Limited revolution

When Formula Two was fading, Bernie Ecclestone came up with an alternative. — A new home for a castrated DFV. By Damien Smith

Michel Ferté was on a mission. This was going to be a tight finish. The Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit is a daunting challenge at the best of times, but in this weather it was lethal. The race had been stopped after 31 laps when the threatened downpour was finally unleashed. Now there was to be a soggy 19-lap splash to the flag.

Against expectations, Michelin wets were the thing to have. Roberto Moreno’s Bridgestone-shod Ralt-Honda slithered backwards to fifth on the road, his 19sec advantage at the end of the first part of the race quickly turned into a deficit. He was no longer in the hunt.

All eyes were on Ferté instead. He was throwing his Martini-BMW through the ever-deepening rivers that ran across track. He had been 90sec behind Moreno when the red flags were shown. Now he was second overall — and leader Philippe Streiff was in his sights.

As they started lap 15, the Martini was right on the tail of the AGS. Four laps to go and a straight fight to the flag. Except time was shorter than they realised. The man with the chequer was ordered to wave it early, at the end of this lap, as the Kent water table reached saturation point. Streiff’s first win at this level was safe; Ferté could only flick a Gallic gesture at the flagman and walk away feeling robbed.

The date was September 23, 1984. The last-ever European Formula Two race was over. For 18 years The European Championship had provided a finishing school for aspiring grand prix drivers, but in its early seasons it had been more than that. In the late 1960s and early ’70s Formula One stars were still happy to step down a rung (for the right fee), handing golden opportunities to young turks to make their names by beating the establishment. These ‘graded’ drivers were not eligible for the championship, which explains why Jochen Rindt, F2’s most celebrated hero and the man whose 12 victories put him top of its winners’ list, never claimed the European title.

By the mid-1970s, the trend for F1 drivers to be F1 drivers only had begun. Formula Two was still relevant as a proving ground, but it was questionable whether it was essential for rising stars: Nelson Piquet skipped it entirely, Alain Prost notched up just a few F2 starts.

Between 1967 (when the European title was created) and ’77, eight of the 11 champions went on to win grands prix. But not one of the final seven champions — Bruno Giacometh, Marc Surer, Brian Henton, Geoff Lees, Corrado Fabi, Jonathan Palmer and Mike Thackwell — took a single victory at the highest level. There’s plenty of talent in that list and, in Thackwell, a potential superstar. But for the likes of Ayrton Senna, F2 offered little on the back of a stellar F3 campaign. With the right degrees of talent and career momentum, drivers could jump F2 without a backward glance.

There were other problems, too. By 1984, the production-based four-cylinder BMW engine that had been the backbone of the category was heading into its 12th season. Numerically, it still dominated. But Honda’s V6 was now the force and development costs were soaring as the BMW tuners tried to keep up.

Mike Earle, whose Onyx team ran the works March-BMWs, knew that F2’s days were numbered, especially when Raft stretched an unbeaten winning streak to 12 races over the course of 1983 and ’84: “We got off to a reasonable start in ’83 with Beppe Gabbiani, but after Pau the Honda became unbeatable. The BMWs were becoming more and more stressed and began to suffer a lot of failures. It became horrendously expensive.” Barry Bland, who ran the F2 Association on behalf of the teams and circuit owners, adds that the problems went beyond the engines: “For the last three years of F2, all the teams and the press were critical. Firstly because of the engine situation and how they could get the costs down. Secondly, they wanted a control tyre. At the time the FIA said it couldn’t be done because of European competition law, but then they did introduce it to Formula 3000.

“The other thing that the press and the teams complained about was the F2 name because it meant ‘secondary’. We always said to them, ‘Well, of course, the formula is secondary. You’ve got F3, F2 and F1, and everybody understands that.’ But there was a lot of feeling against it.” It was Bernie Ecclestone who came up with an alternative. Predictably, cynics suggested that his motivation for change was not entirely benevolent, that his idea was a money maker for his grand prix people rather than a survival package for the junior teams. The Cosworth DFV that had served F1 so well and was exactly the same age as the Euro F2 series had been shoved aside by the turbos, and Ecclestone was planning to give the V8 a new lease of life. Unsurprisingly, team bosses Frank Williams and Ken Tyrrell, both of whom were finally switching over to turbos for 1984 and who had plenty of DFVs to offload, welcomed the idea. The seed of Formula 3000 had been sown.

Thackwell, the last European F2 champion, is in no doubt about the reasons for F3000’s creation: “It was political. Someone made good business out of it. It didn’t help that F2 was being dominated and people didn’t have the money anymore either. F3000 was supposed to be cheaper but actually it didn’t make any difference to budgets.” Ecclestone pitched his idea to FISA late in 1983 with the intention of launching the series for the following season. But the timescale was too short and he was forced to postpone until ’85. The F2 teams were hostile to change when Ecclestone’s proposal was first mooted, but as Ralt, Honda and Thackwell continued to rack up the wins, they almost unanimously came around. “Over time we conceded that it was a jolly good idea,” says Earle.

The DFV was to be limited to 9000rpm in F3000, producing around 450bhp (150 up on F2), and there was no time to waste. In August, Thackwell tested a Williams FWO8C fitted with an electronic rev-limiter at Donington Park under the scrutiny of FISA technical boss Gabriel Cadringher, Earle, ORECA’s Hugues de Chaunac, Bland and Dick Scammell from Cosworth. The system was deemed a resounding success.

But Thackwell questioned whether the power for what was supposed to be the final stepping stone to Fl should really be strangulated: “I remember wondering if this was a good thing. It’s not as if we were novices. It led me to question myself about the sport I grew up with the idea that you pushed everything to the limit. That’s why I wanted to do F1 as a kid.”

