Massive 35-car grids made for spectacular F3000 racing in the late nineties – but that all changed when it became a permanent part of the F1 support programme.
Ricardo Zonta won a tightly-fought championship against a quality field which included the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya and Tom Kristensen. The fast but error-prone Montoya easily lost more than the one-and-a-half points gap between him and Zonta due to mistakes.
The season began with the second consecutive race in which the winner on the road was disqualified. Zonta was stripped of his win due to a gearbox infringement, and didn’t claim his first points until round four at the Nurburgring.
Morelli’s horror shunt
Zonta won in Germany but the race was stopped early after a shocking crash for Dino Morelli flattened the barrier at turn one. Morelli had hit Gareth Rees in a cloud of spray, and with his throttle jammed open and the front of his car missing he hit Cyrille Sauvage before piling into a tyre barrier. Incredibly Morelli survived the impact, and eventually returned to the championship.
Round five at Enna was won by Jamie Davies after Montoya spun repeatedly and Zonta dropped back with a misfire. He was the fifth different winner in as many races: Soheil Ayari won a tough race on the streets of Helsinki in Finland after Davies and Montoya hit the wall.
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Zonta was the first driver to double up, winning at the Hockenheimring despite spinning, but Montoya hit back with victory in Austria. Zonta sealed the title by winning the penultimate race at Mugello, but the victory went to Montoya, in a two-part affair at Jerez.
Kristensen crashes at Spa
Kristensen’s final year in single-seaters did not go well. At Spa he led but suffered this huge crash. It would prove to be his final year in single-seaters before he committed to sports car racing, where he had already achieved his first of nine Le Mans 24 Hours victories earlier in the year.
Christian Horner’s tough year
Christian Horner’s father Garry set up the Arden team to further his son’s racing career. However a trying season saw Horner failed to qualify for six of the ten rounds. It came good in the final race at Jerez, however, where he scored a point for sixth.
Grid sizes were boosted for 1998 with up to 35 cars allowed to start at some rounds. Stephane Sarrazin won on his debut in the season-opener at Oschersleben, were 30 cars took the start, and there were another five on the grid when the series moved on to Imola.
Montoya dominates Pau
Despite starting both of the first two races from pole position Montoya failed to score points in either race – a wheel came off his car at Oschersleben and he tangled with Sauvage at Imola. He made amends with back-to-back wins at Barcelona and Silverstone, but in Monaco Nick Heidfeld scored a breakthrough victory after Jason Watt threw the lead away.
Montoya hit back at the very next race on another French street circuit. He lapped the entire field at Pau thanks in part to a mid-race blockage at the Lycee hairpin involving Heidfeld.
Heidfeld hits back
Heidfeld regained the lead of the championship lead with a pair of wins of his own. The first came at the Hockenheimring, where rain led to a huge crash which brought out the red flags. Montoya took third after a fighting recovery drive, where he also finished in Hungary as Heidfeld won again.
At Spa Montoya led the field away while Heidfeld slipped back to fifth. But both were outdone by the inspired Gonzalo Rodriguez, who passed Heidfeld early on and later pounced on a mistake by Montoya to take the lead.
Tensions between the two title contenders heightened at Enna. Montoya won the final race on the terrifyingly quick Sicilian circuit after tangling with Heidfeld:
Fuel row costs Heidfeld title shot
The championship took another controversial twist at the final round, where Rodriguez won again. Heidfeld had beaten Montoya to pole position but his car failed a fuel test and Heidfeld was sent to the back of the 32-car field. He recovered to ninth in the race, but third for Montoya secured him the championship.
Montoya became the latest in a series of F3000 drivers to graduate not to F1, but to the CART IndyCar series. Williams had a long-term option on his services, but for 1999 they had hired the reigning CART champion (and ex-F3000 racer) Alessandro Zanardi.
Now in its 15th season, Formula 3000 was run exclusively as an F1 support series for the first time in 1999. And it had never been more popular: 44 cars were entered for the new season.
This made for a congested track during practice sessions, but a request from team managers to the FIA for more track time was given short shrift – president Max Mosley informed them they would take what they were given, or lose the chance to race on the same bill as F1.
Heidfeld bounced back from his disappointment the previous year to claim the championship in style with two races left to run. He clinched the crown in Hungary, though he had to settle for second behind Sarrazin in the race. Sarrazin had slipped past while Heidfeld was scrapping with Fabrice Walfish – the Draco driver unusually dropping out when his throttle pedal sheared in two.
For the first time in six years the F3000 champion secured an immediate promotion to F1. But although Heidfeld enjoyed the backing of McLaren’s young driver programme, it was Prost that gave him his F1 break.
Eventual championship runner-up Jason Watt was eighth in the standings with two races to go but won them both to vault up the order. Sadly, he suffered partial paralysis in a post-season motorbike accident.
CART crash claims Rodriguez
Heidfeld won four of the opening six rounds, missing out in Monaco where he was penalised for failing to slow sufficiently for yellow flags. Rodriguez took his only win of the season at Monte-Carlo, and before the season was over he had made his debut for Penske in the CART series. But tragedy struck when he made his second appearance at Laguna Seca – Rodriguez was killed in a violent accident at the Corkscrew bend.
What was the value of F3000 experience? Bruno Junqueira had finished fifth in the 1999 championship, but Williams passed over their test driver in favour of F3 racer Jenson Button when they needed a short-notice replacement for Zanardi.
Junqueira duly returned to F3000 and won the championship – and joined the list of its champions who never made it into F1.
Grid sizes were slashed for 2000: the FIA imposed an upper limit of 30 cars, prompting several teams to merge their efforts. Many now enjoyed the endorsement of or association with Formula One teams.
Among those were future Minardi team principal Paul Stoddart’s Arrows team, whom Mark Webber joined for 2000. Webber had spent the last two years out of single-seaters driving for Mercedes’ sports car team, but their disastrous 1999 Le Mans experience had put an end to that project. Webber won the second round of the championship in a rain-hit race at Silverstone.
Mario Haberfeld’s lucky escape
Mario Haberfeld was injured after this crash during qualifying for the third race at the Circuit de Catalunya. His car was struck by Andrea Piccini and Nicolas Minassian after spinning at the final corner, and Haberfeld was trapped in the car for 20 minutes while he was extricated.
Junqueira got his championship bid going in Spain with the first of three wins on the trot. But he failed to score in the next two races while Nicolas Minassian repeated his opening round win with two more victories to tie the championship lead with three rounds to go.
Bourdais bumped out at Monaco
Junqueira’s third win came at Monaco, where he qualified third on the grid behind pole sitter David Saelens and Sebastien Bourdais. But the front row occupants tangled at the first corner, Saelens sending the fast-starting Bourdais into the barrier.
Junqueira took victory in the penultimate round at the Hungaroring, pursued by 19-year-old rookie Fernando Alonso whose progress in his second season of racing stunned his Astromega team.
At the Spa finale Junqueira came in a point-less eighth but secured the title as Minassian, carrying a nasty leg injury incurred in a strange incident while cleaning his road car, took third.
But Alonso stole the limelight again, scoring an emphatic win. Junquiera and Minassian may not have landed an F1 seat for 2001 – but Alonso soon did.
Formula 3000 memories will continue tomorrow.
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