In brief, February 2009
* Red Bull’s sponsorship umbrella is opening out into Jonathan Palmer’s new-for-2009 F2 series this…
Seven different winners from seven races. That hard to believe statistic underlines the competitiveness of this year’s European Formula Two Championship. Not only are there plenty of hungry young drivers with the potential to win, this year plenty of them have the equipment, technical and managerial back-up necessary.
The most recent races have taken place over two of the most pleasant circuits in Europe: the beautiful long, winding circuit in the mountains to the north of Florence that captures the spirit of the Targa Florio-style Mugello road race and takes its name from that lamented event and the true street circuit that wriggles through the heart of Pau, the spa town at the foot of the Pyrenees. Both are real drivers’ circuits and success at either can be taken as a good indication of natural talent.
At Mugello it was the turn of young Italian Corrado Fabi to take the chequered flag while at Pau, Briton Geoff Lees at last made good. Lees and Fabi both now have European Formula Two Championship leader Eje Elgh within close range, and breathing down their necks are Thierry Boutsen and Stefan Johansson. Cancellation of the scheduled rounds at Zolder and Zandvoort this month means that there is a good rest before the next round at Enna on July 26th. That means there is plenty of time for testing and for drivers who have yet to taste success to get into better form. When you consider that Elgh has only 23 points (equivalent to two wins and a second) and there are five more rounds to run you will understand that the title chase is still wide open.
Corrado Fabi’s win at Mugello came as something of a surprise for, although the Italian is quick, he lacks experience and tends to make very slow starts. But Fabi lacks nothing in the natural ability department and at Mugello he had tyres — so often the crucial factor in Formula Two this season — on his side. He has done a lot at testing with Pirelli and for the Italian race he had a soft compound on his works March. Other drivers grumbled about favouritism but in fact to run that particular tyre compound was a gamble, a gamble that he agreed to take as up to that stage his points score did not look at all impressive. The gamble paid off thanks to his smooth driving style and the fact that a slight breeze kept the ambient temperature down to a modest degree; the track surface did not heat up too much and the tyres did not cook. Fabi took the lead from Lees on the tenth lap and held it comfortably to the flag in spite of a late-race misfire.
Alas at Pau he shunted heavily in practice losing all hopes of a good grid position and in the race he ran right out of brakes and into retirement. Good brakes are essential for the long, gruelling Pau street race and series leader Elgh lost his chances with fading retardation power. But at least he picked up another point for sixth place. Elgh’s Maurer had started strongly at Mugello but fell back to fourth with gearbox problems.
Elgh’s teammate Roberto Guerrero finished sixth at Mugello complaining of a lack of grip. He should have been fifth but a silly spin on the last lap cost him a point. He was fifth at Pau, again complaining of tyre trouble, and he now lies eighth overall in the series. Guerrero should really be higher in the table but has had more than his fair share of bad lack. It is evident that this year’s Maurer is a good all round car which could be the factor that helps the experienced Elgh clinch the title in the end.
The Ralt-Honda is, on paper, more suited to some circuits than others. But the theory which says that its narrow power band does not make it well suited to a tight, twisting circuit such as Pau did not deter Lees. Lees loves street circuits and hurled the car round in inspired fashion it take third fastest time in practice. The race started in grid order and when two young chargers in front of him eliminated themselves on the third lap he was looking well set. Only Thierry Boutsen’s works March, like the Ralt, on Bridgestone tyres, could keep the pace but at no time could the Belgian make a serious challenge. Bridgestone insisted that the tyres Lees had set his grid time on were not qualifying specials and to prove the point the Englishman won the race on the same compound. At Mugello Lees had finished a strong second to Fabi. He was never far from the works March but a tyre vibration problem cost him any hope of a late race challenge.
Lees’ teammate Mike Thackwell made a brave return to the fray at Mugello after five weeks’ recuperation, having broken his foot in a testing accident immediately prior to the Thruxton Easter Monday Formula Two meeting. Thackwell arrived at Mugello hobbling on crutches and his broken left foot made it very difficult for him to operate the clutch. After just a short time, driving became painful yet in the race he managed to plug on to a very plucky fifth place. It was a similar story at Pau where work on the clutch pedal is even more demanding. Again Thackwell’s reward was fifth place and he now has amassed 16 points from four races. By the time the championship recommences at Enna he should be in far better shape (though he reckons it could be a year before he can walk properly again) and he cannot be discounted as a title seeker, despite his handicap and the fact that he has missed three races, or a quarter of the season.
