Saturday, May 30, 2009

Formula 2: The way ahead, or a dead end?

After a break of a quarter of a century, the Formula 2 Championship sprung back into life last weekend at Valencia. The new formula doesn't really bear much resemblance to the old Formula 2. Where the old F2 was an open chassis and engine formula, in essence, Formula 1 with less horsepower, the new Formula 2 takes the 'spec formula' concept further than it has been pushed before and is the first serious 'arrive and drive' racing formula.

Gp2, which it is fair to say is the 'real' spiritual successor to the old F2, as the single seater formula sitting immediately below F1, has a spec chassis and engine, with individual teams having little freedom to modify the basic Dallara-Mecachrome design. Nonetheless, it is a competition between independent teams and the technical know-how required to run a GP2 car competitively is considerable. Even the most cursory comparison of the results of established front-runners like Barwa-Campos, ISport, ART and Racing Engineering with backmarkers like DPR, Durango and Trident shows that for all that they are all running the same basic car, there is a considerable role is played by the team.

The FIA's new F2 concept, heavily pushed by Max Mosley (much to the irritation of his supposed ally, Bernie Ecclestone, who part-owns GP2) does away with the concept of independent teams altogether. All the cars are prepared and run centrally by Jonathan Palmer's Motorsport Vision operation - the people behind the 'Formula Palmer Audi' category, which runs along similar lines. In this it differs, from virtually every other serious junior single-seater category in existence. GP2 and the Renault World Series might have standardised engines and chassis, but the cars are run by independent teams with dedicated race engineers. F3 is perhaps the formula most directly comparable with F2. The lap times of the cars are very similar - the F2 cars having a bit more power and the F3 cars being aerodynamically superior, but F3 is an open chassis and engine formula. For all that Dallara have all but cornered the market, it is open to anyone to try, and Mygale and Lola have both built cars which have won the odd race. Within an admittedly tight rule book, it is also open to the teams to develop their cars independently, too.

So is the Formula 2 concept a good or bad thing? The future of sub-F1 level single seater racing or a a dilution of the very essence of what the sport is meant to be about? I'm in two minds myself. Let's look first at the case for the new Formula 2. The first big mark in its favour is that, by running the cars centrally and doing away with the arms-race between independent teams, costs have been brought down dramatically. While a season of GP2 costs as much as £1m, and even a year in F3 is reckoned to set a driver back more than £500k these days, a season in F2 costs around £200k.

That's still an awful lot of money - vastly more than the average early 20-something is likely to be able to lay his hands on, it is at least a slightly less daunting figure for a promising youngster to attempt to raise from sponsors and backers. Still more than an awful lot of very promising youngsters in karting are ever going to be able to lay their hands on, but probably less than the cost of running competitively in, for example, the British Touring Car Championship. It should to help to open up the sport to a few more people who don't have the backing of lavish driver development schemes, vast family wealth, or the ability to call favours in the business world.

For the money, a driver knows he's getting the same equipment, prepared to the same standard, as everyone else. And that's good news for the driver, or at least for any young driver with the self-confidence to believe that he needs only a level playing field to emerge on top. My hunch is that most aspiring would-be F1 drivers believe they have what it takes and they need no unfair advantage, even if, almost by definition, most of them must be wrong. Compare that with GP2. Is Romain Grosjean the stand-out driver in that championship right now? Certainly he appears to be doing a good job, but it's hard to know for sure. Perhaps Barwa-Addax-Campos, or whatever they're called this week, are just making their driver look quicker than he is. Maybe Nico Hulkenberg, or Lucas Di Grassi, or who knows who else, might have won in the Barwa car. All we really know for sure is that Grosjean is quicker than Vitaly Petrov... The same is true, to a greater or lesser extent in all the junior formulae. Try to recall the last time that anyone won the F3 Euroseries in anything other than an ASM/ART car...

In one important way, Formula 2 promises to be much more interesting than its rival series. Thanks to the way it is run, we should know with reasonable certainty that the guys at the front reallty are the quickest drivers in the field, and not simply those with the best prepared cars, the smartest race engineers and the cheque books to procure access to them.

