F3 preview: Will 2017 be the year Prema domination ends?

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F3 preview: Will 2017 be the year Prema domination ends?
David Gruz
By: David Gruz
Apr 12, 2017, 3:16 PM

This year's European Formula 3 season is about to start at Silverstone, with several drivers looking to fill the void created by last year's F1-bound champion Lance Stroll. David Gruz assesses the class of 2017.

It has become a habit to start every F3 season with the question: "Can anyone beat Prema this time?"

Each year, there has been cause for optimism that things will pan out differently, and yet, for four seasons now, the points gap between the champion and the best non-Prema driver has kept increasing.

That said, this particular trend looks to have reached its peak in 2016, as Prema’s four rival teams in all look strong enough to at least give the Italian outfit a run for its money in 2017.

In addition, a new aerokit also has the potential to shake things up, while a raft of new regulations aimed at keeping a lid on costs and stopping one team from running away from the competition means Prema faces its toughest season yet to stay on top.

The crazy grid sizes of 2015 might be a thing of the past, but the class of 2017 has no weak link - and the field looks like it will be closer than ever.

Prema Powerteam

At times of change, it is no surprise seeing Prema recruiting the most experienced line-up in the field.

While 2016 champion Stroll made the most ambitious move possible by going to Formula 1, runner-up Maximilian Gunther sticks around in F3 for another year. Targeting the title is the obvious goal and, with all three of his 2016 teammates gone, he needs to step up and take the team leader role, to prove to his backer Mercedes he should be going to F1 rather than DTM.

Intra-team battles are rare within Prema, but it’s hard not to anticipate one this time between Gunther and another 2016 frontrunner, Callum Ilott. His rookie season, also his first year in cars, was filled with mistakes and crashes, but was still classified in every race. While he lifted his game on that front last year, he still needs to become more consistent. 

Besides Gunther and Ilott, it’s quite easy to forget there is also a Ferrari junior in the team, Guan Yu Zhou. His rookie season last year started promisingly with two podiums, but his momentum slowed as the year went on, and he was only 13th in the points in the end. He was close to Ilott and Gunther in testing, but the Chinese youngster might still be a step behind when it comes to putting together a consistent campaign over a 30-race calendar.

Finally, Prema's line-up is completed with Mick Schumacher, whose surname will inevitably create high expectations. Running with Prema certainly has its advantages, but racing next to three of the best drivers in the field, it will be hard for him to impress. The German was impressive in F4, and there is nothing to suggest he can’t do the same in F3, but maybe not this year. 2017 is about learning rather than performing – leave that for 2018.

Team Hitech Grand Prix

Hitech joined the European F3 field full-time last year, and it immediately stepped up as one of Prema’s main rivals as George Russell and Ben Barnicoat both scored wins, but a couple of car issues took the sheen off the team’s year. Now that it’s not new to the scene, Hitech should only get better.

Probably the best sign of things to come is the fact Hitech lured Ralf Aron away from Prema. The 2015 Italian F4 champion’s transition to F3 was not without hiccups, but he was a regular point-scorer with a dominant Hungaroring round, and he also was the second best rookie behind Joel Eriksson.

Yet, the Estonian’s team leader status is not clear-cut, due to the arrival of Jake Hughes. The Briton made the rather unorthodox move of coming from GP3, but his impressive performance of making it to the podium in the 2016 F3 season finale, and then finishing sixth in Macau makes this a logical move. F3 seems to suit him much better than GP3, and he could be destined for more than a few wins.

Honda protege Tadasuke Makino will also drive for the team, the Japanese youngster being one of the biggest unknowns of the field. Makino started racing in 2015, and will race in Europe for the first time – every strong result he produces will have to be valued accordingly.

The Hitech line-up is completed by Nikita Mazepin, who returns with the team for a second year. Mazepin’s single-seater career, which also started in 2015, has been rather quiet so far, the Russian having first rushed into Formula Renault 2.0, and then to F3 last year. In 2017, we should get a clearer idea of how much talent he actually has.

Team Motopark

In general, Motopark's 2016 season in F3 was a success, mainly because of Joel Eriksson. The Swede, a long-time protege of the team, was not only the top rookie in the standings, but also the second-best driver in the latter stages behind Stroll with seven podiums in the last 11 races.

Thus, Motopark has to be delighted it kept Eriksson for another year. Keeping the momentum from last year will be crucial, and the Swede will surely have a shot at the title if he does that.

While Eriksson arguably has the ability to win F3, there are some question marks over whether the rest of the team can support him in that. While the Swede was partnered by three F1 juniors last year, it’s two rookies, Marino Sato and Keyvan Andres Soori, who join him this time around.

Sato, only 17, spent two years in Italian F4, taking a promising 10th as a rookie and then a less impressive 18th in 2016. Soori seems a bit more prepared for the series, having spent a year in Euroformula Open and three more in the USA, but the German was last in both pre-season tests.

Van Amersfoort Racing

Max Verstappen’s short but unforgettable tenure in European F3 with Van Amersfoort Racing has turned the Dutch team into an F3 powerhouse, and the likes of Charles Leclerc and Ilott have kept the team in regular race winning contention in the last two years. In 2017, the team seems to have its most all-round line-up of recent years, with four drivers capable of strong results.

Based on testing, Harrison Newey is putting all he learnt last year in use – he was fastest in Hungary and fifth in Austria. His rather low-key rookie season was everything but representative, as he made the step up with one F4 season under his belt. With a year of experience, he could catch many off guard with a strong sophomore campaign.

Pedro Piquet, son of F1 world champion Nelson, is in a similar situation. Like Newey, his rookie season in European F3 was low-key, as he failed to crack the top five all year. However, there is more to come from him as well, if his Toyota Racing Series campaign this winter, where he missed out on the title by five points, is any indication.

