’t score a single point in his first was beyond underachieving, but Doohan has shown before that he is a very good driver. It’s just that with tricky Pirelli tyres, a car that is difficult to overtake in and a very closely-packed field, it might not be the right series for Doohan to show his best in.
PA (9th): Doohan has looked quick and confident in winter testing after his move to Trident, which should trouble the bigger names again this year with its trio of second-year drivers. How well he can convert that promise into results remains to be seen: Having failed to score a point with HWA last year, Doohan is still unproven at this level, even though he produced some good performances in British F4 and Asian F3.
6. Clement Novalak Trident
Test pace 6th (100.318%) long run 12th (101.086%)
IW (2nd): The ultimate dark horse for the title. He’s got all the components needed to be champion in 2021, and relatively little pressure on him to do it which may work in his favour. The increased number of reversed-grid races is certainly going to advantage him more than the Prema drivers, and if he can rack up some points for fastest laps too then he’ll definitely be a thorn in the side of Frederick Vesti at the front.
CW (6th): Sixth would be a respectable result for Novalak, who I think just lacks that little bit of edge compared to our top three in particular. Really, it would be totally valid to place him anywhere on this list, or even off it entirely, so a middling placing feels about right. I certainly expect a far stronger year than last year. All of that British F3 experience will be of more use than ever with the extra reversed-grid races and the unpredictability that comes with them. Taking that first win sooner rather than later would be a good start and would set him up for a strong year going forward.
5. Caio Collet MP Motorsport
Test pace 2nd (100.247%) long run 5th (100.906%)
BW (4th): It’s easy to overlook Collet, what with fellow Alpine junior and now team-mate Victor Martins having taken the Formula Renault Eurocup title last year, but Collet wasn’t too far behind and was just as strong on his day. Formula 3 is a different beast, and MP Motorsport isn’t the strongest team on the grid, but I expect the two of them working together will produce some strong results. Having Martins alongside him will be some motivation to establish his position within the Alpine junior team. Altogether I expect it will be a strong year for Collet, so long as he and Martins don’t trip over one another.
PA (8th): After he tested for both Prema and ART at the end of last season, there’s a danger that Collet could be in a frustrating rookie year with an MP Motorsport team that simply doesn’t have the same record at this level. But he and manager Nicolas Todt have subscribed to the Alpine-MP ‘project’ and the signs in pre-season have been positive. Relative to his team-mate, Collet is a year behind in his development as a single-seater racer, so he should logically have the tougher rookie campaign, but podiums and reversed-grid wins ought to be possible.
4. Alexander Smolyar ART Grand Prix
Test pace 3rd (100.264%) long run N/A (9th at Barcelona: 100.566%)
IW (3rd): If there are lots of wet races and qualifying sessions where red flags means drivers will only have one shot at putting in their flying lap, then expect Smolyar to fly. He doesn’t usually stand out above the rest of this talent-packed field, but in particularly tricky circumstances he seems to thrive on track and staying at ART GP will provide continuity that should mean a big improvement on his 2020 position of 11th.
BW (6th): Smolyar and ART Grand Prix work well together. They proved they can fight for podium finishes last year, and Smolyar will build on the experience he gained in 2020. Getting consistent results appeared to be something he struggled with throughout last season, especially in the feature races, and with such a tight field it’s possible only a handful of points will make a big difference in the overall standings. On the other hand, Smolyar has shown he can battle in the pack, which will come in useful with the reversed-grid races.
3. Dennis Hauger Prema
Test pace 4th (100.274%) long run 19th (101.547%)
BW (1st): Picking just one person for the top spot is incredibly difficult this year, but I think Hauger will be one of the ones to beat and may just have the edge over his competitions. Italian F4 is one of the most competitive and busy F4 series there is, so to be able to win the series so decisively in 2019 proves he is an incredibly strong driver. 2020 didn’t exactly go to plan for him, but he was able to take a podium finish with Hitech and take race victories in Formula Regional with Van Amersfoort. Moving to Prema will also likely be a good thing, as the team knows the winning formula in this series at the moment.
IW (6th): The Norwegian had a far stronger 2020 than the results suggested as he made the jump (almost) from Formula 4, and he was undoubtedly with a strong team too. That he couldn’t routinely score points with them was damning, but not an isolated incident, and going to Prema should guarantee he’s in points contention every single weekend. If he can start the season on a high, a title challenge is certainly possible.
2. Victor Martins MP Motorsport
Test pace 1st (100.204%) long run 9th (100.929%)
CW (1st): A slightly surprising pick for first place, it must be confessed. Picking a champion is more challenging than ever in this championship, and arguably across Euro F3 or GP3 over the previous decade too. There is certainly a strong case for several drivers, but Martins just about swings it for me. All of that Eurocup experience will certainly come in handy, as well being reunited with Alpine (nee Renault) as part of its Academy. I feel he and Collet will collaborate brilliantly this year to drag MP Motorsport forward into not just regular race-winning glory, but title-winning success. It may not be on outright speed, but through consistency, as is often the case when it’s so tight. My one reservation is on battling in reversed-grid races, but Martins is experienced to the point where I feel he will be able to embrace it well.
PA (2nd): Martins should have little problem adjusting to the step up from Formula Renault. The raw talent has always been there – since his switch from gymnastics to karting aged 13 – and now he has plenty of experience and maturity to go with it. MP has had modest results the past two seasons but both the team and Alpine Academy seem optimistic about their new ‘project’ together, and that confidence has been backed up by the pre-season test form. There are bound to be a few blips along the way, which might just deny team and driver against more proven opposition like Vesti and ART in the title race.
1. Frederik Vesti ART Grand Prix
Test pace 9th (100.345%) long run N/A (1st at Barcelona: 100.000%)
IW (1st): His 2020 form alone should be enough to make Vesti the title favourite this year, but changing teams does adjust the picture somewhat. If Mercedes has the confidence that ART GP is the place to be, then it’s probably right and the pre-season test pace has been predictably strong. The title will probably be won or lost for Vesti on his performances in the reversed-grid races.
CW (2nd): It logically should be Vesti’s title for the taking. He’s got the experience, the speed, the talent and perhaps the package to do it with one of the grandest teams in junior racing. The influence Mercedes will have will also be important. So why is he not my title pick? I feel the format changes will make it incredibly difficult for any one driver to break away, so he may just fall slightly short once racing is set to stop in Texas. Saying that, he certainly seemed in the best position after testing, but as he is very well aware of from last year – one lap or even long-run pace isn’t everything at this level. He’s seen it first-hand.