And yet there's a part of me that really doesn't like what the new F2 represents, an insistent voice in the back of my head telling me that it is the logical end-point of what is said to be Max Mosley's desire to turn F1 into a single-chassis formula. Motorsport, for me, has only ever been partly about the drivers. It's about the teams, about the cars, too.

The old F2 gave teams considerably scope to develop their cars. Some teams went so far as to build their own chassis. It was a valuable training ground, not only for drivers, but for designers, engineers, mechanics and team managers wanting to make the step into F1. A number of F2 teams went on to F1 having begun building their own cars in F2. AGS, Minardi, Osella and Toleman all started out as F2 constructor-teams (though of those, only Toleman, which would eventually become today's Renault F1 team, found any long-term success).

By contrast, the latter-day F3000 series with it's single chassis and engine (the uninspiring Lola Zytek) and the current GP2 championship simply don't provide the kind of technical challenge required to enable teams to progress on to F1, and with the teams solely concerned with running, and not designing, the cars, it doesn't provide an opportunity for budding designers and engineers either. To be fair, there's an argument that F1 is in any case now so expensive and so far removed from any junior category that it wouldn't matter what the rules are for GP2 - the last team to make the leap from F3000 to F1 were the Italian Forti team, and their experience appears to have deterred anyone else from having a go in the last 10 years, but a more technically free formula might at least have served as a place in which individual engineers and designers could gain experience which could prove useful in F1.
To some extent, that is still the case, at least for race engineers and mechanics. It's far less clear how the new F2 will do any of this.

There is a related problem - one F3 team bosses were keen to emphasise in a recent Autosport article. The new series, with its' pooled race engineers, limited scope for set-up changes and centrally-run cars provides little opportunity for a driver to learn the art of developing a car - of working with engineers to identify and solve handling and set-up problems and work as part of a team to optimise a car's performance. Motorsport, at the top level, is about more than simply the ability to take a well-honed car and lap quicker than anyone else can - a driver needs to be able to work with a team to develop a car over a season. How interesting will F1 or Indycar teams be in drivers who have never learned this black art? To be fair, F2 is unlikely to be anyone's last stop before F1 anyway, but if that is the case, then to what extent does the reduced budget really help young drivers?

In the end, the question of whether the new Formula 2 championship will prove to be a success will depend much on where the champion and other front-runners go in 2010. Will it prove to be a launch-pad for those seeking to establish a professional racing career, or is it little more really than a slightly faster Formula Master with only the cachet of the F2 name to recommend it? I don't know whether it will succeed, and I can't even make up my mind whether it would be a good thing if it did. I've seen what appear to me to be talented drivers whose careers have stalled for lack of funds to get a seat in a top team in GP2 or similar, and it will be good to see who comes out on top in a championship where the equipment really is equal. On the other hand though, motorsport for me has always been about more than just the drivers - and that certainly isn't true of the new F2. I suppose we'll see how it turns out...

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Anonymous Alianora La Canta said...

The last team to go from F3000 to F1 was Stewart in 1997. They've done well for themselves (albeit needing the help of manufacturer money and two name changes), but what stopped the flow completely was the $48m entry bond. Still, the increasing expense of F1 and the complexity of resources needed meant that the last truly successful entries that didn't need some sort of major manufacturer support were the last of the teams to move up from the era of routine F3 chassis competition. Jordan, for example, had an ex-F3 chassis designer as its first chief designer.

What is really needed is for F2 to have an equivalent for teams - that perhaps focuses less on the drivers and more on developing the car under a budget. That would enable the capacity to compete in F1 to be developed gradually.

3:39 AM  
Blogger Patrick said...

You're right - Stewart completely slipped my mind. And that despite the fact one of their cars sits in the museum round the corner from my flat...

An F2 equivalent for teams would be good - maybe Max Mosley could institute a more severe version of his budget cap to make it work. The trouble, of course, is that single-seater racing below F1 level is funded mainly by the drivers and their backers. And I'm not sure whether they'd be interested in getting involved in something aimed primarily as a feeder series for teams.

10:53 AM  

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