Formula Three review

Five-star futures

Britain’s foremost single-seater racing championship produced a season of two halves last year, with Finnish Formula Ford graduate Jyrki Jarvilehto stamping his authority over our homegrown talent in the early part, to be challenged only when it was too late by an improving Gary Brabham. The destiny of the title itself was rarely in doubt, but with hard-chargers seeking to move up the racing ladder, and near equality among the leading chassis suppliers, Formula Three remains healthily supported and intensely competitive.

Wihat a year! Hard chasing giving close racing. Real edge-of-the-seat, heart-in the-mouth spectating all year. Yet JJ Lehto trounced the oppostition —or did he?

It was the close racing that caught the imagination of the crowds in 1988. In Formula Ford the racing is often spoilt by youthful exuberance and inexperience. Here in F3 we have skilled pilots, many with up to ten years racing behind them. The craft is there, and the fire remains, for they must charge, to be picked for the next formula — or sink into obscurity; and close racing because, working within the strict rules of the formula, the cars and engines are similar.

Why then, you ask, did one driver run away from the pack at a particular race? Are we seeing brilliant skilful driving and a future F1 star? Probably, but only in part, or else he would have run away with every race. So why didn’t he?

The first thing any driver learns in his first race is that although he may have the fastest car in town, the grid holds another 30 drivers who can keep up with him, and even overtake him! The second thing he learns is the need to tune the chassis. Although he prides himself on daring and fast cornering, there goes Frederico diving around him with ease. Having sorted the chassis, now keeping Frederico at bay in the corners, he now learns that despite his obvious talent, brilliant cornering is no substitute for bhp down the straight. Formula Three is the epitome of these simplistic tenets.

Today’s Formula Three cars are incredibly difficult to drive fast. Momentum is the name of the game. You have a lack of torque outside the narrow power-band, and only about 165 bhp in a chassis that could take much more. Therefore the aim is to keep rolling, to keep the speed on at all times. Minimal braking, and definitely no scrubbing off speed in corners. Keep it smooth, stylish and fast. You need a neutral-handling car — preferably no understeer, but definitely no oversteer — and adjusting the chassis to suit each circuit, and then to suit the weather conditions for the day, is the time-consuming and often frustrating task for practice. It is a case of dashing in and out of the pits, adjusting the stiffness of the suspension, putting on or taking off wing , by one degree at a time: that fine balance between minimum drag down the straight and the ability to turn in tightly at each corner. Although one may be slightly better in the wet, the Ralt RT32 and the Reynard 883 chassis are really very closely matched on the track, despite different approaches to suspension design by Ron Tauranac and Adrian Reynard.

The reason the drivers spend so much time fiddling with suspension and wing adjustments, is because that is all they can tune! The tyres are control crossply Avons, and the engine comes from the builder ready-tuned. So why did one driver run away from the pack in one race? We have heard it suggested this year that Grand Prix races could be controlled by the engine tuner, but surely not in F3? Not deliberately I am sure, but effectively yes.

Well, could there have been special tweaks by some teams which imply a personal interpretation of the rules? Doubtful, and not easy. The fuel regulations define four-star (98.5 to 99 octane) with a 24mm air-inlet restrictor. There were mutterings in the pits about some people using five-star, and despite disbelief by some teams, the co-organsing body of the championship, the British Racing Drivers Club, has been taking random fuel samples throughout the season, as well as complete strip-downs of some engines. The Class A cars all run Electronic Management Systems. These are costly and complicated to set up. Len Pullen of the BRDC doubts whether any team would have set up separate engines and management systems just to use five-star fuel.

The most successful engine of 1988 was the Toyota which powered Lehto’s Reynard. Back in 1986 the engine management systems were very temperamental, but Glenn Waters of Intersport decided that this was the way to go. With backing from the Toyota Motor Corporation, the TOM’s tuning concern developed a kit for the engine.

Waters chose the Lucas Electronic Management System, because it was more easily programmable than the others, and Lucas promised full support. He brought in 36 engines with TOM’s modification kits, and arranged contracts for engine building with Neil Brown Engines and Anglia Cars. Intersport was also a competing team with the two Cellnet cars, and they must not be seen to be getting different engines from the other customers, Pacific Racing, Middlebridge and Techspeed. 1987 was a development year, producing a powerful and stable engine for 1988. There was not one single engine blow-up in 1988.

The TOM’s Toyota is square at 86mm bore and 86mm stroke, giving 1998cc. Compression ratio is usually set at about 12.5:1. Power comes in smoothly from about 3000 rpm, but usable torque not till 4500 rpm, with the real operating power of 160 to 165 bhp between 5000 and 5700 rpm. This is very narrow rev range, and another reason why the current F3 cars are so difficult to drive really fast. Drop below that power-band at a corner, and several cars will be past you on the exit! Obviously there would be a significant increase in power with a higher compression ratio, but that would require different timing and a different camshaft, with an even narrower power-band and probably reduced reliability.

Bowman Racing and Eddie Jordan Racing use Volkswagen engines tuned by Siegfried and Holger Spiess in Hanover. The Golf 1600 8-valve engine is taken as the base, because the 16-valve cannot produce the same power yet.

