Ask any driver in the British Formula Three Championship which is the race to win — and the Grand Prix support race is the one. The thought of scoring a good result in front of — or even impressing — one of the Formula One team managers is the stuff young drivers’ dreams are made of, even if in today’s hard-bitten commercial environment, career progress would be better made by impressing one of the ‘talent scouts’ in Formula 3000.
Still, the traditional race on Saturday before the Grand Prix has in recent years provided some excellent action. Two years ago, Philippe Favre’s retirement with a suspension failure allowed Damon Hill to take the victory honours in a well judged race, ahead of Gary Brabham and the Finn JJ Lehto, who battled just inches apart for the entire duration. Last year, Allan McNish received the trophies from compatriot Jackie Stewart after taking the chequered flag ahead of David Brabham. Sadly both were later disqualified in what became the start of a long and bitter controversy over the legality of the Honda-Mugen and Spiess-Volkswagen engines fitted to the cars. This result was that the 1989 championship wasn’t decided until early in 1990, while the Silverstone victory was handed to a rather embarrassed Derek Higgins; McNish’s team-mate who it could be assumed had a similar Mugen engine in his car too!
Still it is the action on the track that matters and last year’s race was superb, with Brabham driving around the outside of McNish on the first corner to take the lead, only to be demoted as McNish fought back at Woodcote two laps later. This year too, it looks as if we might be in for another treat, as a number of drivers shape up to challenge the two Finns who have dominated Formula Three in the early part of the 1990 season.
Mika Hakkinen and Mika Salo, between them won seven of the opening eight races in the championship. Hakkinen took first blood at Donington in April in his West Surrey Racing Ralt-Mugen, but glued to his gearbox was the Alan Docking prepared example of Salo. The following race at Silverstone saw the order reversed as Salo took victory, but it wasn’t Hakkinen in second place. Squeezing the Finn down to third was Steve Robertson, driving a Volkswagen-powered Jewson Ralt. Thus the championship went on, with either of the two claiming the first place, usually followed by the other, both managing to hold off the challenges of Robertson and the other front runners.
On the Formula Three championship’s last visit to Silverstone in June everything changed, however, for it was the Camel sponsored car of Paul Stewart which led into Copse for the first time, while the Marlboro bedecked car of Hakkinen made an uncharacteristic jumped start to incur a one minute penalty which dropped him out of contention. Stewart’s lead was to prove to be short-lived, however, as his car began to oversteer and so it was Robertson, the 24 year-old Essex driver who took the chequered flag to score the first non-Scandinavian victory of the year. Behind him Salo took second place after a wheel-banging battle with Hakkinen, who either was unaware of his penalty or was simply unwilling to give up! The battle came to an end at Bridge Corner, when the two Mikas made firm contact and Hakkinen pirouetted rapidly into the tyre wall.
So who is likely to be a winner at the Grand Prix meeting? It has to be said that the two high flyers from Helsinki must be favourites. They both have the equipment; their Mugen-Honda powered Ralt chassis are generally accepted as the cars to beat and they both have the ability; Hakkinen had the crowd on its feet at Thruxton earlier this year when he charged through from the back of the field to take second in a stunning drive, while Salo is rumoured to have lapped Silverstone more times in testing than many of the other Formula Three contenders put together!
However, for the Finns, competition at the Grand Prix meeting is going to be tough. Steve Robertson, the only driver to beat them in the early part of the season, is expected to maintain his form in the Jewson car, provided that his Volkswagen engine can match the power of the Japanese Mugens. Also likely to score well is the Paul Stewart Racing team.
Drivers Derek Higgins and Paul Stewart Initially suffered when the team’s decision to run the Reynard chassis in preference to the more generally used Ralt backfired and the car simply didn’t perform. The team persevered with the Reynard in the early races, but when it was obvious no improvement in performance was forthcoming they too switched to the Ralt chassis. They then found that with the hectic race-a-week Formula Three championship schedule they literally had no free time in which to fine-tune the chassis and, equally important, build up test miles and let the drivers become used to their new cars.
“The Ralt and the Reynard are totally different cars to drive,” said Higgins. “The Reynard was very nervous and you had to drive it much more precisely than the Ralt, which is a more forgiving chassis. In fact one of my problems is that I’m having to force myself to drive the Ralt more aggressively — its something you would normally do in winter testing, but we’re having to do it from race to race!”
Paul Stewart’s performance on his last outing at Silverstone, when he qualified fourth and led the race, showed the team’s true potential, as did the performance of Jonathan McGall in the Swallow Racing Ralt. He, too, is finding form after a mid-season switch from the beleaguered Reynard marque and could well be among those on the victory rostrum.