Home Featured Why World Series Formula V8 3.5 finally burned out

Why World Series Formula V8 3.5 finally burned out

by Ida Wood

World Series Formula V8 3.5 is the latest in a long line of championships and races that have lived a finite existence.

In 2015 out went Formula Renault 2.0 Alps, with the Masters of Formula 3 doing the same a year later. After 2018, European Formula 3 and GP3 will follow suit.

As it stands now, the only junior single-seater championships at F3 level or above going into 2019 with more than 20 uninterrupted years of existence are Japanese F3, Indy Lights and FIA Formula 2, which previously existed as GP2, International F3000 and European F2, the name it ran under when originally conceived in 1967.

Technically, the current F2 has only been in existence for one season, and even then, the FIA prefix was little more than a branding feature until this year.

Championships have to evolve, be replaced, or die, so new ones can come and flourish in their place.

Would the current BRDC British F3, nee BRDC F4, have flourished had the ‘original’ British F3 not have died in 2014?

It is sad to see a championship end, especially one which had established a large fan base thanks to its old tack of charging fans nothing to attend races, but it’s the way of life.

Photo: GEPA pictures/Dutch Photo Agency/Sebastiaan Rozendaal

There are many championships in junior single-seaters, and while one may mourn their favourite, they’ll more likely than not eventually be gushing over the latest that motorsport has to offer.

Races from years gone by can be found on YouTube and motorsport subreddits, and anyone who still wants to see the Dallara T12 car or any of its predecessors in action can attend a round of the BOSS GP championship.

FV8 3.5, a former powerhouse in single-seaters, did burn out though, and it did so for a number of reasons.

Think back to October 2011. Carlin team-mates Robert Wickens and Jean-Eric Vergne were both fighting it out for the Formula Renault 3.5 title, as it was then known, and headed into the final round of the season at Barcelona separated by two points.

After a near double win for Alexander Rossi in the opening round at Aragon, the championship became a two-horse race between the Marussia-backed Wickens and Red Bull junior Vergne.

At the second round of the season at Spa-Francorchamps they took a first and a second each, with Vergne’s win being earned after the Frenchman closed down a gap his team-mate had built up, and then overtaking the Canadian at Les Combes in a move that left millimetres to spare.

Wickens had to lock up both front wheels to avoid contact, but showed no bad blood towards Vergne, and high fived his team-mate after the race.

Both struck problems at Monza, but Vergne still left the weekend with a win and the championship lead, which came off the back of a thrilling battle with fellow Red Bull junior Daniel Ricciardo. Vergne won the race with half of his front wing scraping against the ground, although the trophy only became his four months later at Paul Ricard after a penalty for cutting Monza’s Roggia chicane was overturned.

The overturning of the penalty tightened up the championship battle, as Wickens had a weekend to forget in France. His 34-point lead, which he had procured through a double win at Silverstone, one at the Nurburgring and a further two podiums, was reduced to two points.

Wickens had let the overturning of the penalty “get under my skin”, and finished second to Vergne in the first race. A restless Wickens qualified down in seventh for the second encounter, and finished 19th after getting a puncture from contact.

The Barcelona season finale was full of drama, and meant the title fell safely into Wickens’s hands.

In the first race Vergne qualified ninth after using the mandated low drag setup, but finished in second, albeit over 20 seconds behind his team-mate. With the points gap between the pair increased once again, Vergne went into the final race with the sole intention of taking his sixth win of the season.

Photo: GEPA pictures/Mario Kneisl

A fast-starting Anton Nebylitskiy led to a cautious Wickens braking early into turn one on the first lap, which helped Vergne slip down the inside. Vergne’s front left wheel slammed into Wicken’s sidepod, but most of the damage was inflicted upon his own trackrod. A second similar impact a turn later from Wickens did the same, and Wickens’ out-of-control machine had then knocked Nathanael Berthon into an aerial roll.

Both retired, although Vergne made it further into the race before being spun out, and the title was Wickens’.

Vergne was obviously frustrated with the outcome of the championship, but he still maintains a relationship with Wickens, who looks back on his time in FR3.5 very fondly.

Meanwhile in GP2, former Renault Formula 1 driver Romain Grosjean had already wrapped up the title, marking the end of a career in the championship that started in 2008.

Second place in the standings seemed to be one of the most undesired positions, with a number of highly rated drivers throwing away their chance, and for some, a headstart for a future F1 career.

Through came Luca Filippi, in his sixth season of GP2, and with the backmarker Scuderia Coloni team.

