Formula 2 review: Palmer closes on Gabbiani

After the first five rounds of this year's European Championship for Formula Two, it looked as if one man was going to walk away with the title. Beppe Gabbiani won at Silverstone, Thruxton, Nurburgring and Vallelunga and although he retired at Hockenheim, he was clearly the class of the field. "No one who has won four out of the first five races, has ever lost the championship" quoth the sages, and they could still be proved right; but at Pau, precisely halfway through the season, the chain was broken, and for the first time this year it looked as if the championship was not going to be a foregone conclusion after all.

When Gabbiani scored that first win at a slippery Silverstone, the racing world was highly sceptical. Gabbiani's reputation, forged from three and a half seasons of F2 and a disastrous F1 debut with Osella, was enough for people to suggest that if he could run away with the championship so easily, then it must be a pretty poor crop of drivers he had for competition. Gabbiani himself would be the first to agree that his first two seasons of F2 were wild, but his ability is nowhere near as bad as that fragile, ponderous Osella F1 car made it look.

March Engineering and Onyx Race Engineering (Mike Earle's Bognor Regis-based team contracted to run the works cars), found Gabbiani a better driver than they'd ever hoped for, but Earle surely pulled a master-stroke when he hired his old friend and former Grand Prix driver, Peter Gethin, as Beppe's crew chief. Experienced but also light-hearted and amusing, Gethin has been the perfect foil to Gabbiani's slightly volatile Latin character. Beppe is not particularly technically minded and he's no great lover of testing, but Gethin has been able to interpret his feelings of how the car is handling, and turn the Gabbiani/March combination into on race-winner.

The Gabbiani of old has been a comparatively rare sight this season, Beppe driving smoothly and cleanly without many errors. "Drive like an Italian, but think like an Englishman" Gethin tells him, and the fact that his Michelin tyres are invariably in better shape after a race than any other's, shows that Beppe is heeding the advice. The fact that Gabbiani's once impressive Championship lead has been whittled away, cannot be entirely laid at his door. He's made only one driving error this year, at Hockenheim where he spun off in frustration having tried to make up for his car's sloth down the straights by taking chances in the corners. But at Pau a drive-shaft broke and at Jarama a combination of tyre, brake and engine problems kept him off the pace. Several times he has overcome an indifferent grid position which has been no fault of his own and he has also shown that he can withstand pressure; such as when Alessandro Nannini chased him all the way at the 'Ring, and a dominant victory in front of a home crowd at Vallelunga, two equally highly impressive wins.

That March is at the top of the championship table after Donington, is all down to Gabbiani; now Earle's team must get itself together again after a spate of uncompetitiveness to allow Gabbiani to make the ultimate delivery.

Apart from the Gabbiani renaissance, the other major topic of conversation in F2 this year has been the cheating of the 4 cm ground clearance rule. Any device with the intention of lowering the car's bodywork below the 4 cm minimum to achieve ground effect, was banned at the end of the 1982 season; but when certain cars, notably the Ralt-Hondas of Jonathan Palmer and Mike Thackwell, appeared at Thruxton with dual spring suspension, those who had stuck to the spirit of the regulations began to mumble about cheating.

At Pau, Ralt designer Ron Tauranac was pressured into taking off the dual springs but when the cars reappeared with the system at Jarama in Spain, the protests from the Onyx and Gresham works March teams were finally filed. In addition Philippe Streiffs AGS and the Maurers of Stefan Bellof and Alain Ferte were also protested, all five cars adjudged to be touching the ground with their side-pod rubbing strips so much, that they were enjoying the illegal benefit of ground effect.

Following the protests, a FISA Technical Commission clarified the regulations adding that in addition to checking cars were in accordance with the 4 cm rule while stationary in the pit lane, other objective methods could be employed when the cars were circulating on the track. This means that if a car is observed to touch the ground with its bodywork when it is moving, it can be adjudged to be breaking the ground clearance rule and therefore penalised. This is precisely what happened to the Ralts and the AGS, and they were excluded from the Jarama results on the eve of the eighth round of the European Championship at Donington Park. Ralt immediately appealed but removed its controversial dual springs from both cars before the start of the race where, in front of a TV audience, the Casio-backed, Honda powered machines scored a dominant one-two victory. It makes you wonder why Ralt ever bothered with dual springs in the first place, for instead of lying five points behind Gabbiani in the championship, Palmer could be two points in front.

