Focus on Formula 3000

When F3000 was first mooted to replace F2 which was fading fast in terms of grids, driver advancement and all-round popularity, it was greeted as potentially the best new category for years. There were promises of television coverage and being the featured supporting race to four European Grands Prix and it was to be packaged by FOCA. Whatever anyone says about FOCA, it's impossible to deny that Bernie Ecclestone's organisation has done a superb job in popularising F1, as proven by the amount of television coverage it now receives.

Practically every young hopeful you spoke to last year said, in 1985 we'll be doing F3000 for sure. I'm speaking to people right now and we're 90% there." From Italy during the winter came the news that more than 100 Italian drivers "planned" to be in the formula.

Even allowing for the fact that drivers are notoriously optimistic when discussing their plans (they have to be in order to keep their sanity) things looked promising. Moreover, it appeared there might be more variety among the machinery than we'd been used to in the dying days of F2 for, apart from the inevitable Ralts and Marches, there would be cars from Lola and AGS, machines promised from the likes of Minardi and Reynard, and the option of running converted ex-F1 cars.

Early on, though, the organisers of the Hockenheim and Nurburgring rounds announced that they could not see how they could get a financial return on the $100.000 outlay which FOCA required to stage the race and though FOCA came to the rescue of the Nurburgring race, it had to be cancelled because of snow. Hockenheim fell by the wayside, however, and so, later, did the proposed round at Mugello. Not a promising start.

Not long into the 1985 season, F3000 was beginning to look like F2 with fields averaging 17 cars, comprising two works Ralts, an AGS, a good measure of Marches and a few assorted make-weights. To the casual observer, it seemed to be the mixture as before: small grids and a general lack of finance. Only six driver/tearn combinations were to contest every round, and they filled the top six places in the Championship.

What is easy to overlook, though, is that the mechanical reliability of the cars was extremely impressive and most of the starters were still running at the end of races. Seventeen cars started the race supporting the Austrian GP and sixteen were classified as finishers. Bob Sparshott, the entrant of Christian Danner, who clinched the title at the final round, enjoyed a 100% reliability record, something virtually unknown at this level of racing, and most professionally run teams had, leaving aside accidents, 8O+ % reliability records. The other point in the Formula's favour is that it has been a driver's formula and the racing has generally been close over entire race distances. Three drivers, Mike Thackwell (works Ralt), Emanuele Pirro (works Onyx Racing March) and Christian Danner (BS Automotive March) went to the final round at Donington with a chance of securing the title and it is rare that a Championship is more closely matched than that.

Still, the series which took place did not live up to close-season optimism. F3000's birth was not helped by the fact that, though the idea had been around for some time, the final regulations were published fairly late in the day and some potential sponsors, constructors, teams and drivers preferred to wait and see what happened before committing themselves.

Some teams, notably PMC and Barron, decided to field ex-F1 cars, PMC with two brand new Williams FWO8s and Barron with a brace of ex-works Tyrrell 012s. One can understand the immediate attraction of this idea, for both are proven designs and the F1 connection must have been an advantage when approaching sponsors (West End racing, East End prices) but it was a course doomed to failure. The best result achieved by either team was Lamberto Leoni's third at Pau in a Williams and neither team lasted the season.

Bob Sparshott says, "I chose to go with March because its 1984 F2 car was a particularly good one and I felt March would progress naturally to a competitive F3000 car." He was right, the March 85B was competitive right out of the box and was an ideal customer's car. Genoa Racing, running on so tight a budget that it could not afford a transporter, nonetheless entered the March with which Capelli won the Austrian round Sparshott's private March team, running on a fairly light budget, secured the title. "It seemed to me." says Sparshott, "that an adapted F1 car was unlikely to work for a number of reasons. We never ran with more than 125 litres of fuel yet an F1 car carries 220 litres which is getting on for 200 lbs more in load so the weight distribution of a F1 car was unlikely to be optimum for F3000 and that's something you cannot change.

"Again, most runners used Avon crossply tyres while current F1 cars are built around radials larger than the tyres we use. F1 cars are designed to carry massive wings, not the F2-size aerofoils we use and the size of the wings are built in to the basic design. I could not see an F1 car working in F3000"

Some of the same considerations must have affected the Lola T950 which was an adaptation of an lndycar design. It always looked far too beefy for its intended job and the size of the fuel cell seems to have affected weight distribution. Mike Blanchet of Lola says, "When you start the season with compromises, you go through the season with compromises. In the short space of time available to us, we built an adapted lndycar and quite frankly it wasn't up to the job. We seriously underestimated the level of competition." The best result achieved by a Lola was sixth at Spa (when the F1 race was cancelled) in the handset Juan Manuel Fangio III, the great man's nephew.

It's interesting, though, that with March's F3000 designer, Ralph Bellamy, moving to Lola, there is renewed interest in the marque and when we spoke to Sparshott early in January he had not committed himself either way. Lola intends building ten cars in 1986.

