Three years ago, Carlos Sainz Jr. won the Formula Renault 3.5 series prior to his promotion to Formula 1 with the Toro Rosso team, becoming another name in the long list of alumni to join F1 from the Renault-backed championship. After Renault’s departure, the series now exists with a breathtakingly unwieldy name, twelve drivers contesting the opening round and has endured a nomadic existence in the past couple of seasons. Just how do you solve a problem like World Series Formula V8 3.5?
A glittering past turns sour
Since the series’ inception in 1998 under the “Euro Open by Nissan” name, many talented drivers have traversed the well-worn path from the championship directly to Formula 1, with many more stopping off in a different championship en route to the holy grail of international single-seater racing.
Previous champions who have made it to Formula 1 include Kevin Magnussen, Robert Kubica and Fernando Alonso, and the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo, Stoffel Vandoorne and the late Jules Bianchi all dazzled the talent-spotters during their time in the series.
For all intents and purposes, Formula Renault 3.5 was a viable alternative for GP2 in its heyday, and offered more measured, patient racing compared to the often-frenetic F1 support series.
Yet, GP2 was the series with the FIA support. In response to Max Verstappen’s debut at the tender age of 17 after just one year of Formula 3, the FIA rolled out a brand new superlicense system in the middle of 2015, which offered points based on championship success.
With 40 points required to be sure of receiving a superlicense to drive in F1, GP2 would offer 50 to its champion. F3, also an FIA series, would offer the required 40 to the winner. Formula Renault 3.5, although then considered to be GP2’s equal, would only provide 30 points to the next victor. This was raised to 35 after complaints over the allocation, but by then the FIA’s lack of interest in FR3.5 was already common knowledge.
It was about this time that Renault Sport announced its intention to pull its backing from the series at the end of the 2015, returning control of the series to RPM Racing, run by Jaime Alguersuari Sr. Alguersuari had headed up the organisation of the series prior to the beginning of Renault’s involvement in 2005, and immediately had a fight on his hands to keep as many teams and drivers in the fold as possible.
The 2016 season began under the new name of Formula V8 3.5, and with the name-change came a large turnover in the teams involved in the series. RPM elected to align the series with the similarly Spanish-run International GT Open and Euroformula Open championships, and teams already involved in the ladder such as RP Motorsport and Teo Martin’s eponymous outfit joined FV8 3.5 just as established outfits such as DAMS, Tech 1 and Carlin were to pass them through the door.
Fifteen cars took to the grid for the first round of the FV8 3.5 championship, losing five from the previous year’s grid of 20. Comtec briefly pushed this up to 16 in their late-season cameo, but Arden and the SMP Racing-backed Spirit of Race also left at the end of the year.
Alguersuari and RPM realigned their strategy, realising that trying to remain a feeder series to F1 was becoming more difficult, especially following GP2’s rebrand to Formula 2. Instead, FV8 3.5 joined the World Endurance Championship calendar as an official support, with the intention of supplying drivers to endurance racing. The championship rebranded again and settled for the overly-verbose “World Series Formula V8 3.5”, in deference to the expanded international calendar and harkening back to the days when the championship was part of the “World Series by Renault” ladder. The change in direction seemed logical, but only twelve cars made it to the opening round at Silverstone.
One could be forgiven for thinking that these decreasing grid numbers are a clear sign of a declining series. The Auto GP series is perhaps one of the most recent examples of this; born from the remnants of Italian F3000, the series enjoyed a slight boom in numbers after its rebrand, only to watch the size of the field decline before being cancelled in 2015. Jaime Alguersuari Sr argues that World Series’ declining grid numbers are more symbolic of problems across the board in single-seater racing rather than just problems specific to his series.
“Is the World Series in crisis? That’s not the right question” says Alguersuari firmly. “Are the big single seaters in crisis? That’s the correct question.”
Hinting at the decrease in grid sizes across other single-season championships, Alguersuari adds that “it has been a very hard winter. Not just for us, but for F2, for GP3 and Formula 3 as well”.
