Fast, Furious and Fun

If you haven’t been to watch Formula Three this year, you have missed some of the best racing ever. Only two competitive chassis (Ralt and Reynard), three engines (Toyota, Alfa and Volkswagen), control tyres (Avon), yet more than a dozen drivers who can be within a second of each other in qualifying — and that is just out of the thirty Class A cars. In Class B, for cars of at least a year’s vintage, there are another thirty hopefuls all chasing a place on the grid.

Racing is fast and furious in both classes. None of this “I just love motor racing, so I’m here for a Sunday afternoon drive”. Every driver is out there to win, to such an extent that team managers have had to remind drivers that championships are won by accumulating points at all races, not by “win one, spin one”!

The bosses all look pretty glum, promoting their professional images and chasing sponsors for the £150,000-£200,000 needed to run a car in the British series for a year. Hooray for the sponsors, without whom it would be just another year of club races for club racers; they have come up trumps, and the team managers, bless them and their ulcers, have in turn provided superbly-prepared cars for their charges.

Foremost among the sponsors is Lucas, promoting the whole eighteen-race series. The company must be highly delighted that its engine-management chip for the Tom’s Toyota engine has powered the winner of every race to date.

Marlboro did some clever talent-spotting as usual, and put forward Jyrki Jarvilehto, the 22-year-old Finn who walked away with our national Formula Ford 2000 Championship in 1987. JJ Lehto (as he wishes to be known, since we English do not roll our Rs, and therefore carmot pronounce his name correctly), has done his backers proud, winning six of the first twelve races in Pacific Racing’s Reynard-Toyota. Marlboro’s second choice, Eddie Irvine, decimated FF1600 in 1987 in the works Van Diemen, but after four second-places is still chasing that elusive first win.

Marlboro’s arch-rival Camel has jumped into the arena too, sponsoring Paul Warwick, Jason Elliott and fast Swiss Philippe Favre. Favre took pole at the Silverstone Grand Prix meeting in his Alfa-engined Reynard, nearly half a second ahead of the next car, and left the field behind until his suspension collapsed in the race.

Cellnet is back as 1988 with the pair of Intersport Ralt-Toyotas for Martin Donnelly and Damon Hill. Donnelly, the shy Irishman who won the Macau Grand Prix last November, started 1988 as firm favourite — after two years in F3 as bridesmaid, 1988 was surely his year to be the bride? But JJ jumped straight in and grabbed the first two races whilst Donnelly was sorting his new chassis and, even though he soon levelled the scores, a further string of Lehto wins has undermined Martin’s confidence and left him noticeably more retiring than before.

Not so his team-mate Damon Hill, son of our Graham, whose dark eyebrows give him a permanently determined and aggressive look. In the paddock, he is always friendly and approachable, but two good wins, including the Grand Prix supporting race, have proved his determination on the track.

It is always nice to see new sponsors enter a sport, but motor racing has so many variables, not least luck, that one always hopes they will not pull out after the first year because their driver didn’t come first. A driver moving into a new car and a new team can be beset by many minor problems; add to that the pressure of wanting to please a sponsor, and you have all the ingredients of trying so hard that you actually go slower!

Gary Brabham, another son of a famous father, at last picked up a full sponsorship package for 1988 from NEC, the big Japanese computer and electronics company. At Silverstone in June, his Bowman Racing Ralt-VW had just passed Donnelly for fourth place and was chasing Favre hard. Realising he would not catch him before the finish, Gary relaxed and easedback. The incredulous driver was later informed that his final “relaxed” lap had been three-tenths of a second faster than any other!

Most drivers moving into Formula Three have a background in Formula Ford — a diddy tyre formula where “chuck it about” is a fast way through corners. F3 is totally different; the FF-only boys have to learn to be smooth and those drivers with karting or FF2000 experience are noticeably quicker. That experience helped John Alcorn in Middlebridge Racing’s Reynard to a win at Brands Hatch in only the fourth race of the series.

Two new cars have appeared, though neither is any challenge to Ralt and Reynard. Dave Coyne appeared with a new Magnum at Donington, whilst big Bob Berridge has been struggling all season with the new Vision, a car which loses everything down the straight which was gained in the previous corner. Perhaps a change of name would help?

In Class B the racing is not quite as fast but even more furious, with the winner regularly finishing eighth or ninth overall. Thus far, there have been two drivers locked in combat for race laurels and the championship, but the second half of the year will see others getting on terms. At half-time, Alastair Lyall had six wins and two seconds, against Rowan Devvhurst’s four wins and four seconds.

The two protagonists couldn’t be more different. Alastair, a personable 39-year-old car-dealer from Loughborough, started racing back in 1976 with a two-litre BDA Escort, and is incredibly smooth in his Reynard. “I put my right hard to the floor at the start of the race,” he says, “and don’t lift it until the end, not even for gear changes!” Rowan, a mature 20-year-old from Oswaldtsistle in Lancashire, runs with Eddie Jordan Racing in Johnny Herbert’s championship-winning 1987 car. He started in karting at 11, jumped into FF as soon as he got his driving licence at 17 and was invited to become works driver for Quest at 18.

Hot on the heels of these two comes extrovert John Penfold, a very determined young man who drove a 350-ton dump-truck around an open-cast ore mine in Western Australia at 19 to earn the money to race. In 1981, he won his first Formula Ford race, and ended upside down in a turnip field in his second! Nothing daunted, he continued and won the Dunlop Autosport championship in 1982, before his money ran out. 1988 sees him back at the wheel, getting faster with every outing, and he won the class at the prestigious GP meeting at Silverstone, in Gary Brabham’s 1987 car.

Another fast but impecunious racer in Class B is Kiwi Craig Simmiss, who keeps finding himself on the receiving end of other people’s accidents. Another visitor to our shores is American Jack Dickenson, a 30-year-old painting contractor who got the bug in 1985 when he won his first race after a Jim Russell course. Jack drives Damon Hill’s 1987 car and commutes from California for each race!

At the other end of the scale from the £150,000 Class A and £75,000 Class B sponsorship packages is “work till two in the morning” Leicester garage-owner Don Hardman. Don gets his tyres from the Class A boys, and reckons that 1988 will only cost him around £5000. He started in 1968 doing autocross in a Mini and, a prerequisite for an F3 racer, won his first circuit race at Cadwell Park in a Mini-Cooper S in 1975. Now, after several years of winning the northern FF championships, Don pushes his plain red Reynard round in times only a second slower than the top cars.

“Of course it’s fun,” says 63-years-young London cabbie Roimie Grant , “good , serious , adrenalin-pumping fun. Why else would I do it?” There is even a Renta-F3 is you wish to join in: computer consultant John Blakely, rents out his car complete with dedicated mechanic Alan for £2500. For that you get a day’s testing with new tyres and, if you are good enough, a race with new tyres.

So don’t just sit there fans, bemoaning the state of racing: “It’s too processional; you can’t get near the cars or drivers; everyone looks so serious; the fun’s gone out of it; the race is a foregone conclusion . . .” Go and watch one of the four concluding races to the F3 season in September and early October — you will be delighted by the close, fast racing. Walk round the paddock and chat to the drivers — they don’t hide in motorhomes. They are racing fanatics, just like you! GJ