Photo: Renault Sport/DPPI
The beginning of the season in three Formula Renault categories sees the young and inexperienced prevail as rookies score maiden poles and wins.
Formula Renault 3.5
Talented trio of title favourites deliver Monza thriller
While great things were expected of Eurocup champion Stoffel Vandoorne right from the get-go, especially due to how previous series champion Robin Frijns fared with Fortec in FR3.5, it’s a safe bet that not a lot of people expected a debut in this fashion. After frontrunner pace shown in pre-season testing, Vandoorne put in a stunning lap on a drying track to claim pole in his first Formula Renault 3.5 qualifying session. Under huge pressure from the vastly more experienced opposition, he managed to create a gap right away and, with a flat-spotted tyre and a shaky suspension, crossed the finish line in first to win in his maiden race at Monza.
On-form Kevin Magnussen also had a great start to his season, capitalising on trouble around him to finish second in the opening race – and then repeating that feat the next day, keeping the race leader honest for all of the race. However, a win proved elusive as Antonio Felix da Costa, having retired from race one after his Arden Caterham broke down on the straight, came back full force on Sunday and scored a calm, confident win from pole. Vandoorne, meanwhile, having made it two out of two front row starts, lost out to Magnussen during the start but still bagged another podium finish. The trio’s superb battle for the lead in the opening laps was befitting of their status as pre-season favourites, and hopefully a sign of things to come for the rest of the year.
It was a weekend of great potential for the ISR rookie duo as well. While Sergey Sirotkin started race one from second and ran in the top ten for the majority of the Sunday outing, he was unable to score any points, as a collision with Daniil Move ended his first race while car problems denied him points in the second. His slightly overlooked partner, Swiss Christopher Zanella, showed a return to his 2011 form, finishing a very impressive third in his maiden race and following that up with a strong finish in the top ten in race two.
While Vandoorne grabbed headlines, his teammate and returnee from Indy Lights Oliver Webb also produced two great races. He was a very inspired fourth in the opener and would’ve finished sixth in race two if not for a last-lap puncture. Another returnee to the series, after claiming a podium at a 2012 one-off, Nigel Melker took fifth in the season opener to score the first points for the teams’ champions Tech 1.
Finally, the weekend started off rather similarly bad for two title outsiders – Marco Sorensen and Nico Muller, both of who were let down by tyre strategy in qualifying. While neither made any strides in the first race (and Muller was subsequently penalised for a collision), the Swiss man’s weekend did get better in race two, as he took a well-deserved fifth. For Sorensen, it was another disaster of a race, starting in the top ten but pitting in almost right away with damage. The Dane was unhappy with the form of the car and will be looking to bounce back next weekend – his 2012 performances certainly make that a very likely thing to happen.
Will Stevens was another expected contender who had a tough weekend. In race one, he collided with Nikolay Martsenko during his second scrappy attempt to pass the fast-starting Russian for second place and dropped to the back. Then in race two he had to start from the pits after an oil leak, but was fighting his way up towards the points before having to retire. One man who did gather plenty of points meanwhile was?Arthur Pic. Traditionally stronger in qualifying than races, he and new team AV Formula lined up towards the back for both races but the Frenchman surged towards the front to scoop a sixth place in race one and a fourth in race two, not far from Vandoorne.
Next round: Aragon, 27-28 April
Formula Renault 2.0 NEC
Three different winners, but it’s consistent Rowland who top-scores
The season opener at Hockenheim attracted a sizeable strong grid, with both series full-timers and those looking at irregular appearances. While the first group ended up largely prevailing in the end, a few surprises were produced, not the least of which occured during the qualifying session on Sunday.
In a field of proven race-winners and hungry youngsters, Intersteps champion Matt Parry hardly turned up as one of the favorites. Thankfully for him and for Fortec Motorsports, that didn’t faze him one bit – and, when the chequered flag flew in qualifying, it was Parry who set the quickest time in his group, claiming pole position for race one and race two. It was sort of downhill from there – an incident with the charging reigning champion in race one cost him the lead, while race two brought him a maiden podium but nothing else. Another stellar podium run in race three, still, left Parry with a fair share of points ahead of the next round, while his poles cemented him as one of the title favorites for this year.
Another Brit on the field, current series champion Jake Dennis, came into the round as a clear favourite for wins, but ultimately did not have luck on his side. His win in race two was nothing short of classy, but tangling with Parry in race one and an anonymous race three left him with the 42 points. Still, it’s very unlikely Dennis is shooting for another title, instead focusing on the Eurocup, so his proof of form this weekend was of a significant value.
The revelation of the pre-season, Frenchman Esteban Ocon, enjoyed a good weekend. After topping the absolute majority of Eurocup test sessions, the Lotus F1 junior entered the weekend as one of the favourites and delivered. Running third for most of race one, he picked up the spoils of war between Parry and Dennis to claim the win. He was fourth and eighth in following races, but still lies second in the championship with 60 points – a very decent start for the 16-year-old ahead of his Eurocup campaign.
While not getting a win this weekend, RSF man Oliver Rowland was stunningly consistent and absolutely remarkable in his overtaking.? The qualifying session might’ve seen him lower than you would expect, but Rowland was untouchable come race time – fighting his way through the field on all three occasions to claim three podiums that see him lead the standings. His pre-season test pace didn’t, perhaps, live up to expectations, but the Brit’s mighty performance at Hockenheim sent a message to all his Eurocup title rivals.
