A time for change?
Something is presently amiss in British motor racing. On the surface, you'd think that an industry boasting over one hundred individual championships was doing very nicely, thank you, but there is strong evidence that some careful pruning and in some cases restructuring is urgently required.
Despite the already vast number of championships, fresh initiatives spring up every year. Some, such as the Big Boys Toys VW Beetle Cup, might seem a trifle peculiar, but the fact that it has attracted healthy grids from the word go suggests that it has a future at club level, offering fun motorsport at relatively low cost.
Other one-make ideas have been plain daft. The BMW M3 Challenge flopped a couple of years ago: there were plenty of M3s already racing in production saloon categories, and few competitors had the budget or saw the purpose in doing both. Grids were bolstered by other BMW products, from 2002s to 535s, yet fields still struggled to reach double figures. After a couple of months, the whole idea succumbed to apathy.
This year's likely-looking lemon is the BRSCC's Porsche 924 Championship (the first round of which had to run concurrently with a Modified Saloon event, having attracted just seven entries). Its very foundation baffles me, as there are already several dedicated Porsche championships up and running.
In these recessionary times, the cost of participation is as much of a factor as identifying a hole in a crowded market. There are several prime examples. Just look at the BRSCC's Renault 5TS Championship, which is in its 18th consecutive season. This is the original Renault 5 we're talking about, something that has been superseded by two subsequent Renault hatchback generations. A competitive car can be picked up for £2500-3000 and grids are buoyant. Compare that to the series for its modern-day successor, the Renault Elf Clio UK Cup. A second-hand, state of the art machine won't leave you much change from £10,000. A whole season could cost around £30,000 if you want to do the job properly. Consequently, there are about half as many Clios racing as there are 5TSs.
So much for progress.
Formula Vee is another success story, with two separate championships and entries twice the size of those for the UK's premier Formula Ford 1600 series. A season in the former, where most of the combatants are happy-go-lucky amateurs, can be undertaken for £5000-£6000, while a works drive in the latter, stomping ground for aspiring Grand Prix stars, demands something in the region of £75,000. In the early 1970s, there were three well-supported national FF1600 series, all of which necessitated qualifying heats. Now there's just the one, and although support has grown in the past couple of years, since Ford dipped a hand deeper in its pocket, it's still a few cars short of a full grid. You don't have to be a genius to work out why hobby racers are looking elsewhere for their sport.
Formula Ford's problem isn't just one of cost, however. There is now much more choice for young drivers. When FFI600 was launched, in 1967, it stood alone. Nowadays, the beginner is bamboozled by choice. Formula First? Formula Ford? Formula Vauxhall Junior? One of the many series for older Formula Ford cars? Formula Renault? At this level of the sport, it's hard to pinpoint where one level ends and the next begins. Do you graduate from Formula First to Formula Ford, or have you learned enough to aim higher? Do you look at a more senior series, such as Formula Renault, Formula Forward or Formula Vauxhall Lotus? Or is Formula Renault really more an alternative to Formula Ford? Sure, it has slicks and wings, but the lap times aren't so different. And where are F3 team managers supposed to look each winter as they contemplate next year's signings? Is the Formula Ford champion more gifted than the cove who mopped up in Vauxhall Lotus?
At present, most of these apprentice series have sufficient entries to justify their continued existence, but none is exactly full to capacity. France only has a dozen or so formulae, each of which has a well-supported national championship. The French Formula Renault and Formula Ford series usually demand qualifying races.
We're not suggesting that Britain's calendar needs such skeletal pruning, and the financial input from Ford, Renault and Vauxhall is naturally welcome. The trouble is that the upper echelons of the sport in this country require a wax and polish, and there are few reasons for manufacturers to provide such financial incentives in those areas. Formula 3000 (F2, as it is now known over here) relies on V8 engines based around original components from Honda and Ford, yet these units are universally known as 'Mugens' and 'Cosworths', after the engineering concerns which spawned them. Indeed, Cosworths are often known more specifically as Nicholson-McLarens or Tickfords, in deference to their tuners. There's not much PR mileage for Ford or Honda in that. The British Touring Car Championship is the only high-profile series that appears to be in rude health. Everywhere the BTCC goes, the crowds follow. There is substantial manufacturer backing, and racing cars are only a small part of team hardware. Where once the BTCC had box vans and trailers, now it has motorhomes and helicopters. Some people reported queuing for up to two hours to get out of Oulton Park after the Bank Holiday Monday BTCC round early in May. That's on a par with post-Grand Prix traffic jam standards.
At Thruxton that same day, the F3 race drew in far fewer punters, yet the combined BTCC/F3 meeting at the same venue, just two weeks earlier, attracted a huge crowd. And they weren't there to watch the F3 race, in. which half a dozen realistic F1 aspirants were plying their trade. Similarly at Silverstone, where the two series 'shared' top billing, the pit lane walkabout saw the public concentrated around the touring car garages.
British F2 doesn't enjoy F3's sporadic terrestrial TV coverage, and hasn't as yet proved much of a magnet to the paying public. Oulton Park's Good Friday meeting had a large crowd, but that's normal. The same would apply if the feature event was for slot cars. The following round, at Donington, served as a better gauge. Crowds of 1500 are regarded as disappointing at several non-league football grounds... Even the completely meaningless, end-of-season, fourth division soccer match between Doncaster and Maidstone wooed 1680 loyal followers.
Both F2 and F3 are undersubscribed in terms of entries, and the latter's recent airtime on the BBC hasn't given it anything like the following of the BTCC. F3 cars don't sound exciting, don't look exciting and with rare exceptions do not provide exciting racing. F2 cars which are of course simply last year's F3000 models, albeit with a sensible name sound the part, but as yet the fields are a long way short of strength in depth. F3 is also guilty on the latter count, with Class B cars making up around 50 per cent of the entry at the present time.
With the aforementioned plethora of reasonably healthy formulae bubbling just below F3, now is surely the time for British race organisers - the BRDC, BRSCC and BARC - to put their heads together and come up with a single-seater formula that offers speed, spectacle and an F1 superlicence for the championship winner (to which national F2 and F3 champions are presently entitled in any case).
Something along the lines of Formula Atlantic still thriving in the USA and the Antipodes would fit the bill, and it needs to be organised, promoted and administered properly. Not that the existing mainstream series aren't capably run. They are, but both series have their knockers, and a fresh initiative might give the sport at this level the boost it needs. Basic national media coverage for both series already exists, but the likes of Jason Elliott and Kelvin Burt are hardly household names, whereas several of the better-hyped BTCC stars have become celebrities. Many Saturday afternoon armchair sports aficionados would know what a John Cleland or a Will Hoy was, while they might not recognise a GP midfielder such as Gianni Morbidelli; and they certainly wouldn't have a clue about a Peter Kox.
Around 300 bhp should be enough to fill the gap between Vauxhall Lotus and international F3000. Use control tyres and control fuel, but specify engine regulations that will appeal to several manufacturers, in a bid to encourage factory support. Ensure that the regulations are sufficiently free that engineering flair won't be stifled, but tight enough to keep costs in check. And retain the F2 name, too. FOCA doesn't want to rechristen international F3000, so a suitable, readily identifiable label already exists for a brand new training ground.
Idealistic? Maybe, but right now, there's too much racing spread too thinly amongst too few. Having healthy series for the Renault 5TS and VW Beetle is all very well, but it does not paint an accurate picture of the UK racing scene as a whole.