A bang and a whimper
The European Formula 3000 Championship concluded with both a bang and a whimper.
The bang thankfully bore no relation to the thumping accidents which blighted the mid-season races at Monza, Enna, Brands Hatch and Birmingham, but was indicative of some top-quality, cut-and-thrust racing of the type that has made F3000 stand out since its inception as the world’s most competitive single-seater category.
The whimper? Well, Roberto Moreno duly wrapped up the championship title for the Bromley Reynard team, although not quite in the grand manner he would have wished. The four-times winner failed to add to that tally in the final trio of races, although he was scorching away from the opposition at almost one second per lap when his engine blew just five laps into the finale at Dijon.
The title had actually landed in his lap at Le Mans, a couple of days after he confirmed that he had signed a one-year deal to race in Formula One with Enzo Coloni next season (quite why nobody offered him such an opportunity years ago has been one of motor racing’s great puzzles). All he in fact needed was an inconspicuous fifth in the wake of myriad handling problems. With Pierluigi Martini, his distant title rival, away racing for Minardi in the Portuguese Grand Prix, those two points were sufficient. The Brazilian had another low-key day at Zolder, bolstering his final points tally up to 43 with another fifth place. After his engine expired in Dijon, the popular champion slipped quietly away, driving straight back to Italy to prepare for a hard week’s development work with the 1989 Ft Ferrari, a project which has occupied much of his time recently.
As it transpired, Martini never proved a threat in the final couple of races, the First March team not quite on top form, and it was Olivier Grouillard who finally took second in the points table.
The GDBA Lola driver was around during F3000’s first year, 1985, and has hovered near the front of the grid ever since. It was only at Le Mans that he finally notched up a long overdue maiden victory, but although he didn’t have to wait too long for a second, as he held off Mark Blundell to taken thrilling win at Zolder. The young Englishman’s works Lola was but 0.22 seconds shy of Grouillard at the chequered flag, and Mark was spitting bricks afterwards about his rival’s defensive tactics.
If we thought that had been exciting, Dijon was better still, with no fewer than five drivers scrapping for the lead once the rampant Moreno had fallen by the wayside. Indeed, the champion is doubtless grateful that Martin Donnelly, the young Ulsterman who emerged victorious from the squabbling quintet, has only contested five of the year’s eleven races.
In those five races, Donnelly notched up two wins (the other had been at Brands Hatch on his debut), two second places (Birmingham and Le Mans) and was coasting towards victory at Zolder when gear-selection bothers caused him to make a mistake and — ultimately— retire. His magnificent effort in the Eddie Jordan-run Reynard gave him third in the championship; if Peter Warr hasn’t snapped him to partner Nelson Piquet at Lotus (as speculation suggests he might have done), he will start the 1989 F3000 season as firm title favourite, and with good reason.
Donnelly’s stylish end-of-term performances were not the only encouraging news for Britain. Blundell qualified on the front row at both Zolder and Le Mans, and but for a bad start at the latter might have gone one better than his second place in Belgium. As it was, he tangled with old Formula Ford sparring partner Bertrand Gachot during the heat of the lead battle, ending his season in a gravel bed and sixth in the championship.
Damon Hill was recruited to drive for Mike Collier’s GA Lola team in the final two races, and acquitted himself admirably, running comfortably in the midfield until spinning out at Zolder, and taking a steady eighth at Dijon (to which he flew direct from his wedding reception!). Collier is keen to keep his team at the forefront next year, and sees Hill as the man to do the job, budget permitting.
Perry McCarthy was sufficiently desperate to get into the formula that he drove the unloved works Ralt with approximately twenty times more enthusiasm than any previous incumbent this season. His consistent midfield qualifying efforts were most worthy, particularly when you consider that he was the only Ralt runner to qualify for either of the final two events.
David Hunt could also look on the end of the season with a degree of satisfaction, although a fine qualifying effort at Zolder ended in a brush with McCarthy just 100 yards after the start, his RCR Lola rotating into the sand somewhat short of wheels and suspension components after heavy contact with the wall.
On the flipside for Britain, Andy Wallace switched from GEM to Madgwick, but only did Le Mans (where he ran just outside the top six in the opening laps) before the piggy bank ran dry. GEM recruited Johnny Dumfries to deputise for Wallace, but he was victim of a first-lap contretemps at Zolder, and only just scraped into the race at Dijon, where he picked his way through to finish 13th.
GEM patron Gary Evans had an even worse time, tangling with McCarthy at Le Mans and failing to qualify thereafter. After three years of running his own team, Gary has subsequently decided to sell lock, stock and barrel, and to concentrate solely upon driving, whether in Europe or in the recently announced British championship.