He won three of the last eight races, having only scored points twice in the first ten, and ended up beating Jules Bianchi, Sam Bird, Dani Clos and Giedo van der Garde to name but a few.

GP2 was not an all-out bore every weekend, but the level of competition at the front was simply deficient, and it’s no wonder that Wickens still gushes about his time in FR3.5 to this day [see box].

Robert Wickens on his 2011 FR3.5 title battle with Jean-Eric Vergne

When me and Vergne were team-mates in FR3.5 at Carlin in 2011, it was insane what levels we bought each other to to beat each other.

There’s no question that Carlin obviously had a very good car that year, but I honestly think that me and JEV pushing each other every session to be better than each other in every session [made the difference], because were both at such a high level all year.

I would be driving well, he would be driving well. You’re never faster than your team-mate in every corner. You’re always taking something. We were both looking at data.

He’s one of the very few drivers I’ve come across that could see your data, then the next session replicate exactly what you were doing.

So if you had an advantage in one turn, the next session it wasn’t there anymore. I don’t know how many poles we got at Carlin that year, I want to say it was something like 13 or 14 out of the 17 races. I had seven. It was just a crazy, crazy year. We won five races each. 10 of the 17. It was crazy.

Interview by Tom Errington

All championships have good seasons and dud ones, but this was a time when 3.5 really was the better of the two primary F1 feeders.

Helmut Marko, head of the Red Bull Junior Team, has had a general reluctance to place his proteges in GP2, and of his 16 drivers he put in FR3.5 between 2006-17, eight of them finished in the top three in standings and/or made it to F1 with Red Bull backing. Of them, only Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley then spent time in GP2 before making the step up to F1.

DAMS also announced their interest in re-entering the championship in 2011, having entered for a sole season in 2005 with little success, and did so with the intention of making it a feeder team to their GP2 squad. Of the seven drivers that raced for the FR3.5 team between 2012-’15, two won the championship and went straight to F1, and none continued with the French team to GP2.

Wickens didn’t make it to F1, but when you hear about Carlin boss Trevor Carlin describing Vergne as one of the very best drivers he ever had, you know that the Canadian must have been performing at an extraordinary level.

FR3.5 may not have been on the F1 support bill, but it worked it to its advantage for a long time, as it sat at the top of the World Series by Renault circus that travelled the world and became one of the rare sellout events for many circuits.

The champion also received a prize test in an F1 car, something GP2/F2 has never promised, and Renault occasionally utilised the championship leader for their Roadshow, which normally included F1 demos.

Most successful World Series Formula V8 3.5 graduates (FV8 3.5 stats in italics)
Sebastian Vettel, Germany – 2010, ’11, ’12 & ’13 Formula 1 world champion, 5th in 2007, 15th in 2006
Fernando Alonso, Spain – 2005 & ’06 Formula 1 world champion, 1999 champion
Will Power, Australia – 2014 IndyCar champion, 7th in 2005
Simon Pagenaud, France – 2016 Indycar champion, 2006 Atlantic champion, 16th in 2005
Daniel Ricciardo, Australia – 3rd in 2014 & ’16 Formula 1, 2nd in 2010, 5th in 2011, 34th in 2009
Justin Wilson, Britain – 2nd in 2006 & ’07 Champ Car, 4th in 2002
Edoardo Mortara, Italy – currently 4th in 2017-18 Formula E, 2009 & ’10 Macau GP winner, 2010 Formula 3 Euro Series champion, GP2 racewinner, 24th in 2009
Robert Kubica, Poland – 4th in 2008 Formula 1, 2008 Canadian GP winner, 2nd in 2005 Macau GP, 2005 champion
Heikki Kovalainen, Finland – 7th in 2007 & ’08 Formula 1, 2008 Hungarian GP winner, 2nd in 2005 GP2, 2004 champion, 2nd in 2003
Sam Bird, Britain – currently 1st in 2017-18 Formula E, 2nd in 2013 GP2, 3rd in 2012
Alexander Rossi, USA – 7th in 2017 IndyCar, 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner, 2nd in 2015 GP2, 3rd in 2011, 11th in 2012
Carlos Sainz Jr, Spain – 9th in 2017 Formula 1, 2014 champion, 19th in 2013

This created a lot of publicity for Renault, which actually only branded the engines used in FR3.5 rather than make them themselves. Publicity costs money though, and it was no easy job for Renault Sport to make WSR profitable.

