Opel cadets

Häkkinen, Barrichello, Coulthard, Frentzen, de Ferran, McNish… One series launched them all. Marcus Simmons tells the story

The life of the 1960s Formula Three driver, roaming around Europe for the summer, turning up in faraway towns to race, and living on the start money given out by the organisers, is one of the most romantic in the history of motor racing.

But to some extent this was replicated two decades later. By this time there was a lot more money around, and the racers were being run out of well-equipped transporters rather than off a tow car and trailer, but during its peak the Opel Lotus Euroseries provided a seemingly bottomless pit of young talent and fostered a circus atmosphere as a bunch of lads left their families for the first time and tasted life on the road. And all that entails…

On track the racing was fiercely competitive; off it the combatants would socialise, an international crowd of young men usually accompanied by their team owners, whose jobs were as much that of surrogate big brothers – introducing them to life, but keeping them out of trouble – as making sure they had a competitive car to drive. Pale-skinned British and Dutch youths would mix with their darker Brazilian counterparts, also among them a group of giggling Barbour jacket/flat cap-clad Italians, who for some reason always seemed to favour the English Country Gent look!

The colourful GM/Vauxhall/Opel/Chevrolet (depending on where you come from) Lotus movement began in 1988, and effectively acted as a replacement for Formula Ford 2000. National championships were organised in the UK and Germany, though in years to come Brazil, Benelux, Ireland, Scandinavia and Austria would join in. But at the top of the pyramid was the Euroseries, run by EFDA (European Formula Drivers’ Association).

EFDA, based in Luxembourg City, had been formed by American ex-serviceman and amateur racer Dan Partel in the late 1970s. From 1979 onwards he ran European championships for the Formula Ford 2000 and 1600 categories. Most famous graduate of this scene was Ayrton Senna, who dovetailed his British FF2000 attack in 1982 with a successful European campaign with some of these rounds at grands prix, this provided a platform for him to exhibit his talents to the people who really mattered.

When FF2000 ran out of steam, General Motors launched its new initiative. The cars would be identical (a radical step for the day), all built by Reynard, which had dominated the late years of FF2000. You could see the family resemblance and, for 1988, 95 cars would be built. The chassis was a mix of aluminium spaceframe and monocoque ‘planks’ these would be thoroughly crash-tested over the next 12 years! This was pretty basic compared to F3, but the engine was the real jewel: GM’s new Family 2, 16-valve powerplant pushed out around 160bhp, not far off F3 figures of the day, and was extremely reliable.

What really ignited the movement was Partel’s agreement with Bernie Ecclestone for five of the Euroseries’ 10 rounds to support grands prix. Suddenly everyone below F3 level (and even some stepping down from F3) wanted one of the new Reynards. Top of the pile was the team of Marlboro juniors run by the Dragon Motorsport team of experienced engineers Hywel Absalom and Doug Bebb. Scandinavian FF1600 champion Mika Häkkinen and promising Scot Allan McNish had been selected after trials in FF2000 machinery.

While McNish claimed the British title, Häkkinen went to a final-round shoot-out for the Euroseries against Dane Henrik Larsen, a veteran of FF2000 who operated on a shoestring. The Finn won just! “In Formula Ford the grip was extremely low [compared to karts] and it was a bit boring to drive,” says Häkkinen. “So going to Opel Lotus was more interesting slick tyres, aerodynamic downforce, more horsepower, more exciting.”

Häkkinen and McNish had been rented a house in Marlborough (it had to be, really!), not from Dragon’s base. “Allan was a really good guy, very positive, and we talked a lot,” remembers Mika. “Whatever Tasked he really helped me. I don’t know whether he was honest all the time though! And eventually we had an argument over the rent. He comes from Scotland so everything had to be 50 per cent yours, 50 per cent mine!” McNish retorts: “At the end of the year I went back to Scotland and the following year I was doing F3 and bought my own place, and Mika stayed on with a couple of the mechanics. I’ve got to be honest I wasn’t party to the final shenanigans!

“It was an odd situation where you had to pay five quid to Dido not the Dido, but she was an old woman next door and she did your laundry as part of the agreement on the house. But all she did was wash it, she didn’t iron it we were walking around in creased clothes for the year. But Christ Almighty we were 18 or 19 so we didn’t care!”

The drivers may have looked unkempt, but nothing else about the Euroseries was. Dennis Rushen, who’d run Senna in ’82 and was an Opel Lotus team owner and/or engineer through most of its existence, says: “In my opinion Dan Partel was the best promoter there’s ever been. He organised the trucks lining up neatly, with flags on top, and Bernie loved that. He had a lot of time for Partel and that’s why we got onto the grand prix package. He always used to tell everyone, ‘Hey guys, this is show business’ and everyone would go, ‘Yeah!”

“The first F1 support we did was at Paul Ricard,” adds McNish, “and I will always remember Partel’s driver briefing. He said, ‘Lads, this is show business — do not crash and make fools of ourselves at the first corner.’ And it was true — he was 15 years ahead of his time in that mentality. That was so different to Formula Ford, which was club racing.

“At the time I’d think, ‘What the hell is he talking about? I’m here to race!’ But as we stepped up into other categories, the positioning in how you had to think was what was instilled by Dan. It was purely his drive from EFDA that did that, and his drive got it into a Formula One support event, something F3 was only ever any good at losing.”

Häkkinen won that race at Ricard (the second round — he’d also won the opener at Zandvoort), but it was a late-season crash that nearly proved his undoing. The Finn went to the penultimate round at Estoril with a 13-point lead over Larsen, but he shunted while trying to pass the Dane for second. He was therefore two points down going into the finale at Jerez… “I f***ed that one up completely!” he confesses.