Finally, Russell Spence’s disastrous campaign with Madgwick, where he had shown pace but failed to record a single finish, ended after Brum. He returned to join old friend Mike Earle’s Onyx March set-up, with whom he saw the chequered flag for the first and only time during the season when he finished eleventh at Le Mans. But at least he managed to smile about his dismal season . . .
A major reshuffle at Spirit saw John Wickham usurped as team manager by erstwhile driver Steve Kempton, and the team continued to be well-represented thanks to the unstinting efforts of Bertrand Gachot. The Belgian led an F3000 event for the first time at Zolder, but his Reynard eventually slipped to fourth, enough to clinch fifth place behind the fading Martini in the series. He, too, might move straight into Formula One next year, if Rial gets its way.
Even so, there is a most promising crop of drivers who will still be around. Frenchman Eric Bernard, for example, has all the makings of a star, having concluded the year on the second step of the podium at Dijon, where he was chiselling fractions out of Donnelly’s lead as the fiag fell. He led at Le Mans too, before failed brakes assisted the Bromley Reynard’s early trip into a grassy retirement.
Revelation of the closing moments of the season was Swiss Jean-Denis Deletraz. Tired of the disorganisation at Sport Auto Racing, Deletraz substituted for the injured Michel Trolle at GDBA, and promptly took third behind his team-mate Grouillard at both Le Mans and Zolder. Former employer Sport Auto impounded his gleaming red Ferrari Testarossa at the latter, alleging non-payment of various bills; but undeterred, the good Jean-Denis duly slid into the Dijon paddock in his blue Testarossa . . .
Oreca, the experienced French equipe expected to win races, had a pretty shambolic year all in all, having to swap March chassis for Reynards in mid-season but still effectively managing to hide Jean Alesi’s known ability behind a curtain of poor preparation. Indeed, Alesi threatened to quit the team after another lacklustre weekend at Le Mans, though he gritted his teeth and bagged a couple of points at Dijon. Team-mate Pierre-Henri Raphanel was simply miles off, and as teams packed their bags in the Dijon paddock Oreca manager Hugues de Chaunac was earnestly talking about not doing F3000 at all next year . . .
Recovered from the fractured wrist he sustained at Brands Hatch, Gregor Foitek returned to the GA fold but failed to add to his points tally. Quick he may be, but the young Swiss is still hopelessly erratic at times — witness a couple of sizeable accidents at Dijon , most spectacularly in the race morning warm-up.
Marco Apicella’s latent ability was shrouded by an irritating sequence of electrical gremlins on his First March, while Volker Weidler was bitterly regretting that he only got the works Onyx/Marlboro March working to his satisfaction in the final race of the year, where he qualified on the third row and finished sixth.
Enrico de Bertaggia also served better notice of his true potential once Forti bought an ex-works Lola and consigned the inefficient Dallara to the hands of Italian no hopers.
Formula 3000 will certainly be a little different next year. The cheaper British series will undoubtedly woo a few possible competitors, and the likes of Ralt Racing (absorbed by March in a recent takeover), Onyx (committed to Formula One), First (if its Grand Prix aspirations come to pass) and Lola Motorsport (ditto, albeit under the name of Atmos) will no longer be around. But March and Lola will find new works teams, and there will be the usual queue of drivers clamouring to attract the attention of eagle-eyed team managers.
Other changes will be FISA-inspired. Firstly, teams have been told they may only make one driver change per car during the course of the season, a move designed to stop the wholesale musical chairs which has afflicted the formula in the past (witness the fact that no fewer than 15 drivers switched teams between Birmingham and Le Mans, and a further eight had moved on by Zolder). Only one team, Lola Motorsport, completed the year without a single change of either driver or chassis, and FISA feels that this presents an unprofessional face to the world.
Future competitors who have not previously qualified for an F3000 event must, in addition, have attained a certain standard in either national Formula Three or Group C in order to acquire an F3000 licence, although exceptions may be made in special circumstances. This is clearly designed to stamp out the indefatigable brand of Italian club racer who appears with a pot of lire every year, wasting his time and money and endangering all those around with staggeringly slow lap times and haphazard lines.
Thus as F3000 faces up to an inevitably bright future — despite the turbulent, mid-season problems which brought it into the critical focus of the motor sporting world — we must sadly reflect that the likes of Wladimiro de Tomaso, the late-season purchaser of non-qualifying drives for the Pavesi Ralt team, may no longer be around next season . . . LWTNS