Ferociously competitive and rich in camaraderie, the FIA Formula 3000 Championship was born 30 years ago as Grand Prix racing’s official ante-chamber. It lasted 20 seasons and is fondly remembered for a variety of reasons, not all of them obvious
Writer Simon Arron
In isolation the statistics look bleak. Between them, Formula 3000’s 20 international champions went on to win only nine Grands Prix, Juan Pablo Montoya taking seven of those while Jean Alesi and Olivier Panis collected one apiece. Other alumni would achieve great things, of course, from the world titles of Damon Hill and Fernando Alonso to Sébastien Bourdais’ utter domination of Champ Car racing between 2004 and 2007. While it was conceived as a finishing school, however, it was also a community of like-minded souls.
F3000 replaced European Formula 2, in which interest dwindled as rival teams struggled to match the potent works Honda engines supplied exclusively to Ralt. From the 40-plus entries of the late 1970s, fields had reduced by more than half in 1984, the category’s final season. F3000 would cater for F2-style cars powered by 3-litre V8s – and there was a ready supply of Cosworth DFVs, a proven force that F1 had recently cast aside. And electronically limited to 9000rpm, they would be all but bombproof.
The field was still relatively slender when F3000 began at a drizzly Silverstone on March 23/24, 1985 – 17 drivers, a blend of F2-type chassis and converted F1 cars sold on by Williams and Tyrrell – but had more than doubled within a year. At Pau in 1986, there were 41 cars scrabbling for just 22 places on the grid.
It was intense, but simultaneously friendly.
“That was a major part of F3000’s appeal, and might explain why so many F1 guys from the 1960s and ’70s liked working in the series,” says former Team Lotus mechanic Bob Sparshott, whose BS Automotive team won the inaugural title with Christian Danner. “It was very competitive, but teams were always prepared to help each other out.”
Nick Langley worked in the championship from 1987, looking after Lola’s customers.
“I regard it as a truly golden period for racing,” he says, “and that has nothing to do with rose-tinted specs. It really was. During the days of open chassis competition, our factory was a hive of activity and for almost every outbound flight I’d check in about 10 suitcases of development parts. At the other end, I’d invariably end up being interrogated by customs officials… At the track it was incredibly vibrant – and there was real angst as you wondered whether all the new stuff would work.
“When it became a one-make series in 1996, it lost some of that fizz. It was still a good championship, but the competitive tension had gone. That said, Nordic Racing had been our works team in 1995 and in the first half of the following year I kept looking for its drivers’ times. If they’d had a bad day, I’d think, ‘What on earth is wrong with the car?’ Then it would dawn that they were all our cars. It took a while to get my head around that.”
Humphrey Corbett, who later worked in F1 with Toyota, Prost, Jaguar and others, adds, “Time spent in F3000 has been the most enjoyable of my whole career. It was ferociously competitive, but when the cars weren’t running it also seemed to be a laugh a minute – the epitome of friendly rivalry.”
Even some of the disputes had an amiable streak. From 1985-1988, Lola’s works cars were run by a satellite operation owned by late Frenchman Jean Mosnier – and for much of that time Corbett was team manager. Towards the end of the fourth season, though, there was a rift between factory and Mosnier.
“It was probably to do with money,” Langley says, “but the cars were out on loan and we wanted them back. Jean kept making excuses, telling us that his workshop door had jammed and so forth. One day we knew he was away, so we sent round a van and a few mechanics.”
Corbett: “Jean had locked the front doors, because that way he figured they wouldn’t be able to get the cars out. I’d been tipped off about what would be happening and had to turn a blind eye. Nick and I sat drinking coffee, ostensibly discussing the situation, while the Lola guys stripped the cars down and took the bits out through a single door at the back.”
Mosnier was unimpressed and filed a complaint, which led to Langley briefly being arrested, but no charges were brought. The following year, the Frenchman defiantly retained the Lola Motorsport name… but ran March chassis.
“One of the great things,” Corbett says, “is that the series was rarely political. The cars were monstrously quick, but quite simple – essentially just turn-key customer chassis without any data-logging. You just stuck the driver in and got on with trying to engineer a good set-up.”
And during those first 11 seasons, there was significant freedom (although Avon control tyres came in from year two). “I don’t think anybody fancied our chances in 1985,” Sparshott says, “but as a small private entity we had lots of options. Early on we switched Christian Danner’s car from Avons to Bridgestones and went softer and softer on the rear roll-bar until we eventually disconnected it altogether. That seemed to suit Christian’s style. March designer Ralph Bellamy knew what we’d done, but didn’t try it on the works cars. Because he’d created it with a rear bar, I guess he felt it should stay that way.
