Growing up the hard way

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Motor racing’s nursery floor has been horribly cluttered in recent seasons, but steps are being taken to tidy things up. We take a look at what’s gone wrong, what makes sense and what’s being done…
Writer Simon Arron

There was once an elegant simplicity. Forty years ago many British race meetings would commence with a couple of Formula Ford heats, sometimes three, to whittle the field down to 30-odd cars for the final. And you knew that, in future years, you’d be able to track the front-runners as they rose towards their goal: F3, perhaps a brief fling with Formula Atlantic, then F2 and maybe, just maybe…

But that was then.

In the mid-1970s Formula Ford 2000 was introduced as an intermediary step between FF1600 and F3, but there was sufficient interest, custom (and money) for it to thrive. That hit the buffers in the late 1980s, with the arrival of Formula Vauxhall Lotus and its significant manufacturer support… and the UK also by now had Formula First (a stepping stone to other stepping stones). It would soon receive Formula Vauxhall Junior and Formula Renault, too. Somehow they all co-existed (Formula Palmer Audi and Formula BMW were still a few years from invention), but it was hard to assess the various champions’ respective worth, given that they rarely met. A season of British F3 ought to answer a few questions, of course, but was that still a reliable barometer?

When Daniel Ricciardo won the Canadian Grand Prix earlier this season, he became the first British F3 champion since Rubens Barrichello to add his name to F1’s roll of honour: Ricciardo was crowned in 2009, Barrichello in 1991.

One step up the ladder, the European F2 Championship priced itself into oblivion during the early 1980s, to be replaced by F3000 (initially F2 chassis powered by the Cosworth DFVs F1 no longer required). That served for 20 seasons before in turn being replaced by GP2, which spawned GP3 – another feeder series – while Formula Renault 3.5 is a similar, but slightly cheaper alternative. Oh, and from 2009-2012 there was an FIA F2 Championship, which was perceived to fit in somewhere between F3 and GP2… although that didn’t prevent some GP2 drivers switching to the newcomer.

And on top of all this, of course, there was the quirky stuff – A1 Grand Prix and Superleague Formula, to name but two – that attracted some decent drivers but didn’t really have a natural place on an already cluttered map. There was an announcement about future A2GP and A3GP classes, but A1GP bit the dust before they materialised. You can still see A1GP cars racing, though, in the ‘new-for-2014’ FA1 class. And there’s also AutoGP, featuring bygone F3000 chassis…

Back in the UK, meanwhile, there are few surviving single-seater options for the professionally minded.

The British Formula Ford Championship stumbles on, with small fields, but has been selected as the basis for the emerging FIA F4 initiative, due in the UK from 2015. Except, of course, that Britain already has its own flourishing F4 series, established last year by MotorSport Vision boss Jonathan Palmer. Beyond that, there isn’t much. Formula Renault remains popular in Europe, but the main UK series was canned in 2012 due to lack of support (although the cheaper, BARC-run alternative continues). And British F3 is still there, but blink and you might miss it. There were only four championship meetings in 2013: that has since been increased to seven, which matches the biggest entry seen so far this season (leastways at the time of writing).

Palmer, whose own career followed the classic FF1600-F3-F2-F1 trajectory, says, “British F3 has suffered because costs had risen to such an extent that it wouldn’t be much more to do the FIA European series. If you can race around Europe for €600,000, are you going to race in Britain for €500,000? The answer is no. That’s the problem.

“The FIA and [single-seater commission president] Gerhard Berger have done a very good job in developing the European F3 series – hats off to them – but we need a premier, F3-style championship in the UK. It should be thriving at a national level, as it used to. There should be several domestic series feeding into European F3, but for that to be sustainable the annual budget should be £200,000-£250,000. Then you’ve got something to work with. At the moment, our F4 drivers are mostly looking to graduate to Formula Renault in Europe, because F3 is too big a financial leap. I think the answer, and I’m not sure whether we’ll achieve it, is for the FIA to allow greater freedom with the F3 regulations, so we can have affordable series nationally.

