The FIA has this year reintroduced the name F2, 50 years after launching the first European Championship of the same name. The original is remembered for being ferociously competitive, but fun
What do Mallory Park, Snetterton, Thruxton and Silverstone have in common, apart from their obvious role as staples of Britain’s motor racing fabric? Odd as it might seem in the present climate, all hosted the opening round of the European Formula 2 Championship between 1967 and 1984, during what are widely perceived to have been second-tier single-seater racing’s golden years. The thought of a modern FIA F2 race taking place at any bar Silverstone is, regrettably, inconceivable.
There were also rounds at venues such as Tulln-Langenlebarn, an Austrian airfield course mapped out with straw bales, while non-championship events took place at Keimola, Finland. And no matter where races were staged, they’d initially be contested not just by the rising stars of the day but also by Grand Prix benchmarks. Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt, Jack Brabham and Graham Hill all competed at Keimola in 1967; today, such as Kimi Räikkönen and Valtteri Bottas would head to their native Finland mainly to get away from motor racing.
The Formula 2 label was originally used from 1948-1960, during which time (in 1952 and 1953) the lack of competitive F1 machinery led to F2 becoming the bedrock of the world championship for drivers. The name faded from international use during the early 1960s, when Formula Junior became a catch-all finishing school, but was reintroduced in 1964 (with 1.0-litre engines) and a formal European Championship was launched in 1967, to coincide with a new set of regulations permitting engines with a maximum of 1.6 litres and six cylinders. The new era’s first meeting took place at Snetterton on March 24, with two 10-lap heats and a 40-lap final won by Rindt. Third on the road, Alan Rees was the only one of the top six eligible for championship points – ‘graded’ drivers (those who had proven themselves at a high level and were thus entitled to higher appearance fees and so forth) couldn’t score and he was swamped by Rindt, Hill, world champion-to-be Denny Hulme, Bruce McLaren and Brabham, while those who failed to last the distance included Jackie Stewart and John Surtees.
Star drivers continued contesting F2 races into the early 1970s, but it was a habit that fizzled out during the decade – with honourable exceptions. Anybody remember Clay Regazzoni taking a works Chevron B40 to sixth place at Misano in ’77?
“It was a massive loss to the sport when stars stopped competing in European F2,” says John Watson, for whom the championship provided a pivotal stepping stone. “It was a chance for young up-and-coming racers to test themselves against the establishment. It wasn’t like now, when F1 stars have become isolated. In 1969 Gerry Kinnane bought a couple of Lotus 48s and entered them under the Team Ireland banner for John Pollock and I to contest the opening F2 championship round at Thruxton. Lots of big names were there – Rindt, Stewart, Hill, Siffert and so on – and I was running quite well [he rose from 20th to fifth] until I went off. That’s what made me realise that I might be able to do quite well in the sport. Racing in Ireland I’d had no benchmarks, but that performance persuaded my family to back me.”
Though standards on the circuit were high, the sport had little infrastructure at any level – and F2’s peripatetic community illustrated the point perhaps best of all. Peter Briggs worked in F2 for several years, with Roy Winkelmann Racing, Surtees and March. “My first race was Pau in 1968,” he says, “and we drove from there to Jarama for an event the following weekend. To cut down on expenses, Motoring News reporter Andrew Marriott travelled with us in the front of the truck, above the cab, and a hole had been cut in a side panel so that he could shout down to us through a plastic pipe. That was my first experience of the ways of F2. It was just a very friendly, enjoyable place to work – the teams travelled together, socialised and forged genuine friendships. I remember the Matra guys inviting us to a party in Paris on our way home from an event at the end of ’68. They spoke no English and we spoke no French, but that wasn’t going to stop us having a good time. It always seemed to be like that.”
