Investigating the British revival of interest in competetive Formula Three

Last year people had one major criticism about the British Formula Three Championship—there was very little British driving talent. The races were all fought out between a Brazilian, Alex Ribeiro, and a Swede, Gunnar Nilsson. The fact that these two drivers raced British-built works Marches served as little consolation. On the contrary, it served merely to underline the lack of opportunities for British drivers to .break into this International formula.

Some people blamed the economic situation for the fact that British drivers could not raise the necessary sponsorship to race in Formula Three, while others, who tend to believe that whatever is going on in the World outside motor remains a perfect meritocracy, argued that it was talent and not finance that the Britons lacked. Wherever the truth lay, a strong feeling came out of the year that it was about time Britain had some winning drivers in Formula Three, so that Formula One team managers could see that potential British Grand Prix drivers were just as available as Brazilians or Swedes.

When March Engineering announced that they had signed an unknown young Italian by the name of Bruno Giacomelli to drive the works 763 it looked as though the pattern of 1975 was going to be repeated. The premier. British team running a foreign driver yet again was not a good start. But then the challengers began to announce their intentions, and it was soon obvious that British drivers would again form the majority of the grids—and not just as make-weights either.

This year, as last, the major British Formula Three Championship has been sponsored by BP and organised by the BARC. The club’s home base at Thruxton was the venue for the opening round in March. The British revival was apparent right away as Rupert Keegan and Stephen South took the first two places, with Bruno Giacomelli finishing third. It was Keegan’s first Formula Three victory and the start of a string of successes that would force even Rupert’s strongest detractors to admit that, at 21 years of age, he is probably Britain’s brightest Grand Prix hope.

Keegan proved that he could drive fast last year, but many doubted that he would ever be able to keep a car on the track long enough to win a race. After leading Gunnar Nilsson at Thruxton in a brief moment of television glory at the end of last season, Rupert had declared that he could win a race. Now he had proved it. In the second round, also at Thruxton, Rupert staged a repeat performance. Then, a week later he beat Boy Hayje to win at Zolder, and came back to Thruxton to make it four wins in a row! Keegan had established a winning streak, and with that streak came a new, more mature style of driving. He learned rapidly how to stay within his limits when under pressure, and a smooth, well-controlled, driving technique took over from the “will-he-won’t-he make-it” cornering style, which had previously been his trademark.

All good things come to an end though. For Rupert the end came at Brands Hatch on May 23rd, when Giacomelli beat him fair and square in an impressive race which he led from start to finish. The 23-year-old Formula Italia champion had been acclimatising himself to F3 very rapidly. He had taken his works March to three fastest laps by this stage. That first win confirmed the small, quiet Italian as another very capable newcomer to International racing. The Championship was wide open again.

Spurred on by his win in much the same way that Keegan had been at the beginning of the season, Giacomelli rapidly assumed the mantle of the man to beat. Championship wins at Silverstone and Oulton followed. In between, Giacomelli captured the attention of the Formula One circus by winning the prestigious Monaco F3 race. Suddenly the racing was beginning to look predictable again, but then came the British Grand Prix meeting and a number of new elements in the plot. First of all, there was a new car for Rupert Keegan. His four wins had been scored in the British Air Ferries March 743 that he raced all last year, but the team always intended to change over to a new Hawke, which had been specially designed for them by Adrian Reynard. Buying out the Hawke racing car concern and employing “whizz-kid” Reynard to design BAF’s very own F3 car, Mike Keegan proudly unveiled the distinctive new Hawke to a gathering of journalists. At the unveiling we were in mid-air, aboard a BAF plane en route for Le Touquet. As the champagne flowed it seemed that the BP Championship was already won as far as Mr. Keegan was concerned, but once wheels and feet were put firmly back on the ground, problems loomed.

The car had to be virtually rebuilt after its chassis was found to be flexing, which delayed the development programme considerably. All the time Rupert was finding his 743 less and less competitive with the ever-improving 763/Giacomelli combination that was doing all the winning. He obviously needed a new car, but although the Hawke was now showing very well in testing, Rupert seemed unwilling to race it. And then came a surprise announcement from Mike Keegan: he had bought a brand new Chevron B34 for Rupert to debut at the British GP meeting. It was all rather like the occasion when Roger Penske bought an F1 March for Mark Donohue “to evaluate against the Penske”, except that the implications were rather wider.

After all, Mr. Penske wasn’t trying to sell customers cars. Maybe it was more like Colin Chapman buying a Tyrrell!

Mike Keegan is sufficiently concerned with his son’s career in motor racing that he will not let a little thing like what other people might think deter him from making a decision though. So a BAF Chevron duly appeared at Brands Hatch. It was not the only Chevron there however. There was also a red one, and the name written on the side of it was that of Geoff Lees, triple Formula Ford Championship winner, Grovewood Award winner, and the hero of British club racing in 1975. Phenomenal demand for the new Chevron in Europe had delayed Lees’ much-awaited appearance in the works B34, but after a promising debut outing at Oulton Park the week before, Lees was ready to race at Brands. All of a sudden March was not the only name in the formula.