As always, Ron Tauranac produced a car capable of winning races and between them, Mike Thackwell and John Nielsen took the chequered flag five times, though one was Neilsen 's win in the non-Championship race at Curacao which was tacked on to the season in 1985 but is an integral part this year. The general consensus is, though, that these successes were more down to the drivers than the cars which were marginally not quite as good as the Marches.

One thing which has gained everyone s approval is the engine regulations. All the 1985 runners used Cosworth DFV units though motors from Honda and Motor Moderni are rumoured to be on their way. All are limited to 9.000 rpm by a "black box" produced by Glen Monk. This gave a few problems early in the season but they were quickly ironed out. There is no reason why normally aspirated 3-litre ex-F1 Alfa Romeo or Ferrari engines should not be used. While it would doubtless offend Ferrari's style to do so, the Alfa Romeo unit has been mentioned as a possibility and since Alfa Romeo seems intent on building F1 customer engines for 1987 taking a taste of F3000 could be on the cards.

John Judd of Engine Developments, who built the engines used by the works Ralts is of the opinion, however, that the rev limiter will equalise any engine which enters the formula, in much the same way that the 24 mm air restrictor regulates F3 engines. Judd 's own VW. based F3 engine has apparently been superior but John is the first to say that a great deal of its popularity has been due to fashion and the convenience of having the builder in Britain. He feels much the same situation would apply in F3000 if other engines came in. If a driver wins a race by skill alone, but with a particular engine, then everyone else must have that engine.

Talking of the current state of affairs in F3000, Judd says, "Whereas the DFV in F1 trim delivered its useful power between 7,750 and 11,000-11,500 rpm, peaking at 520 bhp we now tune them to deliver between 6,000 and 8,950 rpm with a maximum output of around 455 bhp. To take the power lower down the rev range we have to hurt the top end and I'd be surprised if , without the rev limiter one of our engines would deliver 480 bhp.

"We use special camshafts while most others use Cosworth cams which, depending on the type, are better either at the top or bottom end of the range. We've done tests and know that ours are better than the best Cosworth cams at the lower end and also better than those Cosworth cams which are designed to deliver at the top end. Having said that, we don't hear from our drivers that our engines are better than the opposition were talking of only 10-15 bhp from 450/5 bhp and its hard to judge anyway because only the two Ralts use our engines." For the record, Alan Smith of Derby built the engine in Christian Danner's car while Alan Peck of Northampton built those in the works Onyx Marches and both team managers were delighted with what they received.

Mike Earle, of Onyx, says, "This year instead of a driver complaining that so-and-so's engine was better we were getting drivers saying that everyone had equal power and couldn't we find them more. When planning a season, and costing it engines are always a headache because of their reliability. Towards the end of F2, our BMW units were stretched and we were getting a lot of expensive blow-ups. We had just one in 1985 and because of the relatively low price we paid for it it was cheaper to scrap than rebuild. The engines have given the formula stability."

Methods vary from team to team and the cost of rebuilds vary from builder to builder but Sparshott reckoned to do 1,200 miles between rebuilds which cost a typical £5,000 a time. Last year, the cost of routinely rebuilding BMW F2 engines was about 60% greater and they were nowhere near as reliable.

We put to Sparshott and Earle the hypothetical case of a competent, but not special, driver looking for a pay drive, the sort of man for whom a team would do a professional job but whom they would not subsidise, and asked what sort of money they might be looking for. Sparshott quoted £250,000 for a full season with testing wherever it was possible to test, while Earle 's figure was a little higher Mike quoted £280.000 for a driver who arrived with his money in good time and could spend more of the winter testing though with less testing the cost would drop.

One other feature of the 1986 season which should help promote close racing and keep down costs would be the adoption of a single "control" tyre which had yet to be chosen at the time we went to press. Only Avon and Bridgestone contested last year's series and while Bridgestone took 11 wins to Avon s two, the raw statistics do not tell the whole story.

The crossply Avons were as quick as the radial Bridgestones, which cost twice as much, but Bridgestone had greater depth in its customers and tended to last the distance slightly better. When Christian Danner switched to Bridgeslones he started to win, but this is not a simple equation. During Danner 's entire previous racing career he had used nothing else but radials and so his switch was not so much a change of constructors but a change of tyre construction. There was also a psychological change for, at Vallelunga he held third place behind Nielsen s Ralt though he could possibly have overtaken him. At the end he seemed pleased with his third and was surprised at finding his team upset at having lost second. That seemed to fire him up and he took four wins and two thirds from the remaining seven races and, at Spa, made his F1 debut in the Zakspeed."

F3000 is being touted as a stepping stone to F1 for drivers, constructors, teams and race organisers but there is still an enormous gap between the two categories. John Macdonald of RAM reckons it costs a minimum of $2.000,000 to put one F1 car on the back of a grid (how much it costs to put one regularly in the top six is something which is not openly discussed). This means it is at least six times as expensive to be a no-hoper in F1 than it is to be a potential champion in F3000. Macdonald will be in F3000 this year with cars designed by Gustav Brunner before he went to Ferrari. These are purpose-built carbonfibre F3000 cars, broadly based on the 1985 RAM 03 but with only the gearbox casing in common. Before Brunner left he had designed a "B" version of the RAM 03 but while Macdonald is still hoping to do F1 in 1986 it's a fairly long shot. If the F3000 car works well, he will consider building a limited number for customers.

