With the scheduled F3 opening round at Silverstone on March 2nd postponed because the track was snowbound, the Thruxton meeting the following Sunday actually opened the series. Since the formula introduced a "B" class for year-old cars in 1984, and went 'flat bottomed' last year, it has gone from strength to strength. Twenty nine runners started at Thruxton, there were a further seven entries who didn't make it, and one may expect other additions along the way.
Most of last year's drivers have returned, while Mauricio Gugelmin, the 1985 Champion, and Russell Spence, who had the most outright wins, have graduated to F3000. In Class A there are a number of drivers who have graduated from the Ford Formulae, three new Americans and ex-karter Giles Butterfield, who had taken part in only nine car races by the beginning of the year but since they were all in F3 Class B last year, and he took five firsts and two seconds, his progress will be watched with unusual Interest particularly since he is receiving backing from Warmastyle Racing for Britain.
One man who has not yet been able to put together the deal to take him further is last year's Class B Champion, Carlton Tingling, who won his title while operating on the smallest F3 budget we've seen in years. Class B continues to thrive, as it should, since it can be undertaken seriously for less than some spend in the Ford Formulae, and it currently accounts for about half the grid and a fair proportion of the best racing. As Tingling has discovered, though, there is still a huge gap in terms of finance between the two classes.
Unfortunately, the weather conditions at Thruxton were so appalling that there was little opportunity for close racing. All drivers reported aquaplaning on the straights, which made overtaking, even in a straight line, a hazardous occupation. Most reported that it was the most dangerous race they'd competed in and mirrors were useless. It says much for the drivers then, that though there were a number of spins, only two men were unable to continue, and there were none of the collisions which one might have predicted.
The front row of the grid was interesting for last year's Championship runner-up, Andy Wallace, was sitting on pole in his Madgwick Motorsport Reynard 863 with, alongside, the Eddie Jordan Racing Ralt RT 30 of Maurizio Sandro Sala. Sala had been entered by Madgwick since he arrived in England from Brazil in late 1982 and, with Madgwick, he won FF1600 and FF2000 titles but, last year, moving up into F3 he and the team had a dreadful time running Reynards powered by Nicholson-developed Saab engines. Neither the team nor the driver were displayed at their best and so, for both, sharing the front row went a long way to burying the memories of 1985.
The story of the race is simply told, Wallace's line from pole was more waterlogged, Sala had marginally better grip and reached the Complex first and won by about five seconds. Martin Donnelly (Ralt) gave Wallace a hard time early in the race but had to settle for third, clear of Tim Davies, Graham de Zille and Gerrit van Kouwen (all in Ralts). The result would have been little different had the race been stopped after the first lap except for the dice de Zilie had with van Kouwen, Graham taking Gerrit at the chicane late in the race.
The results contrast with last year when Reynard dominated the opening rounds. Though the company was new to the formula, it had put its first cars in the right hands and the cars were initially quicker than the new Ralt and RaIt designer Ron Tauranac was initially occupied in sorting out his F3000 cars.
When Tauranac was able to turn his attention to his F3 cars, things began to improve. Further, the Reynards suffered in two main respects, one was that some components wore out quickly but the second, and ultimately more damaging, was that in attempting to get ground effect from a flat bottomed car, Adrian Reynard had designed a compromise rear suspension which had to fit in with the aerodynamics of his car and it was not a harmonious marriage.
Then Russell Spence, who had won four of the first six rounds with a Reynard, had a rift with his team, PMC, which was also attempting to run Williams FW09s in F3000. Spence left PMC and switched to a RaIt.
Reynard's Ford Formulae cars were not working well, the company's attention was diverted, and the position was worsened by the fact that the Reynard teams tended to lack experience of F3 and, in the case of Madgwick Motorsport, the Nicholson-Saab engines were a handicap. The RaIt teams, with Tauranac's help, became more competitive, and Ralt's bid was strengthened by the arrival of proven F3 winners Ross Cheever and Dave Scott. Gerrit van Kouwen also came good with a RaIt at mid-season, winning three races, while Tim Davies, who had been quick in a Reynard early on, lost his drive. Though Reynard had made progress with its car, by the end of the year the only competitive Reynard driver was Andy Wallace.
