Predicting an F3000 winner usually involves a degree of guesswork, especially in Pau, where no amount of circuit resurfacing will ever eliminate the circuit's inherent natural hazards. Many of the worst dips and cambers have been smoothed over now, but still the guardrails have the same effect on young racing drivers as a jam-jar does on wasps. "At this place, you can't afford to make even the smallest mistake," rued Gil de Ferran, joint series leader before the annual street racing carnival in south-western France. The Brazilian should know. He had two minor accidents in practice, one brought about by what he reckoned was a tiny braking error that would have passed unnoticed at 99 per cent of the world's racetracks. Here, he speared off immediately into the tyres.
It only takes a split-second misjudgment, and you're a spectator.
De Ferran's luck didn't improve in the race, but the chaotic pile-up at the end of the first lap was not of his making, even though it was he who inflicted most of the damage. Pau has an incredibly tight first gear hairpin, Lycée, which bicycles would struggle to negotiate side-by-side. On this occasion, the unfortunate Massimiliano Papis snagged his team-mate Paolo delle Piane as the field struggled to filter through. Papis was then tapped from behind, and found himself blocking the circuit, barely able to move. As a queue of drivers waited, fuming, while Massi attempted something like a 17-point turn to get free, the organisers decided to abort the race and try again. Red flags were shown at the startline, and the race leaders saw them and duly slowed up. The message did not appear to percolate very quickly, however, for there were no warning flags at the marshals' posts preceding the start/finish area, or anywhere else, for that matter. Inevitably, as the queue of stationary cars close to the pits became longer, it became nearer and nearer to the oblivious souls who were still at full racing speed.
Which is where de Ferran re-enters the story. He was tucked behind team-mate Paul Stewart. "The first I knew about it," said Paul, "was when I saw the cars stopped ahead. I was still flat out at that point, so I just had to slam on the brakes and hope for the best." He just avoided hitting anybody, but the unfortunate Gil got the message a fraction later, when he saw Stewart anchor up. "I braked hard and jinked to miss Paul, but the car spun. It was incredibly stupid. I don't mind if I make a mistake and crash. I can go home and analyse that, sleep on it and work out what to do next time. The same if something on the car breaks. You understand it and accept it. We had no control over this, though. I couldn't see any red flags at all from where I was. The first I knew of there being something wrong was when Paul suddenly braked...
De Ferran bounced off his team-mate, lost a wheel and, with a brake line torn off and no further retardation available, he skated, out of control, into the car park ahead. Incredibly, only two Reynards were unable to continue, despite a multiplicity of impacts. De Ferran and Michael Bartels were the unlucky ones, while second row qualifier Vincenzo Sospiri, who was equally perplexed by the poor signalling, was forced to restart from the pits.
"They're quick enough to punish racing drivers who make stupid mistakes," pointed out Stewart. "Somebody should be penalised for allowing this to happen."
It's a fair point. Pau is the most charismatic event on the F3000 calendar but, like the Monaco Grand Prix, it represents a triumph of tradition over logic. Generally, the organisation and administration are first-rate, but with cars getting faster by the year, and no scope for improving track conditions beyond fine-tuning of the surface, such aberrations need to be stamped out, and fast. It's bad enough that the series has to go to Enna every year, without other circuits getting out the custard pies and red plastic noses.
The second start looked like bad news for Pedro Lamy. Still at the wheel of his year-old car, the 21 year-old Portuguese had taken an impressive pole position, pacing his progress throughout qualifying and avoiding many of his peers' mistakes, even if he was a shade fortunate to survive a spin at the Foch monument, where many others went further astray.
In Sunday's closing moments, he had put pole beyond his adversaries' reach, and his first start was judged to perfection. He fluffed the second, though, and Olivier Panis forged ahead. The DAMS Reynard driver had been the popular choice as pre-race favourite, by dint of his greater experience, and he quickly pulled effortlessly away... until making a glaring mistake at La Gare on lap 15. The Frenchman scrabbled around the corner, his lead intact, but one lap later he wasn't so fortunate. He had suffered grabbing front brakes from the start, and gradually adjusted the bias towards the rear, but not before he had skittered down the escape road at La Gare, from which he emerged in sixth place. In such situations, the red mist often descends, but Panis reappeared with just the right blend of control and aggression, picking his way past Giampiero Simoni and David Coulthard, and profiting from mistakes by Eric Angélvy, who spun off, and his own team-mate Franck Lagorce, who had held gamely onto second place under pressure from Coulthard. The sudden re-emergence of Panis flustered the younger Frenchman, and he tapped the guardrail at Lycée, dropping to an eventual seventh place after pitting for a new nose.
