The idea of Formula 3000 as a replacement for F2 has been around for couple of years, the impetus coming partly as F2 shrivelled and partly due to the final decline of the Cosworth DFV engine.
The main reason why F2 failed was escalating costs and the reluctance of sponsors to invest ever-increasing amounts into a category which attracted relatively small crowds and, in Britain at least, almost no coverage in the popular news media.
In strictly commercial terms, F2 became unviable for the serious sponsors, some of whom had supported it in the late Seventies when cars had to qualify to make the grid. There were exceptions, there might be a national link as with Casio and Ralt-Honda but then F2 is still the major category in Japan. Marlboro is another exception for while the company’s main sponsorship is in F1, it is mindful of its responsibility to motor racing and therefore invests part of its total budget even down to novice FF1600 level. So F2 declined until it became terminally ill and its decline was not helped by the fact that its champions no longer graduated almost automatically into F1.
The decline of the Cosworth engine had been predicted since around 1970 but the sudden collapse in the middle of 1983 caught unawares even those who knew it was going to happen. Oddly enough, though, the market was not suddenly flooded with secondhand Cosworth engines, yet by the beginning of the 1983 season, every team knew it would have redundant Cosworths, even Ken Tyrrell was hoping for that.
Now every team which ran the Cosworth engine (all of them members of FOCA) must have had between ten and twenty engines. When this is multiplied by the number of teams you arrive at a fairly high figure — and a pretty substantial investment.
A racing engine which cannot be raced loses its value rapidly and there are a limited number of hill climbers and Group C Junior teams to absorb all those redundant units. FOCA then stepped in with a proposal which would benefit all, why not replace F2 with Cosworth engines which had a power restriction in the interests, jointly, of not competing too directly with F1 but being a sensible stepping-stone from F3, and of keeping down engine rebuild costs. This was an idea which created immediate excitement, and interest grew as other elements of the package were unfolded. There would be a restriction on wing and tyre size to steer the formula to the classical equation for exciting racing: a car having a little more power than its chassis can easily absorb. Then there would be a sensible prize fund of 100,000 dollars per race. Four of the events would be the main supporting attraction to Grands Prix and there would be television coverage arranged, these last two points being particularly important when drivers try to sell themselves to sponsors. The initial impetus for the formula may have been partly to have given more useful life to a redundant engine, but it is hard to find fault either with the proposition that F2 needed replacing or that F3000 and as accompanying package is the most sensible suggestion for F2’s replacement. All in all, F3000 has benefited by some clever thinking.
FOCA is behind the series and FOCA cannot be seen to fail. Given FOCA’s expertise and resources, this is a great plus. For example, the organisers of the race scheduled at the soi disant “Nurburgring” recently announced they would have to cancel their event for they could not justify the 100,000 dollar purse against their estimation of paying customers. Shortly afterwards we received a happy communication from the organisers announcing that they had reached an agreement with FOCA and their communication paid glowing tribute to FOCA for helping to create the conditions under which the race could proceed. It’s not for us to know what went on behind the scenes, the important thing is that the race will go ahead and everyone appears happy. There were several important FOCA members at Silverstone, led by Bernie Ecclestone, which might explain why Claudio Langes and Alain Ferte were both allowed to start despite setting no official practice time (there would otherwise have been only 15 cars on the grid) while poor Slim Borgudd was denied the some facility at Thruxton which took place on the same day as the Brazilian Grand Prix.
Although all current runners are using Cosworth engines, the formula does not exclude other makes and there have been some rumours of cars fitted with the Ferrari flat-12 appearing some time in the future while, of course, the Alfa Romeo and Matra engines would both be eligible, if available. Carol Chiti is believed to be working on a new unit specially for the formula for the rules merely call for normally aspirated, four-stroke, three-litre engines with no more than 12 cylinders but with a maximum rev limit of 9,000 rpm. A limiter is fitted to the engines which cuts out for one second if the 9,000 rpm limit is exceeded. Clearly nobody wants to lose power going through a corner like Stowe so the teams set the normal rev limiter on the engine to around 8,900 rpm and anyway gear the cars so they cannot exceed that limit. The engine builders have been working to alter the normal characteristics of the Cosworth so now usable power becomes available at around 5,500 rpm. Despite the fact that the cars now have approaching 460 bhp on tap, lap times have so far been fractionally slower than last year’s F2 cars with more than 100 bhp less. There are several reasons for this, one is the dropping of ground effects without increasing the size of wings, though there have been some detail changes in dimensions to allow existing F1 cars to take part. Another factor is a slight increase in minimum weight from 515 kg to 540 kg. The third is that the cars are new and the teams are still learning about them. Two tyre companies are presently supporting the formula, Avon which is producing crossplies and Bridgestone which is supplying radials, and tyre widths remain the same as in F2 with a maximum of 16 inches. Most teams feel that there is very little to chose between the performance of the two makes, Thackwell used Bridgestones to win at Silverstone and Pirro won at Thruxton on Avons. The weather conditions at Silverstone did, however, put drivers using Avon wets at a slight disadvantage during the relatively dry middle period for the compound was slightly too soft and the tyres had lost some of their bite by the time the heavens opened again, but all the Avon users were more than happy with enthusiasm and feed-back they have been receiving from the company which is determined to make a big effort in F3000. There are few technical surprises when one looks at the cars, most have pull or push rod front suspension with rocker arms at the rear, though both Ralt and AGS have mounted their rear spring/damper units longitudinally on top of the gearbox. Outboard brakes all round is the order of the day. Only March and AGS have produced completely new chassis especially for the formula, both are of composite construction and both are very neatly detailed, a feature one did not always readily associate with March’s F2 cars. Of the other competitors to so far appear, the two works Ralts are to much the same design as last year’s aluminium honeycomb F2 cars but then Ron Tauranac spent part of the 1984 season developing the cars with F3000 in mind. The Lola T950 uses the T900 Indycar composite monocoque and appears cumbersome in comparison with its rivals, with a larger (and higher) fuel cell than is strictly needed and a general appearance of unnecessary beefiness.