It was the publicity that initially attracted the French manufacturer, which previously ran in Eurosport’s popular early 2000s ‘Super Racing Weekends’, an umbrella title for a calendar shared between the FIA’s GT and European Touring Car championships, with the Formula Renault V6 Eurocup, which counted Jose Maria Lopez and Giorgio Mondini as its champions.

In 2005, Renault signed its own exclusive contract with Eurosport, and took over the World Series by Nissan championship, that had been running to broadly similar rules to the V6 Eurocup since 2002.

The WSR bill included the renamed FR3.5 series, the FR2.0 Eurocup and the Megane Eurocup Trophy, and was immediately popular, with all three grids amassing 20 cars with ease.

Although Nissan and championship promoter RPM Racing had started to internationalise the calendar in 2002, it was still a primarily Spanish-based championship before Renault took over. The 2005 calendar was a huge step up, with trips to two contemporary F1 circuits, including Monaco, and a never before attempted street race in Bilbao.

The Bilbao round was scrapped after one year, but grid sizes continued to hold strong, with some averaging in the mid-20s.

In 2010, Renault added a fourth championship to the WSR paddock. Formula 4 Eurocup 1.6, which is now known as French F4, initially held the slot, but was replaced by the Eurocup Clio championship from 2011 onwards.

All-time World Series Formula V8 3.5 statistics
Starts Wins Poles Fastest Laps Podiums Points
D Move 108 F Montagny 21 F Montagny 14 F Montagny 21 F Montagny 30 F Montagny 656
M Aleshin 103 R Zonta 10 H Kovalainen 13 R Zonta 10 E Orudzhev 22 A Burgueno 531
A Burgueno 90 O Rowland 10 K Magnussen 11 A Garcia 9 A Burgueno 21 A Garcia 495
J-C Ravier 72 E Orudzhev 9 T Scheckter 10 A Burgueno 9 A Garcia 20 M Vaxiviere 492
R Sarandeses 60 A Burgueno 8 D Ricciardo 10 H Kovalainen 9 O Rowland 20 O Rowland 488
A Garcia 60 A Garcia 7 P Fittipaldi 10 B Leinders 7 J-C Ravier 19 J-C Ravier 442
A Neblylitskiy 57 M Gene 7 O Rowland 9 D Ricciardo 7 M Vauxiviere 19 E Orudzhev 424
F Fauzy 57 H Kovalainen 7 M Giao 8 R Wickens 7 M Giao 17 R Nissany 417
M Pavlovic 55 A F da Costa 7 R Wickens 8 J Bianchi 7 K Magnussen 16 K Magnussen 380
P Di Sabatino 55 C Sainz Jr 7 C Sainz Jr 7 B Hartley 7 H Kovalainen 15 M Aleshin 379

The Megane Trophy ended in 2013, with the Clios doing the same a year later. They were replaced by the short-lived Renault Sport Trophy, a single make championship that used the high-performance Renault Sport R.S. 01 GT3 car.

After Renault ended their association with FR3.5 in 2015, the RS Trophy became the top tier of the WSR paddock.

It only lasted one year in that role, as the idea of giving a GT car its own one-make championship without proving it on the international stage first proved to be a faulty one. With it not being based on a production car, the research and development costs of the R.S. 01 dwarfed the revenue made from sales to RS Trophy competitors, who desired to race their machines elsewhere.

Renault switched their resources to the inception of the RS Trophy at a time when GT racing, and specifically GT3 was at a high point. Single-seaters, although in no weak shape, was still wallowing in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

In 2014 British F3 came to a sorry end, having been a mainstay of the motorsport world since 1951, and both the Catherham and Marussia F1 teams failed to make it to the end of the 2014 season without encountering crippling financial troubles.

A year later the Lotus, nee Renault, F1 team went bankrupt, and the FR2.0 Alps championship ended after 14 years of existence. Renault itself was also being publicly scorned by Red Bull Racing, its engine partner in F1 since 2007, and which it had won four consecutive world championships with from 2010-’13.

On July 24 2015, it was revealed that Renault Sport would withdraw its backing of Formula Renault 3.5 at the end of the season.

Earlier in the year, the FIA had properly floated the idea of a new Formula 2 championship for the first time as the endgame for its streamlining of single-seaters, and had revealed an FIA Super License points system, partly in response to the promotion of Max Verstappen to Toro Rosso, that heavily favoured the non-existent championship. GP2 scored slightly lower than FIA F2, but as the greatest qualifying existing championship and one of four to offer automatic qualification for a Super Licence, with FV8 3.5 awarding to its champion only 60% of the points that GP2 did.

