Riding the storm

The future structure of international motor racing was thrown into confusion in December, when FISA announced, rather curtly, that Formula 3000 was to be replaced. A salvage operation has been mounted…

Everyone close to motor racing knows that Formula 3000 is one of the best-kept secrets in the business. Ask the man in the street what Formula 3000 is and the chances are that he’s more likely to think it’s a brand of carpet cleaner than the most popular breeding ground for the Grand Prix stars of tomorrow.

No question, F3000’s profile in the overall scheme of everyday life is low. It attracts roughly as much national newspaper coverage as lacrosse.

All the same, it existed quite happily in its own little way, performing mainly in front of near-empty grandstands at remote circuits that no other championship would touch. There were compensations, of course, such as the annual street racing beano in Pau, where a large crowd is always guaranteed, and there have always been a couple of Grand Prix support races, where a large audience is usually guaranteed, even on a Saturday.

So has it been hard selling F3000 to potential sponsors, given the absence of marketing, promotion, TV coverage and crowds? Well it’s certainly never been simple, but since 1986, the second year of the formula’s existence, grids have been full. On many occasions, there have been half a dozen or more non-qualifiers. In short, the formula has always looked healthy on the surface, though the driver market has always been notable for its fluidity, competitors sometimes driving for four or even five teams per season as they sought the best deals to eke out their meagre finances.

Despite this rather haphazard existence, the terse one-liner with which FISA announced that it was to axe the formula came as something of a shock. On December 10, following a meeting of the international governing body’s world council, there was a simple statement announcing that Formula 3000 would be killed off at the end of 1993 because it had become too expensive, and that something else would take its place in 1994 following consultation with the various national governing bodies.

By the time the announcement was made, Reynard and Lola the formula’s principal chassis suppliers had already spent money developing and constructing their 1993 cars. Cosworth had conceived an all-new, ultra-compact V8, the AC, and Mugen had invested similarly in a fresh engine. There was no prior warning, nor any apology for the copious investment that had apparently been wasted. It was a simple “thank you and good night”, except that there wasn’t really much of a “thank you” . . .

The major trade suppliers were flabbergasted. At the behest of FISA president Max Mosley, they had produced a working document designed to cut seasonal running costs by as much as 25 per cent, but in mid-December this appeared not to count for much. Teams were saddened by the news, though many said that they were hardly surprised.

Mike Earle, boss of 3001 International, was one of the prime movers when F3000 was devised to replace the ailing Formula Two in 1984. He described the news from Paris as inevitable. “Costs have escalated and the product simply can’t stand it. Avon has been very good, tyre costs have been very stable, and engines have become a little bit cheaper, but I have to say that the formula could do without sequential gearboxes, for instance. It’s supposed to be a driver training formula. We’ll now have to ditch our existing gear stock and buy new, yet there won’t be any appreciable difference in performance. I know that it’s a proving ground for engineers as well as drivers, but the technical stuff should be put in the background, particularly at the moment.

“We’ve been slow to realise that you can’t keep adding C10-15.000 to the price of a chassis just like that. The situation could have been resolved if we’d had a meeting in the middle of this year and agreed not to permit any further modifications for the next two or three seasons.

“I know that the new gears will be more durable, but it will take four or five years to recoup the cost of the initial investment. What the formula needs is action now.

“I don’t think an overgrown Vauxhall-Lotus formula is the answer (That was a popular rumour in the wake of the official announcement — SA). We should take a ’92 Reynard or Lola and fit a standard Mugen or Cosworth. That would be roughly the same as what we have now. It wouldn’t be the answer forever, but it would provide stability in the short term.

“Until an economic boom time returns, we’ve got to face reality.

“It’s commendable that the manufacturers have drawn up their cost-cutting proposals, but right now we’re still faced with sequential gearboxes and a price hike. You just can’t justify £700,000 per car per annum to a Sponsor. It’s like walking into a car showroom and being offered a Fiat Panda for the price of a Rolls-Royce.”

Earle is spreading his wings for 1993. He has a separate, flourishing racing team in the USA, which this year will contest both the Indy Lights series and Formula Atlantic. The ultimate aim is to run an IndyCar team, maybe as early as 1994.

Formula 3000? Well, 3001 will be doing that too. “We’re just talking to people at the moment, but we’ll definitely be running. Once all the F I teams have nominated their drivers, it’ll all fall into place, as it usually does. There aren’t enough seats to go around in F1, so there are plenty of drivers out there.”

