At last years Daily Express International Trophy, the first-ever F3000 race, the 110% rule was waived to boost the grid to 17 starters. Seventeen was a fairly typical field throughout 1985 and though a total of 33 drivers raced in the formula, there were only six driver-car combinations which contested every round and these finally occupied the top six places in the Championship.
Silverstone on April 13th saw the opening round of this year’s series and though this time the 110% rule was firmly applied, no fewer than 31 cars took the start. Wet practice sessions had turned qualifying into something of a lottery which accounted for five runners missing the cut while a 37th entry, James Weaver’s RAM 04 was excluded for running underweight in practice.
To see a similar entry for a European single-seater race of this importance we have to go back to the 1978 F2 season, so why is F3000 suddenly so healthy? Since every entrant needs to convince a sponsor that his programme is worthwhile, one of the reasons is the economics of the formula.
The £250,000 it costs for a season is much the same as the latter days of F2 with the exception that every single race (bar Silverstone) will be televised in its entirety and FOCA is hard at work ensuring that originated signals are taken by other countries. When short television commercials can cost well into seven figures to make, let alone transmit, this degree of exposure is attractive.
The cars themselves look and sound like F1 cars of recent memory but with tyre and aerofoil size limited, they are examples of the classic formula for spectacular racing: the engine develops more power than the chassis can easily use.
Probably the most important fact is that the formula started with a clean sheet of paper and behind it is a shrewd guiding intelligence, that of Bernie Ecclestone. A feature from the beginning has been a restriction to 9,000 rpm which has had the effect of equalising power output and producing reliability. This year, for the first time ever in a series of this stature, a single control tyre has been specified which both equalises the field and keeps costs down.
Avon has won the contract to supply crossply racing rubber, which is basically last year’s “B” compound for dry conditions but “free” for the wet. A set of tyres costs £475 (ex VAT) and have a life of 150-220 miles, which means that per racing mile, F3000 tyres work out cheaper than F3 or, indeed, FF1600.
We are seeing a formula being kept in control for its own good, rather like Bill France controls the immensely successful NASCAR series in the States, instead of rule-making by committee and rule-stretching by individuals which has been so much a part of Fl in recent years.
Quite a number of people in F3000 refer to the formula as “Bernie’s fall-back plan” prepared against the day when the F1 bubble bursts. This is only speculation but it’s an interesting view in the light of some of the comments made by former FOCA legal adviser, Max Mosley, elsewhere in this issue.
Last year a number of F3000 teams chose to use ex-F1 cars and this turned out to be a disaster because even though suspension and aerodynamics could be modified to accommodate smaller tyres, the basic weight distribution was all wrong, for F1 cars have to accommodate more than twice the fuel load of F3000 cars and the fuel cell is therefore correspondingly larger. Along with those teams which tried ex-F1 cars can be counted those which used the Indy-derived Lola T950 chassis which managed only a couple of fifths and a sixth place.
This year, Lola has secured the services of Ralph Bellamy, designer of the March 858, and has also aggressively gone after new customers securing, among others, B S Automotive which guided Christian Danner to the first Championship. The Lola T86/50 looks remarkably like last year’s March (you’d hardly expect the same designer to come up with something radically different especially since the March was the class car of 1985) but there have been a lot of subtle changes incorporated, with the engine mass a little further forward etc.
Both March and Ralt have pursued refinement of last year’s cars rather than new concepts. Externally, the March 868 is most noticeably different due to its enclosed engine bay but Onyx Race Engineering, which runs the works-associated team, is running cars with an exposed engine because the new engine cover will not accommodate the longer air trumpets which Onyx is using. These apparently give better response low in the engine range and were used by BSA last year.
Ralt has started to sell customer versions of its latest chassis, to be fitted with Cosworth engines while the works team uses new Honda V8 units developed by John Judd’s Engine Developments. Engine Developments is playing this particular card close to its chest and giving away nothing about what is inside the unit. James Weaver, who has been testing the car for Ralt, commented on the engine’s extraordinary flexibility. During testing, a problem with the transmission caused him to start the car in gear on the button — and it took off! He says that the way the engine revs suggests that it is very light inside.
John Judd developed the F3 VW engine and, realising that the air restrictor was the crucial part in the equation, went for low internal friction. Given the 9.000 rpm restriction which operates in F3000 (Glen Monk has produced an improved rev restnctor which fades rather than kills the power) and given the increasing use of low friction materials such as ceramics and composite coatings in engines, and Honda is at the forefront of this technology, we suggested to a representative of Engine Developments that such might be the case of the new engine. He thought for a moment and said that there was no “space age technology” in the engine. That’s as much as we know because that’s as much as anyone’s prepared to say.
