Grand Prix racing's new-style feeder formula is well populated, but Simon Arron witnessed a baptism that wasn't wholly smooth
Formula 3000 makes its big step into the future, into a world devoid of extravagant technology but which promises simultaneously to reduce costs, increase public awareness and to serve as a broader shop window of talent for Formula One scouts.
D-day is May 12, at the Nurburgring. F3000 is serving as a curtain-raiser to the third and fourth rounds of the International Touring Car Championship, but the crowd is spartan. Of the 17,000 who are claimed to have attended over the three days a generous estimate, it has to be said precious few are present on Friday or Saturday.
Brave new world; same small audience.
It is, of course, too early to dismiss the ITC/ F3000 double-headers as an instant failure. At the Nurburgring, local market forces came into play. Only a fortnight earlier, the European Grand Prix had taken place at the same venue. It was hardly surprising that local enthusiasts had little appetite for another international racefest, and the early threat of snow a flurry of which fell briefly was scarcely an accessory to the cause.
As the year wears on, the ITC link should help, given the latter's growing popularity with the race-going public and, apparently, the FIA. However, the racing needs to be better than that displayed by the F3000 field at the Nurburgring, where overtaking proved to be nigh on impossible for anything that didn't have a roof.
This year, for the first time ever, F3000 will spend the majority of its season year as a support formula, appearing five times with the ITC, three times with F1 and only twice as a main feature (Pau and Enna, both of which are given extra punter appeal as they more or less amount to major festivals for the locals).
David Sears, patron of Super Nova, reigning champions and thanks to Kenny Brack - victorious in the first race, is happy with the sharing arrangement. "Perhaps the only drop-off is that we're racing on the Saturday, but its still better to be part of the same billing as the ITC and F1 than it is to perform in front of two men and a dog at Magny-Cours."
Peter Briggs, patron of series newcomer Edenbridge, thinks there is the potential to expand within the new framework. "Why not have the existing race on a Saturday, and perhaps a 20-lap sprint the following morning, in front of a full ITC or Grand Prix crowd? We could attend fewer meetings during the year, perhaps, but put on more races, and introduce F3000 to a wider audience."
Few disagree that the potential is there, and both Lola and Zytek suppliers of chassis and engines respectively were as encouraged as they were relieved come Saturday evening.
"It went brilliantly for us," enthused Zytek boss Bill Gibson. "Most of the engines had completed over 1500 miles before we got there, and I think some of the teams doubted that we could go to 2000, but everything worked fine. The only problem we had all weekend was a slight oil leak. I expected it to be a success for us, of course, but you always do wonder in a racing situation.
"The race itself wasn't that exciting, but I think it's a shame that so many cars got taken out at the first corner. I think it will achieve what it was designed to achieve, ie to bring the good drivers to the front.
I don't thinks costs will come down as much this year as people had hoped, but they will in time."
"We're generally happy with the way it all went," remarked Nick Langley, Lola's F3000 project manager. "Obviously, when you have the whole field there is a fear that some problem might affect everybody, but that fades as the meeting wears on.
"The only thing we've been requested to look at is moving the mirror, to improve rearward visibility. There was a dispute about the front wings, but after discussions the FIA is happy to leave things as they are."
In truth, the last couple of hours before the race had not been comfortable for Lola, as it transpired that 23 of the 26 cars had contravened the regulations during qualifying. The problem was simple: the front wing assemblies were delivered with a total of 27 adjustment holes, in all probability a hangover from development work conducted by Lola before the final specification of the car was fixed, though the manufacturer had no wish to comment.
Trouble was, using any of the uppermost nine holes caused the front wing flaps to protrude above the top of the endplate, contrary to the regulations. The rules are clear: it is the teams' responsibility to ensure the legality of their car. It was just that some had read the regulations better than others: most accepted this with equanimity, others went ape, blaming Lola for having supplied a car on which it was possible to make illegal adjustments. Lola duly pointed out that a number of parameters could be adjusted beyond the regulations, if you wished to be pedantic.
A petition to get the rules changed was unsurprisingly unsuccessful (five of the 14 teams refused to sign it). Some were still ranting by the time the race had ended, but the FIA has issued a clear directive, and the storm should subside. The tightness of the new regulations has brought mixed reactions. "We've got no grumbles," says Sears. "The cars and engines ran reliably. Most people who stopped did so because they crashed.
"However, the engineers feel they are a bit restricted. I think they should be allowed to do a bit more. Not to things which are going to cost a packet, but the fact is that you can probably do more to a Formula First nowadays than you can to an F3000. I mean we're not even allowed to change the specification of bolts."
"It can be a bit frustrating for the engineers," agrees Derek Mower, principal of Nordic Racing, "but you've got to work within the given parameters. I think we've found the best solution for the prevailing situation. You can't spend £200,000 on engine development any more, which I know has happened in the past, and you can't go blowing a fortune in the wind tunnel. The teams with the most money will still get the best drivers, but the formula appears to be much closer now."
"The engineering is restrictive," reasons Briggs, "but the whole philosophy is to keep costs down, so that's the way we've got to go.''
Paul Crosby, former race-winning engineer who has now set up Team Alpha Plus, does not quite share his colleagues' acceptance of the prohibitive regulations. "I think it's ridiculously restrictive. It doesn't teach an engineer or a driver anything about basic set-ups with springs, bars, ride heights. It's going to be a hell of a shock for a driver when they get to F1, when they've got to talk about aerodynamic influences and so on. In effect, they've increased the size of the final rung on the ladder.
"After a year or two, drivers and engineers working in this won't have the necessary qualifications to move up to F1, or even the ITC."
Like most, though, Crosby can see the appeal of other aspects of the new-look F3000. "It's good to be sharing with the ITC. We'll get good audiences, and some TV coverage. It's hard work for the teams, but the sacrifice is worthwhile."
The hard work stems from not being allocated pit garages. "The organisational side leaves a bit to be desired," says Mower. "Having to lug everything in and out of the pits three times the first day and twice the next is a pain, but that's what you get if you are a support formula. Even so, I'm happy sharing with the ITC. We're not in a position to pick and choose."
Formula 3000 has long had its critics, has long been dismissed as an irrelevance by those in Grand Prix racing, even though they're usually only too happy to pick its fruits as soon as they are perceived to be ripe.
Despite the limitations which have been placed on technology, those active in the new formula are not without ambition.
"I hope we're achieving our objective of producing a safe, fast F3000 chassis that will be cheaper to run in the long term," concludes Langley "The next step for us is to stimulate the development and growth of national series, as feeders to the European championship."
That, like the new formula, will require a little time and patience.