British F3: the long-term effects


Mere weeks ago I asserted that Formula 3 has long been the most accurate arbiter of future F1 talent. And I stand by that.

Matters are changing fast, though.

F3’s European championship remains healthy – for now – but its ruthlessly shorn British counterpart is a sickly shadow of the series that polished Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet, Ayrton Senna and Mika Häkkinen.

As budgets become more ‘bracing’ and money belts tighten, time is of the essence for the underfunded, and of little consequence to the loaded few, who tend to be somewhat impatient instead. No wonder the rungs are being changed.

The new ‘ladder’, under construction and nearing completion, is likely to be: karting (from a kindergarten age); a (stellar) year in Formula Renault 2.0; and (ideally) an F1 test/third driver deal.

Why bother to learn your single-seater craft at a draughty and (probably) deserted Thruxton when you can, if awarded the opportunity, spend cozy yet intensive hours in a simulator? That way, should you lose the plot, drop it and stick it in the boonies, you can simply ‘Reset’.

We should not be surprised at this. British F3 has been on a slippery path since it diverged from the BTCC-fronted TOCA package more than 20 years ago. Yes, it was playing second fiddle to the saloon antics, but at least it had a guaranteed audience. The plaintive echoes of this self-spiting decision can still be heard. (In contrast the Euro Series is ‘happy’ to bask in the shade of the WTCC, WEC, DTM and GT Tour.)

It was at about the same time that Dallara – with help from lesser European lights Alpa, Ermolli and Mygale – broke the hegemony of the British specialist constructors. Ralt and Reynard, Van Diemen, and now Lola have gone under while Gian Paolo’s company has racked up 19-and-a-bit consecutive F3 titles in the UK.

Sir JYS has for years regularly warned that we should not take our dominance of the sport for granted. He was/is right. This season Britain will play host to only half of its premier national single-seater series via triple-headers at Silverstone and Brands Hatch in May and August.

The thinnest end of what once was the fattest wedge.

In 1967 – chosen for no reason other than this writer’s birth during its Summer of Love – there were in Britain alone more than 100 races that contained an F3 element.

Closer examination of the excellent (sic) reveals that the Les Leston-backed championship consisted of 27 singular rounds that stretched from January 22 to Boxing Day Brands.

Further, the prestigious support races at the Wills Trophy F2 race, the International Trophy, the Martini Trophy sports car bash and the British Grand Prix – all held at Silverstone – were non-championship events.

Further yet, Brands Hatch hosted no fewer than 31 of those 100-plus encounters, and there were races, too, at Rufforth up t’North, Llandow in Wales and Ingliston in Scotland. (Who could forget the latter’s King Hussein Trophy? Not winner Chris Williams, that’s for sure.)

Ron Tauranac’s neat Brabhams were in the ascendency and Wandsworth’s Harry Stiller successfully defended his British title aboard a BT21. The less customer-friendly Lotus 41 won in the hands of Mo Nunn and John Miles, while Tony Lanfranchi and American Roy Pike guided Merlyn and Titan to the winner’s circle.

Yet this was not deemed a stellar season for the Brits, with France’s exquisitely crafted and presciently expensive works Matras ruling the roost at the major Continental races in the hands of Henri Pescarolo and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud.

The more cavalier Italian series – where adventurers Sverrir Thóroddson from Iceland, Boley Pittard from Sark, Chris Craft from Cornwall, and the Earl of Denbigh, better known as Rollo Feilding (sic), plied their trade – was marred by an accident at Caserta, a triangular throwback road course north of Naples, that cost the lives of three drivers.

Poor Pittard had already succumbed to a fiery accident at Monza.

At an average £2000 a pop – chassis, engine and gearbox – for a 1-litre screamer, there was, however, no shortage of hotshoes willing to step into their (if they were wise, newly flame-retardant) boots. Thus only Norway, Luxembourg and Switzerland in the west did not possess a national championship – although the latter, courtesy of the Italian-made Tecnos of Silvio Moser and a fast but ragged ‘Regga’, won the Nations Cup at Hockenheim in October.

Meanwhile, behind the Iron Curtain the Melkus-Wartburgs of East Germany beat Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and the Soviet Union in the hammer-and-sickle Friendship of Socialist Countries Cup.

Back when I covered the BTCC – a national series that went global in the mid-1990s thanks to expertly edited TV coverage – whichever of my Motoring News colleagues was reporting on British F3 would be mercilessly teased with impressions of flat-noted engines, complete with Doppler effect and each equidistant. The interminable sequence would run: ‘Same.’ (Don’t forget the Doppler! ‘Saaaame’.) Pause. ‘Same’. Pause. ‘Same’.

I didn’t truly know it, but I was on to some worrisome things: the racing was not always the most thrilling, and it had certainly jettisoned whatever diversity it once had.

The sprawl of 1967 couldn’t last, of course, but now that unchecked budgets and the resultant succession of rationalisations have left F3 on the verge of disappearing up its own airbox, I am abashed at my gauche glibness.

For whatever your view of this formula, there can be no doubting its importance to Britain’s rise within, and extended reign over, the sport in general – or that it is a damn sight more exciting than sitting atop a frame of hydraulic rams in order to ‘test’ in front of pixelated yet still empty grandstands.

I fear, however, that it is now doomed in the pandemic sense and that the collateral damage to our infrastructure will be substantial, and that a great deal of it will be irreparable.

Different. Pause. Different.

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