Formula 2 - is it on the right track?

WHEN the European Formula Two Championship was originally instigated in 1967 it was intended to consolidate a very positive bridge between Formula Three and Formula One. To this end, it was very strictly controlled. Anybody who had scored World Championship points was debarred from scoring points in the F2 contest. And you could only win the European title once since one of the rewards for such success was elevation to “graded” driver status. Unfortunately, although the basic format of Formula Two has not changed greatly over the past 15 years, the motor racing world which surrounds it most certainly has. Money speaks in a different way. Back in 1967 if you were well-heeled, you would buy yourself a Brabham BT23, hire a mechanic and transporter and get on with it. The major works teams still attracted their sponsors largely on the strength of their own achievement — rather than the achievement solely of one specific driver. Nowadays the well-heeled driver approaches an established team to run him for a specific sum of money. This subtle change has permeated from Formula Three all the way through to some areas of Formula One. And this faith in the driver rather than the racing team has forced another shift of emphasis within the motor racing fraternity. Talent is no longer sufficient on its own. The name of the game, more than ever, is money.

By and large, the European F2 Championship has produced a consistent string of first-rate drivers, all of whom have had a crack at Formula One. Nowadays it is fashionable to dismiss Formula Two as something an irrelevance and many young drivers have jumped directly from F3 to F1. Over the past few years there has been endless discussion as to whether this is a good idea: indeed some people have suggested that an obligatory “league” system should be evolved whereby aspiring GP stars should have to prove themselves in both F3 and F2 before they can try F1. To some extent, the instigation of the FISA super licence system fulfils this need, but it’s still not obligatory, for drivers to move through F2 on their way from F3 to F1. At this point one comes back to the expense of participating in international single-seater motor racing. If it were simply development of talent that was under consideration there would be no problem. But since the necessary finance is so desperately difficult to raise, aspiring F3 lads feel they have a “once only” chance to establish themselves in Formula One. And since the budget required for a winning F2 programme is sufficient to purchase a seat in a second-division Formula One team, it’s quite understandable why many of them make this big jump. Some keep their heads above water and make progress, others sink.

Fifteen years ago things were very different. Even allowing for inflation, professional motor racing has become significantly more expensive than it was in 1967. When Jacky Ickx sped to victory in the 1967 European F2 Championship, the progress of his Matra-Cosworth FVA MS7 was as significant as his growing reputation as a driver. Ickx wanted to be a Grand Prix ace and Matra wanted to be Grand Prix car constructors. There was no doubting their joint ability. In the 1967 German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, Ickx was entered in the “F2 class” with his Tyrrell-prepared machine. Only a handful of cars could keep ahead of him. Jim Clark’s Lotus 49, Dan Gurney’s Eagle-Weslake and the two Brabham-Repcos were quicker, but Ickx’s agile Matra eclipsed the rest of the field. Not only did that race serve notice of Ickx’s ability as a driver but it also reminded everybody very forcibly that engine power was only part of the F1 equation, a lesson that surprisingly few Grand Prix teams seemed to appreciate to judge by some of the awful-handling BRMs, Cooper-Maseratis and Hondas of the period. It’s significant to add as an afterthought that all the subsequent Matra Grand Prix cars earned reputations as good-handling machines. In 1968 Matra made their move into F1, providing a chassis for Ken Tyrrell and running their own machine from the works. Jackie Stewart’s Tyrrell machine used a Cosworth DFV, Matra’s own car for Jean-Pierre Beltoise was fitted with the French company’s own V12. But they were still learning and, as part of France’s successful plan to dominate Grand Prix motor racing, Matra continued to field a F2 challenge. They forced the pace of F2 development with fine-handling chassis that put its power down beautifully as well as strong self-prepared versions of the Cosworth FVA 1,600 c.c. engines. Those British based privateers, who for years had relied on “off-the-shelf’ Brabhams and Lotuses, were obliged to look to their laurels. Matra’s greatest challenge, after the death of Jim Clark at Hockenheim early in the year, came from the Winkelmann Racing Brabham BT23Cs driven by Jochen Rindt. The Austrian had by that time earned himself a decent F1 reputation but still drove many F2 races, much to the delight of European crowds. So when Beltoise’s Matra beat Rindt’s Brabham fair and square at Jarama, both the French driver and constructor could not only feel justifiably proud of their exploits but they knew they were on the right track. The Brabham / Rindt combination was a proven quantity by which Matra could gauge their own performance and such success more than justified their continuance in this supposedly junior category. It was all good experience for F1.

