This time one year ago, Formula 3000 was the focus of attention for all the wrong reasons. A spell of midsummer madness led to no fewer than six stoppages in four consecutive races. Several drivers were injured and the final step on the ladder to a Grand Prix berth did not seem like a good place to be.
Happily, there has been no repeat. Instead, we have been treated to a fascinating tussle. Few would imagine it taking quite so long for a championship favourite to emerge. It’s just like 1987, all over again. Only after Birmingham, seventh round of the European Championship, did a chink of light appear between Jean Alesi and the chasing pack. Even so, with only 10 points in hand and three races to go, the Camel/EJR Reynard driver’s title aspirations are far from assured. Still, he can console himself in the knowledge that two of those races are on home soil, at Le Mans and Dijon.
Alesi and team-mate Martin Donnelly certainly looked to be the class of the field in Enna, monopolising the front row at the Sicilian speedbowl. The circuit had been resurfaced since last year, however, and with local temperatures running on a par with an Australian test score, the tarmac started to melt. Donnelly found out about this when he tried to slip inside his team-mate at the start. He found no traction in the fragmented surface, spun and nudged his French colleague into retirement.
Alesi had gone to Sicily with a marginal series lead, but he jetted away with a one point deficit. The unassuming Swiss Andrea Chiesa drove a strong race under pressure from Claudio Langes’ Forti Lola to claim a maiden F3000 victory, both for himself and Roni Motorsport. Running with extensive backing from Q8 Team Ford, Roni has become a truly competitive force in F3000 for the first time. When Q8 announced it was transferring its budget from EJR to Roni at the start of the year, those who thought they were in the know shook their heads. Recent events have proved them wrong. Under Bob Salisbury’s wing, Chiesa and his dynamic young teammate Emanuele Naspetti have proved the outfit’s worth, and Chiesa’s triumph at Enna fully justified Q8’s decision. It also gave Andrea the series lead.
But with five races gone, 15 points was a somewhat meagre total, and the championship was wide open. At Brands Hatch, Donnelly made amends for his Sicillian goofs (having rejoined after his first lap nonsense, he later collided with Thomas Danielsson) with a dominant drive at Brands Hatch. Pipped by three Frenchmen in qualifying, he shadowed Alesi for just a couple of laps before searing away to score his first points of the year. It was his second win, of course, but the wise men at FISA declared his Vallelunga success null and void. At Brands, finally, it all came right. As far as the championship was concerned, though, Alesi returned to the head of the pack with a strong second. Chiesa looked sure to add to his points tally too, until he missed his braking for Paddock. He hopped out of his wrecked Reynard unscathed, but he was nonetheless despatched to hospital for a quick once-over.
Behind Alesi, Chiesa was joined on 15 points by surprise pole-winner Erik Comas. The reigning French F3 champion had never seen the sinuous Kent circuit prior to unofficial practice, so his effort with his works/DAMS Lola was quite remarkable. Learning the line at Brands in an hour or so is a bit like trying to learn several Cantonese dialects in an afternoon, but not quite so simple.
Fortunately for the opposition, Comas made a lousy start, inadvertently holding up team-mate Eric Bernard, who had likewise qualified on the front row. While Comas had a fairly untroubled run to third after the main opposition had come to a premature halt against one guardrail or another, Bernard was in the midst of one of the drives of he season.
The high accident rate left the circuit littered with Reynard and Lola fragments, several of which caused punctures. Bernard was an early victim, but he stormed back from his pit stop to finish fourth, keeping his name within a point or two of the series leaders.
And then came Brum. Alesi had set the pace for most of the weekend when Donnelly came in for his final set of fresh rubber, with about 15 minutes of qualifying still to go. The Ulsterman was looking for pole, but got just one lap out of his new tyres before spinning off at the first corner. The car came to rest in the centre of the circuit, superficially damaged certainly, but nothing to cause the team any undue headaches. Fabrizio Giovanardi hit the barriers in his attempts to avoid the stricken Reynard, and seconds later Donnelly sprinted to safety. Ben Johnson couldn’t have scrammed faster, with or without steriods. The speedy exit was a blessing, for within moments an inattentive Eric Cheli arrived on the scene, blissfully ignorant of the vigorously waved yellow flags. The resultant impact completely junked Donnelly’s car, the radiator of which sliced an enormous hole through the monocoque.
That spelt an end to Cheli’s weekend, but the EJR crew set to work, staying up all night to build a fresh car around a brand new tub, imported from Reynard’s Bicester factory at a ‘phone call’s notice.
