F3 post-season testing is an important opportunity for drivers looking to step up to the series next year. Formula Scout heard from some of them during the FREC and GB3 rounds at Zandvoort.
The Formula Regional European Championship and GB3 paddocks were well-represented in the recent FIA Formula 3 post-season tests at Jerez and Barcelona. In conversation with Formula Scout at the series’ latest rounds at Zandvoort, one word summed up the drivers’ first impressions of the higher level: “amazing”.
“To drive that car is amazing. The power and downforce you have is a lot more than in [the FREC] car so it’s been really nice to drive that car,” raved Laurens van Hoepen after running at both tests with his current team, ART Grand Prix.
Tim Tramnitz agreed that there was a huge difference between the F3 car and his usual FRegional car: “For sure the car’s a lot of fun with the aero and the speed and quite a bit more power than the FREC car [but it is] very different compared to FREC. I didn’t expect the difference to be that big,” confessed Red Bull’s latest addition to its Junior Team after running with MP Motorsport.
“First I had to get used to the aero and all the grip there is available. And also in terms of tyre warm-up there is a bit more to learn. I have to say as well that it wasn’t the easiest combination. In Jerez it was a new track as well as a new car for me,” Tramnitz added.
“Ah, you want to know about the faster car?” Sami Meguetounif jokes when approached in the FREC paddock for his insights, not about that weekend’s race but the F3 test.
The Frenchman was making the switch from MP Motorsport to Trident, winners of the 2023 drivers’ championship with Gabriel Bortoleto. “It’s been two years in an orange car so it was a bit strange, but nice to know a different way of working, to know new people, it’s a new adventure,” he said.
“I was actually in the champion’s car, with his engineer. So no excuses!” he laughs.
He felt immediately at home in his new surroundings, appreciating “the way Trident was working with me. They tried to give me all their experience, so to start a race run for the first time I knew already what I had to do. I really liked their approach,” he told Formula Scout.
Matias Zagazeta joined Jenzer Motorsport for the tests and was another driver to be blown away by the F3 car’s performance. “It’s such an amazing car, so much power and so much downforce,” he said.
“It’s a really big difference. I am trying to get used mainly to the braking and the difference in high speed corners. I managed to adapt quite quickly to the car. There’s still a couple more things to improve in my driving. I think it will come quite close in the end.”
Those looking to move up from GB3 also encountered a big step in performance. Max Esterson was another to test with Jenzer – having already contested two initial rounds with Carlin at Silverstone and the Hungaroring – and commented that “it’s a bit tricky switching from the GB3 car to the F3 car.”
“It’s so much bigger and heavier and the technique’s quite a bit different. I’m getting used to it and getting more comfortable in the car,” he said.
“Amazing” was also Callum Voisin’s summary of the experience, having only had the drive with Rodin Carlin confirmed at “relatively short notice.”
“It was amazing to get that opportunity and car-wise it’s a lot different to what I’m used to. It’s a lot bigger and a lot heavier than the GB3 car, but it went really well,” he told Formula Scout at Zandvoort, before he went on to clinch the GB3 title at Donington Park.
For most it was a first experience of what an F3-level car is capable of. With testing in the FIA F3 car prohibited outside official sessions, some had the chance to sample its predecessor, a GP3 car, while most were “thrown in at the deep end,” in Voisin’s words.
FREC rookie champion Martinius Stenshorne came in having not done “any GP3 testing so it was the first time in something else than FREC, but it was good.”
He settled in quickly with the Hitech GP team, even heading the times on the final afternoon at Jerez although he stressed that you cannot read too much into testing times “because people were doing race runs, a lot of different run plans, so it’s just testing.”
After fracturing his arm in FREC at Monza, Stenshorne had “a bit scared that it was not going to be good before the test, but it all went well so nothing to complain about.”
“Barcelona was not as good,” he admits, “but there was a lot of learning which was really nice. I enjoyed it.”
Esterson was one of the few who had gained some experience of an F3-level car prior to the test, and also had a run in Jenzer’s GP3 car at Mugello, which “helped quite a bit,” he said. “It’s definitely closer to the F3 car than this [GB3] but there’s still differences.”
Meguetounif had “one day of testing with a GP3 car before the F3 test. You start to feel a bit the aero and the speed but it’s not exactly the same.”
To get the most out of the six days of testing, he had “spent quite a lot of time in the workshop to prepare for the tests. It was nice also for the sim to know a bit the car,” he explained.
Tramnitz had experienced the Euroformula Dallara 320 earlier in the year, although the benefits were limited as “it is quite a long time ago now [although] it was good to do it because it gives you a first taste of a car with a lot more aero.”
For Esterson, the hardest thing to adapt to has been “probably the braking. It’s such a different style. You need to attack the brakes so much more because they work so well.”
Maximising the F3 car’s braking potential was a learning point for van Hoepen too, “because the speed you get into the corners is a lot more. The braking is something that you need to click a bit more because in this car if you press more than a certain number of bars you lock everything and there you have to press double the brake as in this one. So it’s been a bit difficult to realise ‘OK, I really have to smash the brakes in this corner.’”
While tyres in the categories below F3 are designed to be more resilient, the Pirellis used in FIA F3 aim to prepare drivers for the higher degradation used at the top of the single-seater ladder.
