Home Featured Where Formula Renault is headed next, and how it got there

Where Formula Renault is headed next, and how it got there

by Elliot Wood

Photos: DPPI

It happened two years later than planned, but the Formula Renault Eurocup is now officially no more after last weekend’s Paul Ricard races. What does that mean for FRenault’s future, and what to make of its past?

The full history of Formula Renault stretches back 50 years to 1971, when French FRenault took the place of Formula France. It kept that series’ open-chassis formula, but with all designs having to fit a spec Renault engine in, and ran a 22-race inaugural season which incorporated three French Grand Prix venues.

Drivers in Alpine, Martini and Tecno cars won races that year, and it was Michel Leclere who won the very first race at Albi and then the title in an Alpine chassis. A relationship that had begun with the marque in FFrance continued into FRenault and then French Formula 3, where Leclere was 1972 champion, and he stayed with Alpine when he progressed to Formula 2.

Defecting to March for his second F2 season brought more success, but he then returned to Alpine and claimed a famous win from 19th on the grid at the Salzburgring in his Renault-powered car.

Alpine was influential at the start of FRenault’s life, and in Renault’s participation in all levels of single-seaters in the 1970s, and it’s influence has returned in 2020 as the Renault Formula 1 team rebrands itself to Alpine for next year. This was one of the accelerating factors in merging the Eurocup, which has run since 1991, with its Regional F3 rival Formula Regional European Championship for next year. In FREC’s new era, Renault’s engines will be used with an Alpine badge.

FRenault started off as a 1.3-litre formula, but boosted engine sizes to 1.6L for its second season in France, and then to 1721cc units in 1989. It adopted 2.0L regulations in 1995, and it was these road car-sourced engines that sent the category global, with FR2.0 the basis of 15 national championships in three continents, as well as the Eurocup’s Asian counterpart.

Alpine cars aren’t sold in Asia, where the last remaining official FR2.0 series is. Formula Scout can reveal that the Formula Renault Asiacup, which had already been reduced to a single round at Zhuhai in December by the coronavirus pandemic, has now been cancelled in its entirety for 2020 due to customs restrictions.

It tried to follow the Eurocup this year in leaving the FR2.0 category to instead cater for the FIA’s Regional F3 regulations, but didn’t make a success of it like the Eurocup did. The idea was for Asian F3 teams to use their Tatuus T-318 cars in the FR Asiacup during that championship’s off-season, swapping out their Alfa Romeo engines for Renault ones to do so, while grids also remained open to those with the latest generation of FR2.0 machinery.

The series landed a Vietnamese Grand Prix support slot, and the Renault ‘Road to Champion’ scheme evolved to reward the best Hong Kong-born driver in the points with a drive in the next Motorsport Games Formula 4 Cup. COVID-19 put paid to all of that, with the introduction of F3 cars swiftly pushed back to 2021 after so little pick-up by Asian F3 or Asiacup teams.

The existing Asiacup teams had to sell their FR2.0 cars to afford the upgrade, but there wasn’t much of a market to sell to even before the pandemic, and the Asiacup had already conceded to allowing the older generation FR2.0 cars back in.

When Renault originally attempted to pull the plug on the Eurocup at the end of 2018 after losing out on the FIA’s tender to be the ‘official’ Regional F3 series in Europe – before deciding to crack on with a F3 series of its own anyway – it signed contracts with the Asiacup and Northern European Cup organisers to maintain their Renault Sport support for two more seasons.

The renamed Formula NEC looked like it would benefit strongly from the move, with the Eurocup vacating FR2.0 surely meaning drivers without the budget for F3 would flock there. It even had a support slot at the Pau Grand Prix. But there was no driver interest and the series closed its doors two months just three months after its season finale.

The series manager said to Formula Scout at the time that this left 40 race-ready FR2.0 cars with nowhere to go.