Blanca de Foronda, the communications manager of RPM, also offers great insight into this predicament. Having been working with Alguersuari for the best part of 20 years within the series, de Foronda knows the junior racing scene inside-out, and has watched teams and drivers come and go in World Series’ various guises.
“It’s not a problem of the World Series’ concept itself” says de Foronda. “It’s got the best cost-ratio performance of single seaters and some of the strongest drivers, as you can see.
“Even if the grid has 12 cars, when you see the racing action on the TV which is played in over sixty countries worldwide, you cannot see if it’s 12 or 15 or 18 or 21 cars.
“For Jaime, his principle is that the crisis is within all the single-seater programs. When you see Manor disappearing, when you see no sponsors on the sidepods of the F1 cars, there’s an issue.”
It’s difficult to disagree with Jaime and Blanca, and even more difficult to blame the overall series format. The series has remained largely unchanged since the Renault years and has retained the same cars which debuted in 2012. Michelin still supply their low-degradation tyres and the cars are still equipped with DRS, and so the series still has a great deal of relevance to today’s current iteration of F1. Although Formula 2 produced a thrilling season opener at Bahrain, the majority of the action was as a result of the Pirelli tyres’ wear, which F1 has deliberately moved away from for 2017.
The Dallara-designed World Series car is also popular amongst the drivers, and a number of them waxed lyrical about the challenge it provides when hurling it around some of the world’s best known circuits.
“It’s a lot like the Formula 3 car” says Nelson Mason, who was a late addition to the series after winning the second Teo Martin Motorsport seat weeks before the season started. “Unfortunately for me, it was very difficult to have the driver on show in GP3. This is much more like an F3 car; it rewards bravery a little bit.”
Rene Binder, a veteran of both GP2 and World Series, currently drives in the latter with the Charouz-run Lotus team, and was also positive about his decision to race in the series.
“I think I have better possibilities here driving with a top team in this category”, Binder said. “I did three years in GP2, and I also see that the teams are much closer together.
“The car is really nice to drive, especially in quick corners; I really like driving it!”
Despite the positivity, there are still question marks about the perceived quality of the field. Highly-rated Louis Deletraz – last year’s runner-up – elected to jump ship to F2 rather than fight for a World Series title.
Of course, Deletraz’s ambition is to follow his father Jean-Denis’ footsteps into F1, but his move is telling of World Series’ shrinking influence in providing the next generation of Formula 1 talents. Thanks to the reduced superlicense points on offer and the growing cost of getting into F1, Alguersuari has decided to change tack altogether to keep World Series alive.
Will World Series survive the tide?
The opening round of the WEC’s 2017 season took place at Silverstone, with World Series joining its adoptive parent series in the “international” paddock over the weekend.
Accessible to the public, fans of endurance racing were able to get up close to the World Series field, far more than anybody would for a series such as F2. Therefore, the drivers are able to enjoy greater exposure within the WEC fraternity, where Alguersuari hopes to help “his” drivers build their fledgling careers. An intensely charismatic man, Alguersuari spoke passionately about his desire to help drivers start earning money from racing, rather than paying out of their own pocket.
“A young driver needs his family” Jaime explains. “In Spanish, sponsor is patrocinador. Now, the father is the patrocinador. So who is paying? The fathers!
“My concern is families and young drivers, and the only possibility is to push the young drivers to be professionals. My goal is to get them into professional motorsport.
“(Will they get to) Formula 1? Probably not, but maybe LMP1, LMP2, LMP3 and the others. Formula 1 needs money, money, money for these young drivers, and so my work is to look for other objectives for them.”
Having World Series on the same support bill as WEC should help Señor Alguersuari to achieve his goals of helping young drivers on the path to become professional racers. Having the World Series on their doorsteps, endurance racing teams may consider using the series as a feeder to their own operations. Teams with strong endurance pedigree – like Strakka Racing and AF Corse – have been involved in the series before, and there’s no reason that similar teams cannot do so again, especially with the added incentives involved.
However, as an F1 support series, it seems that World Series has had its time in the sun. For a series with such pedigree, that’s a crying shame.