European F3000 Championship

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Keeping it in the family

When Emerson Fittipaldi clinched the 1974 World Championship at Watkins Glen, his McLaren was powered by an engine similar in performance to that which carried his nephew Christian to the 1991 European Formula 3000 crown. While Uncle Emerson continues to ply his trade successfully in CART, the family name has this year returned to the forefront of European motor racing, thanks to the remarkable maturity of a 20 year-old.

Despite his promising pace in pre-season testing, Christian wasn’t much fancied to maintain a season-long title challenge. Although he’d won F3 titles in his native South America, nobody in this hemisphere could judge the strength of the competition. One win and a string of decent results during a season of British F3 netted fourth place overall, but to jump immediately from there to F3000 smacked a little of over-ambition. Pole position for the opening race proved, however, that Fittipaldi was ready to tackle the higher formula, and he’s never looked back since. Two wins from 10 races may not sound much like a championship-winning formula, but F3000 is usually tightly fought. Consistency is therefore paramount. His closest title rival Alessandro Zanardi likewise won only twice, but he too managed to hover around the top three all season. Emanuele Naspetti, on the other hand, won four races on the trot but suffered from inconsistency. “We didn’t lose the title by running badly in the last two races,” explains Naspetti. “Ultimately, we lost out by having the wrong chassis for the first four events.”

Certainly, a Reynard was the thing to have this season. Although the Lola showed glimpses of form in mid-season, it never looked like winning. Fittipaldi and Zanardi benefited from plenty of pre-season mileage with their Reynard-Mugens, and it was fitting that the two men who started the year on the front row at Vallelunga should do so again when the series concluded at Nogaro. Once again, Fittipaldi had the pole, albeit by only 0.03s. If either of the two main title contenders was feeling the pressure, it didn’t show. A win would guarantee either of them the title. Thereafter, there were numerous possibilities, with only two points separating the top three. However Naspetti, after a troubled practice, was only 15th. Unless his two adversaries collided or fell victim to mechanical problems, his task was one of Sisyphus proportions. And even if they did fall by the wayside, he still had plenty to do. In the event, he drove a canny race to finish sixth the first time during the whole season that he had scored a point without winning a race, and therein lay the difference.

Up front, Fittipaldi was magnificent, thoroughly demoralising Zanardi with his startling pace from the very first lap. A few races earlier, Fittipaldi’s championship momentum had appeared to be slipping. “That was the fuel situation though,” he counters. “Both Zanardi and Naspetti had special fuel before we did, and it showed. We were caught slightly on the hop. We had some brewed for the last few races, and I think we redressed the balance.”

His excellent drive at Nogaro suggests he would have won the title come what may, but it wasn’t without a little good luck that he had gone to south-western France with a two-point advantage. In the penultimate round at Le Mans, he led from pole position only to spin on lap three in conditions far better suited to water polo than motor racing. He rejoined the race in fifth place, and worked his way back up to way second place without actually having to overtake anybody, the three cars immediately ahead all retiring. One of these was Zanardi’s, and Pacific Racing team chief Keith Wiggins is quick to concede that Christian’s extraordinary mechanical reliability paid a big part in his championship success. Zanardi could only rue what might have been. “By and large I feel I should have dominated this series,” he sighed after his alternator failed at Le Mans. “A driveshaft in Pau, a puncture in Enna and now this… that’s a minimum 21 points.”

At least, having been snapped up by Jordan for the final three Grands Prix of the season, he has the consolation of a Formula 1 drive at least for the time being. Such things are as rare as an uncomplaining racing driver. Quite how and where the cream of this year’s European F3000 crop will fit into F1 presents an interesting statistical problem. The long-term F1 future of several smaller teams is in doubt, which creates even more of a bottleneck. Of the few seats that were known to be available, several are already spoken for by Japanese drivers who have access to the sort of sponsorship that remains a pipe-dream for most Europeans. Moving up from the Japanese F3000 series, Ukyo Katayama will drive for Larrousse, Akihiko Nakaya for Brabham. That releases Mark Blundell onto the market, so there is a proven young talent with a season’s F1 experience pitching for a drive amid the F3000 graduates…

Fittipaldi, fortunately, has a wise approach and realises the difficulty of the situation. “I don’t want to drive in F1 unless the package is absolutely right. There’s no point rushing to get a drive just to be there. I’m young, so I can bide my time. The European title may help me get into F1 next year, it may not. If I can’t find a good F1 drive for ’92, it would be interesting to try and retain the F3000 title. Nobody’s done that before.” As an afterthought, he gets on very well at Pacific Racing, which has F1 plans of its own, although not until 1993 at the earliest…

Naspetti too has high hopes of a quick graduation to F1. “Sure, the title would have been nice, but it really doesn’t matter too much that we didn’t win the title. The important thing is that I’ve won a few races, so the teams think I’m worth talking to.”