A 2019 season did go ahead in Asia, albeit with only five full-time entries, but the loss of the 2020 season doesn’t mean an end to Renault support. FR Asiacup told Formula Scout that not only will it have another two years of manufacturer backing, but it will also maintain the FRenault name. So if, as expected, the Asian F3 teams don’t come flocking in and the Asiacup teams don’t sell on their FR2.0 stock, then FRenault as a category will live on into a new decade.

All-time FR2.0 France/Western European Cup statistics
Wins (drivers) Wins (makes) Points
J Gouhier 13 E Comas 9 Martini 281 Gouhier 489 S Gautre 297
A Cudini 12 E Collard 9 Tatuus 148 Pilet 484 B Jouanny 292
J Laffite 12 J Beltoise 9 Mygale 24 Groppi 474 S Pagenaud 291
A Prost 12 P Renault 8 Alpa 22 Cudini 447 Salignon 283
L Lasserre 12 L Faure 8 Alpine 18 Laffite 444 J Coche 277
O Couvreur 11 D Ricciardo 8 Orion 5 Lasserre 430 J-C Dutrey 277
R Grosjean 11 E Salignon 7 Tecno 4 M Zangarelli 397 R Dubos 275
A Ferte 10 P Pilet 7 Lola 3 Beltoise 359 Y Clairay 275
S Enjolras 10 L Groppi 7 Hampe 1 Grosjean 340 Couvreur 265
Y Dalmas 9 A Costa 7 Elise 1 G Moraeu 333 A Bourdon 264

There’s also a new series in Europe that seems to have successfully catered for both of FRenault’s modern identities, but enough about the future. Back to the very beginning, and the drivers and circuits that put FRenault on the map…

The increase in engine capacity to 1.6L for French FRenault’s second season in 1972 had surprisingly little effect on the competitive order, with the Alpine and Martini runners still evenly matched in cars where getting the most out of the engine and having the right suspension contributed most to laptime as there were no aerodynamic appendages.

This time it was Martini-driving Jacques Laffite, already a factory Ligier driver and soon after a winner in the World Endurance Championship and then F1, who claimed the title ahead of Alpine runner Alain Cudini.

Such was French FRenault’s popularity that there was already a sister series that year, and Cudini struck back against Laffite in the first season of the Formula Renault European Challenge. This was the Eurocup before the Eurocup existed.

Four French rounds had been packed into the first two weeks of May before most of the paddock headed to Spanish Grand Prix venue Jarama for the first ever FR Euro Challenge race, which was won by Cudini.

He did it again a week later at Jyllandsringen in Denmark, a country never visted again by continental FRenault racing.

Laffite won round three at Hockenheim, but Cudini claimed the title by winning the Paul Ricard season finale. It was that circuit, on the same day, that Laffite beat Cudini to win the French title.

The French series was dropped for 1973 and ’74, the only times it would not be held until it folded in early 2010 (by then under the FR2.0 Western European Cup name) when the combination of an unpopular new spec car from Barazi-Epsilon, the global financial crisis and the closing of its two biggest teams led to a reported bankruptcy.

FR Euro Challenge had F1 support slots by its second season, and added Belgium, Italy, Great Britain and Monaco to its calendar. It remained a French driver’s domain though, with not a single international driver making the top 10 in the points during its six-season run.

Rear wings appeared on cars in 1975, with aerodynamics appearing ahead of the front wheels shortly after.

Rene Arnoux, who won the title on victory countback against future Ferrari F1 team-mate Patrick Tambay in 1973, and Didier Pironi were both double champions, and Alain Prost claimed the final series crown in 1977.

A year earlier Prost dominated the French championship, winning the first 12 rounds and only being beaten to victory once, by Patrick Piget in the Imola season finale.

Victor Rosso won the first Argentinian title in 1980, and a year later American Kurt Thiel became the first non-Frenchman to win in Europe with victory in a French round at the Nurburgring.

Six years later compatriot Ron Emmick also broke the top 10 in the points, and when FRenault UK was created in 1989 it meant there was finally another nationality other than France or Argentina on the top step in a FRenault race. Britain’s Neil Riddiford won most of the races, but South African Gino Ussi also took a victory.

