Feeder formulae: some names make it to the F1 peak, others disappear without trace. But the racing is always close
The first GP2 races at Imola were a qualified success. One highlight was British F3 graduate Adam Carroll, who showed real promise and won the second race. GP2 has replaced Formula 3000 as the Ecclestone-backed feeder for F1 and, like its predecessor, aims to seek out true talent by ensuring all the cars are equal. So every chassis is the same Dallara, the engines — 4-litre Mecachrome V8s — are sealed, and tyres are uniform.
It’s a motorsport truism that a driver’s equipment is a major factor in his success or failure. All the way up the motor racing ladder a well-funded driver will always have an advantage over one less fortunate, and it takes real cockpit ability to break that vicious circle. To address this inequality, many promoters have been seduced by the idea of races with cars that really are evenly matched, so the contest becomes one of pure driver skill. But for the spectator mechanical variety is a plus, and too many one-make races can become dull.
An early effort was the Monomill formula in France in the early 1950s. Hordes of rather crude DB single-seaters, using the flat-twin 850cc Panhard engine, were taken from circuit to circuit, and the drivers, having paid a fee, drew numbers out of a hat to select their mount for each race. The racing was certainly close, but it failed to excite the spectators. (The DB later earned a kind of anorak fame with the coming of the 2.5-litre F1, when the rules first set the formula as 2500cc unsupercharged or 750cc supercharged. Two DB Monomills were linered down to 750cc and supercharged, and ran pitifully slowly in the 1955 Pau Grand Prix.)
Forty years ago the feeder formulae were easy to follow. F3, with 1000cc production-based pushrod engines, led logically to F2, which allowed proper racing engines of 1000cc and, from 1967, 1600cc. The 1-litre F3 provided sensationally close racing from varied chassis — Brabham, Lotus, Matra, Lola and others — even if all the successful engines were Ford 105E-based. When F3 drivers moved up to F2 they found themselves racing against active F1 drivers, who were happy to take part in the category when the dates didn’t clash with F1. And the costs didn’t constitute a big jump from F3, because most cars used an off-the-peg four-cylinder Cosworth engine which was fairly economical to maintain. Thus F2 provided a platform for comparative outsiders such as Alan Rees, Kurt Ahrens, Eric Offenstadt and Frank Gardner to show their form against grand prix heroes. It also allowed F1 racers with less competitive seats, like Jochen Rindt in his Cooper-Maserati days, to show that, with equal equipment, they could beat world champions.
Then along came Formula Ford to fill the void below F3, and the world was never quite the same again. It was a neat idea: take a standard production engine — with the approval of its manufacturer — and put it in a simple but modern single-seater chassis (unlike Formula Vee, which clung to VW’s archaic suspension). Run it on ordinary road tyres, keep a tight rein on permitted engine modifications and scrutineer it properly to keep the cheats out. From the start Formula Ford provided affordable single-seater racing in cars that were contemporary in concept, and it was an immediate and immense success.
Ford’s support of FF did its performance image no harm at all and eventually other manufacturers copied, leading to a confusing profusion of such formulae from Vauxhall, Renault, Nissan, BMW and others. Now many of us cast nostalgic eyes towards the days when Formula Ford was the only real choice for a hungry young driver eager to make his mark.
In its best years, the Brands Hatch FF Festival at the end of each season provided a magnificent weekend of budding talent and close racing, with winners who went on to greatness — Irvine, Herbert, Button and Webber — or never found the greatness they may have deserved, for instance Coyne, Serra and Palhares. In 1985 Johnny Herbert crashed in practice and started his heat from the back with a 10-second penalty. He was sixth, then fourth in his quarter-final, second in the semi and won the final. Four years later the Festival was at its zenith: 170 starters from 21 countries and an incredible final in heavy rain. Dutchman Michael Vergers went into the Druids gravel on lap one and dropped to last, but fought back to third by lap 12. By now Brazilian Niko Palhares, despite a spin himself, was leading from 18-year-old David Coulthard, but Vergers got past the Scot and was closing on Palhares when the flag fell. No overtaking problems in FF. Vergers and Palhares were heroes that day but their careers didn’t get much further, while five years later Coulthard was on the F1 ladder.
Look back at the results of any feeder formula from a few years back and it’s always the same: a lot of half-remembered names — whatever happened to Skiaker, Barcellos and Kreutzpoinmer? — punctuated by the odd star in the making who went on to shine brightly. Whether GP2 will provide the same remains to be seen. But I hope that one-make formulae don’t take motorsport over completely. Even a VSCC race made up of nothing but Bugatti Type 35s wouldn’t be quite right.