Formula Three Focus

There has been a great deal of discussion and speculation recently about the future of Formula Two and Formula Three. Formula Two has admittedly declined over the years, in 1978, for example, up to 42 entries were received for a single race and qualifying took place at most rounds. Now almost anyone with a car is welcomed with open arms by the organisers. With the withdrawal of support at the end of this season of both Honda and BMW, a new Formula Two is being urgently sought.

Almost certainly it will be replaced by a FOCA-packaged category using detuned Cosworth DFV engines (giving around 375 bhp) in a 12 race series, eight rounds of which will support Grands Prix. With engines needing rebuilds at intervals of perhaps over 2,000 miles, costs could be kept reasonable and the promise of being part of a Grand Prix meeting must be more attractive to sponsors than races held in March at Silverstone or on circuits of the Second League with relatively small crowds. If single-seater racing is seen as a ladder, then the re-adjustment of F2 naturally poses questions about F3. In contrast. however, it is a fairly healthy formula with well-supported championships in Britain, Scandanavia, France, Germany and Italy as well as the European series. Though at the recent launch of Formula Turbo Ford (basically F2000 cars using a turbocharged Ford Pinto engine governed to produce 150 bhp) it was emphasised that the new category was not intended to challenge F3, there are observers who feel that it is waiting in the wings to do just that.

With a very wide power band, a relatively inexpensive initial package and the capability of increasing engine power by up to an additional 40 bhp by simply changing the turbo "pop off' valves, FTF is the strongest challenge to F3 since the demise of Formula Atlantic. You may be sure there will be a lot of political moves behind the scenes over the coining months.

We are now in the 13th year of the current Formula Three and it has been extremely successful in finding new talent. Most of today's Grand Prix drivers went through it and some, such as Piquet, Prost, Senna and Brundle, transferred easily from F3 to F1. In terms of acting as a rung on the ladder to F1 stardom, it can hardly be faulted — except when one considers that there are many talented drivers who cannot prove themselves in the formula because of the cost.

If you wish to be run by a professional team in the British championship, then you must take with you up to £120000— for the 17 race series. A year of European F3 could add another £30-£40,000 to this figure, since travel and accommodation expenses rise, there is the need to do more testing at a wider variety of tracks, and because the rubber is "free" and a team is constantly looking for time by throwing new compounds at the car.

These are serious sums of money by anyone's standards, but especially when one considers that the typical F3 driver is young and not always mature, that the budget works out at over £13,000 per hour of racing, and that the visible return to sponsors (crowds and television coverage) is negligible.

Not too many years ago, many successful F3 drivers bought a car, prepared it with help of friends, and towed it to meetings at home and abroad behind a VW Caravanette. In a few cases, start and prize money meant they nearly broke even on a season whereas, today, if you won every round of the British Championship, the prize money would barely cover the expenses of a single race. In the days of the "one-litre screamer" F3, the racing was considerably closer and more exciting than almost anything we've seen lately in F3.

Even as recently as 1978, Derek Warwick's trump card for the season was that he didn't have to drive the team truck to the circuit and subsequently there were other genuine privateers who ran at the front of the field and, even, won races. In 1978, Nelson Piquet was the envy of all because of the time he spent testing, yet his total budget was less than a third of a current F3 budget, and inflation does not account for the discrepancy.

What has happened over the past three or four years, is that it has become impossible to be competitive in F3 without going to one of the five or six top teams. If you do, you will have the benefit of the best equipment, perfectly prepared cars, lots of testing, and the experience they have gained over the years. All this costs money: wages, workshop overheads, transport, tyres, hospitality, PR, accommodation, testing fees, engine rebuilds and so on. Without a professional team behind you, even a single point for sixth place is usually beyond reach.

Formula Three is characterised by an air restrictor of 24 mm which limits the power of engines to 160 bhp and keeps them reliable.