This was end of France’s totalitarian grip on the category, as it was exported to Germany, the Netherlands and Spain in 1991 and the top drivers from the five national series got together for three races that marked the start of the FR Eurocup.

That start was immediately dominated by a Britain, with future British Touring Car Championship legend Jason Plato winning the first ever two races for Van Diemen, before France’s Pierre Derode struck back in his Alpa in the final encounter.

All-time Formula Renault European Challenge statistics
Wins (drivers) Wins (makes) Points
D Pironi 22 J Coche 2 Martini 79 Pironi 558 S Saulnier 213
R Arnoux 15 J Laffite 1 Alpine 9 Snobeck 504 Tambay 167
A Couderc 10 M Bochet 1 Lola 7 Dallest 405 Prost 157
D Snobeck 9 R Dallest 1 Eurocup Sourd 359 Ragnotti 148
A Cudini 6 Tatuus 304 Arnoux 326 P Piget 147
P Tambay 6 Barazi-Epsilon 44 Couderc 300 C Michy 113
A Prost 6 Van Diemen 15 J-L Bousque 234 Bochet 92
M Sourd 5 Alpa 11 Cudini 231 P Langlois 92
J Ragnotti 4 Martini 8 Coche 223 X Mathiot 85
J Coulon 3 Mygale 3 Coulon 218 C Ethuin 67

British team Manor won the inaugural Spanish FRenault title with Antonio Albecete too, while Fortec Motorsports established itself as a single-seater force with back-to-back UK titles.

The Eurocup ran once again in a loosely connected three-race format in 1992, with Spanish champion Ricardo Galiano winning on home turn at Jarama, FRenault Germany runner-up Patrick Bernhardt did the same at the Nurburgring, and then Pedro de la Rosa being named overall ‘champion’ by defeating the best of the French runners at Estoril in Portugal.

As each series grew in stature, the decision was made to formalise the separate pan-European championship so it would visit all the countries now represented by their own teams.

The 1993 season kicked off at Barcelona, at that point still a fairly new venue, where Synergie Automobiles’s Olivier Couvreur started a run of wins that took him to the first ‘proper’ Eurocup title.

Two-race rounds were introduced in 1994, with Manor’s James Matthews sweeping the very first, also at Barcelona.

There was an even more important change to the series in 1995, as it became FR2.0. Two decades before becoming European Rallycross champion, Norway’s Tommy Rustad drove a RC Motorsport-run Tatuus to victory at Spa-Francorchamps, and that also marked the start of a new era as the Italian chassis builder grew in popularity.

In 1999 every winner used a Tatuus, and so it made logical sense for the marque’s next design to become the spec chassis for the Eurocup and its national counterparts.

That partnership lasted a decade in Europe, before Barazi-Epsilon took over in 2010. The French company only lasted three years in the position, with Tatuus making a popular return in 2013 with a car still used the world over today.

However, national FR2.0 series had all but gone by this point. The Dutch and German championships joined in 2006 to become FR NEC, the Swiss and Italian series merged to become FR2.0 Alps in 2011, and Estonia, France, Portugal, Scandinavia, Spain and the UK’s championships had all died out. FR2.0 mostly disappeared from the Americas too.

The Eurocup’s expanding calendar, and attractiveness, made contesting other FR2.0 series an unnecessary use of budget unless drivers were looking for additional mileage or an easier level of competition. All the more so when Renault decided drivers could only be registered for points in one series at a time.

In its final two seasons, FR NEC crowned champions with a best finish of third and eighth respectively, as the front of the field was occupied by drivers who were only totting up the points in their Eurocup campaigns.

FRenault 1.6 had also been created as a sub-category of FRenault by this point and had established itself across Europe as an entry-level formula for budding car racers. France called its series Formula 4 before actually adopting FIA F4 regulations in 2018, FR1.6 NEC ran to 2014, and Scandinavia actually continues to run its championship without Renault support – albeit after totally relaunching it last year following the bankruptcy of the Scandinavian Touring Car Championship during winter.