John MacDonald’s RAM Automotive, currently out of F1 has produced a neat little version of last year’s Gustav Brunner-designed RAM 03 F1 car. It follows the general layout of the F1 car but has a smaller monocoque, different weight distribution, and weighs little more than a current F3 car.
James Weaver. everyone’s favourite stand-in (when is his talent going to be rewarded with a settled season?), found that it had a tendency to snap out of line and spin its wheels, which is not amusing when the 9.000 rpm limit is reached and there is no longer any more power, but he managed to tame it and was making progress with its development when it came to weighing after the first practice session. It was found to be under weight and was excluded.
As well as an ex-F1 team in F3000, the category is also attracting ex-F1 drivers who are anxious to reconstruct their careers. There’s Philippe Alliot, after two unsuccessful years with RAM; Ivan Capelli, who scored points with Tyrrell at Adelaide last year; and Pierluigi Martini, who did not shine with Minardi in 1985. None of them are stars but perhaps we’re seeing the start of F3000 occupying a position similar to the soccer Division Two, a category into which the “relegated” can descend and, by earnest effort and the purging of unwonted ambition, once again regain the heights.
While everything appears to look good for F3000, there is one area of doubt and that is ts financial viability so far as organisers are concerned. Last year we saw races cancelled, races re-scheduled and races subsidised by FOCA. In creating a professional package, FOCA has included a sensible prize fund. Last year, it cost $100,000 to stage an F3000 race, this year it costs $150.000 to guarantee the prize fund Donington and Thruxton have both bowed out, knowing that they cannot cover their costs and those of us used to seeing the second most important European single seater category at the Easter Monday Thruxton meeting this year had to put up with Interserie, which sounded like a good idea but which turned out to be an odd collection of amateurish cars and drivers,
Two years ago, it cost Silverstone £38,000 to pay for F2 cars at the International Trophy. This year the bill was £107,000 and though the programme was, on paper. the next best to the Grand Prix we’re likely to see in Britain this year (Birmingham excluded because l’s an unknown quantity) attendance was disappointingly small. The weather played its part, the rain god clearly makes the International Trophy the chief victim of his malevolence no matter what time of year is chosen, but the fans did not turn up.
It’s too late to repair the situation so far as this year’s Silverstone race is concerned but the message is that F3000 is F1 as you remember it. It’s relaxed, exciting, close, and you can wander about the paddock without being stopped by gorillas in peaked caps who share the same bowls as their Alsatians.
The International Trophy gave no clear indications how the 1986 F3000 season might turn out, for the qualifying sessions were something of a lottery and the race itself, as we’ll see, was fraught with unusual circumstances. What one can say is that Ralt, March and Lola chassis are all on the pace and that if the two examples of Honda V8 in the series have an advantage over the otherwise ubiquitous Cosworth DFV, it was not in evidence.
The first practice session had been so wet and variable, that nobody was paying serious attention to the times and everyone’s attention was concentrated on the second 30 minute session.
Though still wet enough for grooved tyres, the track was drying as the cars lined up in the pit lane. Then there were some heavy drops of rain as they set off. Old Silverstone hands, Russell Spence (backed by Warmastyle Racing for Britain), Gary Evans and British F3 Champion Mauricio Gugelmin obviously thought the rain had come to stay and were all away rapidly to set times before the weather closed in. Spence secured pole temporarily with his first flying lap, then Gugelmin took it from him and the relatively inexperienced American, Jeff Macpherson. was well up too.
The rain didn’t return, the track dried and by the end it was a case of getting onto the track with slick tyres and praying for a clear run which, given the numbers on the track and the closeness of their power outputs, was a pretty vain hope. The final positions were: 1, Fabre (Lola); 2, Nielsen (Ralt); 3, Spence (March); 4, Thackwell (Lola): 5, Macpherson (March); 6. Pirro (March); 7, Evans (Lola); 8, Leoni (March); 9, Gugelmin (March): 10. Santin (Lola).
At midday on the Sunday the cars set off for 30 minutes of untimed warm-up in race trim. On his second complete lap. Russell Spence overcooked it at Woodcote and hit the catch fencing. It looked like his weekend’s work was over but with the assistance of Roger Cowman’s team, whose driver Cor Euser had missed the grid by a whisker, the men of Eddie Jordan Racing prepared the car for the race. Generally a good form guide for the race, the warm up saw Tomas Kaiser quickest from Ivan Capelli, Ernanuele Pirro, Mauricio Gugelmin, Andrew Gilbert Scott, Philippe Alliot, Pascal Fabre, Mike Thackwell, Mario Hytten and Ken Johnson — five in Lolas and five in Marches.
