Well, folks, it's that time of year again. Parts of the UK have been hit by heavy snow, elsewhere there's rain that is showing no sign of relenting, and the forecast is bleak. This means that it must be time for the opening rounds of the British F3 International Series. For 2010 there are a lot of new names and a new set of regulations for us all to absorb so we'll start with the rule changes, which should make for more exciting races albeit with the potential to seriously confuse the less sharp among the competitors.
Instead of the old, familiar two qualifying sessions with each one counting towards the two individual races, we now have just one qualifying session each weekend, but three races. So how is this going to work, we hear you cry. Well, the fastest two times for each driver will determine their qualifying positions for Race 1 and Race 3. The grid for race 1 will be based on the second fastest time each competitor sets, while the fastest times will determine the grid for Race 3. That leaves Race 2, and this is where it gets interesting! The winner of Race 1 will draw a number between 6 and 10, and that number will decide which position on the grid he is allocated for Race 2 and the person who would have started from here is moved to pole. The remaining 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9 drivers who are now ahead of the Race 1 winner will then form up behind the new pole sitter in the reverse order in which they finished Race 1. So there is no point trying to finish in a particular position in the hope of ending up on pole if you are having a tough time in Race 1!
In addition to all of that, Race 1 will be 30 minutes long, Race 2 will be 20 minutes and Race 3 will be 40 minutes. "Full" points will be awarded for Races 1 and 3, with 20 to the winner, 15, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1 to the top 10 in the International and National Classes, with an additional point for the fastest race lap in each class. For Race 2, points will be awarded on a reduced scale with 10 to the winner, and then 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1 to the top 10 in the International and National classes, but an additional two points awarded for the fastest race lap in each class. Confused? You will be!
The 2010 field is especially healthy in the International Class, with 19 runners of varying levels of talent. The National Class, in comparison, seems rather sparse with just two drivers signed up by the Media Day on March 24th. And as they are both driving for T-Sport we can probably predict which team will win that category again this year.
At the other end of the field, in the National Class, Carlin are running six, count 'em! - six drivers, and of course have the number 1 on one of their cars. So, starting at number 1, let's take a quick look at the drivers hoping to make a name for themselves this season and emulate the likes of Jaime Alguersuari who is in F1 less than two years after lifting the trophy.
No. 1 - Adriano Buzaid (Carlin)
The Brazilian driver proved to have pace last year, claiming his first win at Spa. However, his form was often erratic and he seemed to blow hot and cold. Working with Carlin may help him focus when he needs to, and he should at least win a few more races before the season is out. Having ended last season in 6th, he needs to do much better this year if he wants to progress much further.
No. 2 - James Calado (Carlin)
Calado was a strong competitor in European karting back in 2005, winning the series. He's also performed well in Formula Renault in the UK, and is highly thought of by the Racing Steps Foundation, who brought Oliver Turvey to the series a couple of years ago, and who would seem to know a thing or two about talent spotting. He may struggle within Carlin, though, as there is so much talent in the team that it could be hard to stand out.
No. 3 - William Buller (Hitech Racing)
Another FBMW graduate, but this one is a Macau winner, which suggests he's a man (or at least a boy) to watch. The youngster started out on quad bikes before moving up to karts, but since then has raced with Fortec in Formula BMW Europe and the Formula Renault Winter series. He has moved on to Hitech where he won on his F3 debut out in Brazil earlier this year, which reinforces the idea that he may prove very fast indeed.
No. 4 - Gabriel Dias (Hitech Racing)
The Brazilian had a fine start to his F3 career when he ended up as runner-up in the National Class last year, taking a class win at Spa despite his reservations about the place after having broken his back there while racing in the Formula Renault Eurocup. Clearly he has put that behind him, though it remains to be seen how he will gel with the Hitech team after a year at T-Sport.
No. 5 - Daniel McKenzie (Fortec Motorsport)
Last year's National Class champion is going to have to work hard this year, especially as he has had a bit of a late start to the season. The ex- junior footballer hasn't exactly had a conventional career path to date, starting out in Radicals before moving on to UK Formula BMW, then joining Fortec for Formula Renault Eurocup and staying for two years. He won the Championship in 2008, then stayed with the team for F3. He knows the team inside out - if he can just get over the late delivery of the 2010 parts he should be there or thereabouts.
No. 6 - Oliver Webb (Fortec Motorsport)
Also at Fortec is Webb, who has proved remarkably fast for an F3 newbie. With a large quantity of karting experience behind him, and four years of car racing, the youngster looks as if he could pose a serious threat. Again, he's been with Fortec for two years already, so he has the advantage of not having to learn a new team, just a new car.
No. 7 - Alex Brundle (T-Sport)
With a famous name weighing him down, and what appears to be some less than useful experience (two years of Formula Palmer Audi) the youngster who finished 19th in last years' FIA F2 series is likely to struggle this season. He's certainly unlikely to be in the running for the Championship, though there's always a chance that he may still run foul of the Brazilians, which was always his father's problem in F3!