The man who finds a way of restricting cash in racing will have deserved the thanks of us all. It will never happen, of course, because one of the Golden Rules of racing is that "Expenditure rises to meet the amount of money available."

You cannot blame the teams for existing, they exist because there is a demand for them. It has always been so in the sport, someone has always had more to spend on the best equipment, the best advice, more testing and so on. This article does not attempt to pass judgement but merely record the situation as it is. The accumulated expertise of the professional teams can be illustrated by the fact that, last year, Johnny Dumfries (now leading both the Marlboro British F3 and European Championships) began the season with a secondhand Ralt bought from Dave Price Racing, a car which had been expertly fettled. Then he acquired a brand new Ralt and found himself all at sea with it. Without the fine tuning of a top team, it was simply not competitive. This year, running with Dave Price Racing, with sponsorship from BP, he has been dominant and is believed already to be planning a move into F1 when he considers the time right.

DPR does more to the standard Ralt than any other team and it is perhaps interesting to consider what they have been doing this year, though Dave Price is adamant that "We try only to provide the driver with the best equipment we can, Johnny could have been winning with cars prepared by any of the other leading teams." One of those other teams is run by ex-Lotus mechanic, Glenn Waters, who says, "I'm in F3 because it is the highest formula in which I can make a significant, direct, contribution to the technology of the car."

Before we examine the DPR car, however, perhaps the following story will illustrate what current F3 is all about. I was recently discussing an aerodynamic tweak with a mechanic who had explained the reasoning behind it. When he had finished. I asked, "Okay, but does it work?" "We don't know," he replied, "we reckon it gives something, nothing you can measure, but it sure as hell revs up the driver."

Formula Three works on the broad principle that if you add together enough hundredths of a second per lap, they eventually translate into tenths and, even more importantly all that work will have a positive psychological effect on the driver, who will then find you more extra tenths. If a car wins a race with a purple pole in the nose, come the next race everyone will have a purple pole.

The first thing to notice about the DPR Ralt is that it retains last year's front suspension, the rocker arms instead of the '84 push rod suspension. Both systems use identical geometry, the rocker arm suspension is easier to work on, the push rod suspension is less likely to total a tub if a front wheel is ripped off. A number of people have told me, "The new suspension is cosmetic only, Ralt have done a face lift so everyone buys an '84 car." Steve Hollman of Ralt does not deny that is part of the reason but points out that the company produce cars for a variety of Championships and in Europe, different sized tyres are often fitted. It is relatively easy to change a push rod to accommodate different sizes while maintaining the same geometry.

DPR have had to produce a new nose cone to accommodate the rocker arm suspension because their tub is to '84 spec, though it has been stiffened by, among other things, being reskinned in thicker aluminium. This is a luxury they can afford because, fitted with a VW engine, the RT3 is below the weight limit so ballast can be added for optimum weight distribution. At the rear of the side pods, another modification has been made, they are pinched in, rather like a McLaren, to promote cleaner air flow from the venturi to the wing. The standard round-tube wishbones have been replaced by elliptical ones. The standard dashboard has been supplanted by a different one and a new wiring loom made. The works VW engines are running in "low friction" form with single valve springs and single compression rings. The standard five-speed Hewland Mk 9 gearbox is braced to the chassis and the Hewland differential is changed at some circuits for "a different one". Dave Price would not say which differential he uses but I believe it to be a Quaife direct gear limited slip unit which, on some tracks, has allowed the car to run with two degrees less rear wing than otherwise. So many hundredths make so many tenths. In addition there are other small modifications designed to promote reliability and ease of maintenance while, on a circuit such as Monaco, the standard Lockheed discs would be replaced by F/Atlantic spec ventilated ones. Other teams make some of these changes. The bracing of the gearbox, for example, is standard practice. The weakness is in the casting which is standard VW Beetle, currently made in Brazil. It is not only required to take three times the power for which it was designed, but the stresses of having threequarters of the rear suspension hung on it. Jim Buss of Hewland said, "When we first designed the box, we found a VW casting cost £17 while to do it ourselves would cost £220 — prices have risen, not necessarily proportionally, but you get the general picture. We are actively considering a new, lighter gearbox for the smaller formulae which might offer either cam and pawl or Salisbury type differentials." When asked about other types of differentials, he said, "I'm sure a lot of experimentation goes on, but nobody tells us. It's the same in F1, teams use different differentials for different circuits, but they never tell us about it."