It would be pleasant if F3000 could occupy a position similar to Division Two of the Football League, a recognised stepping stone into F1 and a formula into which F1 teams could be ..."relegated" but with the chance of promotion again. The trouble is that the financial gap between the two formulae is now so huge that it's hard to see how the step upwards could be accomplished on a regular basis.

There are, however, factors which could make such a thing possible. One is television and a lot will depend on FOCA being able to sell television coverage widely. 1986 should see a lot of the races televised but the crucial question is whether other countries will take the coverage. A sponsor who receives good coverage in F3000, and Mike Earle believes that the 1986 season will give sponsors a handsome return for their investment in a way which 1985 did not, might be encouraged to take a team up into F1 .

The next question revolves around drivers. There are a shrinking number of F1 seats so will displaced Fl drivers feel that a season in F3000 would be beneficial? It's more likely that Eddie Cheever, say, or Andrea de Cesaris will look towards lndycar but if ex-F1 drivers do choose F3000, then the formula could take on a new dimension.

In the late Sixties and early Seventies when the likes of Stewart, Rindt and Hill raced in F2, it enhanced the category. When Derek Bell took third place at Thruxton one year, it meant something for we had a yardstick against to measure his performance. Its impractical to expect Rosberg or Senna to race in F3000 but a Cheever or de Cesaris, both known quantities, could do nothing but good.

The trouble is that displaced F1 drivers have tended to be reluctant to move down a division, in a way in which soccer players frequently do, but have usually opted for parallel forms of racing such as Can Am, Group C or Indycar.

You cannot expect a driver to gamble with his career but if F3000 fulfils its potential in 1986 then, next year, we might see displaced F1 drivers moving into it which will further strengthen the formula and, by a snowball effect, will make it into a real Division Two. Doubtless it will also mean that there will grow a wealthy elite, but when Manchester United spent a year in Division Two it brought in the crowds, was good for the Division, and did not hinder lesser clubs from being promoted with it.

Apart from money, the problem for any team trying to break into F1 is to tie up an engine deal and, at present, there is no competitive F1 engine available to regular customers in the way which the Cosworth DFV was. If a team has not a competitive engine available if it comes up with the money, it has a hard time speaking to sponsors. If the right engine (perhaps the new Ford-Cosworth V6?) became a customer engine at a realistic price then the position would change.

Among F3000 teams, and even below, there is no shortage of people wanting to emulate the example of Frank Williams and Ron Dennis. Bob Sparshott has ambitions to become a manufacturer in his own right (his firm currently does subcontract work for both March and Lola) but, in the present climate, has to realistically restrict his ambitions to F3000. Not so long ago, Mike Earle had a sponsor eager to go into F1 but, after much heart-searching, decided that there was insufficient money to do the job properly. John Macdonald has not ruled out a RAM F1 programme for 1986 but is not holding his breath for a sponsor. AGS has announced a joint F3000/F1 programme for 1986 with the F1 car, powered by a Motor, Moderni engine scheduled to appear at Monza. Possibly AGS knows something about the engine which has escaped the rest of us.

In the short-term, hopes that the formula will act as a Division Two in the soccer sense, are unrealistic and, in any case, it has still to establish itself. All the signs, though, are that 1986 will be a good season with healthy fields. It is also attracting entries from F3 teams (Eddie Jordan Racing, Madgwick Motorsport and West Surrey Racing) in a way which F2 did not. It has an obvious attraction for drivers as a sensible step between the 170 bhp of F3 and the 1,000 bhp of F1 qualifying. For sponsors, it promises cost-effective television coverage and for organisers it gives an opportunity to stage an international single-seater at a fraction of the cost of a Grand Prix.

It seems certain, for example, that F3000 will be the feature event in the Birmingham street meeting in August, with MCD providing the organisation.

The other side of the coin is that, before Christmas, the BARC passed up its chance to stage a race as the highlight of its traditional Easter Monday meeting at Thruxton. It cannot see how it could gain a return on the $150,000 which the package cost this year.

That's a disappointment for anyone who in past years has known in advance where he'll be on an Easter Monday but it is to the BARC's credit that it made an early decision. We possibly have too much easily accessible quality racing in Britain but there must be many countries where F3000 could become the premier event of the year and play its part in promoting the sport world-wide. This year. F3000 is not a European Championship but an International one.

The ingredients are promising but, as anyone who has ever tried to bake knows, having the right ingredients is not the same as making a successful cake. What the formula has in its favour, though, is the determination of all involved that it will succeed and the maiden season has been noticeably free from disputes. It looks good — M.L.