GP3 season preview: Can anyone stop Leclerc?

The 2016 GP3 season sees the introduction of a new car - and a host of very talented rookies, led by Ferrari protege Charles Leclerc. David Gruz surveys the field.

GP3 season preview: Can anyone stop Leclerc?

ART Grand PrixCharles Leclerc, ART Grand Prix

Charles Leclerc, ART Grand Prix

Photo by: GP3 Series Media Service

Teams' champion in every season except 2014, ART Grand Prix always has a driver or two right at the front of the pack.

However, going by testing performances, it’s hard to pick one or even two main hopefuls from the team’s rookie quartet for 2016.

Three different drivers headed the French team's efforts in the three pre-season tests, and with the average gap between the fastest and slowest of its drivers standing at just 0.115s, it could really be anyone’s game.

Still, it’s hard to overlook new Ferrari protege Charles Leclerc as the favourite, the Monegasque arriving after a season in F3 that was almost as impressive as reigning GP3 champion Esteban Ocon's 2014 campaign.

While the Frenchman’s title was secured through incredible consistency, Leclerc will face a field of less experience but more drivers capable of race wins.

Even establishing himself as the top dog within the team looks like a tough ask as ART, helped by its McLaren connections, picked up Nyck de Vries from Formula Renault 3.5.

Luca Ghiotto was almost GP3 champion last year after taking 17th in FR3.5 - which bodes well for de Vries, who finished his campaign in the Renault series third.

Former karting prodigy Alex Albon had a slow start to his car career but is looking more and more confident with each year, the Thai taking the unfancied Signature car to seventh place in the European F3 standings last year.

The line-up is completed by Honda protege Nirei Fukuzumi, another driver earning a seat in Europe thanks to the team’s connection with McLaren.

Just like GP2's surprise performer Nobuharu Matsushita, Fukuzumi hails from All-Japan F3, and, similarly, he looks to have adapted to European racing in no time.

TridentAntonio Fuoco, Trident

Antonio Fuoco, Trident

Photo by: GP3 Media Service

Up until last year, Trident has been languishing down the order in GP3, not making much of an impact on the series.

That all changed last year when it made an unlikely title challenge with Luca Ghiotto, who missed out on the title by just eight points.

Trident understandably promoted Ghiotto to GP2 within their ranks, and signed a similarly promising Italian talent to fill his shoes – Antonio Fuoco.

The Ferrari junior was the second-best rookie in 2015 and will be the highest-placed returnee, even though he lost a fair share of points with a couple of costly crashes.

Fuoco will team up with Ferrari’s latest recruit Giuliano Alesi, son of former F1 star Jean. The 16-year-old youngster only had a year in single-seaters, in French F4, winning thrice but ultimately only taking fourth overall.

Finally, former teammates and title rivals in Euroformula Open - Artur Janosz and Sandy Stuvik - will reunite at the team.

They both spent a year in the series already, the Polish racer making a much bigger impression with his top finish of fifth, while Stuvik strugged with the Status squad that has since pulled out of the series.

Arden InternationalTatiana Calderon, Arden International

Tatiana Calderon, Arden International

Photo by: GP3 Series Media Service

ART's usual main rival Arden will likewise enter the season with an all-rookie lineup, picking two of the most promising British youngsters of their generation.

Racing Steps Foundation-backed Jake Dennis arrives with two years of F3 experience, taking third in FIA F3 last year, which should make him the team leader in theory.

He kicked off testing accordingly and, while his teammates caught up in due time, Dennis' pedigree suggests he'll be a serious threat at Catalunya.

Jack Aitken, reigning Eurocup FR2.0 champion and Renault F1 junior, will also be expected to have a strong rookie season, should he want to keep his place in the already crowded development programme of the French marque.

Making up the line-up is Tatiana Calderon, who, after a difficult third year in F3, looks poised for a decent debut in GP3 - and is very likely to join Alice Powell in the list of female drivers to score points in the series.