After several F1 drivers called for a more generous points allocation for FV8 3.5, a change was made to its tally, and it increased to 70% of GP2’s. But it did still not offer automatic qualification, and the initial shunning by the FIA, coupled with the federation’s desire to have its own championship at that level, did not inspire confidence in Renault or its FV8 3.5 customers.

In 2011, when the Super Licence points system was non-existent, the then FR3.5 championship was a real rival to GP2. Both were high-performance championships with a strong variety of circuits and drivers, and used traditionally durable tyres.

GP2/F2 has since moved to the shorter-life tyres that Pirelli provides, and last year gained FIA support. Renault foresaw this occurring, and knew there was realistically no room for a rival category that didn’t have those characteristics.

There were other reasons touted at the time for the cutting of support, including the rumoured return to F1, which did in fact occur in 2016, and its increasing investment and involvement in the Renault e.dams FIA Formula E team.

Photo: Jean Michel Le Meur/DPPI

Two weeks before Renault’s decision regarding FV8 3.5 went public, the FIA revealed that Bruno Michel’s GP2 Series Ltd. had made an bid to become the promoter of the proposed F2 championship. Come 2017 and the championship was a reality, and run by Michel.

Renault decided against making an offer, as it believed ‘the terms of the tender placed too great a commercial strain on the promoter’. In other words, there was no gain in Renault running a championship without its name on it.

Once Renault’s departure was confirmed, it began discussions with the teams and its promotion partner RPM on what the future of the FV8 3.5 championship should be.

The teams lobbied for increased prize money, including a €200,000 prize for the rookie champion, and a raise in the rev limit of the engines, with the intention of making the Dallara T12 one of the fastest single-seater cars outside of F1.

These were all moves to make the championship even more attractive to prospective drivers, and the amended Super Licence points allocation was maintained despite the loss of Renault.

Two months later, RPM confirmed it had sole control of the championship, on a three year contract, and announced the changes it would be making to ensure the championship survived.

“The philosophy of this new single-seater championship will be the same as when I unveiled and created Formula Nissan in 1998, the World Series by Nissan and Formula Renault 3.5: more affordable, more epic and faster,” said RPM boss Jaime Alguersuari Sr.

Photo: GEPA/Dutch Photo Agency/Diederik van der Laan

A provisional calendar was also revealed, seperate of WSR, and included six contemporary F1 circuits, although without the Monaco Grand Prix support slot, which went to the FR2.0 Eurocup.

Of the ten teams that raced full-time in 2015, four returned, with the Comtec Racing outfit also continuing part-time.

DAMS switched to GP3, another short-lived project for the French team, and Carlin increased its F3 programme by debuting in Euroformula Open.

The Spanish-based championship, which has a striking resemblance to the early Nissan-backed years of FV8 3.5, was the place of origin of two of the new FV8 3.5 teams, which wanted to compete in higher categories but did not have the budget to compete in GP2/F2.

RP Motorsport, a multi-discipline Italian team that was founded in 1998, is one of the most successful teams in EF Open history. Although it did not have the chance to get anywhere near that level of success in FV8 3.5, it still managed to win two races with Johhny Cecotto Jr and Roy Nissany.

For 2016, the EF Open team became a feeder to the FV8 3.5 squad, a system which team manager Niki Rocca believed to be far suprerior to the equivalent of running a team, or competing, in F2 and GP3.

Photo: Dutch Photo Agency

“I think that this is bullshit,” he told Formula Scout, gesticulating raining money with his arms in a rather novel way of describing the financial demands of being competitive in F2.

“Because it’s only blah, blah, blah. You know at the end if you have the budget you go to race there. Otherwise you stay at home.

“You are on the Formula 1 weekend, but F1 is here, and F2 paddock is in the field over there. You go to the pit lane at the last minute, quick session and then when you have finished, two minutes after, back to field.”

“No Hakkinen or Schumacher can burn their way through now. It’s a failed system.”

Contemporary examples of drivers “burning” their way to F1 often come as a result of being picked up by young driver programmes while racing in junior formulae.

Heikki Kovalainen, Stoffel Vandoorne and Pierre Gasly are good examples of drivers who used FR3.5, as it was then known, to demonstrate their talent, but required success in other categories before joining the F1 grid.

Four-time F1 world champion Sebastian Vettel entered 10 FR3.5 races, winning two of them, and it was his short time in the championship that helped convince BMW Sauber and Red Bull that he was ready for the top rung of the single-seater ladder.

