With two months still to go before the start of the season, the field for the 2012 Formula Renault 3.5 Series is already complete. On the grid will be 13 teams and 26 drivers with an average age under 21 and representing 13 countries. And with the leading Formula One-backed driver development programmes all involved, the standard has rarely been higher.
The new Formula Renault 3.5 Series season does not get under way until 5 May, with the first collective testing session taking place at Paul Ricard on 13-14 March, yet such is the pull of the event that all the vacancies in the 26-driver and 13-team fields have already been filled.
Twelve of the 26 championship hopefuls appeared in at least one FR 3.5 Series race last year, among them Alexander Rossi, Caterham F1 Team's test driver, who was third overall and top rookie with two wins and six podium finishes, and is a genuine title contender this time around. A member of the Caterham Driver Development programme, Rossi has joined FR 3.5 Series new boys Arden Caterham and will team up with Red Bull Junior Team driver Lewis Williamson, who had four outings in the category last year.
Bolstered by his three wins in 2011, i-Race Professional's Kevin Korjus is hoping his decision to stick with Tech 1 Racing will be rewarded with even more success, while former team-mate Arthur Pic has signed for DAMS in the hope of following in the footsteps of his brother Charles, newly promoted to Formula One this season. Nick Yelloly (Comtec Racing), André Negr?o (International Draco Racing), Jake Rosenzweig (ISR), Anton Nebilitskiy (Team RFR), Walter Grubmuller (P1 Motorsport) and Daniil Move (P1 Motorsport) will all be banking on their experience as they get to grips with the all-new Formula Renault 3.5 car. Crossing swords with them will be 2010 champion Mikhail Aleshin, who returns to the category with Team RFR, formerly KMP Racing.
Jules Bianchi (Tech 1 Racing) and Sam Bird (ISR), two experienced drivers with close links to Formula One, will also be worth keeping an eye on. The duo have been lured to FR 3.5 Series by the new car and a schedule that will allow them to fulfil their Formula One obligations this season, with Bianchi - a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy - on the Sahara Force India Formula One Team roster and Bird forming part of the Mercedes AMG Formula One Team.
Heading the seven drivers taking the step up from Formula 3 is 2011 ATS Formel 3 Cup winner Richie Stanaway in the i-Race Professional colours. Partnering Stanaway at Team Lotus, as Gravity-Charouz are now known, will be Marco Sorensen, the man he beat to the title last season, while Russia's Nicolai Martsenko (BVM Target), another veteran of last season's German F3 championship, will also be lining up on the grid.
The four other Formula 3 hotshots new to the category are reigning two-time F3 Brazil Open champion Lucas Foresti (DAMS); Yann Cunha, last year's runner-up in that series; Kevin Magnussen (Carlin), who finished second in last year's British F3 International Series and has just joined the McLaren Driver Development programme; and Colombia's Carlos Huertas (Fortec Motorsports), third behind Magnussen in the 2011 British F3 championship.
GP3 Series rivals last year, Nico Müller (International Draco Racing) and Zoel Amberg will be locking horns once more and Auto GP race winner Giovanni Venturini (BVM Target) also joins the Formula Renault 3.5 Series.
And last but definitely not least, Robin Frijns (Fortec Motorsports), Will Stevens (Carlin) and Vittorio Ghirelli (Comtec Racing) have all made the move from Formula Renault 2.0. Like Korjus and Albert Costa before him, Frijns received EUR500,000 from Renault Sport Technologies for winning the FR 2.0 title last season, while the 17-year-old Ghirelli is the baby of a high-quality 2012 field.