The rise and fall of Formula Renault 3.5

It wasn't so long ago that Formula Renault 3.5 could boast a higher quality field than GP2, but now the series looks to be facing an existential threat, as Alice Felton explains.

The rise and fall of Formula Renault 3.5
Meindert van Buuren, Lotus leads at the start
Race winner Giorgio Pantano and Lewis Hamilton GP2 Series Champion
Dean Stoneman, DAMS and Matthieu Vaxivière, Lotus
Oliver Rowland, Fortec Motorsports celebrates with his team
Robin Frijns
Race winner Stoffel Vandoorne, ART Grand Prix
Abu Dhabi GP2 testing
Stoffel Vandoorne, ART Grand Prix
Pierre Gasly, DAMS
Start Race 3: Charles Leclerc, Van Amersfoort Racing Dallara F312 Volkswagen leads

Since Renault took over the championship a decade ago, the fortunes of Formula Renault 3.5 have varied in its battle with GP2 to be considered the main feeder series to Formula 1.

At first, the latter clearly held the advantage – while the first two seasons of GP2 in 2005 and 2006 oozed quality, reflected by champions Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton now occupying the two most desirable seats in F1, Robert Kubica and Pastor Maldonado were the only drivers from the first two years of FR3.5 that went on to secure full-time seats at the highest level.

Racing under the noses of F1 team bosses and a calendar made up almost entirely of Grand Prix circuits made GP2 an attractive proposition for would-be F1 drivers, but attempts to keep the formula relevant to F1 led to spiralling costs, providing the cheaper FR3.5 with an opportunity.

FR3.5 gains ground

Red Bull increasingly favoured FR3.5 over GP2 to place its junior drivers, starting with Sebastian Vettel in 2007, and by 2011 the quality at the sharp end of the field had approached that of the official feeder series, which began to suffer from a surfeit of lingering pay drivers.

That was followed by two seasons in which FR3.5 held a definitive edge as such prodigious talents as Robin Frijns, Jules Bianchi, Kevin Magnussen, Antonio Felix da Costa and Stoffel Vandoorne did battle at the front.

By contrast, the two corresponding years of GP2 were won by Davide Valsecchi and Fabio Leimer, in their fifth and fourth seasons respectively, both of whom then failed to secure F1 drives.

That proved to be the high point for FR3.5, which has since struggled to attract the same strength in depth, failing to fill its 24-car grid in time for its opening round for the second year in a row last weekend at Aragon.

Superlicence points blow

Perhaps this wasn't by chance, as this season marked the first year in which the new-for-2016 F1 superlicence points system had been known to drivers before signing contracts.

While GP2 drivers can reach the all-important 40-point threshold finishing as runner-up or placing fourth two years in a row, the FR3.5 champion is only awarded 30 points.

Some have viewed this as a none-too-subtle attempt to slim down the bloated single seater ladder by the FIA, which has controversially assigned its own European Formula 3 championship more superlicence points than FR3.5 despite the gulf in performance between the two categories.

As a result, even Red Bull has reverted to placing its leading junior driver in GP2, Pierre Gasly becoming the first man to don the famous colours of the Austrian energy drink giant in the category since Sebastien Buemi in 2008 as part of the most competitive grid seen in the series for years.

And with the rung immediately below F1 set to get more crowded with the introduction of a new Formula 2 series paying as many as 60 superlicence points, FR3.5's prospects of remaining a top destination for F1 hopefuls in years to come now look rather bleak.

Vaxiviere aiming for Formula Renault 3.5 title after Aragon win

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A Fortec Motorsports one-two in Monaco practice

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