The 1600 is enlarged to 82.25mm bore and 94mm stroke giving 1998c, the sohc unit engine is dry-sumped and water-cooled, and like the Toyota produces between 160 and 170 bhp with usable power between 5000 and 5700 rpm. In the early part of the season the engine suffered from pre-detonation, traced to poor quality fuel.

Sprint produces its own engine management package, and development during 1988 saw the usable power-band widened to between 4800 and 5700, giving Gary Brabham 0-60 mph in 3.5 seconds, and 160 mph down the Hangar Straight at Silverstone.

1989 should see more VW engines on the scene, for during 1988 both Magnum and John Judd’s Engine Developments Ltd have been developing new engines.

Martin Murphy has the contract from John Judd to develop the engine for Giles Butterfield’s car. The angle of the inlet manifold has been altered, the inlet size reduced and a longer exhaust fitted to achieve more power by better gas now and lower temperatures.

The engine is detonation-free from 4000 rpm, with usable power from 4500 rpm right up to 5800 rpm. Maximum power on the brake shows 170 bhp at 5200, with 160 bhp showing below 5000 rpm. Engine management is by Racetech Developments, and is certainly “user-friendly” with output in words, not numbers. It carries its own data-logger and will store three minutes’ data, enough for a full lap at any circuit.

The other engine on the scene is based on the Alfa Romeo 75 Twin Spark, a light-alloy block with a bore of 84mm and stroke of 88.5mm, giving 1962cc. All the units used in the British Championship are built by the Pederzani brothers’ Novamotor concern in Italy, and shipped in by John Penistone for West Surrey Racing, Madgwick Motorsport, Alan Docking and Concept Three Racing. The all-important engine-management electronics are by Magneti Marelli, and whilst you cannot doubt the absolute power — witness the speed of Eddie Irvine, Philippe Payee and Jonathan Bancroft at fast circuits such as Silverstone, I suspect that the torque is not as good as that achieved by the Toyota and VW engines.

So did JJ trounce the opposition, or was it only when he had a good engine? With eight wins in 18 races, the answer to the former has to be yes. And if anyone doubts Lehto’s brilliance, use ask Ross Hockenhull how JJ went past him at Spa!

Martin Donnelly was in there with a chance at the beginning of the season, but lost out when he received his Ralt RT32 and found it a difficult chassis to tune. His Irish temperament probably did him no good after that, and he wore the saddest face in the paddock. Still, any doubts about his driving ability were restored by his incredible charge in the rain at Snetterton, and his late-season success in Formula 3000.

Donnelly’s Intersport team-mate Damon Hill made third in the championship with determined drives in every race — two wins, two seconds, four thirds, three fourths and a sixth place.

Second in the series, Gary Brabham was undoubtedly the most improved driver of the season. Suffering from Speiss engine problems early season, he suddenly found his style in the Silverstone race in June. Pressing hard, Gary had just taken Donnelly for fourth place and, realising that he couldn’t catch Favre for third in the remaining two laps, eased off and relaxed — only to be informed afterwards that his final lap had been three-tenths of a second faster than any other lap! A “relaxed” Gary went on to take four wins, two seconds and a third in the final nine races!

Relaxing also helped team-mate Ross Hockenhull snatch sixth in the championship from John Alcorn, by a single point. Dick Bennetts of West Surrey Racing (which took the championship in 1981,1983 and 1985) must have been pleased with Eddie Irvine’s fifth place, but disappointed that there were no wins for the record book. One wonders what Eddie’s results might have been had he had a Toyota or VW engine?

It was noticeable once again that ex-kartists immediately do well in this slick-tyre formula, whilst the ex-Formula Ford brigade spend a year relearning their craft.

What of 1989? Lehto, Brabham, Hill and Favre hope to follow Donnelly into F3000. Those who are left will have to contend with the very fast Class B runners who are moving up to Class A: Rowan Dewhurst, John Penfold, Craig Simmiss (who should have won a consolation prize as the unluckiest driver of 1988), Swede Robert Amren and David Brabham. David aims to become the 1989 champion, but watch out for the latest Brazilian import, one Gil de Ferran, a mature twenty-year-old with over six years karting and FF2000 experience!

And what of the hardware for 1989? The regulations change to allow 102 octane fuel (five-star), in line with Europe, and radial tyres. Can our chassis makers produce a winning design from race one, or should the teams buy Italian Dallaras already proven on Michelin radials? Both Ralt and Reynard have cleaned up the aerodynamics for ’89, especially under the car. Mike Hewland has designed a new gearbox casing to provide a smoother airflow under the Ralt, and Reynard has done the same by building its own gearbox.

A request for an increase in the airbox restrictor from 24mm to 26mm was turned down by FISA. The BRDC was one of the groups against it, feeling that the 15-20% increase in power would kill Class B, by making the gap between A and B too great. One of the pleasures for spectators last year was the sight of forty F3 cars on the grid, and with the added “underdog” interest of the top Class B boys getting in amongst the Class A cars, I confidently predict that 1989 will be every bit as good as 1988. GJ