BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23: Zak O'Sullivan of Great Britain and PREMA Racing (3) leads the field at the start during the Round 8:Budapest Feature race of the Formula 3 Championship at Hungaroring on July 23, 2023 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Rudy Carezzevoli - Formula 1/Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images)
What is the best path to Formula 3?
F3 drivers talk stepping stones and share which series prepares you the best for Formula 3
Any young driver hoping to make his way to Formula 1 comes up through the feeder series ladder.
The most obvious and common stepping stone to Formula 1 is Formula 2. Drivers come to Formula 2 from Formula 3, almost always without variation.
But how they get to Formula 3, that’s where it gets complicated. There are numerous smaller categories that Formula 3 teams watch (and participate in) to see which drivers will make it to the next step.
Deciding to make that step, from wherever to Formula 3, can be tricky and depends on a number of factors. Make the wrong choice, either by coming to Formula 3 too early or by waiting too long, and your career could be ruined.
Of all the options, all the series you could come from, all the choices a driver can make to get to Formula 3, which is the best? FormulaNerds spoke with an array of drivers to find out.
By and large, the most common stepping stone to Formula 3 is the Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine (FRECA, if you can’t be bothered to say all that every time). Of the current 30 drivers on the 2023 Formula 3 grid, nine of them came straight from FRECA.
The major upside of coming from FRECA is the track experience a driver gets, as almost all of the races on the Formula 3 calendar are at the same tracks FRECA drivers are familiar with.
Paul Aron, the driver that came third in the FRECA standings in 2022, told FormulaNerds that having that experience on these tracks is invaluable.
“I came from the Formula Regional championship, and I think one of the strongest points of that championship is track experience,” he said. “We’re racing mostly on the same tracks that the Formula 3 championship is racing at so you get great experience.”
But the downside, according to Aron, is the car itself.
“But on the other hand, to be honest, the car behaviour is quite different, so I wouldn’t say that what you learn [in FRECA] will be massively helpful in Formula 3 because the driving style is pretty different and the way you drive the car is also quite different.
“But generally, the championship prepares you pretty well for the tracks coming, and also the racing is quite close. You also have the push-to-pass to manage, which is obviously not like DRS, but it gives you a bit of an idea and you already need to have a strategic approach to the races.
“So I would say there is definitely stuff that has helped me prepare, but purely on pace and car driving, I think [F3] is quite different from the Regional car.”
What does the championship leader think?
Aron’s sentiments were echoed by the Formula 3 championship leader, Gabriel Bortoleto.
“On my side I would say that I think maybe I could have even tried to go to F3 already last season, if I had the opportunity to be in Trident,” Bortoleto told FormulaNerds.
“I don’t regret doing two years of FRECA, it’s just that I think the car is very bad. There is no downforce compared to F3. The only good thing about that championship is that you run on almost every racetrack that you do in F3, so that’s very very good.
“But the car in and of itself is very different from what F3’s is today. I would say time off track is the main thing that FRECA can help a driver, because we run a lot of Free Practices and pre-events and everything, I think this is the main thing that helped me for this season.”
While Bortoleto might have some concerns about the effectiveness of FRECA when it comes to preparing a driver for Formula 3, he’s poised to win the championship in his rookie year with just one round still to go, which is perhaps a more compelling argument.
The next most popular category for drivers to come from, at least in 2023, is the GB3 championship. Six drivers from the current grid hail the UK-based series as their stepping stone to Formula 3.
While drivers coming from FRECA have experience on almost all of the Formula 3 tracks, GB3 drivers have next to none of that experience. What they do have on the FRECA drivers is a much more similar car.
According to the reigning GB3 champion, Luke Browning, there’s a lot to be said for using the series as a stepping stone, but the lack of track experience can be tough to manage.
“Coming from GB3, I think the car attitude is a bit closer to F3 than FRECA,” Browning told FormulaNerds ahead of the Formula 3 weekend in Hungary. “It’s a little bit quicker, and I think from the car side on GB3, it’s a really cool car to drive.
“It’s probably in between, so [F3] obviously has a lot more downforce and a lot less power, it’s kind of in between so it’s got a lot more power, but probably a similar downforce level to the FRECA. So it’s probably a little bit closer to F3, so it’s a really good stepping stone in that aspect.
“But equally, not really being admitted to British tracks, they’re opening it up now, I think they’re doing Zandvoort as well this year. But having the only two Grand Prix tracks I’ve done being Spa and Silverstone, it’s not so great from that aspect.”