Watson: “It was very definitely another world in those days. If you weren’t racing a different car each weekend it felt as though something was wrong. In 1970 and ’71 we towed my family-owned Brabham to most of the races with our van and I shared the driving with my mechanic George Brown. He was brilliant – he’d fix the gearbox, the engine, the chassis. It was just the two of us, doing three hours on at the wheel, then three hours off, and it was beneficial to me as a person – it helped give me shape and perspective. You hear about young drivers turning up today in private planes, helicopters or their own BMW M3s as they are coming up the ladder, but I’m not sure they have a proper appreciation of how fortunate they are to be doing what they are.”
Bob Salisbury worked in F2 with Bob Gerard Racing, initially as mechanic – and later as a driver. “The camaraderie was great.” He says. “It really was a friendly environment and everybody would help everybody else. I remember Brian Cullen pushing his Brabham towards scrutineering at one track – and failing to keep hold of it in a sloping paddock. It ran away from him and crashed into a post, but everyone mucked in helping him tape the front back together – I’m not sure many private entrants travelled around Europe with spare nosecones. If you had a problem at Monza, you could just pop around the corner to the Brambilla brothers’ workshop to get stuff done – a damaged radiator might be about three times heavier by the time it came back, but at least you could race.
“Earlier on, when Brian Hart was driving for us, he always said that the only way to learn the Nürburgring properly was to pop in and do a few laps in your road car whenever you were within 100 miles of the place. So en route to an F2 race at Hockenheim we did a detour: Brian was driving and I was sitting in the back with a BDA between my legs – we’d taken out the front passenger seat to accommodate the engine in the footwell. That was our set-up as Brian embarked upon a few laps of the Nordschleife, but it seemed quite normal at the time. That’s just the way things were.”
Briggs: “When Graham Hill drove for us, he’d arrive in his private plane and tell me to watch out for him, that he’d fly over the paddock and tip his wings as a signal to go and collect him from the local airfield. That was all very well, but he wanted me to ‘follow’ him and it was a little difficult as I was in the team Transit and usually had no idea where I was going…”
Nor was it just the ambience. There was a certain proportional grace to the way cars looked as they evolved – and they were also blessed with more power than grip, so had a cornering attitude to complement their appearance. One-make single-seater racing was some way distant and over time the likes of Brabham, Tecno, March, Lola, Chevron, Ralt, Alpine, AGS and Martini furnished teams with some of the most elegant engineering of the period. The same could not perhaps be said of the Merzario M84, but even that led once (Vallelunga 1984 during a rainstorm, most probably because the chassis was flexing – it went backwards very quickly once the circuit dried).
“You don’t really appreciate how fortunate you’ve been until it all stops,” Briggs says. “Look at some of the drivers I worked with. Apart from Graham I dealt with Jochen Rindt, Ronnie Peterson, Niki Lauda, Mike Hailwood…
“Jochen had a certain arrogance about him, but then I suppose I was the gofer. He’d pitch up with a new Bell helmet, throw it to me and say, ‘Briggsy, paint it.’ He wasn’t too fussed, though, and would settle for any old green aerosol I could find.
“Mike was great fun. We’d be booked into some fairly smart hotel, but he’d decide that wasn’t suitable and go off to find something else – quite often a room above a brothel. He was a very good driver, a complete natural, but not very technical. Before Pau in 1972 I called him, said that we had six Firestone compounds available and asked which he thought might be best. He replied, ‘Just put the big ones on and I’ll give it arseholes.’ He’d get in and drive whatever we gave him.
“I loved being around Ronnie and he once drove a couple of us to Thruxton. We were heading along the A4 in Slough and he was quite quick through the first roundabout, clipped the kerb fairly hard at the second and then went straight across the third. He did calm down eventually – and he was an absolutely brilliant bloke. Niki? We thought he was a regular pay driver, someone who was there to provide the budget that would help us run Ronnie, though we soon realised he was nothing of the sort – and he just got better and better. He was the first driver I knew that made notes and analysed things in detail – most of them just got out of the car and wandered off.
“Another who could have been exceptional was Bill Ivy. He was a top-level bike racer who asked us to look after his Brabham at Thruxton in ’69. He qualified sixth and was capable of going a long way in cars, but he was killed in a motorcycle accident at the Sachsenring later that year.”
