The FIA is planning to revive its Formula Two championship, 30 years after the original series was replaced by Formula 3000.
In the two decades that followed F3000 helped scores of future Formula One drivers on their way up the motor racing ladder – and a few teams, too. But it also transformed from being a championship of competition between different chassis, engine and even tyre makes to a single-specification series.
In this first part of a special series running on F1 Fanatic this week, we’ll revisit some of the most memorable moments from 20 years of F3000 racing.
Mike Thackwell and the Ralt team routed the opposition in the 1984 Formula Two championship, but thin grids indicated the championship was in trouble. Meanwhile in Formula One the rise of turbo power had diminished the demands for Cosworth’s DFV-derived three-litre normally aspirated engines. Well-proven and reliable, they formed the basis for a new championship to replace Formula Two. The new intermediate point on the racing ladder between F2 and F3 would be known, somewhat confusingly, as F3000.
The first race
Just 17 cars assembled for the first ever Formula 3000 race at Silverstone on March 24th, 1985, and many of them hadn’t so much as turned a wheel before practice began. But what the field lacked in numbers it made up for in diversity: pukka F3000 chassis from March, Ralt, AGS and Lola were joined by converted ex-F1 machinery from Williams and Tyrrell.
They all shared the same Cosworth power plant, albeit entrusted to several different engine tuners, and while most used Avon tyres the factory Ralt team had the use of Bridgestone rubber.
The latter proved decisive when Silverstone’s weather ran to its usual March form, and doused the competitors during the opening round. Mike Thackwell and Ralt continued their success from the previous season, but if anyone assumed they would dominate the new championship the way they had F2, they were to be surprised. F3000 stayed in Britain for round two, at Thruxton, where Emanuele Pirro’s March won.
The first F3000 calendar shared many of the same venues as F2 had. A significant omissions was Hockenheim, which F2 visited twice in 1984, but a major part of F3000’s appeal was the addition of two races on the grand prix support bill. However the first, at Estoril, led many in F3000 to complain they received too little track time compared to the F1 cars, not to mention the fact they were denied access to the F1 paddock which contained the track’s only toilet facilities.
Germany’s only round of the new championship was supposed to take place at the Nurburgring on April 28th, but freezing snow forced its cancellation.
In June F3000 was back on the F1 support bill at Spa, and when a disintegrating track surface forced the cancellation of the grand prix, the F3000 organisers were reluctant to scratch another round. The race went ahead but just a third of the field saw the chequered flag, with the careful Thackwell 50 seconds to the good.
The championship ended where it began, in Britain, and a tense three-way title fight saw Thackwell and Pirro tangle, allowing Christian Danner to nab the first ever F3000 title.
The season ended with a bonus, non-championship round which took place on the Dutch Caribbean Island of Curacao. A tight course was laid out around the streets of the capital city, Willemstat.
Thackwell mastered the gripless course to take pole position by more than a second, only for his electrics to die on the grid. Ivan Capelli inherited pole position but Thackwell’s team mate John Nielsen won the race. Despite plans for a round of the championship to be held at the track in 1986 the series never returned.
Huge field for second season
The success of the change in formula was proved in 1986. A healthy supply of customer engines and chassis plus, in a change for 1986, a single tyre make, grid sizes more than doubled over the winter. There were 37 cars entered for the Silverstone curtain-raiser, and all bar one took the start – the packed grid extending well before Woodcote corner.
However rain interfered with the season-opener once again and led to a heavy crash. The unsighted Dominique Delestre was trapped in his Lola after slamming into Thierry Tassin’s March, and the race had to be red-flagged while marshals attended to him.
Five different drivers in three different chassis won the first five races: Pascal Fabre, Capelli, Thackwell, Philippe Alliot and Pierluigi Martini. But other entrants lacked the execution to meet their ambition. At Imola Fulvio Ballabio debuted a chassis of his own creation which fell well short of the lofty standards inspired by its name – the Monte-Carlo 001 – and expired after a single lap of the circuit which, at three minutes and 4.79 seconds, took almost twice as long as its rivals.
The Monaco of the Midlands
Also failing to live up to the glamour of Monaco was Birmingham’s city centre street circuit, an ambitious project which became a fixture on the F3000 schedule for five years.
This was despite the first meeting being cursed by dire weather which forced the red-flagging of the centrepiece F3000 event. Luis Perez-Sala won despite having lost part of his car’s nose in the fray earlier on. It was his second win of the year – some recompense from being thrown out of the entire weekend at Mugello due to a technical infringement in qualifying, along with Mauricio Gugelmin.