As 18 years of European F2 history drew to a close, Ralt, March, AGS and Lola prepared cars for the new F3000. Given the short lead time, it was no surprise that the Rah RT20 and March 85B were both developments of the previous F2 cars, the RH6/84 and 842. But these compromise solutions, featuring the flat-bottom rules that F2 would have adopted had it survived, proved very effective.

“Everybody was up for it,” says Earle. “Drivers loved it because they had more power than grip. That was there in F2, but not to the same extent.”

Thackwell was happy to see the back of ground-effect cars: “They were pigs to drive. You got no feedback the faster they went, the less you got. F3000 cars were more fun and sounded lovely.” The transition, as one might expect, was not entirely smooth, however. FISA batted away a late call for a control tyre (but only until 1986), while the limiter proved sensitive to high temperatures, which led to some unnecessary retirements. Also 9000rpm was slap bang in the middle of the Cosworth’s harmonic range, causing a vibration problem. DFVs had revved through and beyond this in Formula One, so it had not been such an issue for grand prix cars.

Grids were not as healthy as Ecclestone might have wished in 1985, just 11 starters at Pau setting the lowest watermark in F3000 history, but four races supporting European grands prix gave it a promotional boost. And in Christian Danner, it had a surprise first champion. The German and his privateer BS Automotive March won four races to Thackwell’s three and deserved the title.

Nearly 20 years later F3000 has run its course. In 1986, Honda reunited with Raft and for the next 10 years chassis and engine manufacturers contributed to a thriving open formula. But as costs again soared, the category embraced one-make control. Most deemed it inevitable. From 1996, Lola built the chassis, Zytek the V8 engines, Avon the tyres. And like F2 before it, F3000 served its purpose — but only so far. It was still not an essential move for the superstars: Michael Schumacher contested only one F3000 race (in Japan), Mika Hakkinen none at all. And of its champions only Jean Alesi (1989), Olivier Panis (’93) and Juan Pablo Montoya (’98) have won a grand prix.

And what about that name?

When the category was given the nod in the summer of 1984, F3000 was only a provisional title. The fact that it referred to its engine’s size meant nothing to the public at large. “We all had lots of ideas,” says Earle. “I was actually in favour of keeping the F2 name; F3000 was very difficult to explain. There were all sorts of things flying about like Grand Prix Junior or Formula One Junior. It was an issue we never resolved.” As the next feeder category to Fl is launched, that second-best tag is still a worry. Instead of F2, a name which had looked set to be revived, be prepared for the Renault-backed Formula GP2 in 2005. It’s a fudge — then again, so was F3000. That’s the problem when a series’ raison d’être is to be secondbest, forever living in the shadow of the pinnacle.

Tauranac, Thackwell and Honda V6: perfection spells the end

To blame a dominant team for destroying a category is a little harsh, especially when that team is only doing what it’s supposed to. But even Ralt founder Ron Tauranac admits that his Honda-powered cars hammered the final nail into Formula Two’s coffin.

The Casio-backed cars had come on strong in the second half of 1983 and Jonathan Palmer capitalised to claim the European title. The Japanese V6 had set a new benchmark, but Tauranac resents the implication that Ralt’s success was simply down to brute strength.

“Everyone always says we had a huge power advantage, but the engine had disadvantages, too: the Honda was about 100Ibs heavier and its exhausts were pointing at the ground, so we couldn’t have a diffuser. The fuel injection wasn’t very good either.”

Honda’s V6 made its first appearance midway through 1980, and by the start of ’84 the combination with Ralt’s chassis had been perfected. At the first race, the International Trophy at Silverstone, the opposition’s worst fears were rammed home. Mike Thackwell and Roberto Moreno waltzed into the distance. They even resorted too ‘demonstration’ duel to entertain the crowd. The idea was for Moreno to win on his F2 debut, but as the pair ‘battled’ into Woodcote’s chicane on the last lap, they managed to trip over themselves. Thackwell trailed over the line to win, as Moreno recovered from a spin to complete the 1-2 (in the wrong order). Rather embarrassing, but ultimately more so for F2’s other teams than Ralt and Honda.

Tauranac: “Our drivers could go round sweepers like Stowe absolutely flat out, but the Marches were changing down to fourth gear. Now that’s got nothing to do with the engine.”

The competition did fight back during ’84, but the writing was on the wall: it was time for a change. Formula Two was dead.

How the Formula One cars were marched right out of Formula 3000

Given that Formula 3000 was designed to create a new home for the DFV, it was logical that recently cashiered Fl cars could be given a new lease of life too.

Three teams entered Fl cars in the first season of F3000: PMC Motorsport had a pair of Williams FWO8Cs for Thierry Tassin and Lamberto Leoni, Barron Racing ran Tyrrell 012s for Roberto Moreno and Claudio Langes, and Roger Cowman’s underfinanced outfit entered an Arrows A6 for Slim Borgudd. All failed to impress.

Moreno’s Tyrrell looked the strongest, but the money ran out mid-season. PMC switched to March once it became clear that F3000 cars were more competitive than reconditioned Fl racers. As for Cowman’s Arrows, money was too tight for it to be taken seriously.

So why were the Fl cars uncompetitive?

Mike Earle: “Those of us who were running proper F3000 cars were at first worried about the F1 cars, but they never got the job done. They were designed as Fl cars and there were so many compromises once you’d turned them into F3000 cars that they didn’t work.”

Cowman disagrees: “The alterations to make them conform to F3000 regulations weren’t that major. We had to take the titanium off, narrow the floor and sidepods, and fit a narrower rear wing. The cars were a little bit heavier too. It was the way to go, although maybe the March was more nimble.

“The trouble was that teams like Onyx were far more organised than us. We struggled for a budget and we simply didn’t do a good enough job.”