I arrived at the Circuit de Paul Ricard which is playing host to the eighth and penultimate round of the Formula Renault 3.5 championship. The sweltering sun is casting a light glaze on the new, purpose-built media centre. A humdrum of activity befalls the circuit in time for an eventful weekend.
The 2014 FR3.5 championship continues in France following the news that FIA European Formula 3 champion Max Verstappen will make his Formula One debut for Toro Rosso, aged just seventeen. It is no wonder that Carlos Sainz Jr. was looking purposeful and in deep thought while sat alone in the DAMS motorhome before the familiar roar of the engines prompted the start of Saturday qualifying.
There was one question on the mind of everyone in attendance that weekend – would championship victory in Renault’s flagship series be enough to secure the second seat alongside Verstappen in motorsport’s higher echelons? There would be no excuse for obtaining second. At the start of the season, Carlos was gifted with DAMS’ car number one, a similar specification that saw Kevin Magnussen victorious in 2013. He had, from the get-go, been the out-and-out favourite. On paper, he was unstoppable.
His first race at Monza had not gone as planned and a cloud of billowing smoke was exiting the rear of the DAMS. The shaking of heads from his French mechanics showed the full disappointment of an 18th place finish but, in the fashion of any true champion, the Spaniard remained relaxed – taking the Red Bull-adorned car to tantalising back-to-back victories over the next two races. They would be two of a then record-breaking seven wins obtained that year, a win ratio of around 41% that year.
The wins were, however, his only trips to the podium. For Sainz, son of Carlos Sr., it was all or nothing; he was never second nor was he third. From his 227 points haul – 35 more than runner-up Pierre Gasly – came a promotion to Toro Rosso. More than holding his own against the might of Max Verstappen, the 21-year-old has his former training ground to thank for innovative overtaking manoeuvres and a confidence in the paddock.
From post-season testing came the dawn of a new era and the chance for the near-missers of the 2014 championship to have their turn in the limelight. Step forward Oliver Rowland, a man who is always aware of greeting media personnel with a nod, a smile and firm handshake. It is that recognisable show of respect which greets me at Silverstone. Having dodged the home crowds on that September morning – we spoke of his four wins, three more than he achieved that time last year.
His deceptive laid-back attitude masked a steely determination to win. It was clear to us both that the British round was about more than simply succeeding in his native country; it was the weekend which could win or lose him the title. Two podiums in Britain – and his fifth of eight total wins – was the answer to pressure at the closing stages of the title battle. The Briton greeted the press conference with a beaming smile, his rival Matthieu Vaxiviere did not.
307 points is a record for any driver in FR3.5 history and proof of the 23-year-old’s ability to stay calm under pressure. In other words, he displayed near flawless consistency. In 2015, the McLaren AUTOSPORT BRDC winner’s raw pace was coupled with a steady stream of results. Eight wins and five podiums later; the results speak for themselves. Indeed, much like the man he succeeded, Rowland is nothing but a great ambassador to the now-evolving championship.
Formula 3.5 V8 is now on the horizon and, thus, perhaps the perfect time to compare two worthy and convincing champions. The statistics will help to uncover the extent of Oliver Rowland’s prowess at the helm of his Fortec Motorsports challenger. There have been far too many comparisons of Rowland and, his title rival, Matthieu Vaxiviere to count but with the batton passed to the Briton from 2014 champion Carlos Sainz, the final two FR3.5 champions will now be analysed.
Somewhat conveniently, both drivers completed two full seasons of the former Renault series which allow an even greater level of scope. The tables below provide details of each driver over those two years, allowing you to decide which was more dominant during their title-winning campaigns:
|SAI||Races||Wins||Poles||Fastest Laps||Podiums (2nd-3rd)||Retirements
|ROW||Races||Wins||Poles||Fastest Laps||Podiums (2nd-3rd)||Retirements
*The drivers are listed in chronological order of winning their titles and this is not intended to show any bias. The brackets in the points section denote the championship position. Sainz did not join the 2013 championship until the third round at Monaco. You can read a comparison between Kevin Magnussen and Carlos Sainz here.
Katie Grimmett is an experienced Formula Renault 3.5 and World Series by Renault journalist, having joined Crash.net in 2013. You can contact Katie and read more about her work by following the appropriate links.