Meanwhile the arrangements for the second half of the season were in disarray. Plans for a Brazilian double-header at Interlagos and Goiana were scrapped. However one ambitious new round did go ahead.
A season finale at the Jarama circuit in Spain was abruptly scheduled in their place one week after the Le Mans round. By this stage only Martini could keep Capelli from the crown. He duly won the season finale at Jarama – despite initially being disqualified for a technical infringement – but fourth place secured the title for Capelli. The latter and his Leyton House-backed March team moved up to Formula One the following year.
Dalmas crashes at Vallelunga
The calendar confusion continued into year three: Mugello and Misano were originally on the schedule, Imola was added after they were dropped. Another Italian track, Vallelunga, retained its place on the schedule, and it was there that Yannick Dalmas was fortunate to survive a huge 175mph crash. In a terrifying moment, cars which hadn’t slowed in time hit debris from the crash scene and locked their brakes to avoid the gathering marshals.
Trolle’s triumph at Spa
French driver Michel Trolle scored his only F3000 victory in a rain-hit race at Spa-Francorchamps. Among the driver to impress that day was Mark Blundell, who had leapt up to F3000 from Formula Ford 2000.
Seven races, seven winners
However a crash involving Trolle brought an early end to the seventh round of the season at Brands Hatch. Julian Bailey won the race, becoming the seventh different victor of the season.
Modena grabs the title
Stefano Modena, who had begun the season with fewer than 20 races to his name, became the first driver to take two wins in 1987. He did so at Birmingham, where he organisers were relieved to see dry weather for their second event.
Roberto Moreno – who had made a brief F1 debut five years earlier – impressed by rising to second place after starting in the pits. He took four pole positions during the year, but his car’s poor reliability helped Modena grab the title ahead of Perez-Sala.
Ironically at Le Mans it was Modena’s turn to retire with an engine problem while leading, but a puncture meant Moreno was unable to capitalise. Nonetheless both drivers were on the F1 grid before the year was out.
For year four, Formula 3000 began with a new look. Chilly Silverstone was replaced by sunny Jerez as the season-opener, and Johnny Herbert placed his Eddie Jordan-run Reynard on pole position. Always one to spot an opportunity, Jordan contacted tobacco brand Camel and offered to put their logos on Herbert’s otherwise blank car for free, in exchange for a meeting about future sponsorship opportunities. That paved the way for a successful partnership between the two.
Herbert won the season-opener, thereby extending Reynard’s run of debut success across an array of different disciplines (albeit one which did not continue when they arrived in F1 with BAR 11 years later).
Gregor Foitek won the second round of the championship at Vallelunga before pre-season title favourite Moreno stamped his authority on proceedings, winning three in a row.
Herbert maimed at Brands
Jordan gave Martin Donnelly his F3000 debut at Brands Hatch and the Ulsterman duly won. But that remarkable achievement was overshadowed by a terrible accident for his team mate.
Herbert had got away slowly from pole position and become involved in a tangle at the exit of Clearways. His Reynard was fired head-on into a bridge and then the barrier at the opposite side of the circuit. The crash left Herbert with fearful leg injuries.
Incredibly, Herbert recovered well enough to take a gritty fourth place on his F1 debut in Brazil the following year. However the damage done to his legs was so bad that when he got out of his car following a minor practice crash at the next race in Imola, the marshals who attended him immediately assumed he’d been badly hurt and bundled him into an ambulance.
Spence’s crane trip
It was a year of shocking accidents. Trolle had also been badly injured at Brands Hatch, during qualifying, and would never races a single seater again. The Monza race was red-flagged after Fabien Giroix and Massimo Monti collided, launching one car out of the circuit confines and into the trees at Lesmo. Mercifully both survived. Foitek triggered a multi-car crash at Italy’s other high-speed circuit, Enna-Pergusa.
The annual trip to Birmingham was incident-filled as well, and bordered on farce as the race was stopped twice. At one point Russell Spence refused to obey the marshal’s instructions to help them move his car aside, so they attached a hook to his roll bar and began winching the car out of the way with its unhappy driver still aboard.
Before that, in an incident missed by the cameras, James Hunt’s brother David’s car had been launched over a barrier, punching a hole in the wall of a supermarket.
Zolder’s first race
The former Belgian Grand Prix venue Zolder was another new addition to the calendar in 1988. It held the penultimate round of the championship, but by then Moreno had already clinched the title.
Olivier Grouillard won the race while David Hunt, brother of F1 world champion James Hunt, went out at the first corner.
Formula 3000 memories will continue tomorrow.
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