The Colombian matched the pace of her highly-praised teammates in testing, and has the talent to contribute well to Arden's 2016 campaign.

Koiranen GPMatthew Parry, Koiranen GP

Matthew Parry, Koiranen GP

Photo by: GP3 Series Media Service

Koiranen is another team that's expected to challenge for the crown, and the Finnish outfit has a likely lead driver in Matt Parry.

The Welshman impressed in his debut campaign last year, scoring three podiums, and he spent the pre-season testing as one of the benchmark drivers of the field.

However, Parry might have some competition from new teammate Ralph Boschung, who towered over two vastly more experienced teammates at Jenzer last year, despite having arrived from the entry-level ADAC Formel Masters series.

On the rookie side, Matevos Isaakyan is strong addition, having already made his in GP3 debut at the end of last year and scoring points in only his third race.

The Formula Renault 2.0 graduate always had raw pace in abundance, but his famously aggressive driving style could prove problematic in the famously close series.

The line-up is completed by Mahaveer Raghunathan, who, after making the rather ambitious move to FIA F3 and running as a backmarker there, will now switch to GP3.

Although the Indian aims to become a podium finisher by the end of the season, his lack of speed in testing will make that a daunting task.

Jenzer MotorsportOscar Tunjo, Jenzer Motorsport

Oscar Tunjo, Jenzer Motorsport

Photo by: GP3 Series Media Service

Having not scored a victory during the GP3/13 era, Jenzer must be relieved to have a new car for the upcoming season.

For the first time, the team will not employ a Swiss driver and, even though it was last to finalise its drivers, it may be facing a breakthrough season.

The team signed Oscar Tunjo, who only had six races in the series last year due to financial issues but made quite an entrance by scoring a shock race win at Spielberg.

Having not raced in single-seaters since his early departure from GP3 in 2015, he might kick off with some rustiness - but Tunjo could very well end up as one of the surprise packages of the season.

Jenzer’s other two drivers are coming from unusual places, with Malaysian Akash Nandy and Richard Gonda having finished as respective runners-up in the Austrian Remus Formel 3 Pokal and Renault Sport Trophy championships last year.

Campos RacingAlex Palou, Campos Racing

Alex Palou, Campos Racing

Photo by: GP3 Series Media Service

Campos' and Alex Palou’s first GP3 season in 2015 was as hectic as it gets – the youngster proved himself to be one of the strongest drivers in qualifying but suffered from a myriad of technical problems.

He still saw off the season with a dominant win in the final race, which established him as one of the potential protagonists of 2016.

Unsurprisingly, it was Palou setting the pace for the team in the pre-season, but the 19-year-old was no higher than 10th.

On merit, he should be a consistent point-scorer, but a lot other things need to come together for him to mount a title assault.

Konstantin Tereshchenko, late entrant last year and the team’s Euroformula Open title contender, and Steijn Schothorst, who returns to single-seaters after making an excursion to Renault Sport Trophy, are strong enough drivers in their own right but are likely to play a supporting role to Palou.

DAMSJake Hughes, DAMS

Jake Hughes, DAMS

Photo by: GP3 Media Service

The most successful GP2 team of recent years, the Ruaudin-based squad is finally expanding into GP3 and, having timed its arrival to the introduction of the new car, DAMS should take little time to get up to speed.

The recruited trio, three newcomers but all certainly talented, should all be a help in that regard.

Kevin Jorg and Jake Hughes both were part of the six-way Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 title fight last year, ending up third and sixth respectively just 13 and 46 points adrift from the champion.

The former is now a Renault junior and both were on pace in testing, even though the speed to challenge for the very top spots on the grid does not yet appear to be there.

Haas development driver Santino Ferrucci makes up the line-up, having been a promising F3 part-timer before 2015 but having endured a rather difficult first full season in the series last year.

Still only 17, the American was showing similar form to his teammates in testing and there is no reason to believe he would be far behind them throughout the season.

