Formula 3000

Red flags, black marks

TS Eliot once contended that "April is the cruellest month". He was wrong. August is worse.

For the European Formula 3000 Championship, August 1988 was the blackest period since records began in March 1985. There were two races. Both were in Britain, both were a complete farce, and a total of four drivers were taken to hospital, two with serious injuries.

Indeed, the latest four rounds of the series owed more to Buster Keaton than to any professional motor racing ethic. Monza was red-flagged after a horrific accident between Frenchman Fabien Giroix and Italian Massimo Monti. Travelling flat out through the first Lesmo curve, they touched; Mono cartwheeled into the trees, his Ralt sliced clean in two after flattening an advertising hoarding and several saplings. Miraculously, he escaped with nothing worse than shock. Giroix's Lola struck the guardrail head-on however, necessitating his urgent removal to hospital with serious leg injuries. Under the care of Professeur Letournel, at Paris' renowned Clinique de Choisy, he is recovering well, having already indicated that he will not race single-seaters again, but will stick to saloons. One of France's many fine young F1 prospects has thus been lost to the sport's highest echelon.

There was no sign of a return to calm the next race, at Enna. Swiss Gregor Foitek arrived at the tight first left-hander in third place, but sadly way out of control. He spun wildly, pushed series leader Roberto Moreno out across the dust and a mass pile-up followed as the hapless midfield qualifiers were blinded by grit and spinning cars. Once again, the red flag was shown, and a vastly depleted field took the restart.

It was at Brands Hatch that serious criticisms began to be raised. There were several serious mishaps in qualifying, one of which put the future of bright young French star Michel Trolle in serious jeopardy.

Trolle's GDBA Lola left the track at the new Dingle Dell chicane, striking the barriers head-on, at unabated speed. It took the excellent medical team a full 90 minutes to stabilise him and engineer his removal to hospital.

Overnight, it became clear that he was too ill to be removed to join Giroix in Choisy. It was 48 hours later that he became strong enough to make the trip, and thus commence a long, long period of rehabilitation. Early estimates suggest at least four to six months before he can start to use his legs again, providing all interim operations are a success.

During Sunday's race, another hefty coming-together between Foitek and Moreno caused the race to be stopped, the furious Brazilian's car stranded in the gravel bed at Paddock Bend. The race was barely underway again before the red flag appeared a second time, this time for more serious reasons. On the approach to Hawthorn, Foitek and Johnny Herbert — the latter comfortably leading the race at the first stoppage — banged wheels. The consequences were disastrous, both cars slamming into the armco. Foitek was launched into a horrific series of rolls, the front of Herbert's Reynard was torn off, exposing his feet, and the closely-following Olivier Grouillard piled into the wreckage, demolishing his Lola. All but half a dozen of the 18 cars which had taken the restart became involved, the circuit looking like a battlefield within seconds. Several drivers — notably David Hunt, Cor Euser and Gary Evans — rushed to assist Herbert, Grouillard and Foitek, all of whom were still in their cars, the latter unconscious.

Miraculously, once revived, Foitek had suffercd no worse than a fractured right wrist and a sizeable black eye. Grouillard, feared to have broken his left leg, had nothing worse than substantial bruising, but poor Herbert's season was over, his ankles dislocated and several bones broken in his feet.

On the eve of a scheduled announcement about an F1 contract, Johnny found himself prostrate in Queen Mary's Hospital, Sidcup; his bones will heal with time, and he may even be back in a car before the year is out, but after the F3000 campaign is over.

After Brands, there were widespread calls from team managers to introduce a strict disciplinary code for drivers, and to stamp out any dangerous over-enthusiasm.

Birmingham came but seven days later, but there wasn't a hint of any better behaviour. David Hunt was the victim of a dreadful first-lap accident, his RCR Lola smashed in two after contact with a brick wall. It came to rest upside down, but David, amazingly, crawled out with nothing worse than concussion and an inability to remember very much about the previous day.

The patient Birmingham public waited 90 minutes for a restart, and within two more the red flags were out again. This time, Russell Spence had rotated and blocked the circuit. A traffic jam ensued as, in the subsequent pantomime, Spruce's Reynard was hoisted aloft by a crane, with the Yorkshireman still inside. He and Spaniard Alfonso Garcia de Vinuesa were later fined for failure to obey marshals' instructions, precipitating what was felt to be an unnecessary stoppage.

In an effort to curb drivers' excesses, FISA had implemented a permanent F3000 delegate two days before Birmingham. Marcel Martin fined a couple of people for overtaking under yellow flags during qualifying. All well and good, but some of his decisions were ludicrous. The unfortunate Hunt was fined (1000ecu, about £650) for not attending an extraordinary drivers' briefing which the aforementioned Monsieur Martin hadn't previously told him about.

Furthermore, Martin refused to allow beleaguered Clerk of the Course John Nicol to red-flag the Monday morning warm-up, when Hunt's Lola spun to a halt in a dangerous position. The previous day, Monti's Ralt clouted the barriers at the same spot. Martin permitted the red flag on that occasion. Having a permanent delegate is a fine idea if he is a consistent individual of sound judgement. To date, Martin has yet to show that he is that man.

The third, and final, Birmingham start was the formula's tenth in four races. This is an appalling record, for which such as Formula First drivers were often being reprimanded last year. The formula's showpiece lost two hours' live television coverage and much credibility. It is no use saying that drivers do not have the experience to control 450 bhp, as certain critics have suggested. Those in F3000 are perfectly capable, as most have proved in previous seasons at this level. The trouble is that close, open-wheeler racing inevitably leads to the odd accident. Witness Formula First or Formula Ford. Formula 3000 is just as close, but a lot faster, and therefore accidents tend to be more damaging when they happen.

