Another season of the European Formula 3 European Championship is about to begin, and once again Prema starts as title favourite.
The Italian squad has run the champion at this level every year since 2011, but even if that’s the case once more in 2017, there could well be a titanic scrap between its two lead drivers Maximilian Gunther and Callum Ilott – one that’s too close to call with any certainty on the eve of the opening round at Silverstone.
Betting against these two ultra-quick third-year F3 racers for the title would be brave, but not entirely stupid, and there are plenty of drivers that could give them a run for their money. As last year, there’s a focus on quality not quantity, with only 19 drivers, which are split between just five teams this time, but a number of them are potential race-winners. Last year we got 11, and don’t count against a similar figure this time.
Rule changes forcing each team to run a stock aerodynamic kit from Dallara and preventing development work in windtunnels should in theory only make things more open.
German, age 19, second in European F3 in 2016 – Gunther came out second-best against Lance Stroll last year, but now has one foot in the door in the Mercedes DTM setup and returns for another shot at the European F3 title, a success that would only leave him better placed in the German manufacturer’s plans. There’s little doubting his speed, instead it’s consistency and mental strength that need work, but at Prema he’s in the best place to improve that, particularly with Stroll no longer the focus of attention.
British, age 18, sixth in European F3 in 2016 – Ilott is only the third highest-placed driver from last season returning this year, but while Gunther and Joel Eriksson stay with the same teams, Ilott moves from Van Amersfoort to Prema, and thus potentially has more to gain. Given the rules reset, he’s playing down the significance of this, but where Prema is almost always strong is in getting the most out of a talented driver – something Ilott clearly is. That he dominated the Red Bull Ring test should leave everybody else worried, given Prema doesn’t usually show its hand during pre-season.
Guan Yu Zhou
Chinese, age 17, 13th in European F3 in 2016 – After a bright start – with podiums in his first two events – Zhou’s rookie season last year tailed off quite a bit, so there’s pressure this year to justify his Ferrari patronage, and moving to Prema will theoretically give him all he needs to perform. He’s unlikely to be joining Gunther or Ilott in challenging for the title, but a top six place is definitely a possibility, a hypothesis backed up by his pre-season testing form.
German, age 18, second in ADAC and Italian F4 in 2016 – There’s plenty of attention on Schumacher as he makes the step up to F3, but the results in his rookie season are unlikely to live up to the hype. Yes, he steps up having been only narrowly beaten to F4 titles in both Germany and Italy last year, and he’s driving for Prema, but the quality of returning drivers this year will make life tough for the F4 graduates in 2017, and a place in the top eight at season’s end should be considered respectable.
Estonia, age 19, seventh in European F3 in 2016 – Aron was a race-winner and looked a potential title contender early in his maiden F3 campaign last year, only to go missing mid-season before a mini recovery at the end. He had been highly-rated at Prema after his Italian F4 title success in 2015, but a switch to Hitech – guided by mentor Marko Asmer who was British F3 champion with the previous incarnation of the team – could get the best out of him at this level. His pre-season testing performances have been very muted, however.
Britain, age 22, eighth in GP3 in 2016 – After making the podium on his Hockenheim debut and a sixth place in Macau at the end of last year, Hughes makes a full-time switch to F3 this season. This could be seen as a step down from GP3, where he was twice a winner last term, but he quickly grew fond of the category through his Carlin cameos. At Hitech, he effectively replaces George Russell, and will hope to do what his fellow Briton couldn’t and provide a true title challenge. He’s got age and wisdom on his side.
Russia, age 18, 20th in European F3 in 2016 – Mazepin experienced a tough rookie season in F3 last year, but little was expected of a driver with only one unspectacular year in Formula Renault under his belt. He did show on occasion what he could do though – qualifying third on the grid at Spa and racing with his team-mates for points positions at the Hockenheim finale. It’s hard to know how big a step forward he can take this year, but scoring regularly has to be a target.
Japan, age 19, fifth in Japanese F3 in 2016 – Makino comes to Europe as an exciting prospect, having fought for the inaugural Japanese FIA F4 title in 2015 then held his own at F3 level last year, as well as shining on Super GT appearances with backer Honda. Even Prema was interested in his services before he landed with Hitech. There could be difficult moments during his rookie campaign, but don’t rule out some top results either.
Sweden, age 18, fifth in European F3 in 2016 – Last year’s top rookie (who was outscored only by Lance Stroll over the closing rounds of 2016) returns and a proper title challenge has to be his minimum target – something the BMW-affiliated Swede has made pretty clear by picking the number one for his car. The question is how easy things will be against the might of Prema and its own rapid drivers while he single-handedly leads the Motopark effort alongside a pair of very inexperienced team-mates.
