Famously the British Formula Three Championship has a record of being the training ground for future F1 drivers. A long list of the former champions, and an equally long list of those who have chased them for the title, have graduated to the peak of motor racing.
2011 champion Felipe Nasr has slotted into a leading GP2 seat, scoring a podium in his debut weekend and his two immediate successors for F3 honours now share the garage at F1 outfit Scuderia Toro Rosso.
Though for 2012 the series suffers from a weaker grid in terms of numbers than recent years – reflecting the same pattern as several other series on the ladder towards Grand Prix stardom – the quality of drivers remains the same, with a mix of drivers entering their second F3 seasons and new drivers taking the step up from lower series such as Formula Ford and Formula Renault, with stars from both the UK and Eurocup series joining the F3 grid for 2012.
The slimmed down grid is dominated by two teams – Carlin and Fortec Motorsport.- who between them bring nine cars to the grid.
Comparing the two stables on paper Carlin is almost certainly the strongest. The champions' team for the last four consecutive seasons Trevor Carlin has again assembled a team packed with talent, with drivers gravitating into the Carlin fold after making the British F3 debuts elsewhere last season.
Harry Tincknell joins Carlin from Fortec and Pietro Fantin from HiTech Racing, a team that look set to sit out the 2012 season. They join Jack Harvey and Jazeman Jaafar who keep their Carlin seats for a second year, while Carlos Sainz Jr. joins the team bringing with him the backing of Red Bull from the Formula Renault Eurocup.
“It's quite a big step,” Sainz said, speaking to The Checkered Flag, “not only in terms of driving but in terms of speed – this car is much faster. Also from a technical driving point of view you have to be much more accurate in telling your engineers what you want. You learn a lot about set-ups. The whole set-up is much bigger with much more variety to choose from so you always have a constant power of decision.”
This season could be the perfect opportunity for Sainz or another of the rookies to be the likes of Harvey and Tincknell to the title with the brand new Dallara F312 offering the prospect of a slightly levelled playing field for the new season.
Replacing the old Dallara F308 the new car looks radically different, but, according to some of the second year drivers feels little different from behind the wheel.
“The new car is really nice to drive,” explains Jack Harvey. “To be honest when you look at the car you'd expect it to be a totally different driving style but a lot of aspects of the car are quite similar, it's the same tyres, same brakes, same engine so to be honest out gut feeling with the car is that it's probably got a little more downforce and also creates a bit more drag so we're going faster round the corner but slower at the end of the straight. But still it's not as big a difference as everyone was expecting to be honest.”
New teammate Harry Tincknell echoes his words; “it's got a little bit more downforce and everything's just generally a little bit better, it's not like jumping in a new car, like jumping in a World Series [by Renault] car or anything like that, it's still an F3 car.”
Harvey, however, points to the pre-season testing form as showing Fortec closer to Carlin than in some recent season, highlighting Formula Renault UK champion Alex Lynn and Hannes van Asseldonk – who joins the British series from Germany – as potential title threats for the title.
Puerton Rican Felix Serralles – another FR UK graduate – and Pipo Derani, moving to Fortec for a second season in British F3 complete the line-up for Richard Dutton's team, but it is with Lynn and van Asseldonk their rivals see the threat.
Harry Tincknell assesses his opposition; “everyone at Carlin's fast, race winners. Jazeman's in his third year, Carlos is Red Bull backed so he's obviously not slow so you've got a lot of experience and a lot of quick drivers. You've got the Formula Renault champion Alex Lynn moving up. He was fairly dominant last year and his teammate van Asseldonk he's got a fifth a Macau so he's no slouch.”
“You're talking about seven drivers,” said Harvey. “Even though it's not the biggest grid this year you're talking about half the grid being able to win so it's going to be a close one.”
The close nature of the season to come is highlighted by several drivers, pointing at the tightly bunched testing times, and Devonian Tincknell believes that puts the focus on consistency.
“I think Felipe showed last year he was just always there – if he wasn't winning he was second or third and I think that's the aim for this year, just be nice and consistent. When I've got the pace to win then take the win but just try and build up a good amount of points early on.”
Tincknell's – and the rest of the class of the 2012 British Formula Three International Series – first chance to build those early points comes on the Saturday of the Easter weekend with the first three races of a season that will travel around the UK and Europe, including Pau in France and the Grand Prix circuits at Monza and Spa giving the drivers a taste of what could lie beyond the lifting the championship.
Outside of the two teams likely to fight over the championship Double R have a pair of cars in the premier International Class for Malaysian driver Fahmi Ilyas and Australian Geoff Uhrhane, who secured his move from Formula Ford late before the start of the new season.
Though like the Double R duo, T-Sport driver Nick McBride is unlikely to challenge for the title his season will attract extra attention thanks to the ThreeBond Nissan that powers his Dallara. The engine, making its first appearance in British F3, has already proved to be quick through the speed traps in testing but it remains to be seen how it compares against the dominant VW and Mercedes powerplants.
The National Class continues to be anaemic, only attracting two entries for a third year running with Australian pairing Spike Goddard and Duvashen Padayachee representing T-Sport and Double R respectively.