Commentary: Why there's still a need for Formula Renault 3.5
Although the future for Formula Renault 3.5 looks bleak after the withdrawal of Renault's backing, Valentin Khorounzhiy reckons there's still a place for the series on the junior single-seater ladder.
It feels like the writing has been on the wall for the current make-up of the Formula Renault 3.5 series ever since the FIA confirmed the new superlicence rules.
Forget the maximum of 30 licence points – that was an issue, sure, and so contentious that the governing body eventually chose to bump it up to 35, but it probably was just a secondary factor.
No, it's the announcement of the planned FIA F2 championship that pretty much ensured Formula Renault 3.5 could no longer be run the way it had been.
It meant FIA's streamlining of the junior single-seater ladder has finally reached the top – and, given how the governing body has made Formula 3 into a super-strong monopoly on the level right below, it was unlikely they would allow competition above it.
The political process between the FIA F2 project, GP2 and FR3.5 has culminated in Renault withdrawing its decade-long support of the latter.
Granted, the French manufacturer definitely has other reasons - the announcement coincided with strong rumours of greater Renault involvement in F1, as well as their continuous efforts with the e.dams squad in Formula E - but the arrival of FIA F2 and Renault's alleged desire to tie up with that project surely played a part.
Either way, Renault withdrawing doesn't necessarily spell an end to the much-fancied championship, but it could be a major scaling back, especially if it doesn't manage to remain on the WSR ticket.
Subconsciously, the idea of streamlining the route to F1 makes perfect sense. After all, its main alternatives IndyCar and Super Formula both have only one clear feeder series – and the former's Road to Indy programme has garnered a lot of praise from drivers for offering an obvious, reliable path of progression.
Yet, at the same time, it's hard to shake the feeling that Formula Renault 3.5 has gotten the short straw, given that it's just now begun to reliably produce F1-calibre champions.
Comparing FR3.5 and GP2 has been the favorite pastime for observers of junior single-seater racing for many years now, but while both have had their good and bad years, they've both, on average, been pretty excellent – and very different, almost to the point where drawing a comparison is pointless.
GP2 has the advantage of being an F1 support series and a reputation for being immensely entertaining. It has reverse grids and degrading tyres, meaning that strategy and conservation often prevail over sheer raw pace – which could be an issue if it wasn't also true of modern F1.
FR3.5, on the other hand, has been all about pure speed; lead into turn one and chances are you'll win the race. It's a series tailor-made to spotlight the single-lap prodigies – something which was exemplified when Carlos Sainz Jr bounced back after two tough years in F3 and GP3 to dominate the 2014 season in FR3.5.
Given that F1 doesn't offer a lot of free seats season after season, two championships right below might seem excessive – and yet it's actually worked rather well the last few years, in that switching between the two hasn't been a waste.
Stoffel Vandoorne seems to have benefited massively from doing both and now looks very much like a complete driver. Those following in his footsteps - Sergey Sirotkin and Pierre Gasly - should profit as well.
But it's not just a question of giving rapid young drivers more championships to race in, lest they give up on their single-seater dream altogether and pursue other options. There's also the factor that FR3.5 has been very affordable and allowed some underfunded talents to stay in the picture.
If that series wasn't around, it's very likely that GP2 prices would spike further due to increased demand for the seats – and the likes of Oliver Rowland, Dean Stoneman and Tio Ellinas would probably have been on the sidelines this year.
And then there's the point that the top levels of junior single-seaters in Europe don't just serve as a launchpad for F1. For quite a few names, these series have been a pathway to endurance racing or DTM; and now, with Formula E in the mix, the electric open-wheel alternative would very much benefit from having a big pool of top-level open-wheel juniors to choose from.
Whatever happens to the FIA F2 project, FR3.5 needs to stick around in whatever form it can, even if it requires a slight downgrade.
The F2 grid won't be as big as the 30+ cars in F3; that just doesn't seem viable. And it looks very much like it won't be able to split numbers with GP2, because the organisers of the latter have previously admitted they're keen on merging with the former.
If F2 is left as the only top-level option, the whole scene could devolve into a bidding war, given the same level of demand yet a lower supply.
As such, the series could benefit from an alternative – and FR3.5 should be perfect for that, provided somebody makes sure it stays afloat.
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