Formula 2 review

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First year Formula Two driver— “Rookie” the Americans would call him — Thierry Boutsen took the lead of the European Formula Two Championship with a fine win in the eighth round of the series at Enna, Sicily on July 26. With the following round of the closely contested championship on his home soil at Spa Francorchamps in Belgium and with just four more rounds in all, over which to defend his points lead, a lot of money went on Boutsen to take the title after the Sicilian race.

Boutsen drives for the works March team which has a fine track record in Formula Two and a habit of producing European Champions. But those title holders tend to be second or even third year Formula Two contestants. One has to look back a long way to find a “Rookie” champion.

Like most Formula Two drivers, Boutsen is a Formula Three graduate. A protégé of Jacky lckx (a past European Formula Two Champion), Boutsen was one of the leading lights in last year’s European Formula Three Championship, as was his March Formula Two teammate Corrado Fabi. March does not have an experienced Formula Two driver on its strength this year, but that does not look like an insurmountable obstacle in its quest for the title.

At Enna, Boutsen became the first man to win two European Championship races this season. He won previously at the Nürburgring, the most demanding circuit of all. Indeed, Boutsen’s performance throughout the season has been most impressive. He has shown the ability to master circuits as diverse as the 14 mile Nürburgring mountain road, the tight, twisting street circuit through the town of Pau (where he finished a close second) and the high speed blind at Enna.

Enna is a strange quirk of a circuit. Once, literally, a flat-out blind around Lake Pergusa in the heart of Sicily, there are now a couple of chicanes but still the essential nature of the place remains. It is not a “driver’s circuit” and the implementation of the chicanes has produced a track that rewards forceful, aggressive driving. Some smooth, careful drivers simply get left out of the ballpark. Boutsen is adaptable enough to be able to shine at Enna as well as at places like the Nürburgring.

Interestingly, like the Nürburgring, Enna’s Lake Pergusa circuit is seen as a source of wealth for the local area. Like the Eifel Mountain region of Germany. Sicily is an impoverished area that is unattractive to the industrialist and an agriculturalist’s nightmare. It is to tourism that Sicily must look for its income. So regional aid programmes have used wealth generated in Northern Italy to fund schemes such as the development of Lake Pergusa as a holiday resort. In years gone by the neglected, allegedly snake-infested lake was only known to the motor racing crowd. Now the dredged and improved lake is becoming known to an increasing number of tourists. And the Italians know that the Pergusa circuit can draw far more tourists to the area, particularly if it hosts a Formula One race. So, like the reasoning behind the Nürburgring’s government assistance, the Enna.Pergusa circuit is to get help from central government. That aid will allow the circuit to he brought up to Formula One standards and, perhaps, one day there will be a Sicilian Grand Prix. But for the present the circuit’s highlight is it’s annual Formula Two event.

Last year Brian Henton clinched the European Championship at Enna. This year’s race may prove to have been decisive for Boutsen’s bid, but it didn’t give him a clear-cut advantage. At the end of the day Eje Elgh and Geoff Lees were still hard on his heels.

Elgh and Lees were two of the three experienced pre-season favourites the third being Mike Thackwell. Thackwell suffered a nasty accident at Thruxton on Easter Monday and as a result missed a number of races. And neither Elgh nor Lees has delivered in the manner of say, Brian Henton last year. Elgh, a driver with much Formula Two experience, is not having the most scintillating of seasons in the Maurer team. At Enna he had a lot of problems of a mechanical nature in practice and qualified his Maurer-BMW behind teammate Roberto Guerrero. In the race he challenged for third until he was pushed off the track by a backmarker. With flat spotted tyres causing severe vibration he finished in fifth place, again behind Guerrero. Guerrero is often a good match for Elgh but the Colombian Formula Three graduate can be somewhat erratic. EIgh and Guerrero have won one race each but somehow the well funded Maurer team hasn’t fulfilled its true potential this season. Part of the reason must be the failure of Pirelli to match the pace set by Bridgestone on the tyre front. Pirelli started out by supplying 90% of the field, then along came Bridgestone with just three carefully selected runners (Boutsen. Lees and Thackwell), and the Italian company was having to try to quicken its pace of development yet still keep 85% of the grid contented. That couldn’t be done, of course, and Pirelli ended up keeping some of its customers happy some of the time. Meanwhile. Bridgestone was consistently coming up with very effective rubber for its contracted March and Ralt Hondas.

Boutsen, we know, has done a first class job, but why have the Ralt-Hondas not produced better results? Thackwell, to his credit, has done very well considering the handicap of missing Thruxton and the two subsequent races and of not having been fully fit since.

Lees has contested the entire schedule to date but has not come up with the goods in the manner that one would have expected. There have been far too many instances of bad luck. At Enna he passed Boutsen and clearly had the edge when he pulled into the pits with a fiat rear tyre and damaged suspension. That seemed to sum up his season. Some luck you make, some you just have to live with. Thackwell suffered a couple of flats at Enna, the second putting paid to a magnificent recovery drive after a tardy start.

So who else is in with a chance of taking the title? Boutsen has 28 points, Elgh 25, Lees 21, Fabi 20, Johansson 19 and Thackwell 16.

Fabi didn’t really get to grips with the Enna circuit and had a lacklustre race until his engine expired, while poor Johansson didn’t even make the race proper thanks to a horrific shunt at the first start. Thackwell’s Ralt was slow off the line, someone pushed it into Johansson’s Toleman and its rear wheel launched the Toleman into a horrifying, ultimately destructive, flight. End of Johansson’s race, end of the race, part one.

It really hasn’t turned out to be a memorable season for the Docking/Spitzley-Toleman team apart from Johansson’s brilliant win at Hockenheim at the beginning of the season.

One of AIan Docking’s 1980 drivers, Huub Rothengatter, turned up at Enna with a private March, having spent the balance of the season trying to find a way into Formula One. Rothengatter said that he felt “a little rusty” but went brilliantly to claim fourth place on the grid, the highest driver without qualifier-tvres, and thence to finish second in the race, keeping Boutsen in sight to the flag.

Another good performance at Enna came from Tyrrell Grand Prix driver Michele Alboreto, who claimed third in his Minardi after mixing it with the Maurers. The Minardi team is making slow but steady progress, in the right direction, but its new Ferrari V6 engined car, which appeared in Sicily in the hands of Italian Formula Three driver Paulo Barilla, isn’t competitive yet. — IMB.