The European Formula 3000 Championship is designed as Formula One’s ante-chamber. Of the 25 drivers who have graduated to F1 since F3000’s inception, in 1985, all but three have spent time honing their racecraft in the 450 bhp single-seaters that dispute one of the most hotly contested categories anywhere in the world. With evenly matched chassis and engines, and Avon control tyres, the emphasis has always been firmly upon driver ability. Finding an “unfair advantage” has never been easy.
Until recently, that is.
Of late, the foul aroma of qualifying fuel has wafted into the pit lane. Its arrival in F3000 has been as contentious as it is unnecessary; suddenly, wall-to-wall secrecy is all the rage as teams coyly refuse to disclose the nature of their fuel tanks’ contents. English batsmen would do well to learn such defensive skills . . .
Not unnaturally, those without trick fuel brews are keen to get their hands on them in order to eradicate their rivals’ new-found turn of speed. This is going to escalate costs on two fronts: firstly, the fuel costs around £5 per litre (roughly 20 quid per gallon); secondly, the extra strain on mechanical components is going to shorten the interval between engine rebuilds. The pressure is now on engine builders to adapt their products to accept the more potent fuels; at Spa, there was the strange sight of Forti Corse’s Cosworth tuner Heini Mader being chaired down the pit lane after Emanuele Naspetti had clinched his fourth straight victory. Has such adulation ever before been reserved for one of the sport’s unsung workers?
Although F3000 looks healthy enough on the surface, with in excess of 30 cars fighting for 26 starting places on a Sunday afternoon, it is hard enough raising a seasonal budget of £750,000 per car without creating avoidable extra expense.
Quite how anybody pools sufficient sponsorship in the first place remains a puzzle. Put simply, nobody outside motor racing’s rather insular society has a clue what F3000 is. Its name means absolutely nothing at all (it sounds more like a furniture polish than the final rung on the Grand Prix ladder), it receives little media exposure outside the specialist press and nobody within FISA has shown any interest in promoting it. Only at Pau’s annual street race, with its carnival atmosphere, do you see a sizeable crowd, although Le Mans which is well publicised within the Sarthe region doesn’t do too badly when it comes to drawing in punters.
At the opposite end of the scale, Mugello’s crowd would have disgraced a Sunday morning public park football match, and such was the apathy at Brands Hatch that the Kentish circuit is unlikely to apply to host a round of the championship in 1992. That would leave Britain without a single race, Donington and Silverstone having washed their hands of the formula and Birmingham having vanished into thin air after three years of less than profitable operation.
There are two simple remedies to the aforementioned crises. The regulations for 1992 must specify that pump fuel is compulsory, and the category should be rechristened Formula Two, so that its place in the overall scheme of things is obvious. Back in 1985, the F2 label was ditched. At the time, it was an understandable decision. The formula had been through several lean years, and everyone was keen that its replacement was clearly identifiable as a new product. The passage of time has proved that this was a mistake.
On the track, F3000 debutants Christian Fittipaldi and Alessandro Zanardi started the year at a cracking pace, winning three of the first four races between them and giving the title favourites a thorough mauling. The combination of Reynard 91D chassis and Mugen engines seemed to have the edge, as Lola struggled to make its T91/50 work properly on Avon’s new radial construction control tyres. At a stroke, Lola’s woes eliminated such strong contenders as Allan McNish, Marco Apicella and Damon Hill from the overall reckoning.
Following Zanardi’s win at Mugello, however, Emanuele Naspetti came on song with his Forti Reynard. Forti abandoned the Lolas with which it started the season after both drivers failed to qualify at Jerez. Naspetti immediately proved quick during practice at Mugello, but he somersaulted his car into a concrete retaining wall and failed to take the start, having suffered second degree water burns from a punctured radiator. Upon his return at Enna, he won from pole position and at the time of writing he hasn’t been beaten since, giving him a half-share of the championship lead with the consistent Zanardi.
Zanardi’s team, II Barone Rampante, has been one of the sensations of the season. The best barometer of the mauve and yellow Reynards’ effectiveness is not Zanardi’s speed, which was obvious in his F3 days, but that of his inexperienced teammate Giuseppe Bugatti, who has been on the pace all season, though his erratic race form has stunted his points total. The team’s name is taken from a novel by Italo Calvone, which happens to be the favourite bedtime read of IBR’s founder Giuseppe Cipriani. The smartly presented Italian outfit has approached the task in hand in some style, undertaking a full winter test programme prior to winning its debut race at Vallelunga.