The Dutch Barron team has two ex-works Tyrrell 012s (012/1 and 012/4) for Roberto Moreno and Claudio Langes but neither driver has yet been particularly impressive in them. PMC has two freshly minted Williams FW08 cars (08/10 and 08/11) for Thierry Tassin and Lamberto Leoni, but these have yet to be sorted properly and neither driver has been very happy with them. The composition of the grids bears some similarity to F2. Minardi has gone to try its luck in F1, but we’re back with Ralt, the Onyx Marches, AGS, the Italian San Remo team running Marches, PMC, Oreca, and BS Fabrications. Barron has moved up from F3 and is expected to be joined by others. The one new works team is the Jean Mosnier-managed Lola outfit which has so far entered just a single car, for Alain Ferte.
Most of the drivers are familiar too. Mike Thackwell is back for his fifth season of knocking on the door of F1, and the current European F2 Champion is clearly the pick of the bunch. He is joined in the Ralt-Bridgestone team by John Nielsen who comes with impeccable credentials from European F3 but who has yet to fully get to grips with F3000, though he did inherit second place at Silverstone when Michel Ferte spun off.
Phillipe Streiff is back for another season but so far the AGS has not allowed him to show his considerable talent, and much the same could be said for Roberto Moreno in a Tyrrell, two starts from seventh on the grid and a sixth place at Silverstone do not do justice to the man, but then neither did a first lap accident at Thruxton.
Christian Danner is in his fifth year of F2/3000, he has made some gradual improvement during his long apprenticeship but has never looked like a winner. Thierry Tassin is another driver who has been in F2 for some time (since 1983) but the Belgian’s learning curve seems to be going in the wrong direction. Tomas Kaiser, on the other hand, is making progress. He surprised everyone with a fine drive in the wet at Brands Hatch last year and his fourth place at Thruxton underlines the fact that he has more to offer than most had once thought.
The Ferte brothers, Michel and Alain are both potential winners given the right machinery, but Alain’s Lola is not yet that machine. Emanuele Pirro, winner at Thruxton and sixth at Silverstone, having started on slicks, looks the becoming Thackwell’s chief challenger, driving the works-related Onyx March.
Of the newcomers the man who has caught everyone’s attention is Garbriele Tarquini. The Italian, a former 125 cc karting World Champion, had done only a dozen F3 races before appearing at Silverstone. He started from the pit lane, survived an early spin out of Woodcote and then after never put a foot wrong to come home fifth. At Thruxton he was never out of the top four qualifiers in his San Remo March and had he started on slicks instead of intermediates, could well have won the race. He is a forceful driver with fire in his belly.
Johnny Dumfries started with much expected of him, especially since he has an F1 testing arrangement with Ferrari. He qualified his Onyx March fourth at Silverstone but spun off and retired on lap two. At Thruxton he started in tenth place, after an unhappy qualifying period, survived a first lap spin and charged up to fifth before pitting to change tyres, to finish eighth at the end. If he finds the money to continue his season, he should be quickly on the pace. Of the other newcomers Eric Lang, who was lacklustre in F3, did a good job in his brand new March at Thruxton, while the Italian, Alessandro Santo in the second San Remo March ran as high as third at Thruxton though on intermediates in wet conditions, and it will be interesting to watch this man’s progress.
The first two races of the year have not yet provided us with many firm pointers to the season for both have been affected by the weather and consequent tyre gambles.
In both cases, the race begun with a wet track but on both occasions the rain had stopped. Mike Thackwell made the right choice each time, starting on wets at Silverstone and slicks at Thruxton. Most of the field began the International Trophy on slicks, and were caught out for the track took a long time to dry out — and then it rained again. About half the Thruxton grid started on slicks and half on intermediates, but the racing line was dry after five or six laps, and stayed dry.
Thackwell led at Silverstone pursued by poleman Michel Ferte who passed him during the middle part of the race when the track was almost dry. Came the rain again, and Thackwell swept back into the lead and kept it, for Ferte had ruined his (wet) tyres by his charge in dryish conditions. With three laps remaining, Ferte spun into the catch fencing at Woodcote, ripping off his nose cone and most of his rear wing, but he reversed out and managed to bring the car home third after John Neilsen had moved up into second place. Neilsen had been deliberately conserving his tyres in the early stages ready for a late charge, but the downpour spoiled his plan.
At Thruxton, it was Thackwell’s turn to sit on pole with Pirro alongside but while Thackwell again made the right choice, Ferte started on intermediates which were a disadvantage after the first nine or 10 laps of 54, so though he led for a while in the early stages, a pit stop to change tyres saw him way down the field, though he recovered to finish a strong third. Thackwell, too, had to pit, having damaged a nose fin on the first lap but came storming back to finish second, less than three seconds behind Pirro who had been in command of the race from lap four when the track had started to dry. Neilsen suffered a sixth lap spin which demolished his nosecone and pulled in at the pits to find that the only spare was the one taken from Thackwell’s car a couple of laps earlier!
It’s early days yet, there are more teams and constructors lining up to join in, and the Lolas and ex-F1 cars must surely improve with testing. Mike Thackwell, Michel Fend and Emanuele Pirro look like the men most likely to succeed, but I would not bet against John Neilsen, Garbriele Tarquini or Johnny Dumfries winning one or more races this year.
The omens look good for the formula so far as the quality of the grids and racing is concerned. Time alone will tell if it is able to provide F1 with future constructors and drivers. — M . L.