Germany, age 17, 12th in Euroformula Open in 2016 – This is a rather early move into European F3 for Cologne-born, American-raised Andres, who raced for Carlin in Euroformula Open last year following a couple of years in USF2000 stateside. That year in Dallara F3 machinery should help, and he did show some ability with decent speed in the recent Toyota Racing Series.
Japanese, age 17, 18th in Italian F4 in 2016 – Sato makes a big step into European F3 after two seasons in Italian F4 with Vincenzo Sospiri’s now-eponymous team. He arguably showed better in his rookie season, when he finished a quite respectable 10th overall with a host of good points hauls, than he did last year when he was only 18th, but did score a reverse-grid win. It’s hard to see he or Andres being very far up in a quality field and testing has backed this up in both cases.
Van Amersfoort Racing
German, age 16, 15th in European F3 in 2016 – Beckmann has been building an exciting reputation over the past two seasons in F4 and F3 respectively, despite starting both campaigns late because he wasn’t old enough. Now, with some experience under his belt, the pressure’s going to be on to make good on that promise and net some consistent results. Based on the talent he’s shown so far, many will expect him to be Van Amersfoort’s lead challenger – and pick up where Verstappen, Leclerc and Ilott left off – despite being its youngest driver.
Britain, age 18, 18th in European F3 in 2016 – Unsurprisingly for a driver of so little experience, Newey’s rookie F3 campaign last year was far from easy, but there were some strong showings scattered across the season. He’s entering 2017 more prepared and probably a lot more confident after claiming the MRF Challenge title over the off-season. He’s also looked very quick in pre-season, fastest of all at the Hungaroring and generally up there with expected title contenders Ilott, Gunther and Eriksson, which hints at some considerable progress being made.
Brazil, age 18, 19th in European F3 in 2016 – Piquet’s 2016 season was not much different to Newey’s, although maybe more was expected of a driver with two titles under his belt in his homeland, even if it was his first full season in Europe. After a ragged European campaign, he got arguably his most impressive result of the year when he kept it clean in Macau for ninth place, and then came close to taking the Toyota Racing Series crown with a mature approach. Now he’ll need to show a step forward in terms of pace like the one Newey appears to have made.
Australia, age 21, ADAC F4 champion in 2016 – Funding limitations meant that even after delivering the ADAC F4 title for Van Amersfoort last year, the step up to F3 that Mawson deserved wasn’t guaranteed. His title came in his third year at F4 level with a main opponent (Schumacher) three years his junior, but that he nearly matched Eriksson in his first year in Germany in 2015 shows what he could be capable of at this level. He enhanced his reputation further over the winter by almost beating Newey and Schumacher to the MRF crown at the first attempt.
Britain, age 17, Formula Renault Eurocup and NEC champion in 2016 – There’s a lot of proven talent on the grid this year, but with nobody is the hype greater than with Norris, and rightly so. He was a winner and champion on multiple fronts last year, and ended the year by being right with the frontrunners in Macau – just his second FIA-rules F3 weekend. He’s not letting any doubts over Carlin’s current standing get in the way of title ambitions, and although beating Prema’s Gunther and Ilott over the season seems a big ask, you just can’t rule Norris out of achieving anything.
India, age 18, ninth in Formula Renault Eurocup in 2016 – Force India protege Daruvala found himself increasingly overshadowed by Norris as team-mates in Formula Renault last year, and now as they step up to F3 together at Carlin, he might be best served trying to ignore his team-mate altogether. There are more suitable drivers for Daruvala to compare himself against this year, but he could still do with some standout results after a patchy last 12 months or so. There’s undoubtedly some talent in there – hopefully Carlin will help it to shine through more often.
Austria, age 19, 10th in Formula Renault Eurocup in 2016 – Habsburg’s second year in Formula Renault last year was just as underwhelming as Daruvala’s, but he did show potential in a parallel Euroformula Open campaign with a run to second place in the standings. That has given him useful experience of the Dallara F3 chassis, but it also raises expectations of what he ought to be capable of this season, perhaps to a point he will ultimately struggle to reach in such a competitive series.
Britain, age 21, fourth in GP3 in 2016 – Dennis has already called time on a full-time single-seater career with a move into GT racing for this year, but has taken up an offer to start the season in Carlin’s fourth car after helping his team of 2014 with its otherwise all-rookie line-up throughout winter testing. Given his impressive form with Prema in 2015 and in GP3 last term, he will provide a very useful benchmark for Norris in particular.