Tour de farce?

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Watching first qualifying for the German GP, at Hockenheim, whilst waiting for the Formula 3000 paddock to stir into life, a few people winced as Eddie Irvine’s Jordan skated off on an oil slick at the first corner. Several other cars had already been caught out, and a tractor was in the process of hauling Jos Verstappen’s Benetton clear of the gravel trap.

Irvine ended up perilously close to the tractor; indeed, his nosecone tapped one of its tyres. It was a reminder that, even at Grand Prix circuits, the ‘safety’ installations can, sometimes, temporarily increase the hazards they are designed to reduce.

And F3000 teams needed no reminding of that. After all, their previous port of call had been Enna-Pergusa. . .

In the past, we have carped continuously about the stupidity of staging international standard motor races at a venue which resembles a wider version of Mallory Park, but without the facilities. It’s not the actual getting to and from Sicily, you understand. Everyone enjoys the ambiance of a country in which self-service petrol pumps are regarded as new-fangled. It’s just that Enna-Pergusa is barely fit to stage a bicycle race.

This year, the FIA’s Safety Delegate Roland Bruynseraede was on hand to witness the shambles for himself. Yes, he admitted, the marshalling could be better. At one point, he assembled chief marshals to explain to them that having the man waving the yellow flag wandering around, even crossing the track, from lap to lap did little for drivers’ clarity of thought. One wonders what he would have thought had he seen Jules Boullion flying into the tyre wall at the third chicane on Saturday afternoon. The Frenchman’s alternative course of action would have been to run over the two marshals standing in the centre of the track whilst he was on a hot lap.

Bruynseraede did not pass adverse comment, however, on the quickest corner on the track. Accelerating out of the second chicane, in fourth gear, cars are driven flat all the way to the third, which they approach in excess of 180 mph. During the trip, they negotiate a constant radius, flat-in-fifth corner at around 175-177 mph.

There is no run-off area, save for an inch or two of grass, nor is there scope to modify the circuit. There is a service road on one side, which allows access to private homes, and a lake on the other.

“I don’t consider that part of the circuit to be a problem,” opined Bruynseraede. “It is not a difficult corner.” But if something should break? “Well yes, but something could break anywhere on the circuit and you could have a bad accident.”

“If something breaks there,” stressed Massimiliano Papis, “you’re dead.” When Oliver Gavin had earlier nicknamed it “the wall of death” we hadn’t taken him quite so literally. . .

However, if Enna is to be preserved on the F3000 calendar next year, the only recommendation is that one of the guardrails at the third chicane requires realignment. Of all years, this is not one in which to be blasé about safety measures.

Mercifully, the event passed without major distress, if not without drama: nine cars off at the first corner, including three of the top four on the grid? It had all the hallmarks of a classic Enna farce, but the standard of behaviour improved after the restart.

The red flag was very bad news for Vincenzo Sospiri. Firstly, because he was the one driver from the first two rows to escape the shunt; secondly, because he almost T-boned a Fiat Croma that was being reversed across the circuit at the scene of the accident, the red flags having been displayed perilously late.

Front row qualifiers Gil de Ferran and Franck Lagorce, spinners the first time around, made no mistake later on. De Ferran swiftly towed past his rival to take a lead he was never to lose. He has now won at the two circuits at which he had his worst experiences in 1993: Pau and Enna.

Sospiri dislodged his nose trying to pass Lagorce, and lost a lap in the pits before crashing out on fresh (ie cold) tyres.

The boot was on the other foot at Hockenheim. It was Lagorce’s turn to have a race-perfect car, while a fading brake pedal dropped de Ferran to an eventual third. Sospiri, meanwhile, cavorted through the field after a gearbox failure in practice had left him 20th on the grid. His rise to fourth was remarkable.

But he has lost ground to Lagorce and de Ferran, and the present uncertainty about the balance of the calendar means that he doesn’t know whether he has three or four events in which to catch up. (Vallelunga has been cancelled once again, and there is nothing more solid than speculation about a replacement.)

Last year, Olivier Panis took the title with 32 points; with at least three races to go. Lagorce and de Ferran already have 28 and 26 respectively. Their consistency is unusual in F3000. Taking 1993 and 1994 together, Lagorce has scored points in each of the last seven events, winning four of them. . .

Panis launched his title charge last season with victory at Hockenheim. His successor as DAMS team leader, Bouillon, used the occasion to obtain his best result in a disappointing campaign, second, but one has to say that the form of those ahead of him in the points table stacks the odds heavily against his being able to clamber into the thick of the title contest.

The same goes for everybody south of Papis (fourth in both Enna and the championship table, on 12 points), and even he lacks the consistency of the top three.

Others to have drawn attention to themselves in the past two races include Guillaume Gomez, who took his first pole at Hockenheim. The Frenchman slipped back to sixth early in the race, and was eventually driven off the track by backmarker (as in 7s off the pace) Severino Nardozi. Marc Goossens has driven brilliantly through the field on both occasions, picking up a couple of points in Germany. Hideki Noda was a sterling third in Sicily (Japan’s first F3000 podium in the West), and was within three laps of another good finish in Germany when his engine quit. Christian Pescatori continues to work miracles with Durango’s ’93 Reynard, while Wim Eyckmans scored a point first time out in a ’94 chassis.

For all that, and the formula’s habitual quirkiness, it is hard to envisage the title going to anyone presently outside the top three. S A