At Jerez, while German champion Heinz-Harald Frentzen scampered into the distance to make everyone else look second rate, Häkkinen corrected his error. “It’s really strange,” he says, “but just before the race I thought, ‘Don’t worry — we’re going to do it.’ I saw Larsen and I thought, ‘He’s gone, he’s not going to make it.’ And we won the championship.” By one point…

Häkkinen pinpoints 1988 as the launching pad for his international career: “It was a perfect move. All I wanted to do was drive — I didn’t give a damn about anything else, which is not so good because there are a lot of things you have to understand to become a professional racing driver. Hughie Absalom did a lot to help me understand them.”

Larsen would miss out again in 1989, by four points this time, to ex-F3 driver Peter Kox, who was driving for a Dutch junior team set up by Jan Lammers and with a young engineer named Ronald Heiligers. Eventually, Heiligers would form AR Motorsport, which won Euroseries titles with Jason Watt (1995), Etienne van der Linde (’98) and Tomas Scheckter (’99).

Another four-time champion was Draco Racing, an Italian team run by Adriano Morini, which first appeared in ’89 and would become the most feared squad in the championship. “Draco were the people who had it sussed,” says Rushen. “They had the knack of running the car soft with very little rear wing. They were the only people who could really make that work.”

Draco’s first champion was Rubens Barrichello, who joined the team as a 17-year-old for 1990, his first season in Europe. His engineer, fellow Brazilian Roberto Costa, says: “We went to do a test at Vallelunga; Rubens did very well and signed up. And because he needed the mileage we decided to do any race available. So we did the Euroseries, and the Benelux, and the German — and part of the British! We did something like 32 events — non-stop racing.

“The car was very basic — there were just three gauges, but when we added a speedometer that made the real difference to Rubens. He could tell us everything and it was great to work with him. He was very unassuming but had a great sense of humour and loved messing around. Then in the car he exuded tranquility and just felt at ease.”

Costa had watched Barrichello since his karting days, and knew he was a future star: “He was naturally talented and had a flair for setting up the car — and he rarely made a mistake. He spun now and again, but he wasn’t a madman. I always compared him more to Emerson [Fittipaldi] than Ayrton — he had the ability to make the car do the work, never going over the limits.”

Draco won the title again with Pedro Lamy in 1991, Patrick Crinelli in ’93 and Marco Campos in ’94. The Crinelli year was controversial — Vincent Radermecker was initially crowned champion, but Crinelli’s exclusion from a race at the Nürburgring for using illegal fuel was overturned on appeal. Campos, meanwhile, graduated to

Formula 3000 with Draco for ’95, but was killed in an accident in the final round at Magny-Cours. He was just 19 years old. A great talent who could have achieved so much.

In between these Draco years, Gareth Rees and David Sears Motorsport won the title in 1992. DSM was the genesis of what became the super-successful Super Nova F3000 squad, which now competes in GP2 and Al GP. “The Euroseries was brilliant, pioneering stuff really,” says Sears. “Dan Partel organised a Nations Cup too, with drivers racing in their national colours — like Al GP. He created this European band of happy travellers. It had a real rock ‘n’ roll group feel about it, and you’d end up doing 24 races a year in Britain and Europe.

“I can remember Gil de Ferran and David Coulthard coming up to me in the paddock at Hockenheim in 1990 and asking me for advice. They were driving for Paul Stewart Racing, but my team was doing better with Vincenzo Sospiri!

“Doing the grands prix made a hell of a lot of difference. All the things I learned from there carried us forward to winning those F3000 championships.”

By the mid-90s the grand prix supports were becoming rare, and grids were falling. There was still a nucleus of strong teams and drivers, though, and Bas Leinders won the ’96 title with Dutch team van Amersfoort Racing, with Brazilian Marcelo Battistuzzi taking the ’97 crown for Italy’s Vergani Racing. The Euroseries then rallied a little in ’98 and ’99, culminating in that final crown for Scheckter.

“At that stage everything is very intense,” says Scheckter. “Racing in Britain was very tough, but going to Europe gives you time to develop as a person, and I lived in a base above one of my mechanics in Holland. But the Euroseries was very competitive — the cars were very similar and there was no one dominant team. A lot of different people were winning races.

“The other thing about Opel Lotus was the tyres [Bridgestone through its duration]. They’d be one to two seconds quicker for one or two laps and then drop off, so that taught you a lot about how to use the tyres and it definitely helped me.”

But its time had come. Formula Renault was transferring to a single-make category for 2000, and the Opel Lotus design was now 12 years old. Renault was taking over as the place to be. Its first big star? A young Finn named Kimi Räikkönen, just like Häkkinen in 1988. Funny how history repeats itself.

Off the radar
Opel stars who ‘disappeared’

Eduar Merhy Neto: third in 1989. A qualified architect. “One of the hairiest men lever saw!” says McNish.

Jonathan McGall: fourth in 1991. Runs the family civil engineering business in Northern Ireland.

Gareth Rees: champion in 1992. Works for family hardware business – and TV analyst for F3000/GP2 races.

Christian Fischer: third in 1992. Races an F2 March in historic events.

Patrick Crinelli: champion in 1993. One of Rome’s leading purveyors of expensive wristwatches.

Marcelo Battistuzzi: champion in 1997. Makes F1 simulators for the Brazilian market.

Etienne van der Linde: champion in 1998. Races a BMW in the South African Production Car Championship.

Darren Malkin: second in 1999. Supplying organic and vegan food for outdoor festivals.