No clear pattern had emerged from the practice sessions though it was all very interesting. The three British F3 graduates, Spence, Evans and Gilbert Scott had all gone well, Jeff Macpherson had belied his inexperience of wet racing, Pascal Fabre showed no signs of a 22 month lay-off. Rosberg’s protege, the German F3 Champion, Volker Weidler. looked good. Tomas Kaiser, who is coached by James Hunt was showing the benefits which come from the better organising of his career, and so on down the list.
Rain started to appear as the field set off on the warm-up lap but everyone started on slicks. Spence got a superb start from the second row and led Fabre, Nielsen, Macpherson, Thackwell, Pirro and Evans on a dampish track. Fabre took the lead on lap three but then the red flags came out for Saturo Nakajima’s works Ralt was blocking the track at Becketts. The three times Japanese F2 Champion had been punted from behind, hit a barrier and bounced back onto the track.
A re-start was arranged in the order the cars had been at the end of lap two. The rain was getting worse, there was a wholesale changing of tyres and softening of settings and everyone prepared to do battle again on a track which was wet enough to bring the oil and dirt to the surface but not to wash it away.
Spence again led from Fabre, Nielsen, Weidler, Pirro, Macpherson, Thackwell, Gilbert Scott and Alliot Then second time through Stowe, Weidler took his Ralt into the lead. As the field came into Woodcote for the third time it was Weidler. Spence, Pirro, Fabre, Nielsen. Thackwell, Gilbert Scott, Alliot and Thierry Tassin, but Alliot missed the chicane. Later he went onto the grass, damaged his underbody and scooped up enough debris into his radiators to cause his retirement through overheating. Of the other ex-F1 men, Capelli suffering a cracked exhaust which led to his retirement and Martini simply did not figure.
Pirro took Spence fourth time through Woodcote, while back in 11th place Kaiser was motoring rapidly. By lap eight Pirro was on Weidler’s tail, Fabre had demoted Spence to fourth, the first tail-ender had been lapped and Gilbert Scott had brushed a barrier causing just enough damage to retire.
Pirro took the lead on lap 10, by which time the rain was heavier, and he began to pull out slightly. By lap 15, the order was Pirro, Weidler, Fabre, Spence, Nielsen and Thackwell, all fairly close, then a gap to Tassin, Alessandro Santin, Kaiser and Evans.
As the field ended its 19th lap, Tassin approached Woodcote with a dead engine. He cut out the chicane and coasted up the straight. Like many of the field he was not showing a rear light, despite very poor visibility. Instead of pulling onto the grass. Tassin unstrapped himself and, half out of the car, was looking behind presumably for an opportunity to coast across to the pit wall. Several cars avoided him at the last moment for drivers check their instruments on the straight and give their visors a wipe. Dominique Delestre did not see the near-stationary car until too late and drove straight into it at roughly the change-up point to fifth gear, which means 145 mph.
Both drivers sustained broken arms and Delestre had to be cut from his car. It speaks volumes for the Marches involved that their iniuries were not far worse. Tassin’s act in not parking his car safely on the grass was one of almost unbelieveable stupidity.
The yellow flags went out but there was debris across the track. Spence had his front wing deranged on some and Weidler suffered a rear puncture. It was cruel fortune for both newcomers after excellent performances. Pirro, who had had a six second lead was slowed by backmarkers and lost further time on the finishing straight in avoiding the debris. He still led on lap 23 when the red flags came out but, on aggregate (two laps + 22 laps) lost out to Fabre by just over a second.
On his 23rd lap, Nielsen who was battling for third with Thackwell, had his engine go but the race was officially over so he finished third with Thackwell fourth. Kaiser fifth and Santin sixth.
Since only 24 from a scheduled 44 laps had been completed, half points were awarded.
It was a sorry end to what had promised to be one of the most exciting and interesting races in Britain for years. It was something the drivers, the teams, the organisers and F3000 as a whole did not deserve.
The race provided no clear indication as to how the season might develop. The fact that Lola dominated the results gives a false impression of superiority. Any one of a dozen drivers could emerge as Champion. More teams and drivers were expected at the next round at Vallelunga on May 4th and there is the promise of BMW and Lamborghini engines. We’re in for a terrific season.