Bridgestone’s March runner, Thierry Boutsen, continues to show good form. In addition to his second at Pau, his second row grid position and a pole position at Mugello must be taken into account. Alas, at Mugello his engine started to misfire on the warm-up lap so he was effectively out of contention before the flag even fell. Now that there is a lull in the season Boutsen will continue to test a March-Honda on Honda’s behalf but March says that he is unlikely to be allowed to use it in competition. Nevertheless, the works March driver seems to have the equipment he requires to do the job with BMW power.
This time last year the leading works March driver, Teo Fabi, was seeing his title hopes dashed by a succession of BMW engine failures. Thankfully, BMW engine man Paul Rosche seems to have found more reliability this season. Last season those BMW engine failures allowed the works Toleman team to romp away with the series but this season Toleman’s official representatives are having a chequered time, to say the least. At Mugello Stefan Johansson started the second lap in 19th position after an incident yet was well into the top ten by half distance. Alas, his engine expired — but he had made his point. At last he looked set for some useful points before coming into collision with Elgh and losing his nosecone.
Teammate Kenny Acheson had a very off-form weekend at Mugello and his fortunes seemed to be stuck at a real low point. Things were continuing in that vein at Pau when he struck yet more engine problems in practice (his poor Mugello form had been traced to engine trouble) but in the last half hour the team finally got it right. The Irishman then proceeded to lap at a blistering pace to ensure himself a front row grid position. On full tanks in the race morning warm-up he was fast and it was evident that he was in a good position to win the race. Alas, it all turned sour on the third lap. At the start of the lap he challenged leader Alboreto strongly, losing his nosecone in the process. The two cars then raced side by side up the long narrow hill that leads the circuit’s tight under-a-bridge left-hand hairpin. Approaching that corner they tangled and Acheson’s Toleman was launched into an accident of horrifying proportions. The car was wrecked and Acheson escaped with a badly broken leg. Alboreto, whom the shadowing Lees was quick to blame for the incident, went off himself shortly afterwards with suspected suspension failure, most likely a legacy of the coming together.
For Alboreto and the Minardi team practice at Pau had been a real about-turn in fortunes. At none of the first six races had the Minardi/BMW looked 100% competitive but there it was at Pau, on pole position. Much is now expected of the team, particularly as Alboreto has shown himself to be very competent as a Tyrrell Grand Prix driver in recent weeks.
Much was expected of Richard Dallest on home soil at Pau, the Frenchman having won the street race the year before. Alas, the M&H tyres that he was relying on did not prove as competitive as the Pirelli or Bridgestone rubber in practice so AGS-BMW was down on the fifth row of the grid. The crowd was down too and that must have been partly as a result of Dallest’s disappointing practice performance. Those who did turn out on race day saw a fighting performance by the Marseille driver, until he ran out of brakes. . . At Mugello Dallest looked set for a good finish before his engine lost power. He slipped back to seventh and has yet to score any points at all.
The biggest surprise of the last two races has been the performance of Pierro Necchi in Arturo Merzario’s March-BMW. Necchi gambled on the same Pirelli tyres as Fabi at Mugello and worked his way up from tenth to a most impressive third place. At Pau he started from 12th on the grid but again stormed through the field, again to claim a brilliant third place. After a year driving the uncompetitive Merzario Formula Two car Necchi had got overlooked as a serious force in Formula Two. He has now put that right.
Riccardo Paletti, also Italian, also driving a March-BMW, in his case run by Mike Earle, was quick at Mugello and Pau but at both races got involved in contretemps that forced him to pit for a new nose. Nevertheless, he is regaining the form he showed at the start of the season (that was after a lot of winter testing) and he should be a real force to reckon with at Enna.
Others looking for that upturn in fortunes include Toleman drivers Jim Crawford, Guido Pardini and Carlo Rossi. Crawford, a major British hope, has switched between Pirelli and M&H tyres to no avail and has had more than his fair share of bad luck. So indeed have Midlander Paul Smith who is finding his unique combination of March chassis and Hart engine a tough one to sort and Formula Atlantic pace setter Ray Mallock who took his Ralt (with a Hart engine in the back and untested in that form) to Pau but didn’t make it into the race after a number of problems. — I.M.B.
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