“Generally, though, I don’t think there’s a massive problem. The purpose of junior single-seater championships is to create opportunities for young drivers to gain experience, showcase their abilities and move up. Well, there is no shortage whatsoever of talented drivers knocking on F1’s door.”

Officially, GP2 is supposed to serve as F1’s ante-chamber – and half this year’s GP field used it as a finishing school. Since its inception in 2005, all but three champions have graduated directly to an F1 race seat: the exceptions are Giorgio Pantano (who raced in F1 prior to GP2) and the two most recent winners, Davide Valsecchi (who spent a season as Lotus’s test driver) and Fabio Leimer, whose name was never so much as linked to an F1 team last winter. He is now plying his trade in sports car racing.

Does this trend concern series boss Bruno Michel? “Yes and no,” he says. “Nowadays, we all know how things work if you want to get into F1. Either you are part of a manufacturer’s scholarship scheme, such as those run by Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull, or you have to bring sponsorship – and that’s the nub of the problem. A driver like Leimer deserves a place in F1, but wasn’t able to bring any money. It’s not so much worrying as frustrating, because I’d like to see our best drivers move up, but these things now hinge on economic reality rather than sporting ability.”

GP2 itself is often cited as being “too expensive”, but that depends on context.

“GP2 is an absolutely fantastic training tool,” says Paul Jackson of iSport, which runs the Russian Time entries of Mitch Evans and Artem Markelov. “It has lots of power, F1 tyres, effectively F1-style carbon brakes – minus the biscuit tins and other silly stuff – and a reasonable amount of downforce in a cost-controlled environment. I’m not saying it’s cheap, but it is controlled.”

The current going rate is about €1.5m (£1.2m) per season… but cars are capable of lapping within a few seconds of their Grand Prix counterparts at the circuits they share and sometimes outpace the F1 stragglers, which cost many times more. “In terms of bang for buck,” says Trevor Carlin, whose eponymous team runs cars in several junior categories, “GP2 is absolutely amazing.”

Jackson agrees. “You can argue about GP2’s price point,” he says, “but it’s pretty exceptional value for money. That said, all junior categories are in a difficult situation in the current climate. The market has been driven down and people think you’re trying to rip them off – or generate huge profits – if you want to do a decent job for a reasonable budget. The reality, though, is that we’re just trying to survive. That goes for more or less every category – and also touches F1. Look at the back half of the grid. Some teams are really struggling and there’s a real risk one or two might go under. You could say the same about a couple of teams in GP2, ditto Formula Renault 3.5, and British F3 grids are self-explanatory. FIA F3 looks reasonably healthy, but from the overall picture you don’t need to be Einstein to realise that a bit of a reset is required.”

GP2 has already taken protective steps, extending the life cycle of the current chassis from three years to six (2014 is the fourth straight season, and it will continue for two more with upgrade kits rather than a complete new car). “When GP2 was introduced in 2005,” Michel says, “the global economy was strong. We had a very positive reaction during those first few seasons, because our cars were spectacular and provided good racing. Then, from around 2008-2009, we had to cope with the worldwide financial crisis and take decisions about the series, the car, rationalising the calendar [races in Malaysia and Singapore were dropped at the end of last year] and so on. You have to be ready to adapt. The goal is to make sure costs remain controlled. That is absolutely fundamental.”

What would people like to see?

“Drivers need cost-effective championships,” Palmer says, “but they don’t have to be structured in one neat hierarchy, with names such as F4, F3, F2 and F1. Formula Renault doesn’t fit that profile, but has been very good for a long time.”

