Formula Three — A Fresh Start

The 1985 British F3 championship promises to be the best for many years and the opening two rounds have seen large grids, close racing and a greater variety of machinery than we have been used to lately since Formula Three has been basically “Formula Ralt”.

On the strength of the first two rounds, the Reynard 853 is the pace-setter, having scored first and second both at Silverstone and Thruxton but the Rah RT30 driven by Mauricio Gugelmin started from the front row and set fastest lap in both races. The new Anson SA6 has yet to be fully sorted but improved impressively in the week between the two races while the new Magnum 853, which has been much admired by everyone in F3, has so far been in the hands of two novice Finns who have not been able to exploit the potential of the car. By the time this article appears, however, it should have been tested by Johnny Dumfries so it will have been put into perspective.

Of the drivers using up-dated 1984 cars, only Dave Scott has been able to make an impression, running as high as second in the rain at Silverstone and displaying all his old hunger for success after an unhappy year in the Japanese F2 series.

At the time of writing, the two Madgwick Motorsport Reynard-Saab cars have been disappointing. The first problem was that the very clever electronic management system was not quite clever enough and someone at Bosch failed to see that the hot wire which monitors incoming air and feeds information to the management system might sometimes have to deal with rain. At Silverstone, water cooled the wire which duly sent the wrong messages to the management system with the result that the engines ran chronically over-rich. The righthand sidepod of these cars is designed to ram air into the 24 mm restrictor which is located in the pod but a question mark hangs over its effectiveness. In order to protect the hot wire Maurizio Sandro Sala’s car had a series of baffles put into the pod at Silverstone with the result that the air was starved of fuel.

At Thruxton, Anthony Reid’s car retained the original system and struggled round in 12th place possibly starved of air while Sandro Sala’s car was fitted with a Lucas system and he spluttered around at the tail of the field for two laps before expiring in front of the pits. Since these engines are backed by both Saab and Nicholson-McLaren Engines, they should not be written off and I confidently expect to see them on the pace, and even winning, before long. A conventional air box is among the routes to be explored.

The opening rounds have not only seen new cars winning, but also new teams. Andy Wallace won the opener for Swallow Racing which has newly graduated from FF2000. The relative inexperience of the team showed itself at Thruxton, however, when Wallace’s cars twice blew engines due to a faulty fuel pump which delivered a too-lean mixture. In his one flying lap, on fresh tyres, Wallace was able to set a time which took him to fifth on the grid which indicates that his Silverstone performance was no flash in the pan even though he was unable to start at Thruxton. Tim Davies in the team’s other car came sixth at Silverstone and second at Thruxton with a broken rear roll bar after initially leading.

Russell Spence, who was a race winner last year with Glenn Waters’ Intersport Racing Ralt RT3, is this year run by another new team PMC, whose main activity in 1985 will be F3000. Spence came second at Silverstone in an unsorted Reynard and won at Thruxton, having overcome his bogey circuit with tuition by Ian Taylor who runs the racing school there


In 1985 we are witnessing the end of the myth that to be successful in F3 one must drive a Ralt prepared by one of the establishment teams who possess wonderful ways of making it super-competitive, with lots of secret preparation tricks.

That myth was demolished last year by Ross Cheever who drove a standard RT3 and won on several occasions. But, in fact, the widely-believed rumour that certain teams had a special way with Ralts was open to question anyway. When you saw a driver demolish his car on a Friday and sit in a brand new car on the Sunday and go as fast as ever, then you knew that nothing special had been done to the car, it had merely been bolted together properly. The Rah RT3 was good enough to win in standard trim and close enquiries showed that teams generally prepared them to Ron Tauranac’s specification, but did not make that fact public — why spoil a good story and perhaps lose customers?

The great thing about the new regulations is not that they have significantly slowed the cars, for they have not, but that there is a reemphasis in the skills needed by the drivers to be competitive. Ground effects in F3 was a skew in the formula’s progress. An F3 car with around 160 bhp and running on control rubber could not fully exploit ground effects, though the position was a little different with some of the softer compounds allowed in the European Championship.

Ground effects in F3 did not radically improve times, what it did do was to put a different emphasis on drivers’ skills while, at the same time, making passing more difficult. Ground effects reduced straight line speed (current runners are finding a typical 250 rpm extra along the straights), the cars were subject to severe understeer when running in close company, and braking distances were shortened. Because they gripped better in the corners, they were easier to drive through bends. They were not significantly faster over a lap and a look at the records will show much more progress made in the five years prior to ground effects cars than in the five years following their introduction.

Ground effects cars only appeared to be quicker because Ron Tauranac had designed a good, but not sensational, chassis and had avoided the mistakes of his competitors. Because he had produced a marginally superior car, everyone bought it but it was really a case of chassis and suspension work aided by a change of tyres, not aerodynamics. Last year, Gary Anderson, who designs the Anson cars, told me that he felt that the best car he could design for F3 was a slim, low-dreg, model, rather like the successful FF2000 cars after constructors for the formula had entered a cul-de-sac in 1980 with ground effects. He said then, “The trouble is that if I did that, nobody would want to know. They are interested only in buying something that looks like a Ralt.”

We will never know if he was right. The new regulations demand deformable structures on the car and the regulations were framed with the best of intentions, to allow and encourage bodywork up-date kits for the dozens, hundreds, of existing Ralts, Ansons, Magnums, Martinis etc. Having been invented, though, ground effects cannot be un-invented and so most constructors are exploring ways of creating “negative lift” in combination with low drag, for the new situation.

The Magnum 853 cars do this with two sidepods, an enclosed body and wind funnels at the rear of the car. John Robinson, whose sons, Ian and Stuart, were largely responsible for the design (everyone at Magnum answers to the name “Robinson”) estimates that the new car has up to 75% of the downforce of previous Magnums. Detail attention to air flow extends even to thin aluminium plates over the lips of the front uprights.