Another part-timer, Fortec’s Mikko Pakari wasn’t that eye catching compared to his rivals, but was up there when it mattered. Without Rowland’s phenomenal overtaking antics and the pace Dennis and Ocon enjoyed, Pakari was still very consistent – taking second in race one and following it up with fourth and fifth. His performance during the weekend was very characteristically Finnish in the best way possible and, if Pakari wasn’t a title dark horse in the Eurocup before, he is one now.
Unlike most of the other men contracted to the Eurocup, Andrea Pizzitola is expected to run as many NEC events as possible, which could very well make him a title contender. He didn’t fully live up to that status this weekend, but his performance was still of note – fairly anonymous in races one and two, being sixth in the first outing allowed him onto the reverse-grid pole for the third race, which he absolutely controlled.
Finally, some people did not have the weekends they would hope for, but still turned out performances of note. Jack Aitken shadowed fellow Intersteps graduate Parry for most of the weekend, but had some bad luck, only getting one points finish in fifth. French F4 champion Alex Baron struggled with consistency, failing to finish the first two outings and not being able to start in the third. Ignazio D’Agosto also had incidents in the first two races but, starting the third one at the back, managed to claw his way back into the points with a lot of overtaking.
Next round: Nurburgring, 20-21 April
Formula Renault 2.0 Alps
Prema reign with experienced Bonifacio and debutant Fuoco
Even though Bruno Bonifacio made appearances in Alps before this year, he’s still largely a Formula Renault rookie. You wouldn’t say it by his weekend performance though, as Prema’s Brazilian driver took commandeering pole for both races of the weekend and proceeded to win the first one without making any mistakes. He was well on his way to do the same in race two, but his race was ruined due to an incident that saw him drop out of the points. Still, he leaves the weekend as, perhaps, “the” favourite for the title, an achievement in its own right.
Nyck de Vries, on the other hand, didn’t exactly live up to expectations. He only managed fourth in race one, which, while a reasonable achievement, won’t satisfy all as with the level of hype around him – he’s expected to be in contention for every Formula Renault race. He was in contention in race two, but a rash overtaking move on Bonifacio took them both out of the points.
While it wasn’t the best weekend for McLaren protege de Vries, Ferrari protege Antonio Fuoco put in a stunning performance at the start of his first proper campaign in cars. Prema’s youngster was great in qualifying and spectacular in race one, mostly keeping up with the more experienced Bonifacio. In race two, he managed to reap the results of the crash ahead to take his first Alps win, which propelled him to the championship lead with 43 points.
The third Prema driver, one Luca Ghiotto, wasn’t exactly under the radar either. He had a great first race of the season in fifth, but it was the second one where he really excelled, managing to hold off experienced opposition to make it another Prema 1-2.
Elsewhere, Pierre Gasly and Guilherme Silva demonstrated their experience, taking solid points finishes and a podium each, while Matthieu Vaxiviere and William Vermont recovered with good performances in race two after mishaps in race one.
Next round: Imola, 11-12 May
Campana wins again in Marrakech
Sergio Campana and Kimiya Sato continued to pull away from the rest of the field in round two of the championship at Marrakech as no title-challenging driver in the series besides the Japanese man had a particularly consistent two races.
Campana narrowly cleared Narain Karthikeyan for pole and, with the Indian fairly slow off the start, built up a massive gap over the first few laps. The effort was enough to secure the Italian’s second victory of the season and give him the lead in the standings – however, with the retirement on the first lap in race two, he once again sits in second.
Karthikeyan had very strong showings in qualifying and practice but was let down in race one by a slow stop that cost him his first Auto GP podium. Again, he was another casualty of the first-lap tussle in race two, won by his teammate Luciano Bacheta from reverse-grid pole.
Despite a poor showing in qualifying, Sato continued his streak of podium finishes, with two third-place finishes that allowed him to retain the championship lead. Meanwhile, Daniel de Jong marked his return to the series with a podium in race one, while Vittorio Ghirelli added to his Monza podium with a second-place finish in race two.
The weekend could’ve seen a maiden podium for Andrea Roda, but the Italian was mistakenly signaled for a drive through by the track marshals in race two, losing his second place but still scoring solid points. Robert Visoiu, running third in race one, could’ve also added to his podium tally but had his car break down with two laps to go.
The form of Campana and Sato might create a mistaken impression, but, from all indications, we’re in for a close title fight in Auto GP. The nearest challenge is likely to come from Karthikeyan, who has shown a lot of improvement in the second round, but the likes of Visoiu, Ghirelli, Bacheta and Riccardo Agostini should also not be underestimated.
Next round: Hungaroring, 4-5 May
After winning the F3 Brazil Open, Felipe Guimaraes started off his F3 Sudamericana campaign with expected dominance. The Brazilian, who is poised to return to GP3 seat with Bamboo, won both races at the opening round at Interlagos from pole. Raphael Raucci came closest to him in Class A, taking second and third, while Argentinian Bruno Etman, also appearing on both podiums, took two Class B victories and leads the category that Bonifacio won in 2011.
Next round: Brasilia, 20-21 April
PaddockScout Driver of the Weekend
It was almost expected, so impressive was Vandoorne in testing, but even though he had some luck go his way, his dominant win from pole in his first race out of Formula Renault 2.0 was something special. Felix da Costa isn’t going to have things all his own way.