EUROPEAN F3000 CHAMPIONSHIP

ESTORIL/MAGNY-COURS

French warfare.

It looked for all the world as though Franck Lagorce had just swallowed an orange. Whole. There was no mistaking the lump in his throat. Picking his words carefully, the Frenchman tried, without conviction, to persuade his audience that second place in the final round of the F3000 series, and in the championship itself, was a good result.

Certainly, for Apomatox it marked a solid improvement. For the very first time in its history, Dominique Delestre's Magny-Cours based team had looked a serious title contender. Yet that was of little consolation to Delestre's engineers, his mechanics nor, as we could see, his number one driver. The point was that he could have been champion. And he knew it. That Apomatox's arch-rival, DAMS, should have stolen up on the rails and snaffled the crown at the last moment, and at Magny-Cours to boot, cast a pall of despair over the garage of car number 15. The disappointment was tangible.

At DAMS, of course, the situation was quite the opposite. With three races remaining, Jean-Christophe ('Jules') Boullion had been the sizeable matter of 19 points adrift of Lagorce in the title race. At that point, even the improbable trick of winning all of them should have been no guarantee of the championship crown. Yet win them he did, and Lagorce fell prey to a couple of fundamental errors. There was the miscued pit stop in Spa, chronicled last month, and in Estoril he visited a gravel trap whilst lying third. It was a brief aberration, and he cited faulty brakes, but it was enough to drop him from the points.

That, and Gil de Ferran's retirement from the same race (when he was nudged out of the lead by Lagorce's team-mate Emmanuel Clerico), created an improbable situation whereby any of four drivers could take the title at Magny-Cours. Lagorce and de Ferran shared 28 points, Boullion had 27 and outsider Vincenzo Sospiri, who competed with a broken hand in Portugal yet still finished second, 22.

Lagorce, fastest in every practice session and the race morning warm-up at Magny-Cours, led until the eighth lap, when a small mistake entering the second chicane allowed Boullion to pounce. Had the two collided, Lagorce would have taken the crown, for de Ferran had already been victim of someone else's first lap over enthusiasm and Sospiri was too far back to secure the win he needed. But it was a clean move, and try as he might Lagorce was unable to peg back Boullion as he edged ever further down the road. It presented DAMS with an 18th F3000 win (by far the record), its second consecutive championship title and a third in all (no other team has won more than one). Not a bad way to bow out as you prepare for F1. . .

Boullion, calm and confident in equal measure, hadn't let Lagorce's pugnacious qualifying efforts unsettle him. He maintained throughout that he would have a car capable of victory on race day, come what may.

And so it proved.

"I don't think we lost the title because of the pit stop at Spa," reflected Lagorce. "That day, I felt I was more likely to end up in the gravel than finish the race. At the time, I thought it was the right thing to do. In my view, a combination of factors cost us the title. The spin in Pau, the qualifying accident in Barcelona, Spa, Estoril. . ."

Despite his disappointment, he is at least assured of gainful employment for the next couple of years, having been recruited as Ligier's test driver and F1 reserve. His contract is valid until the end of 1996, with an option for the following season. A place in the race team will be his at some point.

For Bouillon, the picture is less clear, though he is likely to accompany DAMS into F1. A wind-tunnel model of the projected chassis already exists; all that team founder Jean-Paul Driot needs now is extra cash. . .

For the sake of F3000's credibility, it is imperative that its unassuming new champion follows his nine antecedents into the senior formula. In the wake of his triumph, he said, of his chances of joining the DAMS F1 programme. "Honestly, we haven't really talked about it much." Then a coy smile. "But now that we've achieved our main objective, maybe we'll start talking about it tomorrow. . ."

As it transpired, victory in Estoril would have been enough to deflect the title de Ferran's way, but although he grabbed the lead at the start it was not to be. On the day, Emmanuel Clérico was clearly the fastest man on the circuit. He was also, however, a touch impetuous. Those who witnessed the accident between the Frenchman and the Brazilian credited each with a share of culpability, though the bulk of the blame fell 70/30 on Clérico's shoulders. It was certainly a risky manoeuvre, and it was, after all, only lap three. . .

Victory in Magny-Cours would still have been good enough for de Ferran, but PSR was unable to tune its cars to the circuit. His last hope was that his French adversaries would retire, and that he could pull through the field to accrue a point or two. When Fabrizio de Simone used him as a brake on the very first lap, it was all over. He hopes to do F1 next season, but that requires the sort of money to which he does not, as yet, have access; however, his close relationship with Reynard could just nudge him into an IndyCar seat if his F1 aspirations fail to materialise.

Sospiri, as ever, gave a good account of himself in the finale, rising from 16th, after a not untypically laidback qualifying effort, to fifth, but that still left him fourth in the final analysis. Bouillon annexed 36 points, Lagorce 34, de Ferran 28 and Sospiri 24.

None of this quartet has anything more to prove at his level; ironically, all are likely to be beaten to F1 in the short term, thanks to the late-season rush to pay for seats in the Japanese and Australian Grands Prix, as better-heeled drivers boost the coffers of F1 's financial stragglers.

The overall message is clear enough, however. France has taken a second straight F3000 title, and a fourth in six years.

And the only country which actively promotes and supports its young drivers via the government's sports ministry and a national fuel giant (Elf) is. . ?

France.

QED. SA