Carlin adds, “What I’d like – and I think Gerhard Berger is starting to solidify things this way – is a real pro-level F3 series in Europe, for elite youngsters, but we need to sort the step from karting into cars. Gerhard is really pushing the F4 idea globally – and to me that has viability, because it is approved by the FIA. You could go straight from karting to F4, aged 15 or 16, then on to F3. We then need to sort the leap from F3 to F1. There needs to be some sort of consensus between GP2 and Formula Renault 3.5, to create a single category that’s perhaps called F2 [although Renault recently renewed its commitment to FR3.5]. That would create a traditional path to F1. You could have Formula Renault and GP3 to provide extra experience for those who don’t feel quite ready to take the next step, but in the middle there would be a solid ladder.

“I want my team to develop its own talent pool and in a few years the sport might have F4, F3 and F2 leading to F1, which seems a fairly obvious route. Even with all the recent diversity, though, the good championships are the good championships and we know where to spot the future stars. You don’t have to look far: Jonathan Palmer’s F4 series, Formula Renault 2.0, F3 – that’s where you’ll find them.”

Humphrey Corbett has a long and distinguished CV. He’s worked on the assembly line at March, served as race engineer with several F1 teams, managed Lola’s works F3000 operation and now looks after cars in both GP3 and Formula Renault 3.5.

“Young drivers need money,” he says, “plus the ability to be quick in both wet and dry, an aptitude for PR and a father that doesn’t interfere too much – I’ve seen so many careers damaged by fathers who think they know best. They have to stand aside and let the driver do it alone. The biggest ingredient, though, is money. It always has been.

“To my mind, it should suffice to progress from karting to Formula Renault, then GP2 and F1. If you’re any good, that should be enough preparation. At the moment, the tyre is the most important thing in F1 – and if you can understand the Pirelli, you’ll be good. You can learn all about that in GP2, so the series is invaluable. That might change, but it’s the package you need to understand right now. And they really need to merge GP2 and FR3.5, because there isn’t enough money for two such series to co-exist. The whole ladder needs to be streamlined to create stronger championships.”

Carlin takes the point a step further and says, “I still think the super-talented can jump directly from F3 to F1, as Ayrton Senna did, or from GP3 to F1 like Daniil Kvyat, because the calibre of driver counts for more than whatever they happen to be racing. If you’re made of the right stuff, the ladder is fairly simple…” here was once an elegant simplicity. Forty years ago many British race meetings would commence with a couple of Formula Ford heats, sometimes three, to whittle the field down to 30-odd cars for the final. And you knew that, in future years, you’d be able to track the front-runners as they rose towards their goal: F3, perhaps a brief fling with Formula Atlantic, then F2 and maybe, just maybe…

But that was then.

In the mid-1970s Formula Ford 2000 was introduced as an intermediary step between FF1600 and F3, but there was sufficient interest, custom (and money) for it to thrive. That hit the buffers in the late 1980s, with the arrival of Formula Vauxhall Lotus and its significant manufacturer support… and the UK also by now had Formula First (a stepping stone to other stepping stones). It would soon receive Formula Vauxhall
Junior and Formula Renault, too. Somehow they all co-existed (Formula Palmer Audi and Formula BMW were still a few years from invention), but it was hard to assess the various champions’ respective worth, given that they rarely met. A season of British F3 ought to answer a few questions, of course, but was that still a reliable barometer?

What does it cost?
A glimpse at single-seater budgets, from the bottom up

MSV/BRDC F4 £80,000-£100,000
2014 calendar: 24 races at eight meetings. Typical grid: 21 cars

FIA F4 Estimate £120,000
Due to reach the UK in 2015

FIA F3 €500,000-€600,000 (£400-490,000)
2014 calendar: 33 races at 11 meetings. Typical grid: 26 cars

British F3 €500,000 (£400,000) – before it shrank
2014 calendar: 21 races at seven meetings. Typical grid: 6 cars

GP3 Series €500,000-€600,000 (£400-490,000)
2014 calendar: 18 races at nine meetings. Typical grid: 27 cars

Formula Renault 3.5 €1,000,000 (£800,000)
2014 calendar: 18 races at nine meetings. Typical grid: 21 cars

GP2 Series €1,500,000 (£1.2m)
2014 calendar: 22 races at 11 meetings. Typical grid: 26 cars

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