Breaking the price
The launch of the new Lola Formula 3000 car heralds a new era on the final rung of the Grand Prix ladder. Will it work? FM President Max Mosley is confident about its prospects
Only six months ago, the future of Formula One's ante-chamber was still not clearly defined. Indeed, the identity of the engine supplier to the new, one-make Formula 3000 was only confirmed two days before the unveiling of the prototype Lola chassis — to which the said Zytek engine had been fitted for quite some time. . .
'Twas ever thus in F3000.
Initially, there were fears about the concept of F3000 as a one-make formula. It was felt that engineers would not have enough to get their teeth into; that drivers would be left short of technical knowledge, and would be ill-prepared for F1. And there are still some who feel that way, although enthusiasm for the idea has generally increased as the inevitability of its adoption became apparent. "I think a lot of people felt that it was going to be no fun," estimates Lola F3000 project manager Nick Langley, "but that was before they saw the car. Now that they know it's not just a glorified Vauxhall Lotus, and that it is a proper racing car. they've been a lot more enthusiastic. I think we're at the dawn of an exciting new era."
Lola Managing Director Mike Blanchet feels that the car's technical content should not be ignored. "Cost reduction was one of our major objectives, as was safety. But although it has been designed with cost in mind, it is still very much a Formula 3000 car. It permits every opportunity for the driver and the engineer to work together, as has always been the case, to optimise the car. There's plenty of adjustments within the chassis, and within the constraints of the regulations to allow a good driver, a good engineer and a good team to show through. We've had that proved in Indy Lights, where there has been some very good racing."
Customer response has been good: as this is written, around 20 definite sales have been registered, and Lola expects to sell perhaps 30 in total. That's a healthy enough prognosis, as is the fact that a half-sensible calendar is in gestation: 10 races, five of them in conjunction with the ITC, three supporting Grands Prix, plus Pau (sensible choice) and Enna (plain daft, but people were complaining about having to run F2 races there back in the 1960s, and nobody has ever really taken any notice).
Will there be any supplementary promotion by the governing body? The FIA has always been accused of allowing the formula to waft along in a parallel universe of its own, though President Max Mosley denies this. "It's never just drifted along. You've got to remember, when you talk about promotion, that the difficulty with any formula is that the great mass of the public really wants to watch F1. They don't have time to watch every form of motorsport.
"These races are going to run with the ITC and with Formula One, so there'll be the opportunity to be on television. But even if you get the TV station to show it, the public won't necessarily want to watch. This is one of the great fallacies. People think that if it's on the telly, people will watch. It doesn't follow."
Mosley emphasises that the key criterion for the FIA is reducing the cost of participation. "It is designed to allow the greatest possible number of drivers to compete. The key to the whole thing is cost. We want those who want to do it to be able to afford it; by following that line, we will end up with a greater selection of drivers and a bigger possibility of choice.
"Over the next three years, I hope it will develop to a point where it may even feature as a national championship in several countries, and we may see people coming from a much greater variety of forms of motor racing than has been the case with F3000 in the past, purely on the grounds of cost.
"This formula should be significantly cheaper. We're all very grateful to Lola for the effort they've put in to get the car built so quickly and so efficiently.
"It's an amazing amount of car for the money. It's only very, very slightly more expensive than a modern Formula Three car, and you've got a real racing car that's not that far away from Formula One in terms of performance. We're also delighted that it incorporates all the safety features that are coming into next year's Formula One cars. That in itself is a major step forward which would not have been possible if we had stayed with a multi-make formula."
And Mosley is keen to see the cost cut even further, even though the car itself is so cost-effective. "The prices that are being quoted are in the £400-£500,000 bracket. but it has to be said that a big chunk of that is motorhomes, big transporters and the like. You could probably run it for between half and two-thirds of that, if you really pared it down to the bone.
"I think there will be people sooner later who will demonstrate that it can done cheaper. Then the young drivers wil realise that you don't need a motorhome to get into Formula One. We didn't even have motorhomes in Formula One in the early 1970s. It's a little bit irritating when you're trying to get the cost down that people spend money which should be spent on racing, or maybe getting another driver in, on what I would consider extravagances."