With a clear road in front of him, Panis pressed on. For a fistful of laps, it looked as though Lamy was catchable, but it was not to be. The whole field was finding that their cars had a tendency to lock rear brakes as they snicked down to first gear for Lycée, and Panis' balance bar was now firmly tweaked to the rear. On lap 55 it tipped the scales, and he spun off, to the huge disappointment of the crowd. It had been a magnificent effort, however, and the unlucky Olivier took his misfortune with good grace.
His attacking style was a marked contrast to the measured calm of Lamy, who never looked especially flustered when under pressure from Lagorce early on, and remained neat and tidy when Panis started to close the gap. In short, he never put a wheel wrong. No team has ever won the F3000 title twice, but Crypton is now clearly in a position to become the first to do so.
Unless, of course, Pacific beats the Italian team to it. After a modest start at Donington, David Coulthard is beginning to look utterly convincing. But for a banal practice mishap, when he moved over to let faster cars past as he toured back to the pits, found that there was still a wet line after morning rain and promptly executed a slow-speed spin, he reckoned he would have been on the front row, no problem. In the race, at a circuit where passing, safely, is notoriously difficult, he drove sensibly, putting pressure on Lagorce, allowing the forceful Panis enough racing room to get through without putting the pair of them into the tyres and pacing himself to the finish... until four laps from home, when he skated inexplicably into the tyres at the second gear right-hander Poeymirau. Even then, he showed great presence of mind. "My engineer had told me before the race that, if I was going to hit the tyres, to do so squarely if possible. If you go in at an angle, there's more risk of taking a corner off, or doing terminal suspension damage. Once I realised I was going off, I aimed straight... " He kept the engine running, too, and was able to reverse out and rejoin, still second, once he had reconnected the steering wheel, which mysteriously popped off. The Scot, now joint second in the series, three points adrift of Lamy, had just enough in hand to stay ahead of compatriot Stewart, who proved that the improved form he showed in the opening two races looks like being a permanent feature.
After the earlier farce, Paul had to restart on fresh, unscrubbed tyres, which made the car something of a handful. As the first six sped away, he had to extend himself to fend off Jan Lammers. Once the tyres came in, however, he broke free from the pursuing Dutchman, and thereafter had something of a lonely afternoon. He is now the only driver to have scored points in all three races.
Olivier Beretta bounced back from his indifferent Silverstone form. He qualified moderately, after a practice shunt, but profited from others' misfortunes and one particular slice of luck to take fourth, bringing him level with Coulthard on points. He made up two places in one hit, when Lammers spun at Lycée and trapped Papis behind him. Beretta gracefully breezed through.
Like team-mate Angélvy, Lammers eventually departed the fray at Foch, following a suspected suspension failure. That moved Papis up to fifth, though he was kept on his toes to the flag by the impressive Sospiri, who clambered his way through from the rear of the field despite an almost total absence of rear brakes. The two touched a few laps from home, Papis having his third major moment of the day at Lycée as both cars spun, Papis rejoining the faster of the two.
Sospiri certainly deserved his point, having shown determination second only to that of Panis. One of those who fell by the wayside, allowing Sospiri to progress into the top six, was his team-mate Giampiero Simoni, who would surely have been third but for a brush with Lagorce.
There is now, ludicrously, a seven-week break in the series before Enna, after which the teams will have just four days to get their cars from central Sicily to Hockenheim. At least it gives those teams who need it a time to revive. Apomatox is still having a terrible time with its two highly-rated young Frenchmen (see panel); Antonio Tamburini's abilities are being wholly obscured as MIS struggles to match other teams' engine performance: newcomers Andrea Gilardi and Giuseppe Bugatti, driving for Cobra and European Technique respectively, both look useful, despite lack of preparation time; ACE has recruited talented Italian Enrico Bertaggia, to replace Hilton Cowie after a contractual problem, but his failure to qualify in France means that he, like several others, has plenty of catching up to do. S A