Modern Times

These days, if you’re a Formula One driver, here’s what you do: you drive in 16 motor races a year. Each lasts for between 80 minutes and two hours. So, even if your car is reliable and your season reasonably accident-free, you probably won’t clock up much more than 24 hours’ actual racing in a full season plus, of course, some practice, qualifying and the inevitable testing.

You’d probably do all that for little more than a million or two, almost just for the love of it, because it involves driving a car round a track, fast. That’s why you were put on this earth. It’s when you do the rest of the stuff that you reckon you really earn your money. For a start, your sponsors have purchased a carefully negotiated number of days in your life, during which you obediently promote cigarettes in Eastern Europe, tour car factories in Malaysia, or judge beauty pageants on tropical islands. Then you have meetings with your management team, to ensure that every T-shirt and sticker that bears your name will syphon the maximum number of pence into all your bank accounts around the world.

You face television cameras, radio microphones and banal questions in studios around the world. Journalists fight their way to you for interviews you will never read, and never be able to refute. You spend hundreds of hours in your own executive jet or up at the front of scheduled long-haul flights. And you devote any remaining moments to pummelling your body into a pitch of fitness that will yield that extra hundredth of a qualifying second, or that extra drop of stamina and sweat in a long hot race.

Even if you had time for relaxation, your famous face would prevent you from walking to your local for a quiet drink. You can afford the best restaurants, but your diet does not allow you the menu gastronomique or the pick of the cellar. You can afford the fastest, most glamorous road cars, but after what you’re used to they seem slow and unresponsive, so you have to fall back on the latest helicopter or power boat to tickle your jaded fancy.

If you’re the best in the world at all this, you will be earning £1 a second, every minute of every day of the year. Every morning when you wake up you’ll be £30,000 richer than when you went to bed. You will earn so much money that you and your family will probably never be able to spend it all. And when you can no longer beat the next generation of drivers, you’ll stop all of this and try to adjust to a more normal life. Some manage this rather well; some dramatically don’t.

What a contrast to 40 years ago. Then, Stirling Moss was commonly accepted as the best in the world. Racing Driver was his job, and he worked hard at it. Sixteen races a year wouldn’t have got him far: so he’d drive in any race, for anyone who’d pay the going rate and come up with a competitive car. In 1961, his last full season, Stirling drove in no fewer than 57 events. And, after he’d paid his travel and business expenses, his taxable salary for the year was just over £8000 – perhaps £150,000 in today’s money.

You couldn’t really imagine David Coulthard driving in an F3 race today alongside his McLaren commitments – on a variety of counts, it wouldn’t be allowed. But in 1954 Moss, by then driving for Maserati in F1, fitted in nine F3 races in his own 500cc Cooper and won most of them. In that season he also raced Jaguar D-types in sports car races like Le Mans and the TT, a hefty Jaguar Mk VII in saloon events, and other mounts from Connaught and OSCA to Lister-Bristol and Leonard-MG. Not only that: he did the Monte Carlo Rally and the Coupe des Alpes in works Sunbeams, in the latter event winning a Gold Cup for three years’ consecutive Alpines without losing a single mark. His fee from Rootes competitions manager Nonnan Garrard for this most gruelling of rallies was £50 plus expenses such an excellent deal he got Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins to do it too!

As GP drivers raced at all levels,newcomers could do battle with the top men of the day, and prove to themselves and others how good they were. The principle of a second single-seater category beneath F1 is long established, and on and off during the past 50 years Formula Two has exposed many startling new talents.

Perhaps the vintage period of F2 was the 1600 cc formula from 1967 to 1971. Most of the F1 stars did F2 then, which was how, as Autosport‘s F2 reporter, I first got to know the likes of Clark, Hill, Brabham, Stewart, McLaren, Surtees and Courage. In 1967 there were 24 F2 rounds in 10 European countries, and eight different winners. With their almost universal Cosworth FVA engines and similar Brabham, Lola, Lotus and Matra chassis, the cars were evenly matched. The atmosphere was wonderful, too: the drivers were enjoying themselves, with much less pressure than in F1, and the racing was often almost unbearably exciting. Following the F2 calendar around Europe I was able to witness in particular the rise to maturity of two great and meteoric drivers, Jochen Rindt and Ronnie Peterson. Both were winning in F2 while they still only had mediocre F1 drives, and both showed huge commitment and devastating car control in the little 220bhp singleseaters. Rindt was always wonderful to watch, as I wrote in a race report at the time:

“Jochen had built a nice lead of 15 secs by half distance when, braking hard and late into the chicane, he made one of his rare mistakes. The Brabham flicked sideways and backwards through a hoarding in a shower of splintering wood, on through an accommodating gap in the Armco barrier and into a dusty ditch. Before the car had finished having its accident, Jochen had the car in bottom gear, had trodden on the throttle to flick the tail round, powered the car out of the ditch, reappeared neatly through the hole he’d made in the hoarding, and shot back onto the road just in front of Beltoise and Courage to retain the lead…”

If all this smacks of an era of racing sadly departed, take a look at today’s Formula 3000. No Grand Prix drivers take part, of course, but this final rung on the ladder to F1 has more than an echo of the great days of F2, and shares many of its attributes. It has the same cheerful travelling-circus atmosphere, and the cars are as closely matched as tough rules can make them: identical Lola chassis with minimal aerodynamic aids; control tyres; and uniform engines which are carefully monitored against any tampering or modification.

And, as those engines are 3-litre Zetec V8s, developing over 400 bhp, the result is a small-winged, slick-shod single-seater that is more or less a 1986 F1 car updated. So the cars are very quick, making F3000 an excellent breeding ground for tomorrow’s F1 talent. And crucially, it has Bernie Ecclestone’s blessing; this year every F3000 Championship round will be run at a Grand Prix on the Saturday afternoon, after F1 qualifying. No doubt the more shrewd F1 team bosses will be ducking out of post-qualifying debriefs to indulge in a little talent-spotting. Already there are some cosy relationships between several teams in F1 and F3000: the West outfit is basically a McLaren F3000 team.

No fewer than 23 two-car teams have entered the 1999 championship, so two qualifying sessions will be needed to select the fastest 26. Neither of last year’s top men, Juan Pablo Montoya and Nick Heidfeld, are in F1 yet, but Ricardo Zonta, the 1996 champion, has joined BAR, and will find a lot of fellow F3000 graduates on this year’s GP grids. Jean Alesi was F3000 champion in 1989 (and run by one Eddie Jordan), Olivier Panis was champion in 1993, and Coulthard, Hill, Irvine, Herbert, Diniz, Frentzen, Barrichello, Zanardi and Tuero all came from the category.

Of course, F3000 suffers from the standard malady of all levels of modem motor racing: it’s far too expensive. Estimates for a season vary between £350,000 and £500,000, and during ’98 several promising F3000 hopefuls, including UlIstermen Jonny Kane and Dino Morelli, were forced to quit mid-season by lack of funds. But the exposure at Grand Prix weekends and on TV will help to bring the sponsors in, and the involvement of F1 teams should mean that, if you go well in F3000, you won’t go unnoticed.

Not that it’ll ever be easy to put your foot on that final rung and make it to F1. But if you can come to the top in this hard-fought and evenly-matched category, you are bound to be a bit special. And once you have made it to F1, perhaps you won’t have quite as much fun, but think of all that money you’ll have to count…