The opening rounds of this year's European F3000 Championship have contained several surprises, all but one of them welcome. The exception was the late decision -18 days before the race – to switch the third round of the series from Jerez to Barcelona, long after teams and other associates of the formula had committed money to non-returnable flight and hotel deposits, not to mention extensive expenditure on winter testing programmes at the original venue.
Granted, Barcelona has a greater catchment area (Jerez usually attracts more security guards than it does spectators) and one of its local residents won the opening round of the championship, but a series such as this needs to have its annual programme set in stone. Changes of this nature, while nothing new, do not add to public perception of its professionalism. If there are doubts about a circuit's ability to stage a race, as has been the case for a long time with Jerez (partly for financial reasons, partly because the Jerez authorities and the Spanish motor racing federation haven't seen eye-to-eye for a while), it should be scrapped immediately, and replaced by something more certain.
If nothing else, Barcelona – the race took place shortly after Motor Sport had closed for press – was at least an unknown quantity, nobody having had the foresight to test there lest a race should be organised at a moment's notice. . . Not even Jordi Gene, unexpected victor of the opening round at Silverstone, is familiar with his home town circuit.
Gene's victory shouldn't have come as that great a shock, for his pace in a single seater has never been in question, but he never looked like a regular winner during his F3 apprenticeship, establishing a reputation as a specialist runner-up and only being greeted by a flick of the chequered flag for the first time during the post-season, non-championship events at Macau and Fuji. He was supposed to play second fiddle to reigning champion Pacific Racing's new team leader Laurent Aiello, but at Silverstone the Spaniard took pole in freakish weather conditions (at one point the rain was so heavy that drivers were getting wheelspin in third gear if they dared to rev beyond tickover), and in the race he disappeared from view. He didn't fare so well in Pau, however (itself a surprise in view of his heat win at Macau last year), being one of many who fell victim to the south-western French street circuit's unyielding guardrails, despite the laying of a new, smoother track surface that was designed to eliminate the worst ruts and cambers, or at least lessen the hazard they presented.
Victory in France fell to Emanuele Naspetti. The Italian won four races on the trot for Forti Corse last year, though this notable achievement the only four-timer in F3000's history was tarnished by allegations that Forti's fuel supplier was giving Naspetti an unfair advantage. Emanuele's drive to sixth place at Silverstone, from a lowly qualifying position (he lacks experience in the rain, never having raced a single-seater on wets until he was in F3000, and admits he doesn't like it), was proof that he is no fool in a racing car, and Pau merely emphasised that his ability was largely disguised during his first two years in the formula. This was a turn-up all the same, for his past record at the same circuit has been pretty abysmal (though he went well at Birmingham in 1989, so it's not a psychological problem related to street circuits), and he has always expressed a distaste for the place. He firmly exorcised unhappy memories, however, qualifying on the front row and putting intense pressure on early leader Andrea Montermini from the word go. The two Italians eventually tangled at the first corner. Both spun, but Naspetti rejoined more quickly and took the lead, thereafter taking an easy victory. In his haste to recover lost ground, Montermini's II Barone Rampante Reynard flew off the road after another half-lap.
The latter is thus one of several pre-season title tips who had failed to score a point in the first two races, electrical problems having blighted him at Silverstone. Others in the same boat were Aiello (engine failure/accident), David Coulthard (seventh place after a qualifying mishap left him 25th on the grid, and Aiello's co-accidentee) and Allan McNish, victim of a muscular virus that exhausted him at Silverstone and persuaded FISA's medical supremo Prof Syd Watkins to stand him down before Pau, lest it should compromise the rest of his season. He was due to resume what looks like being a fruitful relationship with Mike Earle's 3001 team in Spain.
