Top 10 drivers of the 2015 FR3.5 season

Auto - Fr 3.5 race at Red Bull Ring 2015In what turned out to be Formula Renault 3.5’s final season before taking on the new guise of Formula 3.5 V8, 30 drivers (of which 15 appeared in all of the races) took the helm of the V8-powered challengers. A mix of F1 juniors, rookies and former race winners made up the grid for the nine event series.

It was not the all-star line up of 2012 or 2013 but the talent on display was truly undeniable; six race winners were crowned and five rookies took home the newcomers trophy over the 17 course season in what was a particularly challenging year for the championship outsiders.

Here, Crash.net’s Formula 3.5 V8 reporter Katie Grimmett runs down the top ten drivers of the season.

10. Nicholas Latifi (CAN) – Championship placing: 11th – Points: 55

11th in the championship, Nicholas Latifi narrowly makes the top ten after eight points finishes, finishing as high as fourth on two occasions. He first joined the 3.5 litre series in 2014, a latecomer to the series at Tech 1 Racing. The Canadian’s surprise podium finish in only his sixth race ensured he was snapped up by Arden Motorsport for 2015 season. It was a steady but otherwise unspectacular year, thus placing the tall 20-year-old on the list. He is not higher, however, following six retirements and little improvement throughout the season, especially in contrast to his two-time race winning team mate Egor Orudzhev. With an awful lot of backing behind him, and after the occasional dabble outside of FR3.5 this year, expect to see Latifi start the GP2 season next year.

9. Jazeman Jaafar (MAS) Championship placing: 8th – Points: 118

It was Jaafar’s third consecutive FR3.5 campaign but not even his experience was enough to surpass team mate Oliver Rowland in the championship and would have expected a higher finish than eighth in the standings after a move from ISR. His continued dominance of Monaco was on display this year, ultimately improving his two third place finishes to an overdue maiden win on his third attempt. After Austria, it was a different story, he lost consistency, speed and the general feel for his car, forcing his year to fall below what one might expect from a Fortec driver. While we cannot ignore Malaysian’s role in winning the team championship – his Monaco win built enough of a margin to keep Czech team Lotus at bay – it was a subpar performance from the experienced and generally well-regarded Petronas driver. Admitting his options probably lie in DTM or Japan, expect a very different year for the 22-year-old in 2016.

8. Tom Dillmann (FRA) Championship placing: 7th – Points: 122

Tom Dillmann has suffered financial difficulties throughout his career and, finally, at the age of 26 was able to complete his first full season in years with Carlin, thanks to some help from Indonesian backers Jagonya Ayam. Besides his Monaco podium, the Frenchman generally took some time to feel accustomed to his 3.5 litre challenger but by Hungary in June, he found some consistency. His team mate Sean Gelael was nowhere near throughout the season and his 100% qualifying record over his the Indonesian proved the extent of his often under-used talents. Indeed, the Frenchman was in contention for third place right up to the final round. It was a generally good return to full-time racing for the Frenchman, cumulating in two podiums and a near-win – were it not for a costly rear puncture at Jerez. These achievements are all the more impressive considering that Carlin missed all of the 2014 season and only resurfaced in FR3.5 in time for the first race. Not testing post-season in F3.5 V8, his future lies elsewhere for the foreseeable future. It was, overall, a year competent enough to justify a competitive drive in 2016.

7. Gustav Malja (SWE) Championship placing: 9th – Points: 79

Ninth in the championship, Malja is seventh on this list and the first rookie featured in these rankings. After a 10th place finish in FR2.0 Eurocup last year, the Swede was relative unknown when he took part in post-season testing for Zeta Corse. A very competitive drive throughout the Autumn in Roberto Merhi’s 2014 car saw him secure a seat at Strakka Racing. The British squad was looking to reinvent after parting ways with Matias Laine and 2015 Manor driver Will Stevens (who was sixth last year). Much like team mate Ellinas (more on him later), his one-lap pace was perhaps his greatest strength. As is always the case with Strakka, they improved race-wise throughout the season – even clinching a 1-2 at the Nurburgring during a rain-drenched German round. 79 points is a solid first effort in the Strakka – two podiums and two rookie trophies later and the 19-year-old is looking ahead to a solid campaign in 2016, possibly lining up with Fortec next year.

6. Dean Stoneman (GBR) Championship placing: 6th – Points: 130 

The Briton signed a deal with the Red Bull Junior Team and was quickly placed at DAMS to replace former junior and 2014 champion Carlos Sainz. He was stunning in GP3 and was able to convert this into consistent pace. Four podium finishes later and Stoneman’s sixth place on this list matches his championship finish. He was close to his McLaren junior team mate Nyck de Vries but is lower on the list after being unable to secure a win. His overtaking was perhaps the highlight of the season, putting himself up through the crowd then qualifying did not go to plan for the French outfit. Expect to see Stoneman at the helm of a GP2 car next year after débuting in Russia. It is also entirely possible that he will remain within the DAMS family despite their departure from the new-look F3.5 V8 championship.

