The bald fact of Rubens Barrichello winning Dick Bennetts’s West Surrey Racing team a second consecutive British F3 title does not truly reflect just how competitive things were at the front in 1991. Both David Coulthard (Paul Stewart Racing) and Gil de Ferran (Edenbridge Engineering) looked in with a strong chance until Barrichello rescued victory from the jaws of defeat with a dominant late season run. Significantly, all three drivers were enjoying their first full year of F3, though Barrichello had competed in the formula in South America in-between winning the 1990 GM Lotus Euro-series.
Barrichello and his WSR Ralt-Mugen had always looked the quickest combination, but the very first race gave a good pointer as to the pattern much of his season was to follow. Having secured pole position, he stalled away from the lights and didn’t even make it to the first corner. Time after time, he threw what, post-qualifying, had looked formality victories away due to less than spectacular starts and opening laps.
Concurrently, PSR’s Coulthard took a while to master the art of laying down an F3 qualifying lap, but was making it look a somewhat redundant skill anyway. He habitually made screaming starts, put together aggressively brilliant first laps and kept a calculating head under the most extreme pressure to run off with a series of wins which looked destined to bring the crown.
Against this backdrop de Ferran and the Edenbridge team were bringing Reynard back to the fore as a marque to be taken seriously once more after a couple of desultory British F3 seasons. Were it not for Edenbridge and Reynard getting together when the series was already a few races old, the story of the campaign might well have been different.
Completing the somewhat different pattern of the season, there were two new marques which showed themselves capable of winning , the TOM’s-Toyota succeeding in doing so at a first attempt, the Bowman-VW showing it had the potential to do so, without ever quite pulling off the feat.
With pole position man Barrichello stalled on the grid, Richard Rydell drove the TOM’S to a debut victory. This Toyota-funded outfit brought F1 construction standards to F3 with the beautiful black 031F. Designer Andy Thorby had come up with a full carbon-fibre monocoque of very low and slim aspect. It was a staggeringly effective car through the fast corners. However, aside from the first Silverstone win, Rydell spent the rest of the season trying to counteract a lack of sheer straightline speed and unfortunately kept intact his record of opening his account with a win but failing to add to it thereafter. (In 1989 he also won the opening British F3 round, and last year he repeated the trick in British F3000.) Whether it was the design or the motive power which accounted for the car’s relative lack of mph was open to question, but politically there could never be any question of substituting the Toyota unit with the more common (and successful) Honda-based Mugen.
The Bowman too was a carbon-fibre tub, designed by Bruce Carey, formerly of Ralt but more recently responsible for engineering the Bowman team’s VW-powered Ralts to a performance advantage over the competition (giving David Brabham the 1989 title). Even lower than the TOM’S, the BC1 relied upon the VW Spiess motor once more, rather against the tide of fashion in the UK. Initially drivers Steve Robertson and Oswaldo Negri found the car undriveable, so much so that Robertson decided to forsake it and concentrate on the team’s Ralt. But with steady development, the most notable being a significant increase in its very narrow track, the BC1 came good. Negri started it from the front row four times but in the latter half of the season it was quite plain that the engines were down on power. The official team line was that the Spiess was more adversely affected by the hot weather than the Mugens. Whatever, it prevented the car from realising its full potential and by the end of the year a Mugen-powered example had already been built.
But amid all this innovation, it was the conventional old-style aluminium-tubbed Ralts and composite construction Reynard that were doing the winning. Both WSR and PSR relied on the RT35, the latest update of the Ron Tauranac concept first unveiled in the mid ‘80s. Both, in common with most of the field, inserted Neil Brown-prepared Mugen engines into the back.
Although the combination of Barrichello’s driving and the Bennetts’s engineering saw them taking pole positions almost at will, race wins proved harder to come by in the early season, winning only at Thruxton (round two, after another poor start) and Donington (round eight, after Coulthard retired on the first lap whilst leading). Scotsman Coulthard, on the other hand, had defeated the Brazilian fair and square five times and with just three rounds to go he enjoyed a 10-point cushion at the head of the table. As in all good stories though, there was a sting in the tail as Coulthard suffered an appalling run in the last three races, with Barrichello romping to dominant wins in two of them. He could probably have won the last one too, but needing only to finish within sight of Coulthard, played it safe and allowed Robertson’s Bowman Ralt (by now with a Mugen in place of its Spiess) to take its second Thruxton win of the year. Coulthard failed to finish in any case, losing his nose fin against the car of Hideki Noda when trying to take second place from him.
De Ferran had fallen out of title contention in the previous race. But he had shown the Reynard 913-Mugen to be perhaps the quickest car around when it was working at its best. Unfortunately the lateness of the deal meant that Edenbridge was discovering things in testing and qualifying that should really have been established during the off-season.
Reynard’s Roly Vincini was the man responsible for developing the less-than-successful 903 model into its much torsionally stiffer replacement, but the new-to-F3 Edenbridge outfit must take major credit for catching the ball and running with it. It was Edenbridge who transformed the 913 from a nearly car to a race winner with a package of changes centering on new front and rear wings, de Ferran winning at Brands in May then following up with two consecutive Silverstone victories, one of them at the GP support round.
The only other race winner was Hideki Noda who came out on top in his Alan Docking Ralt after a great battle with de Ferran. Noda’s season was compromised somewhat by a mid-season damper problem which took a time to trace. In the remaining races, he was sometimes an aggressive front runner, sometimes a little less than that in his second season of the formula. His team-mate was a new boy in the shape of Dutchman Marcel Albers who improved virtually each time out, to the point where he will start 1992 as one of the strong championship favourites. Another front-runner failing to win a race was Barrichello’s team-mate Jordi Gene, who took some sort of record for finishing second.
Class B for older cars was taken by Finland’s Pekka Herva, driving for the Fred Goddard team, though he faced stern second-half competition from young American Sandy Brody, who flew once he got himself into an Alan Docking-run machine.
Barrichello has already confirmed his graduation to European F3000 in ’92 on his way to F1, whilst de Ferran and Coulthard look likely to join him there. British F3, which remains far more cosmopolitan than its main European counterparts, continues to be the formula’s most prestigious proving ground. — MPH