Watson was acutely aware of the period perils. “I had a very bad accident at Rouen with the Brabham in 1970,” he says. “A rear puncture put me into the barriers and almost tore the car in half, leaving me with a few broken bones, but I absolutely loved the place. It was fast, a pure road course with slipstreaming on public roads – fantastic but also fantastically dangerous. I didn’t mind the simple airfields, either – straw bales were fine by me, because I was used to racing at Kirkistown…
“When the engine rules changed at the end of 1971 – from 1600cc to 2000cc – it meant investing in new equipment, which we couldn’t afford. At that point I went back to Belfast to work in the family garage business, which I what I was doing when I got the call to drive Allan McCall’s Tui after poor Bert Hawthorne was killed at Hockenheim. Things were run on a shoestring, but I got some decent results – and once I’d been given that opportunity I had no intention of turning back.”
European F2’s apotheoses came during the early days, thanks to the star drivers, and through the early 1970s, when production-based engines were mandatory and oversubscribed entries were the norm. Pure racing engines were admitted from 1976 and, though it wasn’t immediately obvious, the introduction of Honda’s V6 (midway through 1980) heralded the gradual erosion of F2’s competitive vim. Three of the final four championship titles went to factory Ralt-Honda drivers and the series was culled at the end of 1984 to make way for F3000. None of European F2’s 18 champions went on to take the world title, but eight won Grands Prix and several alumni – including Hulme, Stewart, Rindt, Fittipaldi, Lauda, Scheckter and Rosberg – went on to scoop motor racing’s top prize.
The FIA reintroduced the F2 label from 2009-2012, for a one-make series that slotted between GP2 and F3 when the single-seater landscape was at its most congested, and from this year – half a century after the European Championship’s launch – it has rebranded GP2 as F2 in a bid to restore some logic to the sport’s career ladder. Drivers commute mostly by air, though, and cars are carried in opulent workshops on wheels.
“I wouldn’t have swapped my time in F2 for anything,” Watson says. “I wish I could rewind the clock, present Lance Stroll with a van and a trailer and then send him off with one mechanic to race around Europe. I guarantee you he’d have the time of his life.”
SO NEAR AND YET SO FAR
How F2 introduced the author to international racing
March, 1984. It was the dawn of only my second full season at Motoring News, but such was the staff turnover that I was already sufficiently ‘senior’ to have been assigned coverage of the European Formula 2 Championship.
It wasn’t quite the road trip it might have been – four of the 11 rounds were in the UK, at Silverstone, Thruxton, Donington Park and Brands Hatch respectively – but to a 23-year-old with a company Mazda RX-7 (pressed into service for two Hockenheim trips) it still seemed an unlikely privilege. Especially as the remaining races were in Italy (Vallelunga, Mugello, Misano, Enna-Pergusa) and France (Pau).
The championship was at that stage in decline, largely because to win you needed a Honda V6 – a deterrent to potential or former entrants as that had for a while been the works Ralt team’s exclusive preserve. The campaign duly became a Ralt-Honda walkover, the team taking nine victories and Mike Thackwell clinching the title with three races to spare.
In the background, the FIA was busily concocting a replacement – F2-style chassis powered by rev-limited versions of the Cosworth-DFV Formula 1 had recently discarded: that became F3000 and it wouldn’t be long before the unsuitability of the name change became apparent, F2 having been a much easier concept to sell to sponsors.
The backdrop of mild uncertainty and imminent change did little to dilute the sense of adventure. It soon became clear that this was a delightful travelling brotherhood, rivals from nine to five but companions either side of those boundaries. Teams stayed in the same hotels, ate in the same restaurants, drank in the same bars and engaged occasionally in bouts of what can only be described as Formula Hertz, a ceremony involving mountain roads, tyre squeal, handbrakes and rented Fiat Unos.
I learned a great many things very quickly, not least that the best way to cover a race meeting at Enna was not to hunt for drivers in a hot, dusty paddock but to wait instead by the local hotel swimming pool. That way, they would come to you.
It was but one step from Grand Prix racing, yet seemed a million miles distant.