5. Tio Ellinas (CYP) Championship placing: 4th – Points: 135

When in discussion with the drivers throughout the season, it became clear they did not consider Tio Ellinas to be ‘young’, relative to the teenagers on display, of course. Although he has suffered his own misfortunes throughout a varied career, the Cypriot is a former GP3 race winner in his own right. This was perhaps best reflected in his fourth placed finish in the championship, after two wins fairly late in the season pushed him well up the order and comfortably ahead of Malja in the second Strakka model. The 23-year-old replaced Will Stevens at the Silverstone-based squad and was a consistent force, especially over one flying lap. Unfortunately, it was all a case of being too little too late for the race pace, as is so often the way with Strakka. Managed by the team that employed him, it is entirely possible that you’ll see Ellinas contesting the World Endurance Championship fairly soon. In the meantime, he is remaining quiet on his future.

4. Egor Orudzhev (RUS) Championship placing: 5th – Points: 133

Although two points behind Ellinas in the championship, Russian racer Orudzhev sits fourth on this list. To be honest, these two places are completely interchangeable but the 20-year-old slightly edges it based on a distinct lack of experience compared to his Cypriot rival. Two wins and two podiums really cemented what was a coming-of-age year for the SMP-backed driver. In the wake of Latifi’s inconsistency, Arden Motorsport were fortunate to have Orudzhev’s natural raw pace at the helm of their 2015 model. He suffered an awful lot of bad luck on his way to 5th in the championship and could well have placed higher were it not for punctures and some unreliability with his cars. His wins at Hungary and Le Mans were certainly not flukes but more a masterclass in mature driving from a youngster relatively new to the Formula scene. During a discussion at Le Mans, he did himself note that a great race was often immediately followed by a poor showing but with Arden keen to keep him, and with Pierre Gasly’s 2013 telemetry on hand to assist, Orudzhev could well show huge improvements during the 2016 F3.5 V8 season.

3. Nyck de Vries (NED) Championship placing: 3rd – Points: 160 

Thus far, I have largely ignored the standings when listing the top ten drivers but I am back on track with this next choice. It was, in some ways, an odd choice for DAMS to choose two rookies to carry home their final FR3.5 campaign, especially after a series of championship victories. The battle between the two would always be close; Stoneman, older but not as experienced as he could be after a battle with cancer some years ago, showed a dazzling return to form in GP3. In contrast, de Vries has remained largely pronged on the Renault ladder by McLaren bosses who used his €500,000 prize money from a victorious Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup campaign to their advantage. De Vries appeared to get the better of his team mate in qualifying and, with each race, was slowly catching the leaders until his own victory finally came at the last race – most surprisingly of all, it was DAMS’ first since September of last year. Indeed, it is clear that he had rather large shoes to feel after Kevin Magnussen and Carlos Sainz romped home to victory but until Stoffel Vandoorne is promoted to a full-time F1 seat, de Vries has time to make the occasional mistake.

2. Matthieu Vaxiviere (FRA) Championship placing: 2nd – Points: 234

It was Matthieu Vaxiviere’s first full-season in FR3.5 after a broken back in May last year cost him a midseason charge. It was a commendable effort from the Frenchman who outperformed his Lotus to take second in the team and driver championship. He did miss out on the title at Le Mans and adopted a face of thunder to match but was able to reflect positively on his season when the championship concluded two weeks later at Jerez. He noted his qualifying pace, a strong showing over one lap in a Lotus many questioned pre-season. Indeed, qualifying was where the showdown between him and Rowland fully intensified. You could not write a better rivalry than that of Vaxiviere and Rowland; the two were battling from the first time their engines fired up in anger and showed off some well-honed overtaking moves in the process. Three wins was the Frenchman’s reward at the end of 2015. Putting a bizarre case of excessive track limit infringements aside, it was a solid year from one of the Lotus F1 Junior Team’s rising young stars. It is also not insignificant to note that his ability to remain controlled and unaffected by some team changes midseason – after Lotus endured a rather public falling out with Meindert van Buuren – is commendable of a driver who was clearly very focused on the championship fight.

1. Oliver Rowland (GBR) Chanpionship placing: 1st – Points: 307 

Who else could occupy the number one slot on this list that the record-breaking champion Rowland? The championship standings do not always tell the full story but let there be no doubt that, in this instance, he was in a league of his own this year. Eight race wins helped him surpass Carlos Sainz’s 2014 record for the most wins in a season and 307 points is more than has ever been awarded to any other driver. The speed was there in his first year with Fortec but the consistency stepped up another gear in 2015, helping the Briton to become a virtually unstoppable force. He is often thought of as ‘the last of the late brakers’ and his championship-winning season certainly proved this to be the case. His rivals rarely had answers when a last-minute move resulted in yet another position change. The Racing Steps Foundation driver was cool under pressure, unflappable in the face of the rare troubling day and appeared incredibly relaxed in the confines of the Fortec Motorsport hospitality unit, often seen laughing and joking with the team throughout the season. This deceptively relaxed attitude is a recurring theme among motorsport champions through history. Perhaps the most tantalising prospect of all? We could see Rowland back fighting against former FR2.0 Eurocup rival Pierre Gasly in GP2 next year – watch out for those two on track!

*Home page feature image courtesy of DPPI / Florent Gooden / Renault Sport Media

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