FR3.5 Review – Fortec Motorsports: Rowland’s Decisive Qualifying Edge

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Fortec Motorsports once again put on a strong campaign in Formula Renault 3.5 this season. Having seen the likes of Alexander Rossi, Robin Frijns, and Stoffel Vandoorne walk through their paddock as series rookies and immediately put on stellar performances, the team were once again expected to impress after bringing in the Racing Steps Foundation’s top prospect Oliver Rowland to partner second-year driver and current Sauber F1 Team reserve, Sergey Sirotkin.

Carlos Sainz‘s dominance and a smattering of untimely DNFs throughout the season ultimately squashed any chance of either Fortec driver being able to post a serious championship challenge the way that Vandoorne did last season by finishing 2nd to Kevin Magnussen, or Frijns the year before when he won the whole thing. But Fortec just missed out on the Team Championship by three points to DAMS, who accumulated over two-thirds of their points from Sainz’s championship campaign. That’s a testament to a strong organization with two very capable drivers that were, for the most part, very evenly matched. During a qualifying session at Moscow Raceway, Rowland, who finished fourth in the championship, and Sirotkin, who was fifth, were separated in qualifying by just one one-thousandth of a second. The smallest quantifiable margin you could get.

One driver, however, did prove to be decisively more successful than the other in at least one area. I’ll explain.

Truth be told, Sergey Sirotkin, who just turned 19 in September, gets an absolutely terrible rap from F1 fans as being a marginally-capable driver who has only advanced up the ladder because of sponsorship. He was signed by Sauber around the time they had let go of the higher-rated, yet lower-budgeted Frijns. And it wasn’t primarily because of his championship-winning campaign in the “Made Famous in Assetto Corsa” Formula Abarth series in his first full year of single-seater racing in 2011, or his solid rookie campaign in Auto GP as a 17-year-old competing against a field of drivers in their twenties and even thirties – but because of his backing by Russian investors who bought into Sauber last season, on the condition that Sirotkin would actually race for the team this season at 18 years old. This was during a roller-coaster rookie season in Formula Renault 3.5 where Sirotkin finished 9th in the championship, showed flashes of legitimate speed with two podiums and four top-5 finishes, but was too inconsistent to finish any higher – he failed to finish five races and racked up two DNSes along the way.

With the second season in Formula Renault 3.5 that he needed, and with the superior engineering and setups provided to him at Fortec that he may not have had at ISR, Sirotkin did improve to finish 5th in the championship, with 132 points, and a huge victory from pole at Moscow Raceway I. Formula Renault 3.5 was down on participation this season, but the front of the field is still an extremely competitive and capable bunch, and Sirotkin proved that he could hang with the best – the likes of Sainz, Pierre Gasly, Roberto Merhi, and Rowland this season. Going into his 2014 campaign, he was rated the 15th-best prospect by PaddockScout in 2012, 32nd in 2013, and he is almost a sure bet to stay in the top 50 with a solid chance to move up when this year’s list is published. He’s not a true phenom like Daniil Kvyat based on his track record, but he’s certainly not on par with the likes of basement-level Russian prospects Roman Mavlanov (zero points for the same team as Roberto Merhi!) or Daniil Move (zero wins in 108 FR3.5 starts!) either.

Sergey Sirotkin has proven much better in his junior career than the criticism suggests.
Sergey Sirotkin has proven much better in his junior career than the criticism suggests.

That said, Oliver Rowland – the 22-year-old British rookie fresh out of a vice-championship campaign in Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup – was a shade better than Sirotkin in a number of categories. Rowland finished with 181 points to Sirotkin’s 132. Race wins favored Rowland 2-1, and Rowland had a 3-1 lead in pole positions, with Rowland winning from pole at the second races in Aragon and in the season finale at Jerez. Rowland also recorded the only fastest race lap for Fortec during his victory at Aragon.

Fortec Motorsports 2014
Selected Intra-Team Statistics
Driver Pts Wins Poles FLs Pod. AvCF FvT TCF%
Rowland (R) 181 2 3 1 7 4.5 6 11.64%
Sirotkin 132 1 1 0 4 5.3 4 17.65%

Even some of their more advanced head-to-head numbers come out pretty even, but with Rowland coming out ahead with a slight edge. Head-to-head race results have Rowland ahead of Sirotkin, but only by a 6-4 score over the ten races where both drivers saw the checquered flag. Rowland’s Average Classified Finish (the average finish when you exclude non-classified retirements and results) is a 4.5, Sirotkin’s is a 5.3. Both drivers actually had a slightly better AvCF than championship winner Sainz’s 5.5, or vice-champion Gasly’s 5.8. If not for a combined eight DNFs in thirty-four races, Rowland, who was only twelve points out of second place, would have been a legitimate threat to Sainz’s championship challenge, at the very least, he could have secured second in the championship ahead of Gasly. And Sirotkin would have been in the mix for the runner-up spot.