But enough of the problems that have beset Europe's most competitive single-seater racing series. In between the arguments and controversies, Roberto Moreno has carried on serenely at the head of the points table. A dominant performance at Monza completed an unprecedented hat-trick, and Birmingham was handed to the Bromley Reynard driver on a plate.

Although he could barely walk in the wake of Brands Hatch, Olivier Grouillard had sensationally taken pole, but got no further than the warm-up lap before being halted by electrical problems. With fellow front-row man Pierre-Henri Raphanel's Oreca Reynard out before the restart, the victim of a suspension failure while leading, Moreno was left with a clear track ahead of him, and duly romped to his fourth victory of the season.

His closest rival is Pierluigi Martini, who has smashed the notion that this year's March is a heap of junk with a splendid victory at Enna. He was second at Brands and third in Brum, too, but has only two races in which to eradicate Moreno's 16-point advantage (he won't be at Le Mans, due to a clashing F1 commitment with Minardi). It is inconceivable to think that Moreno won't notch up three points in the remaining three events.

Foitek may be fit to return at Le Mans, but it remains to be seen whether his wrist injury will blunt his competitive edge. With Herbert out of the running, Moreno's most serious challenge is likely to come from Johnny's Q8 Team Ford Reynard team-mate, Martin Donnelly.

Recruited to replace Swede Thomas Danielsson, whose season was halted by an eye operation. Donnelly scored a stylish, if hollow, victory first time out at Brands, and backed it up with second spot on his first acquaintance with Brum. He has vaulted to third place in the series standings after just two events, which suggests he will be a major title contender if he stays with Eddie Jordan's outfit next season.

Indeed, he could still manage it this year, but only if he wins at Le Mans, Zolder and Dijon, with Moreno scoring no more than two points . . . That is the size of the task facing both he and Foitek so it is beginning to look very much as though the title will be decided before the final round, for the first time in the formula's four-year existence.

Of the others, Bertrand Gachot has every right to curse the bad luck which has thwarted Spirit-Tom's Motorsport's bid to take the title at the first attempt. Various maladies beyond his control sidelined him from Monza, Enna and Brands, so fifth place at Birmingham, in the face of dire handling problems, came as some relief.

A change of engineers at Lola Motorsport has helped Mark Blundell's cause: the young Englishman lost fifth at Monza when his carbon clutch gave up the ghost, and was way off the pace at Enna, where he was an unwitting victim of the startline shunt.

At Brands, former GDBA engineer Duncan MacRobbie replaced Lola designer Mark Williams, to allow the latter to concentrate upon penning the 1989 car, and Blundell has bounced back into contention. Third at Brands saw him score his first points since Vallelunga, although a broken gearbox stunted his run in Birmingham.

Of the other Brits, GEM Motorsport has found extra pace since switching from Ralt to Reynard, Gary Evans taking seventh at Birmingham and Andy Wallace losing sixth at Enna with a late puncture. Unfortunately, Wallace left the team in acrimonious circumstances after Birmingham. His talents will hopefully not be wasted.

David Hunt has benefited from new engineer Slim Borgudd's input, the former Tyrrell F1 racer taking charge at Brands, where David finished seventh. Russell Spence has yet to finish a race in Madgwick's Reynard, his unhappy season amply illustrated by non-starts at both Monza and Enna, where he suffered qualifying accidents. He was particularly fortunate to escape the Sicilian mishap unharmed. Madgwick, meanwhile, has taken heart from the improved form of Dutchman Cor Euser, fifth at Brands and well on the pace around the streets of Britain's second city.

Steve Kempton, injured in the opening round at Jerez, returned for the recent British races and finished 12th in Birmingham, where Perry McCarthy's efforts to qualify were scuppered by a damaging off during the final practice session.

Some of the more interesting developments include the transfer of Eric Bernard from the works Ralt team to Bromley Motorsport, the Frenchman finishing sixth on each of his first two outings in a Reynard. Unfortunately, he was also disqualified from both, a rear wing infringement catching the team out at Brands and a mysterious difference of opinion between weighing machines doing the damage at Birmingham. After the race the on-site scales tipped at 533kg (with fuel aboard), 7kg below the minimum. At Reynard's factory, the car scaled 541 (without fuel) . .

Bernard's place at Ralt was taken by Swiss Mario Hytten, who started well with eighth at Enna, and ran respectably in both British events before being sidelined by clutch and transmission problems respectively. Following Giroix's accident at Monza, Sport Auto Racing rescued Michel Ferte from the dole queue, the fleet Frenchman getting into the points at Birmingham in the team's last race before the money ran out.

Marco Apicella has continued to shine as Martini's team-mate at First, although he has not enjoyed the same reliability, while Volker Weidler has at last made progress with Onyx Race Engineering's works March. His miserable run ended with a slightly fortuitous sixth at Brands, followed by an excellent fourth at Birmingham.

The Oreca Reynards of Jean Alesi and Pierre-Henri Raphanel have been fast, but prone to contact with solid objects. Raphanel was unfortunate to lose the lead in Birmingham when his suspension failed, as had happened to him 12 months previously, while Alesi has continued to show promise, all of which will doubtless be fulfilled if he remains in the formula next season. Andrea Chiesa has also come to the fore in recent races, scoring a point with Cobra's year-old Lola at Monza, and running competitively since the Warrington team switched to a new Reynard.

For all the recent dramas, F3000 remains an excellent proving-ground for the cream of the world's rising stars (the occasional presence of Japanese ace Aguri Suzuki has been welcome, for example). The final three races of the year will hopefully remind everybody just how good it is, and perhaps sirnultaneously quell the recent hysteria. SA