Gene's victory and Coulthard's unquestionable pace notwithstanding, pick of the newcomers at the time of writing has been British F3 champion Rubens Barrichello. He recovered from a poor start at Silverstone to take second, and was quickest of the Pau debutants, finishing third. After two rounds, the mature-in-mind, young-in-body Brazilian – he only celebrated his 20th birthday between the two races – shared the series lead with Naspetti, one point ahead of Gene. Barrichello's approach to the job is a masterpiece of common sense, involving a gradual build-up that eventually produces blinding speed without any mishaps in-between.
It is an encouraging sign that there is such strength in depth in the formula, newcomer Olivier Panis's third place at Silverstone is also worthy of mention in this respect, and equally so that the adoption of control fuel has been accepted without a hitch. The foul aromas emanating from the F3 paddock in Pau were an unwelcome reminder of 1991.
The racing has been more open, and more exciting, than it was last year, for which some of the credit must go to Jean-Marc Gounon, leading Lola representative in the face of a numerically superior – and to date more successful – Reynard challenge. At Silverstone, the charming Frenchman justified the public admission fee on his own, recovering from 19th place – after a first corner spin – to finish fourth, having spent most of his afternoon harder, and perceptibly later, on the brakes than any of his adversaries. To this would have been added a third place at Pau, where most Lola users struggled to obtain a decent balance, but for a bolt to break in the front suspension at three-quarter distance. He deserved better.
Gounon's spirited efforts have been one of the more predictable elements of the season. Michael Bartels' run to second place at Pau was not. Bartels has never shown such form in his previous F3000 outings, and looked a trifle lost when he tried to qualify a Lotus in F1 last year, deputising for the indisposed Johnny Herbert. At Pau, he looked smooth and confident, a tangible result of the Crypton team's increasing effectiveness under the experienced guidance of Alfredo Somerschini, formerly with First Racing.
Half of Crypton's mechanics temporarily abandoned their F3000 fettling duties at Pau, incidentally, in order to stage an impromptu pit lane protest against former F3000 driver and First Racing team owner Jean-Denis Deletraz, who resurfaced in the supporting Porsche Carrera Cup race. Surrounded by irate Crypton staff, all former First staff who allege that the Swiss businessman owes them wages dating back to 1991 Deletraz was unable to leave the pits. He was still there when the race started, and the protesters waited until three laps had passed before ambling back to the F3000 paddock, having made their feelings plain in overt fashion…
Bartels' team-mate Luca Badoer, an impressive force in his native Italian F3 series last year, has also reaped the benefits of Crypton's newfound competitiveness, running second to Gene at Silverstone before a misfire dropped him back to fifth, and picking up a point in Pau despite having to cope all race with a tattered front wing, the result of youthful enthusiasm in the traditional mad scramble that is an annual first-lap feature.
British interest is by no means confined to Messrs Coulthard and McNish. Phil Andrews narrowly failed to score a point in Pau. He finished only one second behind team-mate Giuseppe Bugatti… who was fifth. There was just room for the gutsy Badoer in-between. Paul Stewart (Scotland, with three representatives, is the third most prolific nation in F3000, behind Italy, nine and France, six) qualified well at Silverstone but faded after running as high as fifth in the early stages and finished eighth, behind team-mate Coulthard. Last of the British quintet is Steve Robertson, whose season had lasted all of 500 yards at the time of writing. Victim of a multi-car first corner accident at Silverstone, he missed Pau as a combined result of pleurisy and a trapped nerve, the latter an after-effect of the clout up the gearbox he received at Silverstone. As with McNish, medics expected him to be back at Barcelona.
Final surprise of the opening two rounds was Vittorio Zoboli's fourth place in Pau. This was a product of genuine speed, rather than reliability, the friendly Italian lapping only 0.1s shy of winner Naspetti. For a man who spent much of 1991 struggling to qualify, and who showed little real form at Silverstone, it marked an extraordinary upturn in form. It was, he said, to do with the quality of the hot dogs being dispensed from the buvette alongside Advance Racing's paddock awning, of which he consumed plenty.
There is no truth, however, that FISA will be introducing control hot dogs in 1993…