Taking the strain
Until lap 16 of the fifth round of the European F3000 Championship, the German GP support race at Hockenheim, David Coulthard appeared to be heading for an eight-point championship lead. Six days earlier, the Scot had taken his first F3000 victory at Enna, in bizarre circumstances of a kind which are unique to the outmoded Sicilian circuit. In Germany, infused with confidence, David was driving, he felt, better than he had all year.
Fifth on the grid, he had survived the early commotion (four of the opening five races in the championship have been redflagged) and was now haring after race leader Olivier Panis. If he caught him, he'd perhaps even stretch his series lead to 11 points. But he didn't. The thin, hazy trail behind Coulthard's Pacific Reynard bore testimony to a leaky gearbox, and while David might have been able to maintain his pace for the next 11 laps, clearly there was no way his transmission could. When it finally quit, he was left to watch Pedro Lamy breeze gratefully into second place, which brought him level with Coulthard at the head of the points table.
Lamy was almost apologetic as he discussed his good fortune. If he had appeared cautious during the race, it was with good reason. Events at Enna were all too fresh in his mind. Team Crypton could perhaps forgive one outbreak of the Keystone Cops in a 21 year-old, but might not be so tolerant if he did it twice. Lamy was aware that his primary objective at Hockenheim was finish the race, and while he defended spiritedly in the opening stages, he didn't push his luck if he sussed that a rival had a quicker car. "He was," said victor Panis, "absolutely sporting when I went past him. Not all drivers are so clean." It hadn't quite been like that at Enna, where Lamy showed signs of human fallibility for the first time in what has been an almightily impressive debut season.
Leading the race after Michael Bartels crashed out, the Portuguese uncharacteristically ran off the track three laps from the end, ceding the lead to Coulthard. On the penultimate lap, he unsubtly nudged the Scot from behind at the final chicane and slipped back into first place as David took an unscheduled diversion through the gravel. Trouble was, Pedro had lost count of how long the race had to run. He'd seen 'L3' on his pit board shortly before, and genuinely believed, in all the excitement, that he'd completed three laps.
Thus, as he exited the chicane with Coulthard bouncing around somewhere in the cloud of dust to his right, Pedro punched the air to fête his second successive F3000 victory. It took him a few seconds to realise that there was no chequered flag, by which time the irate Coulthard was up with him once more. His concentration momentarily broken, Lamy set off on the real final lap with his lead intact, but exiting the first chicane he once again tripped over the kerbs and allowed Coulthard to resume control.
By the time Lamy was back on the tarmac, David was just about safe from attack, but still Pedro didn't give up. Coming into the final chicane, he was much too far back to retrieve the situation, but he hurled his Reynard at the corner and had to hand the reins over to the laws of physics . . He smacked into the tyres and hopped out, his face red with embarrassment more than anger. In a championship as tight as this, when the leading contenders have only just cracked 20 points after five races (we've had five different winners, representing five different teams), the last thing you want to do is throw six away. Particularly when there are only four races left.
While the consistent front-running pace of Lamy and Coulthard marks them out as obvious championship material, the latter still has to overcome a challenge more daunting than anything he will face in the forthcoming rounds at the Nurburgring and Spa. Quite simply, he needs to find extra funds if he is to complete the season. As this was written, he didn't have the wherewithal to contest the final two races, and while one gearbox failure might not prevent him from winning the title, a sponsorship shortfall of this nature certainly might.
And he's certainly not the only one in that situation. His teammate Bartels' needs are more urgent still, there being no guarantee that he will even be able to make it to the next race. There is talk in the paddock that one or teams have exhausted their creditors' patience, and that the healthy 29-car fields to which we've become accustomed are on the verge of mild dissipation.
You only have to take one look at the field as a whole to see where the problem lies. Seeing a Formula Ford car bearing allegiance to 'Joe's Café' is one thing, but to see a whole field of F3000 cars, with theoretical running costs of around £450,000 per car per season, festooned with tiny stickers is quite another. There is not one which carries the total support of a major corporate sponsor, although Elf has given generous support to Apomatox (for whom Emmanuel Collard has, at last, run strongly, only to be thwarted by unreliability) and DAMS. Small wonder that the strain is beginning to be felt.
Away from the world of low finance, life has been more positive. Team managers got together in Hockenheim to address the future, and even if they didn't come up with any concrete solutions to the formula's failings, at least there was sound evidence of co-operative spirit. On such things could the formula's future depend. It was pleasing, too, to see Olivier Panis win a race. At Hockenheim, he made amends for his disappointment in Pau, though he was the first to admit that he'd been a trifle fortunate.
