FIA ponders F2 options

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Will reborn category eschew the one-make norm? | By Gary Watkins

Could the new Formula 2, devised to be the final stepping-stone to Formula 1 when it is introduced at some unspecified point in the near future, be an open category fought out by multiple chassis and engine suppliers, just like its forebear in days of old? The FIA isn’t saying as much, but the idea is one of a number on the table as it works towards outlining its F2 plans.

Should it decide to allow competition between chassis and engine suppliers, the FIA would buck a trend that stretches back to 1996 and the introduction of one-make Formula 3000 for a spec Lola chassis and Zytek/Judd engines. In the years since then, both GP2 (effectively F3000’s replacement from 2005, though not an FIA category) and Formula Renault 3.5 (which started off as the Nissan-backed World Series in 2002) have become the pre-eminent proving grounds for F1 talent. And they, of course, feature single-make chassis and engines.

The cost concern

Many believe that a free formula would not be workable in the current economic climate. Just ask the bosses of the two British teams that have a representation on various steps of the single-seater ladder in Europe and beyond.

Trevor Carlin, head of the eponymous team that competes in both GP2 and FR3.5, says: “I’d love it to be an open formula, but whether that is achievable, I don’t know. It is probably not the right way to go, because the danger is that costs would spiral out of control. I’m sure F2 will work, but I can’t see it being open to multiple constructors and it isn’t crucial.”

Richard Dutton, whose Fortec squad was a race winner in FR3.5 last season, is more forthright in his opposition. “Do I think an open formula would be workable? I definitely don’t,” he says. “The only way a constructor could keep the costs down is to build a lot of cars; and there’s a big difference between building five cars and the 30 required to make it viable.”

The boss of Italian constructor Tatuus, which builds the Formula Renault 2.0 spec chassis, agrees that open competition between constructors would inevitably lead to higher costs. “Open formulae always mean greater costs,” says Gianfranco De Bellis. “And if you did make it an open formula, it could be that one constructor would dominate and have a monopoly.”

The last point is a reference to Formula 3. The category has remained open to competition between chassis makers, but Dallara has enjoyed a near-monopoly – certainly in terms of success in Europe – since the mid-1990s.

A choice of engines

If you accept that F3 is a de facto one-make formula in terms of chassis, it might offer a template for F2. Multiple engine suppliers are allowed and the category is supported by manufacturers in its last two remaining strongholds, the FIA F3 European Championship and the All-Japan F3 Championship. One possibility under discussion by the FIA’s Single-Seater Commission as it works toward unveiling its F2 concept at the July meeting of the World Motor Sport Council, is the use of the 2-litre direct-injection turbo engines introduced into Super GT in Japan last season and due to arrive in the DTM in 2017.

That would open up F2 to six manufacturers – three each from the DTM and Super GT – and the potential support that comes with the involvement of major car firms. The freedom of engine supply works in F3 because manufacturers support the category to varying degrees. The same is true in Super Formula, the spiritual successor of F3000 in Japan, which runs a Dallara one-make chassis and Super GT-based engines from Toyota and Nissan.

The need for support

Without manufacturer backing, the idea would probably be a non-starter. Nick Langley, who was heavily involved in F3000 before and after it became a spec formula during his long stint with Lola, points out that engine costs are as significant a proportion of a season’s budget as the purchase of a chassis.

“What gets lost in the discussions is that the chassis costs make up a fairly insignificant part of running a team,” says Langley, who went on to work for Dallara and Zytek and now has a role at Multimatic Motorsport. “All the focus is on that one item, but it is not where they are spending all the money. Engine costs are normally quite a lot higher than chassis costs.”

The LMP2 model

This point has been identified by the rule makers of the LMP2 prototype division, another category that could offer some inspiration to the group led by former Ferrari F1 boss Stefano Domenicali, the new president of the Single-Seater Commission.

LMP2 is successful and allows for competition between engine suppliers at the moment, but when a new rule book is introduced for 2017 there will be a spec engine across all the category’s arenas with the exception of the United SportsCar Championship. The FIA and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest at Le Mans believe this is an area where significant savings can be made.

It is an obvious move, even to someone who stands to lose by it. Bill Gibson, whose company is one of the major suppliers of engines (Nissans) under its former name of Zytek, says: “If I was looking at it from the outside, I’d probably think it was a good idea. It is the obvious way to reduce budgets.”

The LMP2 category will remain an open chassis formula when the new rules come into force, but with a twist. The number of constructors granted licences to build cars will be limited. The plan is for this number to be four, with one spot to be reserved for a US company, although this has yet to be confirmed. For Gibson, whose organisation is also a supplier of chassis, it is an unnecessary limitation, working on the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mantra.

A statement from the ACO talks about creating a sustainable business case for the constructors who need to build a significant number of cars to amortise development costs. But Gibson suggests that some chassis are being sold at a significant loss, pointing out that one in the paddock “is a million-pound car”.

These are just some of the issues that Domenicali and his group will be facing as they strive to come up with the F2 concept in time for the summer. D-day is the July meeting of the FIA World Motor Sport Council.

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