The new car follows previous ones in that it is constructed from aluminium honeycomb and has rocker-arm rear suspension with the spring / damper units mounted laterally over the gearbox. Push rod suspension is used at the front and the whole package looks so neat and integrated, and is so well finished, that it has won the praise of everyone though the inexperience of the two works drivers has yet to allow the car to shine.

On previous designs, Robinson used a shaped fairing over the right-hand “empty” sidepod to reduce drag. Nobody paid much attention to this except one of the Ralt racehire operators, sorry, leading team managers, who blanked off the right-hand pod of an RT3 only to realise, too late, that that pod housed the oil radiator. Both pods on the new Magnum are designed to generate downforce and are mentioned because what has happened with the Reynards.

After much time in the wind tunnel, Adrian Reynard’s new car appeared and part of the aerodynamic package featured an underwing at the rear which, it was claimed, generated a degree of ground effects. The Reynard was described in last month’s Motor Sport but before the issue appeared two things had happened. The first was that Tim Davies had proven the strength of the composite monocoque by emerging unhurt from an almighty end-over-end crash at Goodwood (as later did Reid in practice for the Silverstone race) and the second was that Reynard had found an advantage by blanking off the right-hand “empty” sidepod. This modification, which encourages the air to pass under the car, is temporary and we can expect a new righthand sidepod from Reynard shortly. At present there is an extra square foot of frontal area presented by taping over the right-hand pod and I would not be surprised if we shortly see an asymmetrical Reynard along the lines of the Ralt RT30.

While both the Magnum and Reynard use the fashionable “coke bottle” style of bodywork, the Anson SA6, with an Irish designer, uses an Irish coke-bottle shape in which the rear bodywork flares out rather than in. In this outward flaring are house radiators on both sides. The monocoque is of aluminium honeycomb, following previous Anson practice, while the sidepods are larger than they need to be to conform with the regulations. There are air escape vents along the top of both pods and, rather than use a shaped undertray to act as an underwing, Anderson has shaped the underside of the top part of the rear of the sidepods. Wind tunnel testing has shown that a model of this design gives over 50% of the down force achieved with the full ground effects car (over 600 lb at a hypothetical 150 mph as opposed to 1,200 lb with last year’s car).

The car does not look elegant but Anderson defends the shape by saying that it works and works-supported driver, Keith Fine, came close to scoring points at Thruxton having spent the wet Silverstone practice sessions shaking the new car down and coming to terms with suspension settings which were far too hard.

The new Ralt RT30 follows some of Ron Tauranac’s previous thinking in that the monocoque is made of sheet aluminium with honeycomb strengthening around the front bulkhead. The RT3 had the reputation of being a “lazy” chuckable chassis which was ideal for drivers making the transition from the Ford formulae. A senior man from Ralt has expressed the view that the new car has lost some of this characteristic and is perhaps not chuckable enough in the new circumstances. Traction seems to be the main problem at present, however.

The front suspension is by push rods and so is the rear except that the spring/damper units are not mounted vertically as on the Anson and on last year’s Ralts but are fixed longitudinally on top of the gearbox. The asymmetrical design consists of a honeycomb platform on the right-hand side, which takes care of the regulations calling for deformable side structures while on the left there is another platform with the water radiator mounted on it and enclosed in a shaped cowl rather than a sidepod. Under the car is an upwardly sloping tray at the back which acts as an underwing, though the push rod rear suspension does get in the way a little.

In order to achieve slimness, a new exhaust system has been devised for the VW engines which are now used by all the serious runners, apart from the two who have Saab units. Engine men will tell you there is no power advantage with the VW engine over the previously popular Toyota but VW-powered cars won last year so everyone is using them this year.

Instead of the pipes running level with the exhaust ports they now dip down and exit over the rear underwing, the pipes themselves being partly exposed to the airstream.

Everyone is trying to present a clean roar end to the airstream, which is the reason for so many ingenious mountings for the rear spring/damper units, and the Ralt goes one stage further in having very slim rear bodywork.

The established race-hire operatives have been upset by the success of the new Reynard and three protested the cars at Thruxton. The basis of their argument was a technicality of the car’s construction and not related to the sort of infringement which would lead to a performance gain. The protest was thrown out.

For the past few years the leading Ralt teams have formed an unofficial club, doubtless motivated by trying to serve the best interests of the formula. The new Reynard, in a relatively undeveloped state and run by new teams who are still learning about F3, has upset the status quo. The potential customer has now a far greater perceived choice of team and the myth of which I have written has started to crumble.

With the exception of DPR, the establishment has committed itself to using new Ralts, as it has done in the recent past. Team managers, or race-hire operatives, have not had to give serious thought to the cars they have chosen and, as for engines and gearbox tweaks, that too has been resolved by the simple formula of copying whoever has been winning.

The formula is currently in a state of flux with not only the dominance of Rah under threat. If we tot up the total points scored during the first two rounds, we find that the drivers run by new teams have scored 38 while the drivers run by the establishment have scored 16. No wonder the protests went in at Thruxton!

I’m glad that the whole F3 scene has been given a thorough shaking for it has long needed it. The formula needs fresh blood not only among drivers, but among teams, it needs innovative chassis and engines. It is certainly getting them and this year’s series promises to be the best for a long time.

The only question waiting to be answered is whether the new cars will be quicker than last year’s cars. To judge by the times being currently set and by the amount of development still to do, I will guess that we will see lap records broken this year and that F3 will recover from going up the cul-de-sac which was ground effects to give closer racing to allow the truly talented drivers and teams lo demonstrate their worth. — M.L.