However, the biggest star of the team is likely to be David Beckmann, who is now 16, and is ready to finally tackle is first full-time single-seater campaign. Beckmann was already among the quickest drivers last year, but the German starts 2017 a lot more prepared. Converting his strong pace into more results than last year will be key.

Last but not least, probably the best F4 driver of 2016, Joey Mawson, is finally making a well-deserved step up to F3. Budget limitations confined him to F4 for three years, but there was never any doubt he has what it takes to do well at a higher level. He will have a tough time standing out next to three more experienced teammates, but he has already shown a lot of promise in testing.

Team Carlin

Most of 2016 was almost a complete write-off for Carlin. Apart from a general lack of competitiveness, the team’s two drivers also had a horror crash at the Red Bull Ring, leaving Zhi Cong Li seriously injured - but the season was saved when Hughes stood on the podium in the season finale at Hockenheim, and Antonio Felix da Costa won Macau.

All of that late success was probably neccessary for the team to sign McLaren junior Lando Norris, arguably the hottest driver of the junior single-seater scene below F2. Norris won four different championships in the past two years, and was immediately on pace everywhere he went. He starts as the clear favourite for the rookie title, but the real question is how much he can achieve overall – race wins, top three in the standings, maybe even the title? We have yet to see his limit.

Norris will pair up with two more rookies, Force India protege Jehan Daruvala and Ferdinand Habsburg, who both raced alongside the Briton last year. A successful karting driver, Daruvala has yet to achieve the same reputation in single-seaters. He scored 191 points less than Norris as his teammate, and the Indian youngster’s main goal for 2017 should be to close that gap.

Habsburg on the other hand seems to become a better driver each year. He claimed his first victories in single-seaters last year on his way to take an impressive second place in Euroformula Open in a one-man team. Racing in that championship also gave him some F3 experience, even if in a different version of the car, which should help him acclimatise quicker.

Having three rookies might not be ideal for Carlin to quickly get on top of the new aerokit, which is exactly why they have drafted in Jake Dennis. An F3 star two years ago, Dennis made the switch to sportscars this year, and has only been called back for the first three rounds for the moment. Whether he will do more rounds, or Carlin will find a replacement after that, remains to be seen.

Predictions

The panel:

 Valentin Khorounzhiy, News editor (VK)

 David Gruz, Editorial assistant (DG)

 Jamie Klein, UK editor (JK)

 Benjamin Vinel, Head of junior formulae content, France (BV)

 Marcus Simmons, Autosport deputy editor (MS)

5.  Lando Norris

VK: Norris has been majestic in his first two seasons in open-wheel racing so far. He's a monumental talent and knows Carlin well, but seeing off the Prema duo will be a tough ask.

BV: Norris is probably the biggest talent in the field. His racing record is impressive with three championship titles last year, and his F3 debut at Hockenheim and Macau was not bad either. Norris will certainly perform, but can Carlin compete with a powerhouse like Prema?

4.  Joel Eriksson

JK: Last year’s top rookie Eriksson has the continuity of sticking with Motopark for a second season on his side, but the BMW protege could suffer without another top talent in the German team to push him on.

VK: The Swede seems to be improving markedly with each season. He was remarkably good at the end of his rookie F3 campaign last year – and while Motopark's line-up isn't as strong in 2016, that may mean he becomes more of a focus.

3.  Jake Hughes

DG: Hughes looked solid in BRDC F4, Formula Renault 2.0 and GP3, but when he jumped in for the European F3 season finale last year, he was on another level. A podium there and sixth place in Macau, F3 seems to be tailor-made for Hughes. 2017 could be a career-making season for him.

MS: I'm anticipating such a fierce struggle between Ilott and Gunther that an outsider from another team could steal in and wrest the title. Hughes looked mega when he switched to F3 at the end of last year and the Hitech man could at least split the Prema boys.

2.  Maximilian Gunther

VK: Too long the bridesmaid (see Formula BMW Talent Cup, ADAC Formel Masters and last year's F3), Gunther has plenty of experience and continuity to get the job done this year.

JK: As (distant) runner-up to Lance Stroll in 2016, Gunther will undoubtedly be in the mix for regular wins again this time around – but can he beat Ilott in a straight title fight? He needs to not allow his expanded Mercedes DTM role to be a distraction to be in with a chance.

1.  Callum Ilott

MS: It's a really tough call between Prema's super-fast lead duo of Ilott and Gunther. But I think the Brit is more race-savvy and that should see him prevail.

BV: Jumping straight from karting to European F3, Ilott has had a fair share of learning in the last two years, and is now going to tackle the title with the team that has been unbeatable in the series. Ilott has shown his talent already, and I expect him to perform consistently enough to clinch the title.

JK: Enters as the championship favourite by his own admission, a tag that Ilott has lived up to in pre-season testing. His class shone through last season despite VAR’s deficit to Prema, and now he has joined forces with the Italian powerhouse, it’s hard to bet against him.

DG: Ilott's car control and aggressive style is a joy to watch, and this kind of race craft could exactly be what gives him the edge over the opposition of many fast drivers - it's not exactly easy to overtake in F3 after all.

Full predictions:

Pos. Driver Team JK VK DG BV MS Pts.
1  Callum Ilott Prema Powerteam 1st 2nd 1st 1st 1st 24
2  Maximilian Gunther Prema Powerteam 2nd 1st 3rd 2nd 3rd 19
3  Jake Hughes Hitech GP 3rd   2nd 5th 2nd 12
4  Joel Eriksson Motopark 4th 4th 5th 4th 4th 9
5  Lando Norris Carlin 5th 3rd   3rd 5th 8
6  David Beckmann Van Amersfoort Racing     4th     2
7  Ralf Aron Hitech GP   5th       1
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