No. 8 - Daisuke Nakajima (Raikkonen Robertson Racing)
Returning to Double R for a second season is Nakajima. He struggled initially last year but by the end of the season he was getting the hang of it. In pre-season testing he was fast, so he could very well be a major challenger this year. As in recent seasons, it's probably more a question of whether Double R can get their act to together than whether their driver can.
No. 9 - Max Snegirev (Fortec Motorsport)
Hopefully, the Russian will prove far less hapless than he did last season, when his revolutionary tendencies saw him spin off repeatedly and do vastly expensive amounts of damage to the scenery and his car. At least Fortec may be able to keep him under control but don't count on it though.
No. 14 - Jay Bridger (Litespeed)
Bridger has a hard furrow to plough as he tries whip Litespeed into shape single-handed. At least he'll be in a Dallara for it, with the all- conquering VW engine in the back. Now Litespeed have got over their flirtation with F1, perhaps they can settle down and actually concentrate on developing an F3 team that is competitive. If anyone can function in this sort of environment it is probably Bridger, but he's unlikely to trouble the front-runners too much.
No. 18 - Adderley Fong (Sino Vision Motorsport)
Looking considerably fitter and slimmer than he did last year in Germany, the A1GP runner is not likely to be anywhere near the front given that he's running on his own in a new team. Also given that he didn't impress much in the Recaro Cup (the German F3 championship) it's probably safe to assume that although he will probably score some points, it's not likely to be many.
No. 21 - Rupert Svendsen-Cook (Carlin)
Svendsen-Cook steps up from Formula BMW to F3 this year, a difficult transition for many. The baby-faced youngster almost certainly faces a tough learning process and it remains to be seen how successful he will be. With most FBMW graduates, the hardest battle is learning that you cannot treat an F3 car in the same was as you would a Formula BMW.
No. 22 - Jazeman Jaafar (Carlin)
The Malaysian enjoyed some success in karting in Malaysia, and was Formula BMW Asia champion in 2007 at the tender age of 14. Formula BMW Europe in 2008 and 2009 proved a much tougher proposition, and Jaafar seems highly unlikely to be a front-runner in F3.
No. 25 - Hywel Lloyd (C F Racing with Manor)
In his third year in F3, the Welshman can still be found with a spanner in his hand at least as often as he can be seen behind the wheel. After an impressive privateer stint in the National Class in 2008, he moved up to the International Class in 2009 but struggled without a teammate. This year the family run team has formed a partnership with Manor which should help, not least because it should allow Lloyd to concentrate on his driving more than on the engineering side.
No. 26 - Carlos Huertas (Raikkonen Robertson Racing)
Also staying at Double R is Huertas, and he too has been showing very well in pre-season testing. He just edged Nakajima out for 7th last year and he too will expect to finish 2010 a lot closer to the sharp end. Provided he keeps concentration, the likeable Colombian should be able to capitalise on his experience and may well collect a number of wins. Winning the title may be slightly more difficult with Vergne to contend with.
No. 27 - Felipe Nasr (Raikkonen Robertson Racing)
Another of the gaggle of BMW boys moving up to F3 this year, the 2009 Formula BMW Europe champion is another with a lot still to learn, At least he should already know some of the tracks, but we wouldn't expect much in the way of results from the teenager this year.
No. 28 - Rio Haryanto (C F Racing with Manor)
The Indonesian youngster will not be running in all of the rounds this year as he is also competing in GP3. He has shown impressive speed in Asia, ending 2009 as Formula BMW Pacific Champion 2009 with 11 race wins, but again the British Series and F3 is a whole different ball game. Haryanto is another driver at the start of a serious learning curve.
No. 31 - Jean-Eric Vergne (Carlin)
General opinion is that the Frenchman might as well be handed the trophy now while everyone else fights over the runner-up slot. He began karting at the age of 5, and has apparently not looked back since, winning the French Formula Campus Championship in his first single-seater year. Red Bull picked him up for their Junior Team in 2008, and he went on to win the French Formula Renault Championship and narrowly missed out on the Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup last year. This is one to watch for sure.
No. 32 - Lucas Foresti (Carlin)
The teenager started out on two wheels, then took to karts, and has some F3 experience already, having competed in the South American F3 series in 2009. How much this will help him in the ferociously competitive arena of British F3 remains to be seen, and if past Sud Am runners are anything to go by, we shouldn't expect much from him before 2011.
No. 43 - Menasheh Idafar (T-Sport)
The Bahraini driver's relative lack of experience in the UK may make life easier for Cole, although his two seasons in BARC Formula Renault and Formula Renault UK might help.
No. 44 - James Cole (T-Sport)
Last year's Formula Ford GB Champion should be favourite for the National Class, given that all he needs to do is beat his less-experienced team mate. Hopefully there will turn out to be more competition before the season ends or it could be a great disappointment for the two T-Sport boys.