Team managers are all for bringing costs down, but their views as to what is and what is not an extravagance differ to Mosley's . . .
"If the FIA spent the money on F3000 that it deserves, then we wouldn't have to buy motorhomes," says Derek Mower of Nordic. "As it is, we have to have a motorhome to give sponsors, or potential sponsors, somewhere to go. We don't have a paddock club or anything. It's the only tool we've got to entertain them. We're not just overgrown Formula Fords; we want to do these things properly.
"And it's cost-effective because you can feed the whole team from there. Try feeding 14 mechanics at a restaurant for the price you can do it for at your own motorhome."
Madgwick's Robert Synge concurs: "Once you've bought it, it doesn't cost much to run. How much do a crate of beer and a few loaves of bread cost? It's pennies in the overall scheme of things.
"There are very few potential benefits for a sponsor in F3000. Circuit hospitality is one of the few things we do have to sell. If you get rid of that, you can kiss goodbye to F3000. Personally, I think we've already cut costs enough as it is."
"The problem with F3000," adds Dave Stubbs, of Paul Stewart Racing, "is that there's no real promotion, so you need something else to attract and impress sponsors. I mean, it's no good taking them to the café at Enna if you're trying to get them to invest £300,000 in your team. Also, the rules say that you can't run a catering service out of the truck.
"If you could get the cost down to £350,000 per season I would be amazed. You've still got to buy the cars, the spares, the travel, the salaries. We drove to every race we could last season, to try to reduce costs, but it still mounts up. And you have to pay the mechanics decent wages, because they're all good enough to go and work in F1. They have to be at this level, so you have to make the job attractive enough. I am adamant that we do not spend money on unnecessary things."
On this point, one suspects that never the twain shall meet. Mosley is confident, however, that some of what he perceives as frippery will start to evaporate. "I believe that some time in the next year or two we're going to get a really talented person without a big budget coming and running a shoestring operation and maybe blowing off the people who are having these luxury motorhomes and things. That would be the best thing that could happen, because the key to everything is getting the cost down and having the greatest possible number of drivers able to have a go at it. The greater the number of drivers, the wider we cast the net. That's the whole point of it, to find drivers for Formula One."
Of course, F1 is already packed to the gunwales with F3000 graduates. "That's true, but we might be able to improve the quality. I think there's a lot of very good drivers about who haven't made it into F1 because they haven't had the money to do what they needed to do to get there. If you can make the step to Formula One a lot less money, people who haven't had it up to now are going to have the opportunity, and you're going to raise the standards. I think there are people in Formula One who shouldn't have got into it."
There are no plans to make F3000 in Europe a compulsory stepping stone, which has been mooted in the past. "You can't make it the exclusive source," points out Mosley, "because you've got things like the F3000 series in Japan and Indycars, plus you've always got to have the flexibility to allow for some exceptional person from Formula Three.
"But it should certainly be the main source. If you get enough cars coming in it should be self-selecting, because under the present regulations people have to qualify — or, if they aren't quick enough they won't even get to race. This will tend to make them go and do some more suitable formula. F3000 is meant for people who are trying to get into F1, and who have a serious prospect of doing it. Rather than us restricting that by regulation, I think it will be restricted simply by the level of the competition which will now develop."
Removing some of the dross from the back of the field would be a major step forward, though non-qualification has never seemed to bother those of tractor pace. Jean-Pierre Frey once completed two full seasons without qualifying for a single race, nor ever looking like doing so . . .
On the surface, the FIA's heart is in the right place. It has got its own way with the introduction of a one-make series. That being the case, one can only hope it will now move to support its own new baby. A precious few minutes of TV, perhaps as part of the build-up to Grands Prix on Sunday afternoons, would elevate F3000's profile, and make young drivers more marketable before they actually arrive in F1.
It only needs a minute or three: images of the start, a few highlights, the winner taking the flag and an announcement of the results. The good news is that ITV, which has just landed the GP TV contract, has indicated it will show some F3000 coverage.
And given the increasing difficulty facing teams wishing to progress to Grand Prix racing, abolition of the compulsory F1 entry deposit for championship-winning F3000 teams might also serve as an incentive if the FIA wants to emphasise its laudable idea of increasing opportunities for burgeoning talent. SA