In the circumstances, third place for Donnelly was a marvellous effort, but some way ahead Alesi had been staking a serious championship bid. Under severe pressure from Marco Apicella’s First Reynard for 30 laps, the Frenchman didn’t make a single mistake. Given the frequent need to lap slower cars (the two leaders put a full lap on all bar the top six), that was some achievement. Both drove beautifully, and the end result was a 10-point series lead for Alesi, with Apicella — who has yet to win a race — his closest pursuer. One’s heart bled for Chien. Third for much of the event, he was scuppered by fading brakes and — terminally — a rear suspension failure. With Comas’ early charge towards the two leaders interrupted by a loose battery terminal, Bernard’s fourth place added to the queue of serious title aspirants, the Frenchman joining Chiesa and team-mate Comas on 15 points.
One piece of particularly encouraging news in Birmingham was Mark Blundell’s fifth place. Having qualified a lowly 17th with a down-on-power engine, the Englishman drove with his usual determination. His luck hasn’t been particularly good this year, but maybe Birmingham indicated that things are changing.
During the event, shrapnel from Eric van de Poole’s Lola shattered Mark’s helmet with such force that a morsel of visor lodged in his cheek. It stung, but he battled on to pip Eddie Irvine after a time-consuming battle. Mark has recently carried out some testing work for Williams, thereby joining several of his contemporaries who have already experienced F1 this year. Irvine — third in Enna — continues to impress in the Marlboro/Pacific Reynard team. In five of this year’s seven events, he has outqualified reigning British F3 champion JJ Lehto, of whom much was expected.
For the Finn, Brum marked a nadir. Both drivers struggled during qualifying, but while Irvine squeezed himself into the top 10 with a do-or-die effort, Lehto limped into the race in 22nd spot, thoroughly disheartened by the experience. An early engine blow-up was a blessing in disguise, bringing an unhappy weekend to its conclusion. FISA’s application of the championship regulations continues to impress nobody. At Enna, the 29 entries were split into two qualifying sessions … of 13 and 16 cars respectively. That meant that all cars in one group were guaranteed a race (the rules state that, in divided sessions, the fastest 13 in each will qualify), while three participants in the second group were destined not to race. If you are a fatuous twit and would like to work in Paris, you know where to apply …
New faces come and go. Mauro Martini’s lacklustre (or rather destructive) efforts in the works March saw him replaced at Brands Hatch, where Gary Brabham did an excellent job to come home fifth. Ukyo Katayama found continual traipsing between his native Japan and Europe to be both time-consuming and detrimental to his concentration, so Damon Hill was drafted in to drive the Footwork car. Damon instantly proved quicker than his predecessor, but he found the car a real handful in Birmingham, and was only rescued from non-qualification by Cheli’s enforced withdrawal. A lot of good that did him, a driveshaft breaking on the warm-up lap. Having been thwarted from racing at Jerez (FISA bureaucracy come on down), Ross Hockenhull returned for the two British races, and looked set to finish in the points at Brands before fourth gear broke. He may see out the season at Madgwick, albeit in a year-old chassis updated to suit the existing chassis regulations.
Perry McCarthy looked good in RCR’s Lola at Birmingham, but was lain low by electrical maladies, and Gary Evans scored his best-ever F3000 result at Enna, where he bagged fifth in his Madgwick Reynard. As it happens, there were only five finishers in Sicily, but that shouldn’t detract from the efforts of the Vice-President of Luton Town FC, who nursed his car home after an early collision, having qualified well up the grid. Of the remaining Brits, Phil Andrews drove with aplomb at both Brands and Birmingham, only a puncture robbing him of a top six finish at the former.
He then finished seventh just a couple of miles down the road from his native Walsall. Unmerited ill-fortune has kept GA Lola drivers Eric van de Poole and Philippe Favre out of the points in recent events, while Frenchman Philippe Gache has shown well at the wheel of his Apomatox Reynard. But for losing third gear at half-distance, the under-rated Gache might well have scored a point or two in Birmingham. Alesi’s success in Britain’s second city gave him the street double — Pau and Birmingham. Someone else managed that last year. His name was Roberto Moreno, and he also drove a yellow Reynard. He’s now in F1, with Coloni, and Alesi’s GP future is similarly assured, a contract with Tyrrell for 1990 having nestled in the pocket of his overalls for several weeks. Team-mate Donnelly’s F1 graduation has also been confirmed. One can only hope that there will be enough vacancies in the senior formula to accommodate all those with proven ability of Bernardic, Apicellian or Blundellian proportions … LWTNS