The Quaife diff is certainly used by Keith Fine who is leading the Class B (year old cars) section of the championship and who reports it is very good in the wet. This is a view echoed by John Robinson, designer of the Magnum, who first used a Quaife last year and found half a second thereby around the Silverstone Club circuit. The Magnum 833 had some traction problems, due to lack of finance for testing and development, and the Quaife helped, in particular allowing a lower second gear to be fitted for Becketts.

The low friction VW engine which Dumfries and some other runners are using may give a slight advantage. John Judd, partner with Sir Jack Brabham in Engine Developments who produce the VW F3 engine, says it is too early to have an opinion. Several engines need to be tried for a full season before knowing. The testing brake cannot discern a difference which might, or might not, be there because in any batch of ten engines, built to identical specification, there will be a horsepower or so difference and the same difference can be measured under different atmospheric conditions or, indeed, by two different testers using the same engine and the same rig.

The thinking behind the "low friction" engine follows on from the premise behind the VW engine itself, which has only one camshaft. John Judd says, "The restrictor limits horsepower, no F3 engine is significantly better than any other, they all produce around 160 bhp (162 DIN) but with a single camshaft we lose less in friction."

Formula Three engines are based on four-cylinder homologated production units (5,000 of which must have been produced in a 12 month period) and although Wankel engines are permitted, nobody has yet tried to build one. The cost of developing a new motor is high and a builder generally has a relationship with a production car manufacturer. In Judd's case, he had a relationship with VW after building the SuperVee engine which accounts for 80 per cent of the US market — VW money did not come in directly, but VW are customers who lend the works engines to drivers like Dumfries and John Nielsen in Europe. Novamotor in Italy have had similar relationships, particularly with Alfa Romeo, which engine is going strongly in Europe at present. Swindon engines had a relationship, via Unipart, with BL and developed the Triumph Dolomite unit (originally worked on by Holbay) for the Unipart F3 team. When Unipart withdrew, the engines disappeared. Other manufacturers, including Saab, Fiat and Ford, are rumoured to be coming into F2. Swindon's John Dunne becomes wistful when contemplating the possibility of the new Cosworth / Mercedes 190 engine.

All current engines produce around 160 bhp between five and six thousand rpm. At low speeds they can fill their cylinders adequately but, about 5,000 rpm, they become throttled. The engine builder designs his unit, therefore, so the mixture becomes progressively lean and the ignition becomes progressively advanced. Valve overlap, common in most racing engines, is impossible because of the restrictor which, at high revs, creates a partial vacuum which sucks exhaust gases back through the inlet when both valves are open.

In the search for more power, John Dunne of Swindon engines, is investigating the sophisticated new injection systems while Neil Walker, chief designer of Engine Developments, believes the way ahead lies in ignition. "The problem to avoid is detonation. If you have a sensor in the block, you can progressively advance the ignition until detonation occurs. As soon as it occurs in one cylinder, the vibration will cause the advancing ignition to back off and then advance again until detonation occurs once more, when it will back off, and so on."