Photo: GEPA pictures/Jens Galkow

In its two years since becoming independent of Renault, the championship has failed to attract any drivers affiliated with F1 junior teams, with the Russian SMP Racing being the only driver development scheme of note with a sustained participation.

Last year, the championship regained its ‘World Series’ status off the back of it joining the World Endurance Championship paddock. Trips to Mexico City, the Circuit of the Americas and Bahrain were included in the calendar, and Pietro Fittipaldi became the last ever person to drive the Porsche 919 Hybrid LMP1 car at speed as a reward for winning the championship.

Despite the WEC’s switch to a multi-year calendar for 2018-19, FV8 3.5 planned to continue as a support category, and a meeting between RPM and the teams at the Nurburgring in July of last year left a positive mood.

Several of the teams believed the partnership to be beneficial, with one commenting to Formula Scout that it believed the WEC’s calendar change would increase interest from drivers.

The writing was already on the wall though. All but one of the 2016 teams committed to 2017, but it came apparent that the WEC deal, which brought the championship further away from F2, made finding drivers with budget all the more difficult. Of the 15 drivers that competed for the title this year, only 10 started more than 85% of the races.

Comtec and Durango Racing remained on the entry list at the start of the year, but failed in their search for drivers, while Arden Motorsport, the 2016 team champion, called it quits two months before the season began.

Youngest ever winners of a World Series Formula V8 3.5 race

Fernando Alonso, Spain – 17 years, 7 months and 27 days
Antonio Garcia, Spain 17 years, 10 months and 20 days
Kevin Korjus, Estonia – 18 years, 3 months and 8 days
Charles Pic, France – 18 years, 3 months and 10 days
Matevos Isaakyan, Russia – 18 years, 6 months and 12 days
Miguel Molina, Spain – 18 years, 8 months and 3 days
Sergey Sirotkin, Russia – 18 years, 10 months and 1 day
Louis Deletraz, Switzerland – 18 years, 11 months and 25 days
Sebastian Vettel, Germany – 19 years and 13 days
Tomas Scheckter, South Africa – 19 years, 1 month and 16 days
Robert Wickens, Canada – 19 years, 2 months and 26 days
Adrian Valles, Spain – 19 years, 3 months and 8 days

“We don’t think there’s room at the top [rung of the junior ladder] for F2 and FV8 3.5,” Arden general manager Julian Rousse told Autosport at the time.

There were many reasons why World Series Formula V8 3.5 ended: the volatility of the single-seater landscape, the FIA’s ambition to streamline junior formulae, the end of Renault’s support in 2015, the decision to partner the WEC, or as RP Motorsport boss Nika Rocca put it, the fact that talent “couldn’t burn their way through” anymore.

They all combined to extinguish FV8 3.5, with the depleted 2017 grid providing a fitting epilogue to a 20 year story.

Although if you read carefully into Alguersuari’s closing statement for the championship, which summarised many of the points presented in this article, it suggests that the door may still be open for a return in the future…

“The continuous and alarming drop in the number of driver entries in the main European single-seater series has forced World Series Formula V8 3.5 to withdraw from the 2018 season racing calendar.

However, and according to the figures achieved so far, we at RPM-MKTG are very proud of being the promoters of the most successful single-seater series in the last 20 years.

Starting with the brand-new Formula Nissan in 1998, our commitment and goals went much bigger as Formula Renault 3.5 Series was created in 2005. As a result, 25 drivers have reached the pinnacle of motorsport – that is, Formula One – in this era. Stars such as Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel, Carlos Sainz and Daniel Ricciardo are some of them.

This huge success has been achieved thanks to the emotional spirit of a single concept: ‘the power of dreams’.

Since 1998 we have shared our dreams with hundreds of friends, team owners, engineers, mechanics, racing drivers and, above all, with the drivers’ relatives. They have made the careers of all those young talents possible by means of their unlimited sacrifice.

RPM’s original idea was helping parents and relatives build driver careers by providing the best possible single-seater at the lowest cost.

In the recent years no other series nor championship in any continent has been able to match the unbeatable cost/performance ratio of FV8 3.5. Unfortunately, neither FV8 3.5 nor any other top single-seater series in the world have reached the ideal number of participating drivers in 2017.

Nevertheless, RPM wants to announce that will keep track of evolution of all European-based single-seater series, their associated costs and participation figures. Should teams, drivers and sponsors scenarios change in the near future, a FV8 3.5 comeback is not to be dismissed.”

Photo: Dutch Photo Agency