Indeed, despite the general uncertainty-that prevailed in December and early January, there was every sign that Formula 3000 entries would grow in 1993. A couple of regular 1992 entrants have disappeared. certainly. Pacific is committed to Formula 1, and Nigel Stepney, who ran the fledgling Piquet Racing last season, has moved on to join Ferrari’s technical staff. All the other principal teams are continuing, however, and new entries are expected from Mythos, in Italy, European Technique, PTM and Morello in Britain. There is also talk of a new project to help young Argentinean drivers, for which substantial finance is reputedly available.

In virtually every case, teams are pushing ahead with confidence.

The air of optimism grew further after the formula’s main suppliers met with FISA, in Paris, on January 13. Although no concrete decisions were made at that meeting, there were assurances that no drastic decisions will be taken without consultation. As Motor Sport closed for press, guidelines for the future were awaiting ratification. It is almost certain that the Formula Two name will be re-adopted (in itself no bad thing, as it at least allows the public at large to work out where the category fits into the sport’s overall framework); it is absolutely certain that running costs, whatever formula is chosen, will be reduced as Mosley has requested.

It makes sense to retain the element of competition that exists between rival chassis builders and engine tuners. Motor racing is a competitive business, and while control formulae make perfect sense in a driver’s formative years, when he or she is first coming to terms with racecraft, or perhaps slicks and wings, Formula 3000 is the final stepping stone to F I , and the participants should be capable of understanding a greater number of technical parameters.

Capping technological development in the name of economy is a sound basis for the future, but there are other aspects of Formula 3000 which require urgent remedial attention. For years, teams have been shouting and screaming about the absence of marketing; for years, nothing has been done about it.

What’s so unpromotable about a field full of closely-matched, 470 bhp single-seaters driven by the cream of the world’s young racing drivers? Answers on a postcard, please…

Some cynics felt that the timing of FISA’s original announcement was deliberately intended to destabilise the formula, with a view to reducing fields in 1993 and thus making its eventual replacement appear more logical. A governing body that kept sportscar racing afloat on a handful of cars was hardly going to score credibility points for killing off a series boasting full grids…

If interest continues at its present level, the threat of dwindling support will certainly have receded when the series kicks off at Donington Park on May 3.

However, the calendar, as it stands at the time of writing, is totally illogical.

It’s not just a question of unsuitable venues. Teams have been moaning about the inadequate marshalling and poor facilities at Enna for years, but everyone accepts that the Sicilian track is part and parcel of F3000 life, an idiosyncrasy that has to be tolerated. The series’ first visit to Albacete brought another storm of protest. At least there are decent pits in Spain; the trouble is that the circuit is barely wide enough to stage a Scalextric contest. Predictably, Albacete is scheduled again in ’93.

What makes the inclusion of such facilities even less acceptable is the timetabling. Five days after Enna, teams are expected to practise at Hockenheim. That’s a fair old trek, and doesn’t leave much time for repairs to be effected, should they be necessary. And they usually are necessary after Enna, where the rate of attrition is traditionally high. If Reynard and Lola are smart, they’ll have a stock of new tubs ready and waiting in Germany, just in case.

Albacete is pencilled in as the third race in as many weekends, and requires teams to be ready to run seven days after Spa, which isn’t quite as daft as the Enna/Hockenheim schedule, but it’s not what most people would call practical.

Of the teams contesting the series, two are French and the balance are split around 50/50 between Britain and Italy. It was only recently that Donington was grafted onto the schedule, however, and there are no races in mainland Italy, which is blessed with superb, though sadly underused, facilities such as Mugello and Imola. That, patently, is an absurd situation.

So what’s the answer?

Inevitably, there are those who argue that the cost-cutting proposals are a simple case of too little, too late.

We feel that they should at least be given a chance. In the main, they are all simple, common sense ideas, designed to make cars cheaper to build and more durable. . . and thus cheaper to run. The engine tuners, for their part, have agreed to outlaw the use of costly materials such as titanium. Their target is to achieve 2000 miles between rebuilds.

FISA thus has no need to come up with an all-new formula.

Re-introduce Formula Two by all means, but there’s no need to get carried away. The perfect basis for the new F2 already exists, and has been a success (in terms of motor racing, pure and simple) since 1985. It has also given countless young drivers invaluable experience on their way to F1.

All that’s required now are a little skilful management and, of course, a more practicable calendar.

At a recent meeting convened by the RAC MSA to discuss the formula’s future with both entrants and constructors, the assembled group was asked the following question: “Who would like to see Formula 3000 scrapped?” It was answered by complete silence. SA