Motorland Aragon 2012 marks the start of an important new chapter in the history of Renault Sport Technologies. Following a lengthy design phase, an intensive development campaign, the manufacture and subsequent delivery of the car to the 13 teams and initial collective testing, the new Formula Renault 3.5 is finally set to make its first competitive appearance. The question is, who will be the first driver to claim victory in the all-new single-seater? There are no shortage of candidates, both rookies and more experienced hands, on the eve of what promises to be quite a season.
As if the 26 drivers lining up in this year’s Formula Renault 3.5 Series did not already know, the recruitment of 2011 champion Robert Wickens to manufacturers DTM and the departures of Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo to Formula One’s Scuderia Toro Rosso have shown once more that a successful season in World Series by Renault’s blue-riband event can pave the way to the pinnacle of the motorsport pyramid.
With the arrival of the new Formula Renault 3.5, the 13 teams and 26 drivers have all had to start from scratch. A series of pre-season collective testing sessions gave everyone the chance to collect data and prepare for the campaign ahead, while also revealing that the revamped single-seater laps an average three seconds faster than its predecessor. That step-up in performance is down to a gleaming new V8 engine delivering 530bhp and to technological developments such as DRS and new carbon brakes.
On the evidence of the six days of collective testing held at Paul Ricard, Catalunya and Motorland Aragon, there are no clear title favourites, though the new boys made quite an impression, chief among them the 2010 Formula BMW Europe and 2011 Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 champion Robin Frijns (Fortec Motorsports). The young Dutchman was in no way overawed by the new car and looked especially determined to make a splash this year. Also getting themselves noticed were Denmark’s Kevin Magnussen (Carlin), the British Formula 3 International Series runner-up and a recent recruit to the McLaren Driver Development Programme, and Switzerland’s Nico Müller (International Draco Racing), the Formula Renault 2.0 Switzerland champion in 2009 and fourth in last season’s GP3 Series.
The rookies are sure to face tough competition from those drivers already familiar with FR 3.5 Series, who kept their cards pretty close to their chests during testing. Twelve members of the 26-strong field have taken part in at least one race in the category before and three of them – Alexander Rossi (Arden Caterham), Kevin Korjus (Tech 1 Racing) and Mikhail Aleshin (Team RFR) – have wins to their name. That trio in particular will be feared on the grid.
Third overall last season and the leading rookie, Rossi already has one foot in Formula One as a test driver for Caterham F1. Forming part of a team that is new to the event but has a successful history behind it, the Californian driver is thinking about nothing but a championship win. Korjus, three times a winner last year, also has designs on the title, while 2010 champ Aleshin has the same objective in mind as he seeks to get his career back on track with a young team out to establish itself at the highest level.
Two more to watch are Sam Bird (ISR) and Ferrari Driver Academy member Jules Bianchi (Tech 1 Racing). GP2 Series rivals last year, the two youngsters both have F1 duties this season, with Bird having signed for Mercedes AMG F1 Team and Bianchi for Sahara Force India, ensuring the spotlight will be fixed firmly on them in the months ahead.
Arthur Pic (Dams), Richie Stanaway (Lotus), Red Bull Junior Team driver Lewis Williamson (Arden Caterham), Walter Grubmuller (P1 Motorsport) and Daniil Move (P1 Motorsport) are just some of the other potential candidates, all of whom will be looking to make a fast start when the season gets under way with two races at Motorland Aragon on 5-6 May. Yet no matter who is laying down the markers in Spain next week, the 2012 FR 3.5 Series season is sure to prove an exceptional one.