The budget factor
Browning also touched on a separate issue that young drivers face in the harrowing journey to Formula 3: finding a budget.
“From my background, it would have been absolutely impossible to get into FRECA, with budget reasons,” he commented. “Being a British driver, I’m so lucky being supported by the BRDC and taking stepping stones from the UK, in effect being the most accomplished British driver at this point, winning both GB3 and British F4.
“Having support from the BRDC was ultimately what’s given me the opportunity, who put me in touch with Williams and who made it possible. I couldn’t be more thankful, to be honest, to the BRDC and the stepping stone of GB3, for any British driver it’s for sure a good stepping stone.
“It’s just all it is, is when you do come up to the next level, coming into FIA F3 or even FRECA, it’s just going to take a little bit of time to get used to it.”
FormulaNerds received similar comments from the 2021 GB3 champion, Zak O’Sullivan, who said: “For me, coming from GB3, the car was quite good preparation, it’s quite high downforce so you get used to using high downforce and really making the most of it.
“The only downside is British tracks. Whilst they’re fun and unique, they don’t really, bar Silverstone, you don’t know any of the tracks coming into F3, that’s probably the area I lacked the most last year.
“But in terms of the car I think it’s quite good preparation, the car for me at least was really nice to drive and not too dissimilar to F3.”
Next on the list is a series that five of the 2023 Formula 3 drivers came from: Euroformula Open.
A bit of a dwindling category, thanks mostly to the rise of FRECA, Euroformula Open has still shown itself to be a natural step for many drivers to take on their way to Formula 3. It’s the third most popular series as far as this year’s Formula 3 drivers are concerned, with five direct graduates on the 2023 grid.
Trident Racing’s Oliver Goethe won his rookie season of Euroformula Open in 2022, also competing in two rounds of Formula 3 before stepping up full-time for 2023.
“I think Euroformula was a great preparation for me coming into F3,” Goethe commented. “I had a tricky year in FRECA the year before, and then we decided to move to Euroformula, and I learnt so much there with Motopark and with that car.
“It gave me a lot of confidence, obviously winning the championship, I knew what I could do and it gave me a boost for sure.”
In 2023, just five drivers have completed the full four rounds of Euroformula Open so far this season. A total of just fifteen drivers have contested at least one round, a testament to the category’s loss in popularity.
Still, we’ve already seen one driver make a mid-season switch from the series to Formula 3, with Francesco Simonazzi moving to Rodin Carlin for the final two rounds of the season.
Only three drivers on the grid this year came from Spanish F4, one of them being Pepe Marti.
“From my history, I raced in Spanish F4 and after one year of F4 I jumped into F3,” Marti told FormulaNerds, commenting on another factor at play: how long you spend in each series.
“If you look at the results it’s quite clear, some people would say it’s too early to jump, but I think that for me doing the jump to F3 was the right decision.
“It allowed me to learn much quicker and to grow exponentially rather than slowly as you progress. I had to learn a lot of things really quickly, and obviously my first season was really really tough, but for this year I think nobody can say that we’ve had a bad season. We’ve been really quick and we’ve been competitive.
“I think it was the right step for me, obviously looking back I still have less experience in the car than some guys do, for example, some guys have about four seasons in Formulas and for me this is my third, so from that perspective I’m still learning, still growing every time I get in the car and in my opinion that has translated throughout the season.
“At the beginning of the season I did some comebacks, I may have had a crash in Australia and everything but I’ve kept learning throughout the season and I think I’m slowly getting better. So it was the right decision for me, but for some guys it maybe would have been too early but for me, it was the right decision.”
It may just be Marti’s third season in single-seaters, but he’s still third in the Formula 3 standings, just one point behind Aron in second.
What can we conclude?
There are other categories drivers come from, of course: ADAC Formula 4 or Italian Formula 4, Formula Renault Eurocup, British Formula 4, and the list goes on.
This far down the feeder series ladder, everything is constantly evolving. Three of the four FIA Formula 3 champions made the step to the series from Formula Renault Eurocup, a category that merged with Formula Regional to create FRECA after the 2020 season.
With an always-changing rotation of the series that drivers are coming from, not to mention the difference between each driver when it comes to what works for them, it’s near impossible to choose a “correct” category as a stepping stone to Formula 3.
It’s ultimately a culmination of many factors: timing, budget, how long a driver spends in each category, how long they’ve been racing for, their strengths and weaknesses, and more. As with most aspects of motorsport, you can prepare all you want, but there always needs to be some luck involved.