By Andy Stobart

The breeding ground of future Formula One drivers, the British Formula Three championship, kicks off for 2004 at the East Midlands circuit of Donington Park.

F1 pilots such as Jenson Button, Rubens Barrichello and David Coulthard honed their trade in the British F3 series and there's no shortage of up and coming drivers in the series this season.

Last week saw two tests for the F3 runners. A media day test session at Brands Hatch on Wednesday was followed by a test at Donington itself the following day. With many of last year's frontrunners off to pastures new, and with the top fourteen cars at Donington last week separated by a mere second, all is to play for in what should turn out to be one of the most exciting open wheel race series out there this year.

Sixteen runners are listed in the entry list for the Championship class and that includes the late confirmation of the ever popular Danny Watts, fifth in last year's championship, in the British Lola chassis; a sole British tub up against the all-conquering Dallaras in the series.

Carlin Motorsport currently sport three drivers with Clivio Piccione, Alvaro Parente and Danilo Dirani plus there's a spare chassis at the back of the workshop should you have the requisite ?400,000 or so to secure a drive with the squad who won the championship last season with Alain van der Merwe.

Monacco-born Piccione comes from the Manor Motorsport squad, who have left the series for this season, and is one of only two drivers who can boast of a race win in the British series. Brazilian team-mate Danilo Dirani can boast of winning the South American F3 series, and is the driver that insiders pick as being the one most likely to be the one to watch of the Carlin trio.

Whilst Carlin might not be able to boast of a four car squad on the grid for the season-opener, one team that can is Hitech Racing who have Scot Andrew Thompson, Englishman James Walker, Estonian Marko Asmer and Brazilian Lucas di Grassi on their books.

Experienced British racing driver Warren Hughes is keeping his eye on this four-strong lineup and offering advice and assistance. Hughes, who notched up a win in the BTCC last year, and has already had a chance to sample the Renault Sodemo powered Dallara chassis himself in testing, reckons di Grassi in particular is the full package, and the Brazilian's results in coming home second in the South American series put him in good stead.

The Donington Park venue where the season kicks off is a particular favourite of the Menu Motorsport team after last season taking a win at the circuit in the hands of Rob Austin. This season sees the squad start with Aussie Will Davison and Malaysian Fairuz Fauzy. Both drivers are highly rated and have been putting in impressive test performances.

Malaysian Fauzy has endorsement from Eddie Jordan whilst Will Davison is selling the very shirt off his back to help fund his drive. Team boss is talking up his two chargers and reckons there could be great things coming this year. "Our cars have always been marvellous at Donington," says Mike. "We've actually had three podiums in the last two races and I believe that we're going to win."

If you believe that racing talent is hereditary then look no further than Nelson A Piquet. The Brazilian with the three times Formula One world champion father has a lot of expectation on his shoulders and this is his second season in the British series with his own Piquet Sports squad. Testing has not looked especially promising, but then pre-season testing in not necessarily a guide to the race reality.

P1 Motorsport sees Adam Carroll and Ernesto Viso in what should be a strong driver combination through the year. Carroll impressed on his outings with Menu Motorsports last year whilst kickboxing Venezuelan Viso is the reigning Scholarship class champion, taking the title from 2002 holder, Carroll.

James Rossiter was the driver who topped the timesheets at Donington, after missing the Brands test, and the trampolining fan has been scorching the tarmac seemingly at every test, whether this translates to race pace is a question that many are asking.

2002 F3 champions, Alan Docking Racing, see Will Power as their sole Championship class runner after the late decision from Alex Lloyd to leave the squad after a backer pulled out. ADR will also be running a Scholarship car with Adam Langley-Kahn

The T-Sport team see Karun Chandhok move up to the Scholarship class for the Indian to get the chance to play with the big boys.

The Scholarship class sees currently eight drivers listed on the entry list with five Brits, and Aussie, a Frenchman and an Indian. Championship teams Promatecme, Alan Docking Racing and T-Sport run cars here with Vasilije Calasan, Adam Langley-Kahn and Ryan Lewis respectively.

Stephen Jelley for Performance Racing Europe and T-Sport's Ryan Lewis were the top two Scholarship runners at both Brands and Donington with Jelley's team-mate Barton Mawer hot on their heels.

The Scholarship class runs with an older chassis to the Championship class - all the Scholarship runners use the Dallara F301 chassis as opposed to the F304 that is used by all bar one of the Championship contenders.

The newly resurfaced Donington circuit sees the British F3 runners take to two qualifying sessions this Saturday, followed by two twenty lap races come Sunday.

A cloudy, but dry, Saturday is due to give way to a sunny Sunday with a high of 14 degrees Celsius at Donington as the British F3 season gets underway.

Stay tuned to Crash.net for all the latest British F3 news at www.crash.net/f3.