Reynard's big attempt to crack F3 had not failed disastrously, for the second and third men in the championship, Wallace and Spence, had used the cars and, between them, won seven races, but F3 drivers are conservative and most have preferred to go to RaIt this year. At present there are only three Reynards scheduled to run in Britain this year, two cars from Madgwick Motorsport (Wallace and McCarthy) and Dave Price Racing's works-supported car for Dave Scott. There was, too, a rumour that the Reynard's carbonfibre monocoque delaminated after a while but Dave Price says, "That's the excuse given for the mid-season off-peak period. It wasn't the cars that delaminated, it was the teams!"
This year the Reynard's monocoque remains essentially the same but the front track is a little wider, the rear track a hole narrower and the wheelbase has been increased. All the suspension geometry has been changed but part of that is to accommodate the new Avon "control" tyre which is a little larger and, most people agree, worth three or four tenths a lap. The 863's side pods are 3 cm less deep and the rear suspension has been designed in harmony with the aerodynamics which, at 120 mph, give a claimed 300 lbs downforce.
Having a very stiff monocoque, the car appears to be less forgiving than a Ralt RT30 and Dave Scott, who has driven both, confirms this while saying that the turn-in is better. What little testing which has been possible indicates that the new car's joints do not wear out as rapidly as last year's car and tyre wear is much improved.
This year's Ralt RT30 has detail modifications to the monocoque and marginally different front suspension geometry (to accommodate the new Avons) but the rear suspension has been substantially changed with the springs and shockers re-located vertically on each side of the gearbox rather than horizontally and longitudinally on top of the gearbox as last year. They are undramatic changes, the sort of evolution we have come to expect from Ralt.
The third constructor in the British series is Magnum which has made neat, lovingly constructed F3 cars for several seasons, but which has yet to make its mark despite some promising showings. At Thruxton the sole Magnum 863 was driven by Foulton Haight Jnr, an American with limited experience and, weighing in at 15 stone, a built-in weight handicap. When the talented Dutchman, Cor Euser, joins the team, the car's potential might be revealed.
Designed by Ian and Stuart Robinson, the 863 is an entirely new car designed, like the Reynard, with F3000 applications In mind. Its aluminium honeycomb monocoque, with cast aluminium bulkheads, has a two degree crank in it rather like the March 85B. While the front of the car is horizontal, the "flat bottom" area rises by two degrees. There's a new aluminium and composite rear wing with long side plates, about which the team is excited, for it can be run nearly flat, and push-rods replace the former rocker arms at the rear in a unique arrangement where the coils and damper (as on previous cars) are mounted over the gearbox. Last year's Magnum had clever aerodynamics and this area has been further improved with flat extensions forward of the side pods.
Small ducts are fitted on the front brakes which are Girling and not the Lockheeds which are otherwise standard F3 kit, and even the mirrors are made by the Robinson family under the guidance of father, John, who seems to have been usurped (cheerfully) by his talented sons.
These days almost everyone fits the John Judd-developed VW engine but an exception is Keith Fine running with Glenn Waters' Intersport team. Through his long-time association with Japanese motor racing, Waters has agreed to run the new Tom's Toyota unit, based on the Celica 3SG engine. Unlike the older Toyota engines which were virtually standard wear for a long period of F3, this unit is only 4kg heavier than the VW.
Tom's is testing the water with a single engine this year and Keith Fine reports that the engine has similar characteristics to the VW unit.
It's early days yet in the F3 Championship, which is still without an overall sponsor. The weather which caused the Silverstone round to be postponed also set back most teams' test programmes. Given the conditions at Thruxton, which were so bad as to be almost freak, it would be a brave man who'd draw many conclusions though it does seem that Wallace and the new Reynard will be competitive and Sala's drive suggests he has shrugged off 1985 and will this year demonstrate his true talent.
It's interesting that fastest lap was set by Mark Galvin with Martin Donnelly, Dave Scott and Tim Davies next quickest. Gary Dunn, winner of Class B also set fastest lap for the class, a clear second over the field. — M.L.