“The tyre deg, especially at Barcelona was crazy,” confirms Esterson. “You get one lap on a set of tyres before you fall off a couple of tenths.”
Meguetounif also felt that “the tyre deg that is much more aggressive than the FREC.”
“The warm-up [of the tyres] makes a lot of difference,” agrees van Hoepen.
“You really have to understand the tyres quite well. For the test so far I managed to understand them quite well but there’s still some things I don’t understand about the tyre that I need to learn a bit better,” the Dutch driver commented.
“Just the tyres,” echoes Voisin when asked what had been the hardest characteristic to adjust to. “The tyres are so different to what I’m used to. These things [GB3 tyres], you can do four push laps before they start going off but in the F3 car you can get one and they start going throughout the lap.
“The balance changes throughout one lap and then switching from a quali-spec car to a race-spec car is different again.
“In [the GB3 car] you don’t really notice anything. Whereas in [the F3 car] first of all you have way less grip, you’re trying to minimise any scrub, any wheelspin, stuff like that just because the tyres are so soft and you’ve got less downforce. It’s a completely different game but it was good fun, amazing experience and managed to learn some new tracks as well.”
Voisin admits that getting a handle on single lap pace is the key to unlocking more performance
“There’s a few things to work on, once we sort out the quali runs,” he tells Formula Scout. “The quali runs were probably my weakness but the race runs and old tyre runs were actually very good. Ever learning but I was thrilled to do it.”
Meguetounif also felt that he still “needs to work a bit on putting everything together in one lap. That’s the most difficult thing compared to the FREC in terms of quali sequence.”
“Making no mistake and finding the limit on that one and first push [lap] was for me the most difficult and what I was missing to be in the top three, even if I was P5 in Barcelona which was not far,” he explained.
“I was doing some small mistakes and at that level you cannot do those mistakes on that one lap.”
Despite feeling he could have gone faster still without those mistakes, “I discovered how the aero was working, the braking power that is really impressive and of course also the race runs to manage the tyre deg.
“It was really intense. Physically it was a bit tough. In Jerez we drove two or three race sims in one day so at the end the neck felt quite bad. The 10 last laps of the last race run were difficult, but it was really amazing. I enjoyed it a lot,” Meguetounif says.
For Zagazeta, “the power and the downforce [were] the main things. Out of the corner, as soon as you put the throttle you can really feel the power and then on the high speed corners, like the difference in Barcelona for example in T9 in FREC it’s quite a big lift and in F3 it’s flat so it shows the difference of speeds. It’s quite an amazing car.”
Using DRS was also something new for all the drivers. “We used DRS on performance runs,” explained Tramnitz. “First you have to get used to holding it all the way down the straight and not forget about it.”
Van Hoepen agrees that using DRS added to the excitement, “especially when you can use DRS every time you want to it’s very nice. You can really feel the difference quite a lot. You can feel the drag when you’re not using DRS compared to when you are using it. I think it’s a good system. Push-to-pass [as used in FREC] works quite well but I think DRS in a way is better.”
Interestingly, opinions on competing at the Macau Grand Prix next month varied, with unanimous enthusiasm but concerns over the practicality of racing on the Guia circuit as an F3 rookie and the potential budgets required.
“I think I’ll be doing it,” confirms Esterson, while fellow Jenzer runner Zagazeta says that “we will see on Macau after the Imola test. It’s a race that everyone wants to do, it’s a bit complicated but it would be an amazing experience.”
Van Hoepen is in no doubt about his preference: “I really want to do this race [Macau]. I don’t know yet if I can but I’m really pushing to do it. It’s going to be for sure hard to do this race as a first race in F3 but the event is so cool. I hope I can do it, let’s see.”
On his only previous races on a street circuit at Monaco in 2022 he took both rookie wins “but Macau is a bit different again. Watching the onboards they’re flying between the walls, it’s insane, really cool. You really go quick,” he smiled.
“Trident want me to go there because it would be more days in that car to prepare for next year,” says Meguetounif, “but they also know that Macau is not a normal track.”
“I would love to [go there] of course,” he says, “but we need to see with the team because Macau is really special, so to go there not as a rookie but as a really beginner after six days only of testing is a bit risky.
“We know a lot of experienced drivers will go there, like F2 drivers. For the learning process it will be different. Maybe next year at the end of my season.”
Voisin, however, says he “definitely” won’t be there this year. “I’d love to but it would be too soon to go into it. Budget as well – it’s a lot of money to go out there.
“I’d want to go out there and be ready for it. Just going straight in after those couple of days compared to people, I believe there are a quite a few F2 drivers who are going to do it and people who did F3 this year so I would be very much thrown under the bus a little bit,” he explains, before adding: “Maybe next year.”
Obviously, all hope that they will be on the F3 grid for the 2024 season although most were keeping their cards close to their chests.
The deals might not be formally signed in all cases, but when a driver does all test days with the same team, the implication is clear.
“We’re working on budget for next year so should be good,” said Esterson, although he recognises that the step up will be “tough.”
“Everyone knows F3 is probably the most competitive junior series there is. It’s hard to break into the top 12 which is the magic number. Especially when you show up to Australia and you’ve got three laps in practice and then you’re into qualifying so it’s pretty tricky,” he said.
Voisin says he is “still working on F3 for next year but that comes with other stuff like budget. It’s a huge step up from GB3. It’s going to be good whatever.”