Season Review: Benyahia triumphs after thrilling campaign

When the final chequered flag fell on the 2017 Formula Renault Northern European Cup season at the Hockenheimring back in early October, it was R-ace GP’s Michael Benyahia who followed in the illustrious footsteps of Valtteri Bottas, Carlos Sainz Jr and several other top-line professional racing drivers in lifting the coveted title.

The Moroccan arrived in Baden-Wȕrttemberg within striking distance of Gilles Magnus and, courtesy of a brace of consistent points finishes, was able to overturn his team-mate and seize the honours.

That proved to be the final chapter in an unpredictable season that started back in the mid-Summer sunshine at the Autodrome Nazionale Monza. Fifteen cars took to the legendary 3.6 mile circuit, home of the Formula 1 Italian Grand Prix, with Tech1 Racing’s Gabriel Aubry the early pace-setter.

The Frenchman had assumed something of a ‘team leader’ role ahead of his second season in the Formula Renault Eurocup, and duly held off Renault Sport Academy racer and team-mate Max Fewtrell to open his account for the new season with a brace of victories.

Bartek Mirecki’s self-run BM Racing outfit were rewarded with the final spot on the podium in the season opener, whilst Benyahia made his intentions clear early on after bouncing back from an early retirement to complete the rostrum in the second contest.

The series headed next to the popular Gamma Racing Days event at Assen Circuit in the Netherlands, where a demonstration event allowed the NEC competitors a chance to seek advice from Renault Sport Formula One Team’s Development Driver Oliver Rowland, and the opportunity to examine a modern-spec Formula 1 machine at close quarters.

Back on circuit in their own Tatuus-manufactured, 2.0 litre Renault-engined chargers, it was MP Motorsport’s Red Bull Junior outfit that took center stage. Magnus underlined his pace with a brace of pole positions and both fastest laps, but it would be Richard Verschoor and Neil Verhagen taking to the top step of the podium in each of the weekend’s races.

Magnus was able to console himself with his first silverware of the campaign, however, as was R-ace GP team-mate Charles Milesi as the Frenchman continued his own development after making the step up from national single-seater racing.

Eventual Formula Renault Eurocup champion Sacha Fenestraz proved almost unbeatable on a dramatic weekend at the Nurburgring as the series marked its halfway stage.

The Josef Kaufmann Racing driver was forced to relinquish the lead to another Red Bull-backed Junior, this time Arden’s Daniel Ticktum, but patience proved a virtue and Fenestraz was duly able to reclaim top spot with a bold move to the inside of the downhill right-hander at Turn 1.

Ticktum fought valiantly against Fenestraz’s team-mate Yifei Ye, but was forced to concede the runner-up spot after the pair ran side-by-side through the Mercedes Arena. He would complete the podium, and though Fenestraz doubled his victory tally in the finale, second proved enough to gift Aubry the points lead heading to Spa-Francorchamps.

However, with the NEC joining its Eurocup counterpart for the triple-header in the Ardennes Forest, Aubry would be ineligible to score points, handing the advantage back to his closest challengers – the ultra-consistent R-ace GP pairing of Magnus and Benyahia, and BM Racing’s Mirecki.

Heavy fog limited the opening contest to a procession behind the safety car before it was red-flagged by officials, so by virtue of his pole position Gilles Magnus was declared the winner ahead of Benyahia and Milesi. If the first race proved a little short on action, the rest of the weekend more than made up for it.

The second race held a brand-new race winner as Charles Milesi opened his account in his rookie season. A heavy crash for Magnus at Radillon and a lock-up into La Source for Milesi handed Mirecki the early advantage, but gearbox issues restricted his pace and allowed R-ace GP to come through for a famous 1-2-3 finish, Theo Coicaud taking his first podium finish in the series.

With Magnus cleared to race and his car fantastically restored by R-ace GP, the Belgian hit back and underlined his championship credentials with victory in the final race, leading home Benyahia and Coicaud once again to set up a nail-biting finale at Hockenheimring.

The series was boosted in the weeks before the finale with the news that experienced single-seater outfits Anders Motorsport and BlackArts Racing would look to join the championship in 2018, cementing the series’ reputation for developing the next generation of professional motorsport talents.

Josef Kaufmann Racing were again in blistering form at the season finale, locking out both races with a 1-2 finish, this time with Yifei Ye leading home Fenestraz in each contest. Both Verschoor and Arden’s Alex Vartanyan returned to take a third place apiece, with the focus turning to the title fight behind.

A penalty for exceeding track limits in the opening race hampered Magnus’ early progress, and despite pushing Benyahia to the limit in the finale the latter was crowned champion with ninth across the line on an action-packed, hotly-contested weekend in Germany.

The championship has a long association with Formula 1 – over half the current grid including recently-crowned four time World Champion Lewis Hamilton developed their craft in Formula Renault machinery – and as part of his prize for winning the championship Benyahia visited Enstone, HQ of the Renault Sport Formula One Team, for a simulator session, physical evaluation and tour of the facilities.

He has since continued his work as the Development Driver for the Venturi Formula E Team, assisting race drivers Maro Engel and Eduardo Mortara with simulation and developing race strategies, and will take to the circuit in person during the in-season rookie test ahead of the Marrakech ePrix in his native Morocco next year as he looks to pursue a career in electric single-seater racing.

Both Benyahia and Magnus, along with third-placed Mirecki, were honoured recently at the annual Royal Automobile Club Belgium awards at the state palace in Brussels, receiving their awards from Championship Promoter, Mick de Haas, in front of a capacity crowd.

Thanks to its close working relationship with Renault Sport Racing, the championship was able to confirm its calendar for the 2018 season in the Autumn. Existing dates at the world-famous Spa-Francorchamps, Monza and Hockenheimring remain, whilst the Hungaroring on the outskirts of Budapest makes a welcome return alongside Zandvoort in the Netherlands.

The series will also take up a support race slot on the iconic Pau Grand Prix weekend in southern France, allowing competitors the rare opportunity to hone their street racing skills before progressing up the motorsport ladder.

From everybody at the Formula Renault Northern European Cup, have a very Happy New Year and we’ll see you in 2018 for another action-packed campaign.