Taking into account all of the official FR2.0 and FR1.6 series that have taken place over the last 50 years, who were the drivers that made the biggest impact?

While Matthews today only makes headlines for being married to the sister of a princess or his role in the new ownership of the Williams F1 team, his junior racing career was hugely impressive and he was the Eurocup’s most successful driver through the 1990s and 2000s.

He was also a four-time winner in the French series, and he scored more wins than anyone else during FR2.0 UK’s 23-year existence. His tally of 16 wins was three more than what was achieved by F1 great Lewis Hamilton.

All-time Formula Renault Eurocup statistics
Wins (drivers) Wins (teams) Points
V Martins 15 M Ammermuller 6 R-ace GP 44 Martins 846.5 Speed 370
K Korjus 9 K Kobayashi 6 Koiranen GP 33 Colombo 537 Shwartzman 360
D Kvyat 9 D Ricciardo 6 J Kaufmann 28 C Collet 511 Y Ye 345.5
S Fenestraz 9 J Aitken 6 Tech 1 24 Fenestraz 487 S Vandoorne 337
J Matthews 8 R Shwartzman 6 MP 23 M Defourny 471.5 Matthews 336
E Bernoldi 8 L Colombo 6 Manor 22 de Vries 445 S Pagenaud 336
S Speed 8 E Salignon 5 JD 22 Fewtrell 439.5 A Smolyar 312
N de Vries 7 J Lancaster 5 Motopark 22 Piastri 430 Salignon 304
M Fewtrell 7 V Bottas 5 SG Formula 21 Kvyat 389 Aitken 292
O Piastri 7 A Costa 5 Epsilon Euskadi 19 W Palmer 374 O Rowland 288

Javier Diaz was a two-time Spanish champion in the ’90s, but he didn’t race abroad like Matthews did so it was hard to judge his skill against that decade’s best.

Nyck de Vries took a long time to find the conditions for success, but when he did he broke records in FR2.0 Alps and notched up a lot of Eurocup wins. However, the wait for that success stands against him. Other Italy/Alps graduates include Kamui Kobayashi and Pastor Maldonado, who had differing fortunes when it came to Eurocup success. Toyota junior Kobayashi’s comeback to win the 2005 title certainly made him stand out to the wider world.

Perhaps FRenault’s all-time great is 1977 French champion Joel Gouhier or his immediate predecessor Prost, who competed at the peak of the category’s Francophile period but still won a lot while at it.

The French theme isn’t just historic though, because the final ever Eurocup champion Victor Martins can also make a claim to be one of the best. He not only won as a rookie in a stacked field in the last year of FR2.0’s use, but he then mastered the series’ switch to Regional F3 rules and ultimately won 15 races in his three Eurocup seasons. Admittedly, this has come with the benefit of 20-race seasons in all three of those years.

Some drivers came through FR2.0 too quickly to build up impressive stats, with Robin Frijns for example turning up to FR2.0, winning the Eurocup title at his first attempt and getting the scholarship prize to step up to Formula Renault 3.5, where he won the title as a rookie too. That series fell in much the same way that FR2.0 and FR1.6 has, with the FIA’s own system of numerical junior formulaes taking over the market space.

Kimi Raikkonen did similar, winning the FR2.0 UK title as a rookie and then being picked up by Sauber to go straight to F1.

Despite the expansion of F3 and F4, teams have stayed loyal to Renault and its series. Manor’s 1990s success was followed by wins in the 2010s as a partner to MP Motorsport, and JD Motorsport was a regular winner in the open-chassis days.

It had a long winless spell, with some small reprieve via Chris van der Drift in 2006, but had to wait until the Regional F3 era to become a frontrunning Eurocup force again. It won the very first race under the new rulebook in 2019, and ran Spanish single-seater rookie David Vidales to a historic double win at Imola on his car racing debut this year.

Despite Vidales’ success coming at the very start of his career, the 18-year-old isn’t close to the top 10 list of youngest winners, with the record actually being held by Ugo de Wilde – who claimed JD’s sole 2019 win at Monza.

