Formula Renault 3.5's Battle of Britain
It may lack the strength in depth of its rival series GP2, but two names stand out in this year’s Formula Renault 3.5 entry list – and both are British. Jamie Klein surveys the field.
Having arguably taken the upper hand over GP2, it's fair to say that the past 18 months have been difficult for Formula 1's other main feeder series.
As recently as 2013 – when Kevin Magnussen, Antonio Felix da Costa and Stoffel Vandoorne filled the first three spots in the standings – Formula Renault 3.5 possessed a higher quality field, at least at the sharp end, compared with its rival championship, but that is certainly no longer the case.
While GP2 is awash with F1-backed juniors of the highest calibre, not least of all Vandoorne, there are arguably only two real standout drivers to be found in FR3.5 this season.
Rowland vs Stoneman
The first is Fortec's Oliver Rowland, twice a winner in the series last year in his rookie season. The speed he displayed in 2014, in between suffering more than the occasional technical gremlin, means the Racing Steps Foundation-backed 22-year-old has to start as title favourite this time around.
Rowland's sternest opposition is likely to come from fellow Brit Dean Stoneman, who joins the DAMS squad that took Carlos Sainz Jr to title honours last year.
Stoneman has acquired the backing of Red Bull following a stellar end to his GP3 campaign last year, when the 24-year-old took over Carmen Jorda's Koiranen GP seat for the final two events, winning two of the four races in a car that had hitherto failed to finish higher than 17th.
Others worth watching
Beyond the British duo, other potential title contenders are rather thin on the ground, though that isn't to say there aren't a few other interesting talents worth keeping an eye on.
One of these is Stoneman's teammate Nyck de Vries, who steps up to FR3.5 after taking two-litre Eurocup title honours in 2014. The pressure will be on the McLaren junior to make an immediate impact in the senior category, much like his predecessor Pierre Gasly, Sainz's closest rival last year.
Several of de Vries' rivals have also made the leap up, including Bruno Bonifacio (Draco), Egor Orudzhev (Arden) and Aurelien Panis (Tech 1), the son of 1996 Monaco Grand Prix winner Olivier.
Among the more seasoned campaigners, Lotus' Matthieu Vaxiviere has performed well in testing and is well placed to build on a very solid rookie campaign last year, while Tio Ellinas (Strakka) and Tom Dillmann (Carlin) have both demonstrated their speed in other categories.
A familiar name
Then there's the rather more known quantity that is Roberto Merhi, who was third in the championship last year and will dovetail his Manor F1 commitments with a return to the series for the unproven Pons Racing squad.
In many ways, it's a shame that Rowland and Stoneman aren't able to test themselves against the likes of Vandoorne, Gasly and the other talents that make up this year's impressive GP2 field.
That said, F1 teams have done an admirable job of giving the cream of the FR3.5 crop the chances they deserve at motorsport's highest level in recent years – a trend that will hopefully continue as two of Britain's finest young prospects do battle at the head of a somewhat weakened field.
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Formula Renault 3.5 Series Matthieu Vaxiviere on top at Alcañiz