It’s been thirteen years since France last had a Formula 1 World Champion. Alain Prost was the last, having scored an impressive fifty one wins and four World Drivers titles, giving all around him a masterclass in top level driving.
This year in the British Formula 3 International Series, a fellow Frenchman took the title with similar skill and gusto. If you witnessed the champion at any point this season, you’d wager that France’s wait for its next Formula 1 World Champion will soon come to an end. That is, assuming that Jean-Eric Vergne makes the move to the highest step on motorsport’s ladder. Similar to the way that Prost took his fourth Formula 1 title in 1993, Vergne delivered a comprehensive masterclass this year in Formula 3, taking twelve wins on the way to the title.
Many expected Vergne to lift the 2010 title, but few could have expected the performances he put in on the way. At the opening rounds at Oulton Park in April, Vergne shot out of the box; the fastest in practice, pole in qualifying and notching up two commanding victories. More wins would soon follow.
The F3 rookie added, “A win is never simple, but we had a really good preparation through the winter, I was on pole for this race, made no mistakes and the car was really good, so big thanks to Carlin. There were no problems with the restart, and after that I just had to think about preserving the tyres.” This was ominous form from a startlingly mature and thoughtful racer.
Vergne’s highlight has to be the triple-win at the notoriously tricky Spa Francorchamps circuit in Belgium. Joined by a number of Euroseries drivers, the pressure was on for all of the regular British series drivers, but Vergne excelled and even took a win from seventh on the grid in the reverse format Sprint race.
Despite Vergne’s dominance, in total there were nine different winners in the 2010 series, from five different teams. Over the years, everyone worth their salt has driven in Formula 3, and it rightly carries an unofficial moniker that it is the springboard to Formula 1. This season was a vintage one and rightly lives up to that billing. In it’s 59th year, it had the best year this journalist can remember.
British drivers were key to this success. The likes of Oli Webb, James Calado, Will Buller, Daniel McKenzie and the promising Rupert Svendsen-Cook were top of a strong crop of talent from Blighty. Euroseries driver Alexander Simms also made a notable impression on his cameo appearance at Silverstone with ART.
Vergne didn’t have things his own way though. A troublesome period post-Oulton Park saw the Frenchman struggle to make it onto the podium. Notably, a disasterous weekend in his home country at Magny Cours was the low ebb of his season. And, it was Calado and Webb that seized the opportunity. The two Brits who so famously battled together in Formula Renault 2.0, continued their fair rivalry, racking up eight wins and twenty four podiums between them. The biggest problem for the top Brit duo was a lack of consistency. Everytime they clawed back Vergne, either a mechanical failure or driving error blighted their momentum to get ahead.
Calado’s late season pace was enough to force Vergne into the sparkling form that saw him set the record straight at Silverstone in September and clinch the title. Calado and Webb were undoubtedly the best of the rest. Having scooped a number of victories, Calado’s drive in the rain-soaked finale at Brands Hatch was memorable for all of those who witnessed it. Using every last inch of skill to keep his Dallara-Volkswagen on the island, the Racing Steps Foundation driver negotiated the perilous GP circuit finishing over eight seconds ahead of Buller.
Knutsford-born Webb, was on his day outstanding and was infact the only driver to lead the championship aside from the Vergne all season. Twin wins and fastest laps at Magny-Cours were a highlight for the nineteen year old, as was the drive in race one at Brands Hatch to keep his chase for second place alive. The fact he pushed Vergne and Calado so hard in a non-Carlin prepared car should be noted. Lacking a team-mate who could truly challenge him, Webb was superb and upon reflection, third place was not a suitable reward for his efforts. If it wasn’t for a number of clashes while running near the front (the Spa weekend was one to forget), things might have been very different.
Raikkonen Robertson had an enticing driver line-up in 2010, with Daisuke Nakajima, Columbian Carlos Huertas and Brazilian, Felipe Nasr. However, the 2010 season brought little cheer for the promising three charges. Nasr was consistently the quickest of the three, despite his relative lack of experience. At Rockingham in June, Nasr blew away the field in the championship race, picking his way through the opening lap carnage and delivering a crushing fifteen second victory over fellow Brazilian, Adriano Buzaid.
And it was Buzaid, another Carlin driver, who brought much entertainment and passion to the series. Buzaid had a season of two halves, after a promising start at Oulton, the next few meetings were painful to watch for anyone close to the young racer. Having competed in the series in 2009 and with a prime seat at champions, Carlin, much was expected in 2010; not least by the driver himself.
However, just after the season midpoint, a new Buzaid turned up. Buzaid appeared on the podium seven times in succession, picking up wins at Silverstone and Snetterton, the latter scored in tricky wet conditions that saw the championship contenders falter in his wake.
At that same Snetterton meeting, there was another driver who scored a hard-earned podium. The likeable Will Buller. Similar to Webb, 2010 didn’t provide Buller with suitable reward for his efforts. Alongside Gabriel Dias and with coaching from Ryan Sharp, Buller improved no-end and if there had been an extra round of the series, Buller would’ve been challenging for a win. 2011 sees Buller take Webb’s berth at Fortec and provides the Northamptonshire-based Ulsterman with a huge opportunity to take the 2011 title.
There’s little doubt that Carlin were team of the year in 2010, three drivers in the top four positions of the championship, 21 wins out of 30 and 49 podiums. Fortec won five, Hitech two, Raikkonen Robertson one and ART Grand Prix one. In the National Class, T-Sport had a similarly triumphant year with Formula Ford Champion James Cole and the rapid, Menasheh Idafar.
The National Class was always going to be a two-horse race, primarily because T-Sport’s entrants were the sole contenders at most rounds. Idafar won the title from Cole by just 17 points, but that doesn’t tell much of a story. Idafar was outstanding; 18 class wins, 29 podiums, 15 pole positions and 23 fastest laps and an eight race consecutive winning streak saw off Cole’s challenge. In the final round at Brands Hatch, the 19-year-old British-born Bahraini scored an outright third place – a rarity for a National class driver and a huge achievement from a solid season for Idafar; “It's been a fantastic year, I've enjoyed every minute of it and I want to thank all of the guys at T-Sport for doing such an incredible job – it's a fantastic team.” Unsurprisingly, next year will see Idafar progress to the International class with T-Sport, who will regularly trouble the podium if the team can provide a strong car.
TCF's Top Five Drivers of the 2010 British F3 season:
1 – Jean-Eric Vergne: No surprises here. The only thing the Frenchman was unable to do was to top the win ratio of Jan Magnussen – a sublime season and a future F1 Champion.
2 – James Calado and Oli Webb: They could rarely be seperated on the track and its impossible to seperate them here too. Both were strong and chased Vergne hard – a bright future beckons for both.
3 – Menasheh Idafar: If Vergne’s season was incredible, Idafar’s was too. Next year in the International Class will be a real gauge of his ability against the World’s best – expect him to be a thorn in the side of Fortec and Carlin.
4 – Adriano Buzaid: On his day, he is untouchable. The Brazilian overcame a number of issues and almost sneaked third place in the Series from Webb after a late charge, notching up the longest podium streak in F3 history, but too often dropped his head when things weren’t going his way.
5 – Felipe Nasr: A tough call between Nasr, Buller and Svendsen-Cook, but Felipe sneaks it because of the character he showed in an underperforming team and his tenacious driving style. A definite 2011 title contender.