Matra’s first year in F1 proved that they had plenty to learn about engine development. Consequently the V12 was withdrawn for 1969 in order that an intensive development programme be carried out. But Tyrrell’s Matra-Cosworths raced on and Beltoise joined Stewart in that team. The factory Matra team continued with their F2 domination and Johnny Servoz-Gavin took the 1969 European F2 title.

Determined to put all their effort into Formula One, Matra withdrew from F2 for 1970. But the European Championship still remained a prestige arena of international motor racing. Brabham and Lotus continued to be represented, in addition to Germany’s BMW team, the Italian Tecno firm and the fledgling British March Engineering. They were all teams who were either involved in, or had their eye on, Formula One and their Formula Two programme was a vital intermediate step, both in terms of technical “know-how” and driver development. By the end of the year Clay Regazzoni was European F2 Champion at the wheel of a Tecno and another Formula One reputation had been forged.

Still the graded drivers tussled on an even basis with the hungry newcomers. Into 1971 Graham Hill remained a prestige name against whom the rising stars could pitch their efforts. Interestingly, this also provided an example of a driver many reckoned to be past his best proving otherwise. Hill’s F1 machinery wasn’t the best by this stage in his career, but he put in some fine F2 performances, notably when he beat Ronnie Peterson at Thruxton, and proved beyond doubt that he could still drive well. The 1971 season, of course, belonged to Peterson and March’ Engineering, both of whom were working hand-in-hand at the business of Grand Prix racing as well. In fact, by this time, March had almost taken over from Brabham as manufacturers of proprietary racing cars and several future Grand Prix aces made their name driving them in the years that followed.

In 1972, Formula Two took a very definite wrong turning. The 1,600 c.c. engine capacity limit was raised to 2-litres, but it was stipulated that they must be bawd on production engine blocks. This provided the engine builders with endless headaches and unnecessary expense, for the problems of making racing engines out of basic production blocks was a long and frustrating task. None of it was worthwhile: the whole exercise proved meaningless because so much special work had to be done to the engines that they eventually worked out more expensive than if the preparation specialists had conceived a pure racing engine from the outset.

This appalling unreliability returned by the new generation of engines added an unwelcome extra inflationary twist to the costs of a Formula Two programme. It also resulted in significantly less attractive racing for the spectator, and not too many of those had been attending Formula Two events in any case. A cautious approach and sensible engineering won the 1972 European Championship as Mike Hailwood’s Surtees TS10 took the title, using a Brian Hart 1,850 c.c. Ford-derived engine which was the maximum capacity the practical Harlow based engine builder was prepared to stretch from this particular block. Those who went further and attempted to run even closer to the 2,000 c.c. limit were generally rewarded with expensive and frustrating engine failures.

After success on several production car racing fronts, BMW decided to enter the Formula Two arena in 1973 and forged a link with March Engineering which still endures into the 1980s. Jean-Pierre Jarier won the European title in convincing style with a factory entered March-BMW, but the formula was now moving into a frustrating period. It was getting over-complex for no good reason and, although the concept of a decent F2 field may have looked attractive to some organisers, it was nonetheless quite a costly venture which didn’t offer much in the way of established names. Formula One was taking off to the point where its elite Grand Prix aces neither needed the income provided by F2 participation — nor were they prepared to risk their reputations. To be defeated by a promising youngster would have done little for their reputation or their future earning capacity. The only people who really profited by the confused state of Formula 2 in the mid-1970s were the French. With the support of Elf petroleum, such names as Patrick Depailler, Jacques Laffite, Jean-Pierre Jabouille and many others were kept sharp by a comprehensive F2 programme amongst a variety of teams. This resulted in Depailler winning the F2 title in 1974, followed by Laffite (for Martini) in 1975 and then, with the return of a sane “pure racing engines” formula, Jabouille and Arnoux over the next two seasons, both using the neat Renault V6 to power their Elf 2 and Martini respectively.