Zanardi’s consistency and Naspetti’s rich vein of form have rather overshadowed Christian Fittipaldi, who held the series lead from Pau until Spa. The Brazilian, nephew of twice World Champion Emerson and son of former Brabham GP driver Wilson, is still only 20 and endowed with common sense beyond his years. He is quite happy to settle for a healthy points finish, whereas Zanardi is forever attacking, trying to pare an extra hundredth of a second from his lap times. The Italian’s cavalier approach has netted him a couple of sensational pole positions (on his first acquaintance with Pau, he was fastest by three-quarters of a second), but has also cost the team a few bob in spare parts. Having comfortably annexed pole at Brands Hatch, he crashed heavily while trying to go faster still.
Naspetti, Zanardi and Fittipaldi apart, the only other winner has been Jean-Marc Gounon. The 1989 French F3 champion took his 3001 Ralt to a praiseworthy victory in Pau, after team-mate Andrea Montermini’s similar machine suffered a gearbox failure. That result proved the effectiveness of the returning Ralt marque’s RT23 chassis, with which Gounon also took victory on the road at Enna. A jump-start penalty handed the win to Naspetti, however. As for Montermini, he romped away from the field at Hockenheim only for a CV joint failure to blunt what would have been a richly deserved first success.
While Cosworth and Mugen have shared the spoils of victory (the British engine having won five of the opening eight rounds to its Japanese rival’s three), Reynard has hogged the chassis limelight (Pau excepted) to the extent that reigning champion constructor Lola has a solitary pole position and several second places to its credit. And that pole was achieved with the liquid assistance of Elf’s fuel technicians.
The Huntingdon manufacturer has made progress throughout the season, but one of the more disappointing sights has been that of Allan McNish a double F3000 winner in 1990 struggling even to clamber into the top six. After Erik Comas’ championship success with the Marlboro DAMS team last season, McNish was expected to follow in the Frenchman’s footsteps. It simply hasn’t worked out, however, and a combination of accidents and mechanical maladies actually prevented him from qualifying for two of the first three races. The young Scot is one of several F3000 racers with an F1 test contract in his pocket — Damon Hill (Williams) and Andrea Montermini (Ferrari and Dallara) are the others — but the chance to help McLaren develop its semi-automatic F1 transmission is no substitute for solid results. Conversely, his team-mate Laurent Aiello has emerged with his reputation intact. A first season of F3000 does not carry quite the same pressure as a second, and the personable Frenchman’s exceptional car control has created a good impression. Irrespective of the contents of his fuel tank at Spa, his pole lap was a screamer. He made excellent use of the equipment at his disposal, for which he cannot be faulted.
Others to have shone thus far include Karl Wendlinger and Vincenzo Sospiri. The Austrian has undertaken a limited programme of races with Helmut Marko’s Reynard, preferring to concentrate on a Group C programme with Mercedes. He has looked thoroughly competent in each of his single-seater outings, however, in sharp contrast to his 1990 form in the category.
Sospiri, partnering Damon Hill in the Barclay EJR Lola team, has improved by the race, culminating in an excellent second place at Hockenheim. Like McNish, Hill is suffering from the “abysmal luck when I’m supposed to be winning races” syndrome. Having led five events in 1990, albeit without winning any of them, Hill was firmly expected to vie with McNish and the others for the championship crown. Instead, his frequent qualifying pace has been spoilt by no fewer than three first-lap retirements, although he did manage to lead for a few laps at Brands Hatch after making one of the starts of the season.
Perhaps prospective Lola customers should have heeded the fact that Marco Apicella had signed up to drive a T91/50 for Paul Stewart Racing. Now in his fifth season in the formula (and he’s still only 25!), the Italian’s luck shows no sign of changing. He’s led several races in the past, but has still to register his first win despite his perennial pace. Second places such as those recorded at Mugello and Enna are easy meat. Theoretically, an F1 chance is long overdue, but at the present rate of progress a sixth season of F3000 beckons. Brands Hatch marked his 50th race in the formula . .
Despite the discord created by the ongoing fuel rumpus, Formula 3000 remains an exceptional breeding ground, albeit one which is playing to near-empty houses. Next year, there is talk of having four rounds of the series as curtain-raisers to European Grands Prix (this year there have been two), although the F1 audience are unlikely to understand what it is they are watching unless the formula is rechristened. In Belgium, the reception committee in the media office was ignorant of the existence of the F3000 support race. Only five people had applied for press accreditation . . . SA
1991 European F3000 Championship
Top five points rankings — after eight of 10 rounds:
1. Emanuele Naspetti (Forti Reynard 91D Cosworth) — 36 pts;
Alessandro Zanardi (IBR Reynard 91D Mugen) — 36 pts
3. Christian Fittipaldi (Pacific Reynard 91D Mugen) — 32 pts
4. Marco Apicella (PSR Lola T91/50 Mugen) — 18 pts
5. Jean-Marc Gounon (3001 Ralt RT23 Cosworth) — 13 pts