Having qualified on the front row, he ran wide on the third lap and had just slipped back to sixth place when the red flags appeared to signal that Bartels had crashed heavily at the first corner, causing several others to go off in avoidance. During the break, Panis removed some wing and gained a little extra speed without compromising balance. It proved to be a race-winning recipe. The Frenchman needed it. While Lamy, 'tis said, is courted by Sauber, and Coulthard is a regular recipient of 'phone calls from Williams, for whom he has been conducting test and development work, Panis has been putting in some quality performances without many people apparently having noticed.
Perhaps they will now.
Others would do well to emulate such consistency as the Frenchman showed throughout the Hockenheim weekend, not least his young team-mate Franck Lagorce, who crashed while exiting the pits during qualifying, breaking his left thumb and forcing him to miss the race. Olivier Beretta must be kicking himself, too. The Forti Reynard driver was frustrated afterwards. He knew he'd had a car capable of winning. At Enna, he crashed when well placed, and here he'd muscled his way into the lead at the restart, impressively forcing Lamy to give way as they came into the stadium. Then, in his anxiety to make a break, he simply lost it, though the high rate of attrition at least meant that he'd recovered to fourth by the end.
It was almost third, too, for Vincenzo Sospiri was almost overtaken on aggregate after easing up a trifle too much in the final lap or two.
Sospiri's effort was particularly commendable. Second to Coulthard at madcap Enna, he raced with a cracked bone in his right wrist at Hockenheim. During qualifying, he walloped a kerb; his steering wheel recoiled and hit him back, though he was able to drive in a cast, after a course of pain-killing injections. The Mythos team is becoming more effective by the event Giampiero Simoni qualified third at Hockenheim and Sospiri has a realistic chance of taking the title. He presently lies fifth, just behind Beretta and Panis and 10 points shy of the co-leaders.
One man seriously concerned that his championship hopes are slipping away is Gil de Ferran. His brilliant victory at Silverstone apart, he has failed to register a point. Enna's appalling facilities left the usually loquacious Brazilian almost speechless, though he found a short, terse adjective to summarise his feelings about the place. He was equally lost for words the following weekend, when engine failure three laps from home cost him third place.
It was the culmination of an expensive weekend for Paul Stewart Racing. During the ridiculously short break between the two races, the team had worked flat out to repair team principal Paul Stewart's car, after the latter had a rear brake disc explode on him as he approached Enna's second chicane at around 170 mph. Damage, predictably, was substantial, but the Reynard was glistening once again when practice got under way at Hockenheim. A couple of hours later, it was back to square one, Paul crashing heavily at the first corner and returning to the paddock with an unraceable pile of bits. PSR wasn't the only team whose endeavour went unrewarded.
TWR had to build up a brand new car after seasonal debutant Jordi Gene wrote off the original in the accident that caused Enna to be red-flagged. Despite running with light wing damage, the Spaniard looked like registering a top six finish in Germany until he was rudely punted out of contention by Giuseppe Bugatti, with just four laps to go. Omegaland, meanwhile, went from despair (Yvan Muller's car wrecked in Sicily) to elation (Jerome Policand finished third) and back again (neither car finished in Germany, and Policand's was badly damaged) during a sleepless five nights (team manager Roger Orgee had to scout desperately around England to hire a chassis to replace Muller's Enna wreck, and drove it through the night to Germany on the back of a small, rented flatbed trailer to make sure that Muller got a race).
Il Barone Rampante's veteran Jan Lammers chalked up his first points of the year at Enna, where Enrico Bertaggia did likewise for ACE, and Paolo delle Mane, in his fourth season of F3000, finally troubled the scorers at Hockenheim. No question that both of these were slightly odd races, but the overall award for carboncopy weirdness goes to Cobra Motorsport's recent recruit Andrea Gilardi. In Sicily, he'd pitted for suspension repairs after hitting a kerb, but didn't actually lose any time as the red flag appeared simultaneously. Contending with a bent steering rack for the rest of the afternoon, he restarted and finished sixth.
At Hockenheim, he damaged his suspension in a second lap tangle which saw Frenchman Eric Angelvy somersault out of the race. Gilardi was thinking about pitting when the red flag appeared and allowed him the luxury, once again, of time-effective trackside repairs, even though he would have to make do, once again, with a twisted steering rack. He finished sixth. SA