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Racing’s confusing ladder system

In her blog this week ‘Does Formula 2 get your vote?’, Gillian Rodgers and some of the comments from readers have hit on a key point about the sorry state of international single-seater racing’s ‘ladder system’. The absurdly confused jumble of formulae that now exists in place of the old system of F1, F2, F3 and Formula Ford surely is one of the FIA’s biggest failings. The old ladder system thrived for a few decades but was subverted by the easy acceptance of a plethora of manufacturer-driven spec-car formulae by the FIA and many other national sanctioning bodies.

Some will argue that it’s a crime against the sport, but most everyone who’s been around motor racing for any period of time will shrug their shoulders and remark, ‘That’s motor racing’s way of doing business.’ And I guess they’re right.

Still, well do I remember a season I spent in the UK almost 40 years ago helping my friend David Loring run his Merlyn FF1600 in the three leading British Formula Ford championships of those days. Back then the ladder system was very clear, and after winning four FF1600 championships in the United States and Canada in 1971, Loring was anxious to race Formula 3 in Britain and Europe. But financial realities meant he had to race Formula Ford, which was a bit of a letdown.

f1  Racing’s confusing ladder system

Some bad luck and a few accidents strained our budget even more and David was disappointed to finish the year with ‘only’ five wins, one track record (at Mallory Park) and sixth in the primary British Oxygen FFord championship. Still, it was a great pleasure and a tremendous learning experience for us both to enjoy a season in the UK when the old system was at its height.

David ran more than 30 races that year and close to half of them were on the same card as an F3 race. Another four or five accompanied F2 rounds (in addition to a roaring European F2 championship there was a British F2 series in ‘72 won by Niki Lauda) and three times we raced at F1 races (in those days there were half a dozen non-championship F1 races in England).

f1  Racing’s confusing ladder system

The point is that there was a clearly defined ladder from Formula Ford through to F1 and there was also a real fan following for F2, F3 and FF1600. It was very clear who the up-and-coming stars were and people were anxious to see how the new boys would do each year in the next step on the ladder to F1. Guys like Emerson Fittipaldi and Jody Scheckter made their names in Formula Ford and F3, just like Jim Clark had done a decade earlier in Formula Junior and F2.

I cannot help believe that it would be a great thing for the sport to recreate a new version of the old system and many fans seem to believe the same thing. But there’s no impetus or enough desire within the sport’s political structure to make it happen, is there?

Add your comments

11 comments on Racing’s confusing ladder system

  1. Ray T, 29 July 2011 17:41

    The data is in from recent experience -the best way to identify a future F1 driver is to look at karting.
    In the old school, lower formulas are where drivers learned setup, shifting, throttle modulation, track layouts, with increasing power/weight ratios.

    Modern F1 cars are big go-karts: steering wheel manipulation can be learned in simulation, as can track layouts. Setup is now in the hands of 20 engineers in trailers, shifting is now moot, so it all comes down to the basic talents used in karting.

    Which makes me wonder why the motoring press rarely covers the World Karting Championships. I think we’re only a few years away from the first direct karter to f1 driver.

  2. Lewis Lane, 30 July 2011 15:14

    Part of the problem it seems to me is that the FIA have for far too long been scared that if they don’t allow manufacturers their own way, they’ll withdraw, and not participate in anything. Hence the plethora of one make championships they’ve allowed through the years. I still don’t understand the logic of bringing in a new low cost ladder (GP3, F2), and yet still leave the old one in place as well – the drivers on schemes were always going to stick with the recognised route, and they’re the people that are the yardsticks, ususally. As for the drivers, it’s not always easy to tell who will make it. I remember a few years ago a guy who cleaned up in Karting, was tipped as one to watch by rivals who’d already reached F1, and won in pretty much everything on his way there – a future World Champion. Who? Stefano Modena. And then there’s the opposite side with Kobayashi – no record to speak of, yet takes to F1 like a duck to water. For me, any prospective top level driver has to be put up against the best of his peers – and that means a small, clearly defined, cost effective, viable ladder. At the moment it’s the complete opposite. But they still have to make it work for themselves.

  3. DDT, 31 July 2011 04:05

    Bravo! This has been bugging me for a long time. I’d like to see some American drivers in F1, but the current ladder in the US is totally disconnected from the European/English system. We have a lot of good young drivers coming up through series like Skip Barber Nationals that should have a path to F1. But they really don’t.

    What would help are some standard car designs and engines that are used at the GP3/F3 level around the world. An American series, an Asian series, and one or two European series. all using the same cars would really open up the driver pool. These guys would all have equal shots at the GP2 level, and from there F1.

    I suppose the real problem is money. Drivers are not selected entirely for their ability, but mostly the sponsorship they bring. There are plenty of good drivers, but no where near enough sponsorship.
    Even F1 drivers have to “pay their way” in one way or another.

