Geoff Lees is the new European Formula Two Champion. Lees clinched the title in early September at the penultimate round of the series at Misano in Italy with a safe second place, following strong victories at Spa Francorchamps in Belgium (reported in the last issue) and at Donington Park. Of course, the Ralt-Honda driver would have liked to have taken the title with a hat trick of wins but a gear selection problem put paid to that. Nevertheless, no-one can accuse him of driving for points over the balance of the season — he is the only driver to have won three Formula Two races in Europe this season.
Lees is the third British driver to have won the European Formula Two Championship since its instigation in 1967. Mike Hailwood (in 1972) and Brian Henton (last year) were the previous British victors. Traditionally, the holder has gone on to achieve much in the Grand Prix sphere but winning the title is, in itself, no passport to Formula One. Lees drove for the uncompetitive Shadow team on a number of occasions last year but now finds the door back into Grand Prix racing firmly closed on him — unless he can find some sponsorship backing. He had hoped that his relationship with Honda would continue into Formula One but it now seems unlikely that the Japanese giant will take the step up from Formula Two until 1983 at the earliest. If he returns to Formula Two, he cannot score points and will run the risk of damaging his reputation, so unless that elusive backer comes along it could be back to American racing for the former Can Am star.
Ralt will continue in Formula Two next year in conjunction with Honda and probably still with Bridgestone tyres. This season was the first for Bridgestone in Formula Two and it must take a good share of the credit for Lees’ success. The Japanese firm also gave a big hand to March-BMW works driver Thierry Boutsen, who put up such a strong challenge for the title in his first year of Formula Two. John Wickham, Boutsen’s Team Manager and Gordon Coppuck, the team engineer, (an ex-McLaren designer), recently announced that they will be forming their own Formula Two team next year to run Coppuck designed. Honda powered “Spirit” cars next year. Like the Ralt-Honda team, the new Spirit-Honda equipe would very much like Boutsen next year. . . .
Boutsen has a bright future. The only cloud on the horizon is the impossibility of finding a Formula One size budget in his native Belgium, but the talented Formula Two newcomer could well find a relatively easy path into Grand Prix racing, having rocketed from obscurity in less than three years. Boutsen, who came close to winning the European Formula Three Championship last year, didn’t expect to do so well in the Formula Two Championship this year This he expected to be his “learning year”. But as it transpired, with two-thirds of the series run he was actually leading on points! Alas, his luck turned at Donington, where he got caught out on someone else’s oil in practice and crashed, damaging his race car beyond immediate repair. He qualified seventh on the grid in the team spare and was able to make little progress in the race due to an unlucky tyre choice which eventually dropped him right out of the reckoning. That put him behind Lees in the title chase and at Misano his pole and early lead were to no avail. A gearbox problem dropped him out of the reckoning again and Lees was champion.
Boutsen is now looking to preserve his runner-up position in the series at the last round, at Mantorp Park in Sweden. Boutsen’s team-mate Corrado Fabi and Maurer-BMW works driver Eje Elgh are now both in a position to be able to steal second from Boutsen in Sweden. Boutsen has 34 points, the other pair 29 each. Fabi, who runs on Pirelli tyres) finished a strong second at Donington and was in second place at Misano, reeling in Lees at an impressive rate, when his engine failed. Fabi rarely fails to impress and his recent form is an indication that Pirelli has got over the worst of its problems.
The Maurer team made a strong comeback at Donington, Manfred Winkelhock taking pole (on M&H tyres) and Elgh sharing the front row with him (on Pirellis). However, the other member of the team at Donington, Roberto Guerrero, collided with Elgh at the start and not only eliminated himself but also damaged his team-mate’s car. The Swede finished right out of the points, as he did again at Misano where he was off the really hot pace in qualifying and where he retired with brake failure in the race. Nevertheless, he threatens to finish his season with a win on home territory . . .
Guerrero looked destined for third at Misano but had to settle for fourth due to a last lap engine problem. Thackwell inherited third — another plucky finish for a driver who has yet to recover fully from early season injuries.
But in the eyes of the large crowd at Misano the glory all to belonged to Michele Alboreto, the excellent young Italian driver taking his first Formula Two win, and the first for the Minardi-BMW team. The Minardi-BMW-Pirelli combination really clicked at Misano and Alboreto used it to its best effect. Already a Tyrrell Grand Prix driver, he should have a bright future. British fans were denied the chance to see him in a Formula Two car at Donington due to the clashing Austrian Grand Prix.
One of the favourites with the crowd at Donington was Stefan Johansson, the reigning British Formula Three Champion and a real charger. Johansson took his Toleman/Hart to plucky fourth at Donington and was even more impressive at Misano. Alas, an early pit stop for fresh tyres meant that his efforts went unrewarded.
Huub Rothengatter was likewise very quick at Misano, but again a pit stop wasted his efforts. Rothengatter switched his March-BMW to Japanese Dunlop tyres for the Misano race and found a great improvement. Next year, distributor Markus Hotz hopes to service three or four cars with the Japanese tyres. His own March-BMW was shod with Pirelli tyres at Donington and Misano, due to driver Johnny Cecotto’s Pirelli contract, and finished sixth both times out. Cecotto has improved in leaps and bounds since the start of the season and approaches 1982 with great configence.
Toleman-Hart privateer Jim Crawford has also boosted his self-confidence with a strong late season showing. Following a somewhat disappointing Donington, Crawford made a significant improvement to his chassis and ran very strongly at Misano. Only a fuel pick up problem cost him a points finish.
Richard Dallest picked up some useful points in Italy for fifth place. However, the AGS driver missed Donington due to a back iniury. He took part in the initial practice session but then unexpectedly had to stand down. Luckily for him British hopeful Tiff Needell had his overalls on hand and was drafted into the team, for which he posted a creditable perthrmance. As Lees’ performance should tell you the British fighting spirit is very much alive in Formula Two these days. — IMB.