That return to racing engines steered F2 back onto a sensible course. Not only were Renault learning much about that V6 engine which would lead to the development of their turbocharged Formula One version, but the French were literally “stockpiling” a huge pool of French driving talent which could be called on when there were sufficient French Formula 1 cars available. All those men are in Formula 1 today and, when a Frenchman finally wins the World Championship for the first time, the roots of such a triumph will belong back in Formula Two of the mid-1970s.

Once Renault withdrew from F2 to concentrate on their elaborate and expensive F1 programme, March-BMWs swept the board in 1978 and 1979 thanks to the efforts of Bruno Giacomelli and Marc Surer, respectively. For March, Formula 2 was by now a means to its own end: the well-financed works cars achieved a success which provided an effective shop window for their customer car sales. They were not interested in any Formula 1 aspirations and indeed March’s Grand Prix efforts had slipped away to the point when they were simply providing straightforward “pay drives” for Ian Scheckter and Alex Ribeiro. The March Grand Prix concern which currently competes in the F1 Championship has nothing to do with the company founded by Max Mosley and Robin Herd twelve years ago.

By 1980, Formula Two was well and truly back on the rails again as a sensible formula in which future GP drivers and constructors could be tutored. Unfortunately, the surge of self-importance which had suffused F2 in the mid-1970s now left was washed up on a high-priced beach from which there was no escape. Not surprisingly, many drivers chose to go straight into Formula 1 from Formula 3. Formula 2 had become far too expensive. But the 1981-title winning Toleman-Harts driven by Brian Henton and Derek Warwick were laying the groundwork for another serious F1 challenge. The following year they moved into Formula 1 with brand new cars. Hart turbocharged engines and the same two drivers. Theirs was a logical transition into the senior category, even if they haven’t yet met with the sort of F1 success that they became used to in F2.

In 1982 we have Honda using F2 as a springboard to Formula 1 success, their V6 engines powering both Ralt and Spirit entries in the European Championship. And to judge by the entry list for the first race, there are indications that there are many very promising young stars who are happy to make F2 their environment for a year or two as they strive to build F1 reputations. Stefan Johansson, Kenny Acheson, Thierry Boutsen and, of course, Britain’s Jonathan Palmer (who already has a Williams testing contract in his pocket) are undeniably promising drivers. It will be interesting to see whether their current course reaps them more long-term rewards than the route taken by Mauro Baldi and Raul Boesel who catapulted directly from F3 to F1 at the start of this season. Certainly, there is a difference in the physical effort and concentration required for a 20-lap blast round Silverstone and a 200-mile Grand Prix at Long Beach or Monaco. Formula 2, with its 100-mile races in cars of a power to weight ratio almost exactly between the 170 b.h.p. F3 cars and 490 b.h.p. Grand Prix machines, should have a worthwhile role to fill in a logical world.

Unfortunately, motor racing has become its own worst enemy from the point of view of sheer logic. As long as Formula One drips with finance and glamour, however transient, short-term and superficial it may turn out to be, there will be an overwhelming incentive for young drivers to grab the first chance of a Grand Prix drive when it comes their way. They run the risk of fading into oblivion after the money has been spent on one indifferent season with a second-rate team. By the same token, Formula Two no longer stands as an arena in which the rising stars can battle with established names. And, unless there is some redistribution of wealth and resources within professional motor racing, it never will be able to fulfil that role again at any time in the foreseeable future. — A. H.