Six of the drivers who contested the 2011 Formula Renault 3.5 Series had the opportunity to make their mark at the Formula One Young Driver Test in Abu Dhabi this week. And upon taking the wheel of the world championship-winning Red Bull Renault RB7, it was this year's FR 3.5 Series runner-up Jean-Eric Vergne who dominated each session. Also impressing was the man who pipped him to the 2011 title, Robert Wickens, who was invited to the event by Renault Sport Technologies and Lotus Renault GP as reward for his championship success, while Kevin Korjus, Alexander Rossi, Jan Charouz and Nathanaël Berthon were also turning heads.
Over the course of the three-day event, which concluded today, the six drivers once again showed why the FR 3.5 Series is one of the most important stepping stones into the motorsport elite.
Wickens and Vergne were the first in action on Tuesday, having taken part in last Friday's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix free practice session with Marussia Virgin and Toro Rosso respectively. This time around the Carlin team-mates took to the track on board Renault-powered F1 cars, with Wickens at the wheel of the Lotus Renault R31 and Vergne putting the Red Bull RB7 through its paces.
The 2011 FR 3.5 Series champion chalked up 78 laps in what his first full day's testing in Formula One, setting the third-fastest time in the process. "I've learned so many things in just one day," said the Canadian. "I'm extremely grateful to Renault Sport Technologies and Lotus Renault GP for giving me this opportunity. My aim today was to get some experience under my belt, though we also had a specific programme of work to get through. I've had the chance to compare the 2011 and 2012 tyres and there's a big difference. I put together about 20 laps at the end of the day and set some pretty consistent times. Physically I feel pretty good, and I've been working hard for many years to get this far. I want to push myself even harder and do whatever I need to do to get an F1 drive as quickly as I can."
Vergne picked up the pace in the Red Bull Renault on day two of the test, when he was joined on the track by Korjus, who was getting his first taste of F1 action with Lotus Renault GP, and Charouz and Berthon, both of whom were in an HRT. Speaking after his 70-lap stint, Korjus, the 18-year-old Estonian who won the 2010 Eurocup Formula Renault title and three FR 3.5 Series races this year, was understandably thrilled: "This is my first time in Formula One and I've come here to learn. I grew in confidence throughout the day and by lunchtime I was feeling really at ease in the car. It's a real physical test and it's shown me that I've got an awful lot to do to become a top F1 driver and that I've got to work very hard on my physique."
The quartet of Vergne (Red Bull Renault), Rossi (Team Lotus), Charouz (Lotus Renault GP) and Wickens (Marussia Virgin Racing) were all in action on Thursday, the third and final day of the test, with Vergne setting the seal on a brilliant display with a fastest lap of 1:38.917, just four-tenths of a second off Sebastian Vettel's quickest time in last Saturday's qualifying session. The Frenchman, who will be lining up in a Toro Rosso STR6 for next Friday's free practice at the Brazilian Grand Prix, could barely conceal his delight after topping the timesheets on all three days. "I've had three fantastic days," said the 2011 FR 3.5 Series runner-up. "Driving the world championship car has been an incredible experience. I savoured each and every lap and I've learned an awful lot working with Red Bull Racing."
After a profitable few days in Abu Dhabi, Vergne, Wickens, Korjus, Rossi, Charouz and Berthon will all be hoping they can now kick on and emulate the likes of Vettel, Robert Kubica, Jaime Alguersuari and Daniel Ricciardo, all whom have successfully made the transition from FR 3.5 Series to Formula One.