The 2016 FIA European Formula 3 Championship gets underway this weekend at the French circuit of Paul Ricard with twenty-one drivers looking to follow in the footsteps of Swede Felix Rosenqvist, the 2015 champion.
The series has seen a decline on entries for 2016, with Team West-Tec F3, Fortec Motorsports, Double R Racing, Signature and Artline Engineering all missing from the entry list, but that does not mean there has been a decline in talent, with race winners and champions from the worlds of Formula Renault, national Formula 3 and Formula 4 in the field.
Prema Powerteam will once again be the team to beat this year, and have brought in a strong-looking line-up that includes three sophomore drivers and one highly rated rookie in their ranks.
Lance Stroll continues with the team for a second season, while Nick Cassidy and Maximilian Günther return to the outfit after sharing a seat at Prema in the final three events of last season, while the rookie in the team is Estonian teenager and 2015 Italian Formula 4 champion Ralf Aron.
Since the reformation of the championship back in 2012, Prema have taken the drivers’ championship every year, with Daniel Juncadella, Raffaele Marciello, Esteban Ocon and Rosenqvist the victors, and they will be looking to make it five-in-a-row in 2016.
In 2015, Antonio Giovinazzi of the Carlin squad was Rosenqvist’s closest challenger for the title, but with him moving on to the GP2 Series, ironically with Prema, the British based team have an almost all-new line-up for 2016.
The team ran six cars in 2016, but new regulations brought into the championship ahead of this season means they are limited to four, with American Ryan Tveter the only driver to remain on their books for the new season, with the twenty-one looking to improve after a difficult rookie season where he took only one points finish.
Joining Tveter is Italian teenager Alessio Lorandi, who has moved across from Van Amersfoort Racing for his sophomore season in the championship, while Chinese driver Zhi Cong Li, who raced for Fortec in 2015, takes the third seat.
The fourth seat is yet to be confirmed but South African racer Raoul Hyman has been behind the wheel of the car for the majority of the pre-season testing programme and looks set to move across from Team West-Tec F3 for his own sophomore campaign.
Van Amersfoort Racing
Van Amersfoort Racing return with an impressive looking four-car line-up, having switched from Volkswagen to Mercedes power for 2016. Callum Ilott is the only driver with European Formula 3 experience in the team, with the former Red Bull-backed driver switching from Carlin for the new season.
Brazilian Formula 3 Champion Pedro Piquet, the son of legendary triple Formula 1 World Champion Nelson Piquet, and Harrison Newey, the son of legendary F1 designer Adrian Newey, join Ilott as a trio of seventeen-year-olds in the squad, while Frenchman Anthoine Hubert is the elder statesman of the team at twenty-one years of age! Hubert has switched over from Formula Renault 2.0 where he was a race winner in both ALPS and Eurocup in 2015.
The team showed good pace during pre-season testing, and will be amongst the stronger teams looking to break the Prema stranglehold on the championship.
Mücke Motorsport have downsized their outfit for 2016, having raced with up to five cars last year, they return with just two this year, with Mikkel Jensen leading the team for his sophomore season in the championship.
The young Danish driver had his impressive moments last year, taking a pole position at Spa-Francorchamps and two podiums at Monza, and will be looking to build on those results in 2016.
He will be joined by the highly rated German teenager David Beckmann, although the fifteen-year-old ADAC Formula 4 race winner will be forced to miss the opening two rounds of the championship due to his age, but round three at Pau will be his first opportunity to show his potential when he finally turns sixteen.
The German team have had a relatively quiet couple of years in the championship, but with their focus now set on two cars rather than four or five, Mücke could finally return to winning ways with a strong looking driver pairing.
Another German based team Motopark are another team that will field a strong looking line-up in 2016, with four drivers from around the globe.
Sergio Sette Camara is the only driver from last years line-up to return this season, and after two visits to the podium in 2015, the Brazilian teenager returns for his sophomore with the backing of Red Bull.
Another driver with Red Bull-backing will be Finnish star Niko Kari, who comes into the championship as the reigning SMP F4 champion. Both Sette Camara and Kari were chosen to join the Red Bull Junior programme during the off-season, and both will be looking to impress their new bosses during the forthcoming campaign.
Joining the two Red Bull juniors is Swede Joel Eriksson, the younger brother of GP3 Series race winner Jimmy, and a race winner in the ADAC Formula 4 championship in 2015, while the fourth seat is filled by Chinese driver Guanyu Zhou, a representative of the Ferrari Driver Academy and runner-up in the Italian Formula 4 championship last year.
Motopark certainly have the talent behind the wheel, but will be looking to improve on their solitary race victory of 2015 where Markus Pommer won at Zandvoort.
Threebond with T-Sport
The Threebond with T-Sport team continue with Arjun Maini, who impressively raced for the outfit during the Macau Grand Prix last year, with the Indian racer using the updated Threebond engine in what appears to be a one-car team this year.
Threebond have entered a second car, but no driver has been announced with the new season just around the corner, but the team will have it all to do to take the fight to the teams that have filled out their teams.
Finally, and bucking the trend of the series, there is Hitech GP, who make their full time debut in 2016 after entering two rounds of the 2015 season with Alexander Sims behind the wheel.
George Russell switches to the team from Carlin, with the 2014 BRDC F4 champion looking for a championship challenge following a rookie campaign last year that saw him finish sixth in the standings having taken a solitary victory at Silverstone.
Joining Russell in the team is fellow Briton Ben Barnicoat, who carries over his Racing Steps Foundation backing from Formula Renault into Formula 3, while Russian youngster Nikita Mazepin completes the three-car line-up.
With a hefty financial backing and a strong looking line-up, Hitech could hit the ground running and take the fight to Prema straight out of the box.
It is a shame that teams like Fortec, Signature and Double R Racing are missing, as they all bring something towards the championship, but with spiralling costs, it is understandable that, for the time being at least, they step away from the series. It is doubly sad that Artline Engineering is not on the grid, with the Russian outfit having debuted its own chassis towards the end of last season that they had hoped would take the fight to Dallara.
But despite their absence, the new season promises to be another strong one for the championship, which starts at Paul Ricard in France and visits the Hungaroring, Pau, the Red Bull Ring, the Norisring, Zandvoort, Spa-Francorchamps, the Nurburgring and Imola, before concluding at Hockenheim in October.
Let the battle commence!