“With the tyres, Ralt was Bridgestone’s works team and obliged to run whatever it was told to use. We were in a position to ignore the party line and often did, choosing different compounds because we thought they’d be better. At the end of some races, a Bridgestone technician would wander over, look at our tyres with bits of tread hanging off, shake their head and say, ‘That was very marginal’. I’d reply, ‘Yes, but we won’… That used to drive [Ralt boss] Ron Tauranac mad!”
BSA was a good example of the work hard, play hard attitude that symbolised the F3000 collective. I recall sitting on a Pau pavement terrace one evening and being only mildly surprised to see a group of BSA mechanics carrying a Renault 4 they’d quite literally picked up en route. The bar owner politely asked them not to bring it in.
It was also in Pau that BSA fashioned a World War I-style helmet spike from tape and cardboard, then attached it to Danner’s Bell Star. The German thought this very funny and decided to leave it in place for the following morning’s installation lap, until some sour-faced steward stepped forward and forbade him to exit the pits.
It was mostly gentle slapstick. Between teams there would be the occasional protest, albeit little that wasn’t resolved with reasonable speed. As far as I’m aware, the only truly unsavoury incident involved a team owner waving a hand pistol around at the Reynard factory, when told he couldn’t take his new cars away because he’d neither transferred nor brought the necessary cash. It was an act borne of desperation rather than a pre-meditated attempt to inflict harm and was resolved sensibly, between the parties involved, without further action. James Linton, Reynard’s customer liaison manager, was on the receiving end. “It was all a bit surreal,” he says, “but I stayed calm. It did make me a bit jumpy, though. A few weekends later, I went to see Colin Bennett [another team owner] in the paddock, to request payment for some spares, and when he stuck his hand in his pocket I jumped backwards. He was only reaching for his cheque book, but given previous events…”
Bennett, whose CGA Engineering operation now specialises in historic F1 preparation, says: “I spent about eight years in F3000 and didn’t regret a second. The paddock atmosphere was brilliant and in motor racing terms it was very pure – buy cars and engines off the shelf and away you went. I was lucky to run some very good drivers – Richard Dean, Alain Menu, Éric Hélary – but was always slightly behind in having enough money to get the latest bits. Eddie Jordan always seemed to be very good at wangling those…
“As an illustration of what it was like, we had a deal with Paolo Barilla for 1988. After one race it was clear that our March wasn’t competitive and Paolo took an opportunity to go elsewhere to drive a Reynard. We had a contract, though, so he paid his dues and we remained on very good terms. Just recently, he came to us and asked if we’d prepare a Williams FW07 he’s acquired for historic F1. Trust lasts.”
There were some bleak moments: Michel Trollé and Johnny Herbert were terribly injured on the same weekend at Brands Hatch in 1988, Paul Warwick was killed while dominating a British F3000 race at Oulton Park in 1991 (he took the title posthumously) and Marco Campos suffered fatal injuries at Magny-Cours in 1995. The Brazilian had been the last driver running on the last lap of the last race of the open era that is regarded as the series’ apotheosis – and there could not have been a more sombre note on which to end.
For the most part the environment was uplifting, an arena in which any team could win – irrespective of scale. Larger, well-funded operations garnered many titles, but so did BSA, Genoa, Bromley, RSM Marko and Nordic. Genoa star Ivan Capelli sometimes drove to races in his family’s small dormobile and slept at the track, to save on hotel bills. Bromley was a tiny operation run from a rigid box van, but in 1988 had the twin advantages of Roberto Moreno behind the wheel and Gary Anderson as technical director. And then there was Russell Spence, who split from Murray Taylor Racing in 1987 and did his own thing – helped by former Williams sponsorship co-ordinator Charlie Crichton-Stuart – for the final few races. His March 87B was towed to Le Mans behind a van on an open trailer: he finished second there and third next time out at Jarama.
The spirit of F3000 is perhaps best encapsulated by Da Gino, an Enna restaurant on an open promenade that overlooked about half of Sicily. Every evening, pretty much the whole paddock would gather to dine and it was hard to spot where one table ended and the next began, with conversations flying in several directions and at least as many languages. This was a social hub, and ruthlessness was always tomorrow’s job.
There is, though, one unanswered question.
“At Enna,” says Linton, “I emerged from my hotel one morning to find a bunch of First Racing mechanics in the car park. They’d encountered a snake and had beaten it to death with a stick, just to be on the safe side. I wasn’t sure it would be useful, but picked it up just in case.
“That evening, I somehow managed to blag a key to Pacific boss Keith Wiggins’s room, but it had twin beds and I couldn’t be sure which he was using. I found a bucket, completely soaked one of the beds and hid the dead snake in the other, but to this day I’ve heard absolutely no more about it.”
Any thoughts, Keith?