With Ricardo Patrese working wonders with the new Chevron in Europe, great things were expected of Keegan and Lees, now the B34 had a chance to show itself on home ground. For the time being though, you still had to have a March to win. In the race Bruno Giacomelli consolidated his growing reputation by taking victory from the most experienced F3 winner of them all, Sweden’s Conny Andersson. Lees rewarded all those who had kept faith with hint during his lay-off with a fine third place, upstaging Keegan, who was following him until he took the bottom out of his sump by making rather too much use of the kerbs.

Keegan’s critics leapt at the chance to write him off at this point. Now there was some real opposition, they said, he just wasn’t fast enough to win. Rupert replied by breaking March’s dominance of the Championship at the very next round, held at Mallory Park. He: not only won the race but set fastest lap for the first time as well. Giacomelli and Lees finished second and third.

The Championship had now changed from being a, straight confrontation between two March drivers to being a three-way battle between two Chevrons and a lone works March. Round ten at Thruxton; Giacomelli kept everything wide open by beating Keegan into second place to make it five wins apiece. Once again Lees shadowed them to the finish, hungry to improve on his string of three third places.

At Snetterton a week later Lees managed to do just that, at the expense of Giacomelli, who had to follow both Chevrons across the line. So with just one round left to run, Keegan had won six races to Giacomelli’s five and held a slender three-point Championship lead. As this is being written the deciding round has still to take place, at Thruxton on October 31st. In the meantime though, Geoff Lees has scored his first victory in Formula Three with a win at the last Silverstone Shellsport series race. Only Keegan and Giacomelli could win the BP title at Thruxton, but whoever won that final round could justifiably claim to be the best driver in Formula Three this year—and there was a two to one chance that that person would be British.

The British revival went beyond the leading battle though. Almost certain of third place in the BP series was 24-year-old Stephen South, who initially looked set to drive a second works March. When the deal fell through he raced John Stokes’ March 753 early in the season before switching to a new 763. Ironically his best results came early in the year with the older car when he claimed three second places, twice to Keegan and once to Giacomelli. Much was expected of South after some promising drives in the F3 Ray last year, but although he was fast and consistent, the quiet Harrovian rarely seemed to display the tiger that was needed to get onto terms with the winners. He did turn the tables on Lees at the end of September though, beating the Chevron driver into a surprise second place in a non-championship race at Mallory Park.

British Super Vee champion in 1975, pig breeder Mike Young turned to F3 with a Modus this year and was yet another British driver to figure prominently throughout the year. He too ran his best races early in the year, taking a second place and a couple of thirds on his way to fifth place in the Championship.

Another significant aspect of the British F3 season was the involvement of British Leyland. Journalist-turned-racing-driver Tony Dron obtained Unipart sponsorship to tackle his most ambitious season yet. The lavish and impressive Unipart Leyland backing at times proved almost an embarrassment to Dron as he tried to find his feet in a strange and extremely competitive formula. Remembering his past role Tony stood by and suffered admirably the slings and arrows of outrageous journalists, who jumped at the chance to find fault with his performances. At heart, all motoring journalists are suppressed racing drivers, and so it was soon being suggested that the various publications should get their readers to write to their MPs and demand that the Government change its Formula Three driver. The trouble was that they could never reach agreement on which member of their staff should be nominated as Dron’s replacement.

Midway through the year Unipart decided to increase their chances of getting into the first three by taking Dick Pearsons under their wing too. After spending two years racing in F3 with a variety of cars on a limited budget, Pearsons was offered a drive in the Anson, a new car built by Tyrrell Fl mechanics Gary Anderson and Bob Simpson. In its first race at Brands in May Pearsons brought the Anson home third, which convinced Unipart that he would be a useful addition to their team. The Anson was transformed with the distinctive white, red and blue Unipart livery, but Parsons didn’t manage to make the first three again.

Two more British drivers, Ian Flux and Tiff Needell, also helped fly the flag. When the season started Flux was still only 19 years old, having his first year in Formula Three after winning the Formula Vee Championship in 1975. Sponsorship from Shellsport and Ockley Construction bought him a new Ralt. He gradually got to grips with the car; and the formula, until he looked a potential front runner. He could well be the Rupert Keegan of 1977.

Tiff Needell was the only driver not called Geoff Lees to win a Formula Ford title last year, and that was the Townsend Thoresen Championship. Although still only 24 years old, Tiff had been doing Formula Ford off and on since 1971 and so he decided it would have to be Formula Three this year. Such resolutions are easier made than fulfilled of course. It was well into the summer before Tiff scraped together enough money to hire himself the works Safir. In practice for the Grand Prix meeting he qualified higher up the grid than Lees. If he hadn’t fallen prey to first-lap brain-fade he could well have pulled off a surprisingly good result. Unfortunately lack of funds stopped Needell getting fully competitive over the remaining races, but he did enough to confirm his talent.

In a year when new British talent was depressingly hard to find in most categories of racing, Formula Three was suddenly brimful of it. I would be prepared to bet that the Grand Prix grids of five years hence will sport at least four names from this year’s BP Formula Three series—and only one of those is an Italian.—D.B.G.