Predictions

The panel:

 - David Gruz, special contributor, Global

 - Valentin Khorounzhiy, editorial assistant, Global

 - Jamie Klein, UK editor

 - Benjamin Vinel, head of junior formulae content, France

5.  Matt Parry

BV: Though former Caterham junior Parry never fought for wins in his maiden GP3 season, he always fought for points-paying positions when he had a chance, and managed three podiums despite much misfortune. The Welshman has potential; staying at Koiranen, he will be the leader of the Barcelona-based Finnish team and will try to lead it towards the title.

VK: Koiranen's best drivers in GP3 have usually finished right on the outskirts of the top three, and that's probably where Parry is likeliest to end up. Having once shaken up the two-litre Formula Renault establishment, the Welshman is yet to find the same level of success – but this should be his best chance to be a frontrunner once more.

4.  Alex Albon

JK: ART has gone for an all-rookie line-up this year, and after Leclerc, former Lotus junior Albon is my tip to emerge as ‘best of the rest’. Impressive in F3 last year with Signature, the Anglo-Thai has gone well in testing and ought to be well in the mix for podiums and wins.

DG: Over-achieving in a far from frontrunning team in F3 and then keeping up with Leclerc in testing? It's all going towards Albon becoming a force to be reckoned with in GP3.

3.  Jake Dennis

VK: Having once battled the likes of Pierre Gasly and Oliver Rowland in Formula Renault, Dennis has all the experience he could ever need to enter GP3. He's won titles before and this is a very good chance for him to win again.

BV: Dennis seems to deliver wherever he competes, as shown by his titles in Intersteps and FR2.0 NEC as well as fourth in Eurocup FR2.0, and third in F3 Europe last year. With an interesting Arden line-up, though all three drivers are rookies, the Brit could shine for his maiden season in GP3.

2.  Antonio Fuoco

JK: Trident proved last year with Luca Ghiotto that it knows how to win in GP3, and with the similarly quick Fuoco joining the squad after a slightly underwhelming year at Carlin, it could well be an all-Ferrari junior fight for title honours in 2016.

DG: For the first time in his career, Fuoco will not be a rookie in 2016. Given his speed, that extra experience and hopefully a bit more maturity will be enough for a title assault.

BV: Fuoco has shown glimpses of potential in his maiden GP3 season, but too many crashes hindered him and he generally didn't match the pace of the top four. The Ferrari junior is the best-placed 2015 driver to stay in GP3 for this season and has been quick in testing. Could he be the driver that takes Trident to the title after Ghiotto's wonderful 2015 campaign?

1.  Charles Leclerc

VK: His karting record and early campaigns in single-seaters suggest Leclerc might be one of the biggest talents of his generation, but with that has come the burden of expectation. Still, early indications suggest he won't buckle and, if he doesn't, he might be unstoppable.

JK: Effectively following in the footsteps of last year’s champion Esteban Ocon, new Ferrari Academy recruit Leclerc has everything he needs to emulate the Frenchman’s success – the best team in the paddock around him, experience of fighting at the sharp end and a bucketload of talent. 

BV: Leclerc has shown his talent in F3 Europe with a stellar rookie campaign against much more experienced competition. Competing with an ART team that has always reigned on GP3, the Monegasque will undoubtedly be a serious title contender.

DG: No wonder our entire panel picked him as the champion, Leclerc is the whole package - super fast, quick to adapt, consistent, strong racecraft. It might put too much pressure on him but not winning the title, which is as option in this field, would be a disappointment.

Pos. Driver VK JK DG BV Pts.
1  Charles Leclerc 1st 1st  1st  1st  20 
2  Antonio Fuoco 4th  2nd  2nd  2nd  14 
3  Jake Dennis 2nd  5th    4th 
=4  Alex Albon   3rd  4th   
=4  Matt Parry 5th    5th  3rd 
6  Nyck de Vries 3rd      5th 
7  Alex Palou     3rd   
8  Kevin Jorg   4th     
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