If access to F1 is difficult for the top three, you can imagine what it will be like for the rest. Antonio Tamburini, who drove magnificently to win in dreadful conditions at Le Mans, is seriously considering a lucrative offer from Alfa Romeo to contest the 1992 Italian Touring Car Championship. “I’d love to do F1, and I have a few contacts, but they all need me to find massive sponsorship. If I drive for Alfa, I can make a good living.”

After a season’s duty as Williams’s test driver, Damon Hill also feels the time is ripe for a change. “It’s just so difficult though. All the top drives are taken by established aces, and trying to get a foot in the door just so that you can show a glimpse of your ability requires a pot of gold.” After a frustrating year in F3000, Hill at least had the chance to remind everyone of his worth at Nogaro. At the helm of a Reynard hired for the weekend by Middlebridge, the Barclay Team EJR driver was the only man who could live with Zanardi and Fittipaldi. Only when his team-mate Vincenzo Sospiri drove him off the track while being lapped, in the most stupidly obstinate manoeuvre of the season, did Hill lose any hope of finishing second. So far ahead were the first three that he was still able to regain the circuit and take a place on the podium.

Frenchmen Jean-Marc Gounon and Laurent Aïello have both done a good job this season. Gounon is a master of improbably good starts. Time and again he has made amends for average grid positions with stonking first laps. At Mugello he gained 14 places, at Le Mans 11 and at Nogaro — parts of which make Mallory Park look like Silverstone — he gained eight… He and Ralt team-mate Andrea Montermini have suffered as a result of the inconsistency of their chassis; of the two, Ferrari and Dallara F1 tester Montermini’s contacts give him the greater chance of making F1 next year.

As for Aïello, he has made the most of a generally bad job in the Marlboro/DAMS works Lolas, usually outpacing his more fancied team-mate Allan McNish. McNish’s relative loss of form has been blamed on several things: demotivation, inferior treatment from the team, loss of morale…1990 must seem like an eternity ago to the young Scot, who has endured a negative season for the first time in his career. A certain amount of reputation restoration is required here, due in no small part to his team-mate’s speed, relatively speaking.

Aïello’s star has been firmly in the ascendancy. He has channelled his aggression into driving around the imbalance problem that has afflicted all the Lolas, and was comfortably the quickest of the Huntingdon manufacturer’s representatives in the final two races. In his second season, he should mature into a winner. As for McNish, his career will only benefit from another year of F3000 if he rediscovers the winning habit.

Mind you, Marco Apicella now faces a sixth season in the formula, and nobody is writing off his career. Never previously one to give up, even Marco’s spirit appeared to be broken as his PSR Lola showed no sign of going any faster towards the end of the year. Then, eight laps into the final race, he woke up. After a pit stop to replace a damaged nose, he emerged to reveal that the old Apicella fire was still burning, setting fourth fastest race lap in a masterful display of controlled aggression.

If he does stay on next year, he may find himself racing in Formula Two. By the time you read this, FISA should have met to discuss the route F3000 will take. We are fully in support of the name change (see Arront Nonsense) and would also welcome the proposed adoption of control fuel, to eliminate the expense to which teams have gone having assorted performance-enhancing cocktails brewed up. The plan is that FISA will supply fuel from a common tank, which will be taken to all races. The supplier will not be identified, in order not to embarrass trade fuel suppliers whose logos are carried by some teams.

Other possible changes include a complete ban on spare cars and the outlawing of testing at circuits hosting a round of the championship, carbon brakes, ABS and telemetry systems. All of this would make perfect economic sense. The same is true of the proposed regulation stipulating that engines must be of 90deg V8 configuration, thereby keeping out sleeved-down versions of the more complicated narrow-angle designs that proliferate in F1.

For the formula’s sake, the above should all be ratified and incorporated within the 1992 regulations. Finding a full F3000 has been getting harder and harder in recent years. Of the major motor racing sponsors, only Marlboro has supported the formula since its inception. Barclay, a new face in 1991, is not likely to be around next season. They could have two fully-sponsored F3000 cars for the price of a rear-wing endplate in Formula One, yet are likely to opt for the latter on account of the increased media exposure available… — SA

***

Final Positions (top five): European Formula F3000 Championship

1. Christian Fittipaldi (Pacific Reynard 91D) 47 pts

2. Alessandro Zenardi (IBR Reynard 91D) 42 pts

Emanuelle Naspetti (Forti Lola T91/50/Reynard 91D) 37 pts

Antonio Tamburini (Pacific Reynard 91D) 22 pts,

Marco Apicella (PSR Lola T91/50) 18 pts.