2005 was the first Formula Renault 3.5 season. The champion that year was a Polish driver called Robert Kubica. Next year, Kubica made his debut in Formula One, deputising for an ill Jacques Villeneuve at the Hungarian Grand Prix before getting the race seat permanently when Jacques Villeneuve and Sauber parted company. Since then there have 6 seasons of Formula Renault 3.5, with 6 different champions, but none of these have graduated to Formula One, either directly or indirectly. Compared to GP2 Series, where all 7 champions have, at some point, driven in Formula One and 6 of the 7 runners-up have also graduated, Formula Renault 3.5 comes across as not providing much of a leg-up into Formula One. Why is this so? I have tried to come up with some answers:
Formula Renault 3.5 champions have failed to acquit themselves after leaving Formula Renault 3.5
Most of the Formula Renault 3.5 champions have gone from Formula Renault 3.5 to another series, usually GP2 Series. Despite being champions, however, they have not looked so good after moving on. 2007’s champion Alvaro Parente got off to a good start in GP2, winning on his debut, but failed to win again and finished 8th in the championship. In 2009 he failed to improve, and he then moved to the now defunct Superleague Formula, where he also struggled to make much impact. Giedo van der Garde has competed in GP2 since 2009, but has never finished higher than 5th in the championship. Bertrand Baguette moved to IndyCar, but only finished 22nd in his first season. Mikhail Aleshin was unlucky to have budgetary problems which affected his time in GP2 in 2011, but when he did race he failed to score a single point. Hopefully Canadian Robert Wickens will not continue this trend and will perform well in DTM this season.
Formula Renault 3.5 champions have less sponsorship
In the modern environment, Formula One teams need more than talent from their drivers. Charles Pic and Pastor Maldonado, for example, have in part managed to make it to Formula One because they have rich sponsors in addition to talent behind the wheel. With the exception of Giedo van der Garde, who is backed by fashion label McGregor, the drivers who have won Formula Renault 3.5 have not had large amounts of sponsorship to help them secure drives in Formula One. Sadly, a driver with more money behind them will be more able to make it to Formula One than one with more talent but less money.
The drivers who were guaranteed a seat in Formula One didn’t win the championship
Although none of the champions have made it to Formula One, there are still 8 drivers currently in Formula One who have driven in Formula Renault 3.5 or its predecessors. The fact that no Formula Renault 3.5 champions have made it to Formula One since Kubica would be different if Daniel Ricciardo or Jean-Éric Vergne had won the series instead of being runners-up in 2010 and 2011 respectively. It was always the case that if Red Bull were going to give any Formula Renault 3.5 drivers a seat in Formula One, it would be their drivers Ricciardo and Vergne (though ironically the driver that beat Daniel Ricciardo, Mikhail Aleshin, had been dropped by the Red Bull Junior Team during the previous season). If there’s a free seat at Toro Rosso next year, you can be assured that as long as he doesn’t disgrace himself Lewis Williamson will be in that seat, regardless of where he finishes this season, not the champion.
Will this change?
There are reasons to be hopeful that this will change. Because Formula Renault 3.5 races are held on different weekends to Formula One races, a number of teams are now choosing to run their young drivers in Formula Renault 3.5 so that they can still be available for testing with the Formula One teams. This was one of the reasons that Red Bull have preferred to run their drivers in Formula Renault 3.5, rather than GP2, and Jules Bianchi is combining testing duties for Force India with driving in Formula Renault 3.5. With the new Dallara T12 chassis and ZRS03 engine, and the use of a drag reduction system (DRS), Formula Renault 3.5 looks to be more relevant training for Formula One than it had previously been, as well as providing plenty of track time for drivers. I am of the opinion that the lack of Formula Renault 3.5 champions in Formula One is anomalous, and will be corrected with time, as there are a number of talented drivers who Formula One teams cannot afford to overlook.