Flying in economy class

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Formula 2 is back as a low-budget championship capable of eclipsing current F1 feeder series GP2
By Ed Foster

To do a full season of GP2 – the established feeder series for Formula 1 – you need to turn up at a team’s door with over £1 million. Very expensive, especially in the face of a recession.

In the interests of cutting costs, last July the FIA launched its plan for the first international Formula 2 championship in 25 years. Typically, the brief was for a spec formula, but here was the key: “It is hoped that the cost to the competitor for a calendar year, to include full participation in all official testing and events, could be in the region of 200,000 euros.” At this price, the FIA also wanted more than 400bhp and the chassis to conform to 2005 Formula 1 safety regulations. High demands at such a relatively low price.

On September 15 MotorSport Vision, the company run by 1983 F2 champion Jonathan Palmer, was officially awarded the tender to commission chassis and engines, and promote and run the entire operation.

“We had over 100 people who registered their interest in the championship,” says Palmer at the new car’s launch at Brands Hatch. “How many could raise the money I don’t know, but I think we could have filled a 30-car grid. We had to make a financial commitment though on how many cars we were going to build before we knew how many drivers we were going to get. You have to plan around a number and originally we planned on 20 cars.” Once the applications started flooding in, an extra four cars were added to that total.

The price was a huge draw for drivers, and so too is the promise of equality: MSV will operate all 24 cars from its Bedford base, negating the need for individual teams. Drivers will be able to adjust the front and rear anti-roll bars, dampers, wing settings, cambers, tracking, tyre pressures, ride heights and probably the front spring preloads, but fundamentally and most importantly, no driver will have an advantage because they have a deeper back pocket.

Andy Soucek, who has previously raced in GP2, is one of the most experienced drivers on the F2 grid for the coming season. “Drivers like me, they find a barrier sometimes in their career and that was my case last year in GP2 when the results were not what we expected,” he says. “In this series everything is run by the same organisation and that is one of the attractions, because we will see who is quicker. I’ll try to go for the championship because obviously we don’t have an iSport team [a successful GP2 front-runner], and if Julien [Jousse] or Germán [Sánchez] beat me I will know that it’s not because of the car, it’s because of them.

“People in GP2 think it’s a step back, but I think it’s the right step at the moment as I’m pretty sure they are going to push the winner of the championship into F1. I’m now looking at how people are struggling with GP2 to get the budgets, and I’m pretty sure there are going to be a lot of seats available in the middle of the year because people are going to run out of money.”
The F2 line-up features drivers from 15 different countries, including Lithuania, but the series almost reads like a who’s who of famous drivers’ sons. Henry Surtees, Alex Brundle, Jolyon Palmer and Jack Clark (the stepson of Julian Bailey) have all signed up, which does tend to suggest it’s the right direction for young drivers to go in. If anyone would know, it’s a father who has been up the motor sport ladder before.

But getting drivers to fill the spaces was the easy part. The main problem was building a car that would conform to the 2005 F1 safety regulations. Before the FIA had even gone public on the F2 idea, Jonathan Palmer and Williams’ Patrick Head had already started discussing – “over a bottle of wine” as Head remembers – a new formula that would be a step up from the current Formula Palmer Audi, in this case a Formula Williams Palmer.

“When I first heard about the F2 car I wasn’t particularly impressed as I feared it would interfere with our F1 programme,” admits Sir Frank Williams. “But Patrick put together a quite separate group, and it’s caused us no problems and has in fact provided for me an interesting financial lesson. I just don’t understand how you can go racing so cheaply, it’s extraordinary.”

“The big challenge was to make a car to cost and I think Jonathan, when he’s writing out the bills, may think we’ve failed,” adds Head. “But it’s quite a challenge to design a simple car. You’ll see that it’s got quite simple surfaces, but we needed to have good performance, so that’s why it’s got the shaped undersides. They aren’t too complex, but the car still has a reasonable level of downforce.

“I was also very sensitive to not loading the F1 side of the company. I didn’t want to give Sam [Michael, Williams’ technical director] an excuse for why the 2009 F1 car might not be fast enough, so I worked hard to make sure that one of the only parts [we got help with] was on the construction side – I was a bit rusty with some of my calculations on anti-roll bars and things…

The other main area that we got help with was on the car’s aerodynamics. There was no budget to do a full wind tunnel-based aero programme, so it was decided right from the start that we would use a CFD programme.

“They did a very good job, but it was literally one contract CFD guy and we had him for two and a half months. Nathan Eagles [Williams’ head of CFD] met him every two or three days and it was an interesting process, but really it was only on this that we used any F1 resources.”

The Williams chassis is powered by an Audi 1.8-litre turbo engine that produces 400bhp and, in common with the Formula Palmer Audi units, has a boost button that in the F2 car will push the horsepower up to 450bhp for six seconds at a time. “To get the power that was required, reliably and on the price, it had to be a production-based engine,” says Palmer. “To get 400bhp you need either a turbocharged engine or a V8. A V8 is very heavy out of a road car and you’re going to get a very big, lumpy race car, so a turbo four was the logical way to go. We’d already had great success with Audi in FPA, so we took the view that keeping this engine and developing it would be the right way forward. Mountune did a really good job of turning it into a race engine and at the moment there’s no association with Audi in its initial year. For year two we are certainly expecting to have an engine partner in the programme.”

So how has MSV kept the costs so low when it’s had no financial help from the FIA? “Firstly, we don’t spend money making one car faster than the other,” explains Palmer. “One of the reasons GP2 is so expensive is because you’ve got engineers all striving to find a competitive advantage, and that costs a huge amount of money. The second thing is that we’re working on economies of scale. Rather than transporting two cars in a truck, we transport eight. We are running 24 cars, so in essence we’re a 24-car team. We run all the cars together, we have one team manager, and two or three people in the office on administration duties and so on.”

The cars cost £150,000 to build, but Palmer is operating on a five-year lifespan and is keen to point out that the series is something that could easily be sold to other countries in the future: “Once we get F2 under way it’ll make sense to see how it can be rolled out across other territories and to see whether or not we can reduce the cost of motor racing for more drivers in Asia, South America and North America.”

The championship winner will get an F1 test with Williams and the top three finishers will all receive super-licences, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll make the F1 grid. So will F2 become a key feeder series for F1?

GP2 series boss Bruno Michel was recently asked whether he saw F2 as a threat. Predictably he doesn’t, because the cars aren’t as powerful as GP2 and the series will run mostly in conjunction with the World Touring Car Championship, not with F1. What Michel avoided mentioning was that his 2008 champion, GP2 veteran Giorgio Pantano, has been noticeably ignored by every F1 team. It’s a major failing.

Equally predictably, Frank Williams is talking up F2’s influence. “GP2 is currently the stepping stone, notionally at least, into F1,” he says. “F2 will certainly be equal to that, it will challenge that and people will be looking now at two streams into F1.”

This time next year we’ll know if he’s right. F2 will be judged solely on its ability to catapult young stars into F1. Nothing less will do.