How much advantage are we talking about? "One horse, maybe two," says Neil. One or two horses is something which no driver could possibly detect, but they could make a contribution to the whole equation, hundredths becoming tenths. The air restrictor dominates F3 in so many ways. The limited rev band produces a particular style of driving ("There's so little grunt, if you're not quick out of the corners, you're not quick down the straights," says Johnny Dumfries) and a particular type of racing where it is virtually unknown for people to make up for a spin, unless the conditions are such that the driver's ability comes into full play, as in the wet. Increase the restrictor by just two millimetres and we are looking another 15-18 bhp with no loss or reliability and no extra expense. Indeed, unrestricted Toyota engines which Novamotor sell to South Africa for a rally series, produce 212 bhp and are as reliable F3 engines.

With the engines all sharing much the same characteristics, it's interesting to know that the choice of motor generally rests on the relationship a team has with a particular builder. Sometimes, as in the case of Glenn Waters, it's because the VW motors he uses are built in this country. Sometimes, as in the case of Dick Bennetts of West Surrey Engineering, it's because he has a long-standing relationship with Novamotor.

The Alfa Romeo engine which is doing well in Europe at present has only surfaced occasionally here. In 1982, Dave Scott tried a pair for a while but forces generated by the (control) Avon crossply tyres, radials are more often used in Europe, caused stresses on the engine which distorted the cylinder lines. These have been re-designed and the problem eliminated but nobody sees the need to change, especially as the Alfa Romeo unit is initially more expensive. The control tyres, incidentally, are the reason why British teams go so well when using European rubber — they are dedicated to finding tenths in the chassis, not whole seconds in tyre compounds.

The hardware of F3 racing is, in fact, the cheapest part. A well-sorted Rail RT3 chassis (cost £16,000) will lose only four or five thousand pounds in value over a season, less than a team's transportation costs and less, by far, than the tyre bill which works out at around £10,000 per car. The cost of running a VW engine, per racing mile, is only about the same as a FF1600 motor, which needs three rebuilds to the VW's one. Run a FF1600 engine for more than its recommended eight hours and the crankshaft is likely to go. The VW engine may cost three times as much to rebuild but its recommended life is 2,000 miles and it can go on for much longer, though with loss of power, because, like the other F3 engines, it has no inherent weakness.

The money is spent, not on the hardware, but on fine tuning it and the wages and tyre bills which constant testing produces. A set of four tyres costs £350 and a top team will budget for six per race. Thereafter they are good for one, possibly two, test sessions, and all the professionals budget for around two test days for every three races. The Avon crossplies are praised both for their consistent quality and low wear rate and they will continue, by popular demand, for 1985 though the three-year contract runs out at the end of the season.

The reason for the extension is that, next year, Formula Three reverts to flat bottoms. The problem which every designer is currently engaged with is how to gain downforce without sidepods. Despite the professionalism of the formula and the assumption that every designer must spend a large part of his life in wind tunnels, the first car to have benefited from wind tunnel testing is the 1984 Ralt, and that was a spin-off from the firm's F2 programme. Sidepods have hitherto been designed by a combination of calculation and experience.

Murray Taylor Racing, with an eye on developing body kits to convert existing cars to "flat bottom" spec, recently blanked off the undersides of a Ralt and sent Andrew Gilbert-Scott around the Silverstone GP circuit. Admittedly they didn't try to dial in the car and it was only an experiment, but Gilbert-Scott's times dropped by five seconds a lap and he reported that it handled just like a FF1600 car.

The new formula will not, however, see a drastic reduction of speed.

Times around the GP circuit improved by only three seconds a lap between 1978 (flat bottomed) and 1983 (ground effects) and by less than a second a lap on some shorter and twistier circuits, and part of that was due to improvement in tyres and engines.

In order that there should not be a great number of redundant F3 cars on the market, FISA has laid down that 1985's F3 cars should have deformable structures which, in effect, means side pods roughly three inches per side narrower, as a minimum, than a typical 1984 car, and four inches shorter. The idea is that existing cars can be updated by use of a body kit.

The regulations can also be interpreted so as to allow a slim monocoque with the deformable structures mounted on outriggers, giving an effect not unlike the 1954 Lancia D50 F1 car. Or, perhaps, the bodywork could extend out from the bottom of a slim monocoque and then upwards into slim deformable sideplates producing an effect not unlike the Arrows A1, with side wings mounted within the "L" to create downforce.