People in the sport are constantly asking: "How good is Jonathan Palmer?", as if they expect his apparent ability and results to be explained away by his having the best car, the best engine, whatever. Why can't people simply accept that he is a naturally talented racing driver? It's probably because they find his character slightly irksome. Apart from his ability behind the wheel, JP is also intelligent enough to appreciate the importance of his appearance, what he says in public and what sort of image he creates for his team and his sponsors. In short he is probably the most complete racing driver we have in this country; talented, bright and single-minded about race driving to the exclusion of everything else. He therefore comes across as very confident and perhaps overly full of himself; even World Champion Keke Rosberg refers to him as the "Young Academic", and there's a man who should know all about egos.

In an interview with Motoring News a couple of years ago, Jonathan admitted that he was so intent on becoming World Champion that he could be described as boring. His critics would not hesitate to agree but in the absence of a real bench mark in F2, we can judge Palmer's ability from a 1 min 10.00 sec lap at Silverstone during testing with a Williams FWO8C. You need considerably more than a silver tongue to do that.

Palmer has certainly been the most consistent driver this year since retiring from the first round at Silverstone with a fuel pump problem. Since then he's scored two wins (at Hockenheim and Donington) and finished every other race in the points, if you include Jarama. He would have "won" there as well, were it not for another fuel pick up problem which cost him the lead 10 laps from the end.

As the F2 season sets off on its final stage, the pendulum has well and truly swung in Ralt's favour, the car not exactly out-classed by the March earlier in the season, but at least not able to offer its drivers the chance to stay with Gabbiani. Ralt, using Michelin tyres for the first time this year, does not yet enjoy the same relationship with the French company as March, while sometimes one wonders whether Ron himself isn't trying to do too much. He's got a thriving retail market, he's the designer of the cars and there's all the administrative work; maybe he finds the business of team manager at weekends, relaxing!

Ralt's other driver is 22-year-old New Zealander Mike Thackwell. This is Thackwell's second turn at the wheel of a Ralt-Honda, having originally driven for the team in 1981 when he survived a truly massive testing shunt at Thruxton, early in the season. Although only his ankles were broken, the effects of stopping from 140 mph in about two feet have never been determined and Thackwell's personality remains an enigma. His mood can change abruptly in hours: chatty, helpful and open one day, monosyllabic and withdrawn the next; but whatever one's personal feelings about Thackwell, there can be no denying that he's hauled himself back from the edge of oblivion with a fast, aggressive driving style that has few inhibitions. On the negative side, he has a limited technical knowledge and sometimes goes too hard for his tyres to last beyond the first third of a race. At the time of writing, it was possible that he would try and qualify the March RAM 01 for its first Grand Prix at Silverstone, which doesn't seem an especially wise move. On target for the Euro F2 crown, Thackwell will only undermine any benefits that might bring if he doesn't qualify the March RAM.

So far, the 1982 European Championship really has been a three-horse race. German Stefan Bellof would be closer to the top if he wasn't driving for the Maurer team, whose cars, while beautiful to look at, have not been reliable enough. Team owner Willy Maurer looks like another Gunther Schmidt in the making while Bellof, though blindingly quick, would benefit from the guiding hand of a good team manager. Bellofs poor season has been flattered with the award of the Jarama "win", which is particularly ironical in that the Maurers themselves have been the subject of much doubt regarding legality. At the end of the season, all these drivers will face quite a problem. Disregarding the eventual destination of the title, Gabbiani, Palmer, Thackwell and Bellof will all deserve an F1 drive; but who with? None of them, especially Gabbiani, can afford to stay in F2 any longer and the decent F1 seats will probably be filled by drivers from within the F1 fraternity. That leaves the little teams like Osella, Theodore and RAM. A similar choice faced last year's Euro F2 Champion Corrado Fabi and the runner-up, former motorcycle ace Johnny Cecotto; and in a stark reversal of fortunes, Fabi struggles with Osella while Cecotto attracts healthy praise at Theodore. Will this year's crop fare any better? — ACM.