    Conor Daly has gone from winning Skip Barber at 16, to winning Star Mazda at 17, to winning his first race in Indy Lights at Long Beach. Due to the name recognition and his Dad Derek Daly’s connections, he landed a seat in GP3 this year. He’s found it to be much harder than he thought. It looks like he has the raw pace, but needs to adapt to a more technical series, where technology, setup, and strategy play a much bigger role. But if he’d done an American GP3 like series in the USA first, he’d have made a much more seamless transition.

  4. dave cubbedge, 31 July 2011 10:37

    …but even GP2 success doesn’t transfer easily to a F1 drive. There have been several to make the jump only to have to revert back to GP2 because there are no rides at the top echelon. Race in GP2 or accept a career in Indycar, which lately has been a rather poor relative of F1.

    Maybe it is about time some of the guys languishing in F1 for decades pull the plug on their careers there; after all they have made enough money for several lifetimes, at my pay scale at least! Not that I have anything against Rubens or Michael, but one could say they haven’t exactly set the F1 world on fire lately… There are some good drivers acting out roles as backups and not getting any experience or valuable seat time who deserve a race seat at the top level. For some the clock is ticking….

  5. Lewis Lane, 1 August 2011 13:06

    Part of the problem with F1 Dave, i think, is that for too long, F1 was an exclusive club (and BE complains about the BRDC…) which shut out organisations of Carlin, Ardent, DAMS and ORECA quality just so the encumbents could split the prize money. I’m not suggesting the likes of Life and Andrea Moda should run, but without that, there would be more driver opportunities.
    I saw Conor Daly at the Walter Hayes Trophy – looks like a talent. The US sends talented drivers over here each year for the Festival and WHT, (Newgarden’s another springing to mind), so progressing is not just a European problem, it seems. It also seems especially hard for Americans to be even remotely considered for F1 for some reason.

  6. dave cubbedge, 1 August 2011 16:04

    over here the ladder is just about impossible to figure out. I attend the ‘Night Before the 500 Midget Race’ on the Saturday night before Indy and the past two years we have seen some kind of Formula Mazda as support races. These cars look good like an F2 or F3 car, but where did they come from? The larger of the two I had heard of as Formula Star Mazda, but with little or no TV coverage it is just about impossible to follow the series. It did not help that in the support races there were barely enough cars to fill the grid. This is not a new problem as even USAC has endured shrinking grids on pavement races in all three of their main series. This economy just stinks, teams can’t afford the tire budget necessary to compete at this level and the sanctioning body cannot find a sponsor to help underwrite some of the expenses or provide adequate prize money. It’s one reason why I attend World of Outlaws races on dirt, entry lists are usually quite full – despite the fact that I prefer the wingless cars.

  7. dave cubbedge, 1 August 2011 16:12

    Sometimes I wish that F1 had a more level playing field. Since the 1980s it seems like it’s always the same 2 or 3 teams doing all the winning. (Of course every now and then one newer team will get into the top 3, just as one might drop out, i.e. Red Bull and Williams.) I was just at the Brickyard 400 and what a pleasure to see young Paul Menard take his maiden NASCAR Cup victory. The equivalent would be like seeing Kobayashi win a race for Sauber, but we all know that is not likely to happen these days. Most of the F1 teams are in the business of preparing and sorting out young drivers for the big three. How on earth does a team principal sell that to a potential sponsor? “We’re not going to win races, but we will be lapped a couple times every Sunday…and therefore get your logo on TV… That’ll be $50 million please…..!”

  8. Lewis Lane, 2 August 2011 10:49

    Looks like the money’s there, but not distributed as we’d expect: according to Forbes (info via, Danica is the world’s third highest paid female athlete ($12M).. How does that happen when the likes of Dan Wheldon can’t even pay for a drive? Sponsors are obviously prepared to fork out for promotional value, and not racing success… Catch 22: no money unless you’re promotable – can’t get there without the money. Says everything that’s flawed with the system, really.
    Better to be promotable than successful then.
    The world’s upside down….

  9. dave cubbedge, 2 August 2011 16:01

    yes, Lewis, it is a downright shame that the winner of the most prestigious race in 2011 (at least over here) can’t get a ride anywhere! I can tell you he is a great TV commentator, though I’d rather see him race!

  10. Ray T, 2 August 2011 19:04

    Lewis, the answer to your question is obvious: Danica Patrick looks much better in a bikini than Dan Wheldon.
    She’s massively overpaid for her driving, but I guess $12M is the price of her dignity.

  11. ben, 11 July 2012 09:44

    i race with the scca for ten years
    and i admit that i might not have been realy agresive in trying to figure out how to turn racing into my day job….i did try to talk to people at the track even called the club…i just about gave up on that dream..
    i found drivers that were at a high income level like engeniers and lawyers business owners like car mechanics and related industries and young adults whos family pay their way..
    no clear answer on ladder or steps to become sponsored or a part of a team

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