Gary Anderson, who designs the beautifully made Anson which has made an impact in Europe, but not on the home market, is of the opinion that a slim car, anyway, will probably prove quicker than a "ground effect" car but, he says, "If I had built one nobody would buy it." The 1985 Anson will see the driver moved further back and some of the engine ancillaries moved into the sidepods which will no longer need to be clean.

Anson, like Magnum, hope to have their new car running before the end of the season, at around the time when customers are paying down deposits. Ron Tauranac of Ralt is playing his cards closer to his chest and will be trying out modifications on his F2 cars which will find their way, if they work, into his new F3 car, this will also be called the RT3 though will be quite a lot different from the current model.

Tauranac is in a powerful position since his cars have dominated the formula from late 1980. The dominance was helped by the demise of Chevron (due to the death of Derek Bennett), March (because they lost interest when they discovered more lucrative markets) and Argo (who began to establish a reputation in pre-ground effect days, but who scored an "own goal" in 1981 with their first ground effect car, the JM8, which proved a disaster). Ralt has since had the market and has been able to maintain its lead, being careful never to advance too quickly, thanks partly to feedback received from all the top teams. If either Magnum or Anson come up with something radically better they will, in time, be able to move the market their way though neither presently have the capacity or the inclination to go into large-scale production. One man who is after Ralt's market, however, is Adrian Reynard whose FF1600 and F2000 cars have been so successful of late. He is working long hours in a wind tunnel to perfect his car and has already established a production method for it. It will be the first racing car to use moulded carbon fibre, as opposed to woven carbon fibre. The tub, body and engine frame will be of a piece, with metal plates bonded into the monocoque to give on impact. He claims that the cost of the car will be no more than a current Ralt, he has the capacity to build up to one hundred a year (though his market projections, over a number of years, do not rise above about 50 per year), and that his car will use 25% fewer components than any current F3 design. I have seen some of his prototype components and can confirm that, if the car works, it will be not only the most revolutionary production racing car ever seen, it may also influence the thinking in higher formulae — but then Reynard has had F1 experience and his undisguised ambition is that, one day, there will be an F1 car bearing his name.

There may be other firms and designers contemplating an entry into F3 when the new regulations come into force. Lola produced a prototype which ran last year, but it was off the pace and they realised that the money spent on testing and development to squeeze the last tenths from it would be better spent elsewhere, in the Indycar market, for example.

The single seater formulae below F1 are currently in a state of flux and it will be interesting to watch future developments. Politics are sure to play a major part and, behind the scenes, are already doing so. Perhaps a return to flat bottoms will inject F3 with some of the excitement which, for all its support, it has lacked in the recent past. Perhaps the air restrictor limits will be relaxed slightly so we may see chassis having more power than they can easily handle — the recipe for exciting racing. Perhaps it's already too late and the formula has priced itself beyond reason.

If we have a new Formula Two in the shape of Cosworth DFV powered cars, professionally packaged, then we will certainly have to reconsider the next rung down the ladder. If Formula Turbo Ford takes off in this country and abroad, and can prove that it can not only keep power controlled, but also spending, then F3 will be threatened.

Motor racing being what it is, however, someone will come along with a big budget and, if he is successful, everyone else will feel compelled to follow suit. One novice FF1600 driver, for example is reported to have already spent over £70,000 this year. How pleasant it would be to return to the days when a driver bought his car as a kit, pieced it together with the help of friends, and towed it around Europe behind his VW Caravanette. The talent still rose to the top, like cream, more drivers had the chance to prove themselves (do you remember when F3 had heats and a final?) and the men from those days who finally made it into Fl were hardly less gifted than those who make it now with budgets which represent eight score draws on the coupon in a good week.

— ML.