After an underwhelming rookie Formula Renault Eurocup season, one wild Russian is looking to transform his natural talent into a title-winning campaign. Josh Suttill profiles Alexander Smolyar.
In 2017, Alexander Smolyar pushed Renault junior Christian Lundgaard all the way to the Spanish Formula 4 title, but when the pair graduated to Formula Renault Eurocup, one almost won the title as a rookie while the other failed to register a podium finish.
The latter was, of course, Smolyar, who never seemed to really show his full potential last year, despite driving for multiple teams’ champions Tech 1 Racing. He along with his three team-mates struggled to shine, with Smolyar the most impressive of the quartet, scoring just two points less than his more experienced team-mate Neil Verhagen.
Smolyar was the first to admit his 2018 did not meet his expectations, after a strong pre-season testing programme and an extremely strong first year out of karts.
“I don?t think that my whole debut season in?Eurocup was impressive,” Smolyar says. “It was partially impressive, but unfortunately, it didn’t go the way I wanted.
“I actually expected more, because the winter testing was very good. But many factors influenced the result of the season, like my inexperience on the track and working?with the team in general. I can?t say that the whole season was monotonous and without satisfying results. The first two rounds were good and then there was a small step backwards.
“But after about a month of work on myself, primarily on the psychological side, I improved and the second half of the season I raced quite successfully.”
The 17-year-old (although he carries himself like someone twice as experienced), is one of the leading prospects of the SMP Racing programme – Russia’s flagship driver stable which was instrumental in Sergey Sirotkin making his Formula 1 debut last year, as well as running a successful endurance team.
“I?ve joined the program quite recently, compared to other SMP Racing drivers,” explains Smolyar, who was born on the island of Sakhalin off Russia’s east coast, just north of Japan, before moving to Moscow. “It happened in 2015, when I won the Russian karting championship and SMP Racing showed interest in me.?Then in 2016, I took part in the European karting championships with the support of SMP Racing.
“Of course, without SMP Racing, I wouldn?t be able to take part in such competitions, because I don?t have such resources, so the program helps me a lot. And I am proud to be a part of SMP Racing – for me, it’s like being in the Russian national auto racing team. I am very glad that I am among the best of the best in the SMP Racing programme.”?
Smolyar was one of two SMP-backed drivers entered into Eurocup at the start of last year, with second-year driver Alexander Vartanyan placed at Arden Motorsport, while rookie Smolyar teamed up with Tech 1 Racing.
He earned points on debut at Paul Ricard, and then followed it up with a standout fourth-place finish at Monza the following weekend. He did get involved in unnecessary incidents, but he showed real flair and his racecraft, although inconsistent was spectacular at times.
Meanwhile, Vartanyan failed to register a point in the opening two rounds and was swapped out of the series in favour of another SMP protege Nikita Volegov.?Like most mid-season rookies, Volegov struggled to make an impression, leaving Smolyar as the last Russian standing in Eurocup for this year.
Fellow-SMP driver Robert Shwartzman has somewhat outshone Smolyar over the past couple of years, winning the Toyota Racing Series in 2018, as well as finishing third in Eurocup the year before, and third again in the final European Formula 3 season last year.
Shwartzman should be a good role model for Smolyar to follow. He entered Eurocup in 2016, with frontrunner Josef Kaufmann Racing, and had a mediocre rookie year, not too dissimilar from Smolyar’s first year – with the only major difference been the one podium Shwartzman managed to register. Like Smolyar, Shwartzman switched to R-ace GP for his second year in the championship. He took third in the series with 12 podiums, six of those race wins – the kind of form Smolyar will look to reach this year.
His 2019 has started brilliantly, with strong testing form, particularly in Paul Ricard, as he topped both days of the two-day test. However, after also showing good pace pre-season last year before disappointing, Smolyar is remaining cautiously optimistic.
“It doesn?t give me a certain confidence in anything,” Smolyar said when asked about his strong testing form. “As I know that my team-mates and rivals from other teams are also strong.
“Therefore, for me, test sessions are not a measure of my chances, but they were needed to make sure once again that everything is going fine. And, of course, this [strong pace] does not change my plan to work hard this season.”
Despite playing down his strong pre-season, Smolyar made it clear that winning the championship is his only goal for 2019, especially after switching to two-time defending teams’ champions R-ace GP.
“It will be?my second year with?a?French team and I like it,” Smolyar added. “Switching to another French team, I have only one goal, a quite obvious one – to win the championship. I believe that this team is very professional and it has its own special approach to so many things.
“We just started working together, I’m new and it takes time to make friends with everyone, but I’m sure that we will get along with the team. I am confident that R-ace GP can help me to win the championship title this season.”
Lots of drivers struggle to make the leap required in their second year, especially when the field is levelled and experience discounted with the introduction of a new car – and, in the case of the Eurocup this year, a new tyre supplier as Hankook takes over from Michelin. But the early indications point to Smolyar having all the tools available to assert himself as Russia’s next racing star.
D/O/B July 19, 2001
2018: 12th in FR Eurocup, 17th in FR NEC
2017: 3rd in Spanish F4 (7 wins, 6 poles, 3 fastest laps), 3rd in F4 NEZ (2 poles, 3 fastest laps)
2016: WSK Night Edition – OK winner, 6th in WSK Night Edition – KZ2, 7th in CIK-FIA European Championship – OK, 10th in WSK Super Master Series – OKJ, 12th in WSK Final Cup – OK, 14th in Trofeo delle Industrie – KZ2, 16th in WSK Champions Cup – OK
2015: Russian Kart champion – KFJ, Russian Winter Kart Cup winner – KFJ