Seven other drivers have joined de Wilde in winning a Eurocup race before their 17th birthday, while Tom Blomqvist – son of World Rally champion Stig – was a FR2.0 Sweden winner aged 15 years, 8 months and 23 days.

Youngest ever winners of a Formula Renault Eurocup race

Ugo de Wilde, Belgium 16 years, 4 months and 24 days
Lando Norris, England – 16 years, 5 months and 3 days
Carlos Sainz Jr, Spain – 16 years, 7 months and 15 days
George Russell, England – 16 years, 8 months and 4 days
Christian Lundgaard, Denmark – 16 years, 8 months and 30 days
Oscar Tunjo, Colombia – 16 years, 9 months and 15 days
Sacha Fenestraz, France/Argentina – 16 years, 10 months and 1 day
Enrique Bernoldi, Brazil – 16 years, 11 months and 27 days
Daniil Kvyat, Russia – 17 years, 0 months and 5 days
Esteban Ocon, France – 17 years, 0 months and 12 days
Victor Martins, France – 17 years, 1 month and 6 days
Franco Colapinto, Argentina – 17 years, 1 month and 14 days

JD’s tally of 22 wins puts it joint sixth in the Eurocup’s all-time table, with R-ace GP way out in front on 44 wins. In the days of open-chassis competition, there were wins from Mygale and Van Diemen’s factory teams, but they were often focused as much on car development as winning races.

Motopark had a spell of dominance before it was expelled from the category, while the Finnish Koiranen brothers claimed 13 titles from their 11 years racing in various series across Europe.

Hong Kong’s BlackArts Racing has been the team to beat in Asia for several years now, and had plans that never came to fruition to expand into FR NEC in 2018.

Racing for Spain had similarly international ambitions in the ’90s, taking its home talents to anywhere they could race and win, and it ended up winning back-to-back FR2.0 UK titles. For two decades, FRenault was the category for bringing young talents into the spotlight, before they progressed to the higher demands of F3. And while that can be celebrated, now it is already on the road to being just a footnote of the past.

Most successful FRenault Eurocup graduates (Eurocup stats in italics)
Lewis Hamilton, Britain – 2008, ’14, ’15, ’17, ’18, ’19 &’20 F1 world champion, 5th in 2002, 12th in 2003
Valtteri Bottas, Finland – currently 2nd in 2020 F1, 2nd in 2019 F1, 3rd in 2017 F1, 2008 champion
Daniel Ricciardo, Australia – currently 6th in 2020 F1, 3rd in 2014 & ’16 F1, 5th in 2017 F1, 2nd in 2008
Charles Leclerc, Monaco – currently 5th in 2020 F1, 4th in 2019 F1, 13th in 2018 F1, NC in 2014
Robert Kubica, Poland – 4th in 2008 F1, 6th in 2007 F1, 12th in 2015 WRC, 2013 WRC2 champion, 7th in 2002, 14th in 2001
Andre Lotterer, Germany – 2011 Super Formula champion, 2006 & ’09 Super GT champion, 2012 WEC champion, 5th in 1999
Sebastien Bourdais, France – 2004, ’05, ’06, ’07 Champ Car champion, 17th in 2018 F1, 5th in 2020 IMSA, 10th in 1997
Simon Pagenaud, France – 2016 IndyCar champion, 2nd in 2017 & ’19 IndyCar, 2010 ALMS champion, 2nd in 2004, 3rd in 2003
Oriol Servia, Spain – 2nd in 2005 Champ Car, 4th in 2011 IndyCar, 6th in 2007 Champ Car, 19th in 2014-15 FE, 15th in 1995
Sebastien Buemi, Switzerland – 2014 & 2018-19 WEC champion, 2015-16 FE champion, 15th in 2011 F1, 11th in 2006
Jean-Eric Vergne, France – 2017-18 & ’18-19 FE champion, 13th in 2014 F1, 2nd in 2018 ELMS, 2nd in 2009, 6th in 2008