Average Classified Finish (AvCF)
Selected 2014 FR3.5 Drivers
Rowland (R) 4.5
Merhi (R) 4.6
Sirotkin 5.3
Sainz 5.5
Gasly (R) 5.8

Five of their combined retirements came through terminal crashes. Rowland crashed out of two of his seventeen races for a Terminal Crash Frequency (TCF) of 11.64%, both times after colliding with Sainz. Sirotkin crashed out of three races (17.65% TCF), including involvement multi-car shunts at Spa I and Hungaroring II, and a solo crash at Monaco.

With so many numbers indicating an even match, where does Rowland hold a definite, commanding lead over Sirotkin? Qualifying. Unlike GP2 or GP3, points aren’t paid for pole positions in qualifying, so there is no championship benefit. But in the sixteen qualifying sessions excluding the split-session qualifying at Monaco, Rowland outqualified Sirotkin by a score of 11-5 (68.75%), and by an average margin of 0.901 seconds. That sounds almost too lopsided of a margin, and that’s because it is, solely because of one Saturday morning in Hungary.

If you exclude both the Monaco qualifying, and qualifying for the first race at the Hungaroring – in which Rowland took pole position, while Sirotkin crashed early in the rain and recorded just two slow and hardly representative laptimes, the average margin plummets to just 0.194 seconds in favor of Rowland.

Fortec Motorsports 2014
Intra-Team Qualifying Statistics
(excl. Monaco & Hungaroring I)
Driver QvT Avg Margin
Rowland (R) 10 +0.196
Sirotkin 5 -0.196

Only twice did Rowland outqualify Sirotkin by a margin of over 0.5 seconds – at Hungaroring II (2.505 seconds) and Aragon II (0.608 seconds), which is also how many times he outqualified Sirotkin by a margin of less than 0.020 seconds – first at Moscow II (0.001s), then the very next race at Nurburgring I (0.017s). But the head-to-head score is still 10-5 Rowland (66.67%), a commanding two-thirds’ lead for the rookie ahead of his second-year teammate.

Oliver Rowland
Qualifying Margins to Teammate
2014 Season
Race Margin
Monza I +0.140
Monza II -0.597
Aragon I +0.273
Aragon II +0.608
Spa I -0.333
Spa II +0.392
Moscow I -0.380
Moscow II +0.001
Nurburgring I +0.017
Nurburgring II +0.458
Hungaroring II +2.505
Paul Ricard I -0.156
Paul Ricard II -0.455
Jerez I +0.115
Jerez II +0.335

If there is a saving grace for Sirotkin in the intra-team battles, it’s that the Russian retained position, or finished at or better than where he started, eleven times in seventeen races – up from just five times in fifteen races started last season. Keep in mind that Sirotkin only finished twelve races all season, so he ended up with a 91.67% percent rate of finishing at or better than his grid position. Rowland retained position just eight times out of the fourteen of seventeen races that he finished (57.14%). In this category, he rated lower than fellow Eurocup FR2.0 graduate Gasly (70.59% / 12 for 17) and fellow series rookie Merhi (71.43% / 10 for 14). It is the only quantifiable downside to Rowland’s performance at the FR3.5 level.

Position Retention %
Selected 2014 FR3.5 Drivers
Sirotkin 91.67%
Sainz 87.50%
Merhi (R) 71.43%
Gasly (R) 70.59%
Rowland (R) 57.14%
A closer look at Oliver Rowland's form in 2014 reveals many advantages over veteran teammate Sirotkin.
A closer look at Oliver Rowland’s form in 2014 reveals many advantages over veteran teammate Sirotkin.

It’s not hard to decipher why Sirotkin has a better chance at landing an F1 drive than Rowland does. Sirotkin has sponsors with a lot of new money from Russia, and most importantly, he has an F1 connection in Sauber. Rowland is the only driver that finished in the Top 6 of the FR3.5 Championship who is not already aligned with an F1 team or junior programme. Even Will Stevens has split time between Caterham and Marussia as a reserve driver. Rowland is, as mentioned earlier, a prospect of the Racing Steps Foundation (RSF), which has backed James Calado and Jack Harvey in GP2 and GP3 respectively last year – only to be unsuccessful in getting either one of them to Formula 1.

In terms of raw performance though, it’s very telling that Rowland has been a decisively better qualifier, won more races and pole positions, and finished ahead of Sirotkin in the championship despite being a newcomer to Formula Renault 3.5. If I’m Sauber CEO/principal Monisha Kaltenborn, or any other team boss that’s in charge of a midfield team, I’d want to at least give Rowland an opportunity to test in the Abu Dhabi Young Drivers’ Test at the end of the season. Maybe the Sauber organization finds a much better value in Rowland than they do in Sirotkin. At the very least, another team finds a new primary reserve driver for the 2015 season, with a chance of breaking into an F1 race seat for 2016 – there’s no doubt that he’s quick enough.

In a year filled with emerging stars at every level of F1’s feeder series, Rowland might very well be one of the most overlooked talents. Here’s hoping that he does not continue to remain overlooked going forward.

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