A few F3000 success stories…
Won not a single race, but led lots in 1990 (after a string of poles). Two podiums don’t reflect the part he played, but he did go on to become the first alumnus to win the F1 title.
Stepped up to F3000 after one year in cars, became competitive within a matter of minutes and trounced the field in the 2000 finale at Spa. What followed was no surprise.
Gil de Ferran
Three victories and a title contender. Realised a paid career in America was better than pursuing half-baked F1 chances. Result? Two Champ Car titles and an Indy 500 win.
Juan Pablo Montoya
Won more GPs than any other FIA F3000 champion – and you have to wonder what the tally might have been had he stuck at it. Won the Champ Car title and Indy 500 before F1. Still competitive…
Diverted to Le Mans in 1997, his only full F3000 season, and won first time out. Within the blink of an eye, he’d become the race’s talisman. Shared 2013 WEC title with fellow F3000 scholar Allan McNish.
Graduated from F3 to F3000 via Renault Clios. Lost the 1996 title in controversial circumstances and then nipped across the pond to win Indy 500 and the IRL title. Also an accomplished guitarist.
…and some you might have missed
Team wasn’t sure what he’d done before – and he was evasive about his track record. Appeared twice for Nordic in 1997, but was 11sec off the pace in Austria and 18sec shy at Spa. Didn’t qualify, strangely.
Holds a record of sorts, as he entered 19 races… and failed to qualify for any of them. His self-run team was called Dollop, which probably didn’t help. Doesn’t quite trip off the tongue like Ferrari, that.
500cc motorcycling world champion in 1981, he subsequently dabbled with cars and made a one-off F3000 appearance in a works Lola at Imola in 1986. Qualified, then finished 11th: respect.
Three great ones…
Perfect Reynard antidote. Erik Comas took the title for DAMS, Allan McNish and Gianni Morbidelli won races and Damon Hill dominated several before retiring.
The firm’s first F3000 chassis won on its debut (Johnny Herbert, Jerez), scooped the main prize (Roberto Moreno) and paved the way to seven titles in eight seasons.
BSA March 85B
Bob Sparshott’s privateer team led Christian Danner to the inaugural title, using a tiny budget and great engineering intellect, in the only F3000 campaign with a tyre war.
…and a trio of mutts
Supposed to carry on where the T90/50 left off, but flopped. It worked brilliantly on radials in Japan, rather less so on Avon’s freshly introduced control equivalent.
Team Adolfo brought its adapted F2 car to four races in 1986, never qualified (best effort came from Bruno Corradi, 33rd at the Österreichring) and wasn’t seen again.
Monte Carlo 001
A rehash of the failed Dywa F1 project, Fulvio Ballabio used it for a couple of slow laps at Imola in 1986 and for all we know might still be trying to complete a third.
Circuits that featured only once on the F3000 calendar
1992 Albacete, Spain
Pretty much a kart track on the edge of nowhere. There were more spectators at the adjacent prison’s cell windows than there were in the grandstands.
1997 Helsinki, Finland
Punishing street track. Juan Pablo Montoya drove ever faster until sticking his car in the wall: team boss Helmut Marko remains angry to this day.
1998 Oschersleben, Germany
Located in the former East Germany. Few teams knew it existed until the FIA put it on the calendar. Stéphane Sarrazin won his first F3000 race from 18th on the grid.
1985 Thruxton, England
Imagine the GP2 Series headlining a major Easter international in Hampshire today. That would be the equivalent… and we’d rather like to see it happen.
1985 Willemstad, Curaçao
Non-championship venue in late ’85. Possibly most famous for a post-race punch-up between slowcoach Sanremo team-mates Aldo Bertuzzi and Fulvio Ballabio.
1985 Zandvoort, Holland
The majestic original: F3000 featured on the support bill at the most recent Dutch Grand Prix… and it’s a source of significant regret that this was to be a one-off.
1988 Zolder, Belgium
For some reason, the drivers’ pre-race briefing took place in the media room. Journalists were supposed to leave, but l hid behind Russell Spence…
Adverse weather and F3000 were often soul-mates
It never rained at Enna… except one year. Each downpour was torrential, and accompanied by thousands of baby frogs emerging from the adjacent lake to swarm across the track. Estimates put amphibian casualties well into six figures.
A fixture at the ’Ring in April? What were they thinking? Skiing legend Franz Klammer was supposed to make his serious racing debut on the support card, so it was rather poetic that the meeting should be snowed off on Sunday morning.
A tornado whipped through the paddock shortly after qualifying, flattening trees and wreaking havoc. Remarkably, there were but a couple of broken bones. By the following morning you wouldn’t have known, so efficient was the clean-up.
The UK mainland’s only street circuit of modern times. The first event started late because local vandals had nicked bolts from the Armco… and finished early when the tail end of Hurricane Charley rendered conditions unraceable.