Not five years ago, the British Formula Three Championship was part of your golden ticket to F1 glory and the series’ stars were seemingly on the fast-track to Grand Prix stardom. But the arrival of the rival 3 Euroseries may have changed all that.
Jenson Button, Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson are all recent British F3 graduates. But 2003 saw the introduction of the F3 Euroseries, supported by major manufacturers, on the DTM bill racing in front of 50,000 fans. Unsurprisingly, this has rapidly overtaken the British series, whose fan base usually stretches to a man and a dog, with races played out on freezing spring and autumn afternoons at Croft.
But I still think British is best. Why? Firstly, the British series has proper circuits, like Donington and the confines of Castle Combe where drivers face challenges they don’t get at the new Hockenheim with its desert-like expanses of run-off. Secondly, it will endure. Manufacturer interest in racing is notoriously fickle. When Mercedes, Toyota and Renault decide they’ve had enough of racing for a couple of years the Euroseries will disappear overnight.
However there are some worrying signs afoot. Stephane Ratel (who has held the commercial rights to British F3 since 2004) is the Carlos the Jackal of global motor sport, as there isn’t a series he hasn’t managed to kill off. Consequently, having failed to an agreement with Jonathan Palmer, this year’s championship is not visiting Brands Hatch, Oulton Park and Snetterton (all classic circuits and integral to the championship), but is holding races at the Nurburgring, Monza, Mondello Park and Spa (rumours for 2006 include races in Australia, Columbia and Antarctica). This has done much to increase costs and dramatically alter the character of the championship. Although it arguably improves the series’ profile and gives drivers experience of Grand Prix circuits it also takes costs out of reach of struggling British drivers and gives little return for domestic sponsors.
Thus it is a much-reduced ‘Championship’ class field that takes to the grid this year, and one which, potentially, offers the depth of a paddling pool. That said, the quality at the front is as good as ever. 2004 Formula Renault Champion Mike Conway makes the step up and is one of the few front runners to have enjoyed an extensive winter test programme, making him an instant favourite. Returnees Danilo Dirani, James Walker and Marko Asmer all showed flashes of talent in 2004, particularly Dirani, who enjoyed a dominant weekend at Croft. However, Dirani is one of one two Lola runners for 2005 and may struggle to sort the car out for every circuit. Walker and Asmer are both talented drivers and will hopefully deliver in 2005.
Making the jump from the ‘National’ class are 2004 Champion Ryan Lewis, 2003 frontrunner Steven Kane and Stephen Jelley. Kane is perhaps the more promising of the trio, having taken Ernesto Viso all the way in 2003 (until Viso punted him off) and he had a stellar Formula Ford career. Lewis was dominant in 2004, but only beat two other regular competitors, so this year is his first real test. Jelley is nicknamed ‘Wobbly’ (ho ho), perhaps a touch unfairly as on his day he as good as anyone else, but such performances are all too rare.
There are also many promising newcomers to the series. 2004 Formula Ford Festival winner Dan Clark has secured a drive with Kimi Raikkonen’s new team, although after four seasons in Formula Ford the pressure is on to deliver. Also graduating from Formula Ford is the fearless American Charlie Kimball, who could well prove a multiple race winner with Carlin. Inaugural Formula BMW Champion Tim Bridgman has also made the jump and is another driver facing a crucial year. Bridgman has spent most of the winter crashing his Hitech Dallara, but raceday smoothness took him to successive Zip and BMW titles so he could figure in the final equation, provided he stays out of trouble.
Other Formula BMW graduates for 2005 are the Dane Christian Bakkerud, who did little in BMW last year and is unlikely to trouble the frontrunners, and Bruno Senna, who has had a warp speed career trajectory thanks to his surname, but his lack of race experience makes this season one of learning. He’s Ayrton’s nephew, if you were wondering.
Susie Stoddart arrives from Formula Renault with much to prove. Three well-financed years in Formula Renault yielded zero wins, meaning that there are still question marks about her ultimate potential. Stoddart has made much in the press about overcoming adversity as a female driver, but frankly, if it weren’t for this (being female), it is unlikely her career would have progressed this far (considering the fortunes of many of her male Formula Renault counterparts). Podiums are likely however. Former model Keiko Ihara arrives from Japan and a myriad of Asian series, although past results suggest her abilities were confined to the catwalk. It could be a tough year for her.
The National Class is re-badged (it was the ‘Scholarship’ class) and rejuvenated for 2005 with new engine regulations reducing costs. Boasting the likes of Juho Annala (last seen trying to go four abreast into Paddock at the Formula Ford Festival – it didn’t work) and FPA Champion Jonathan Kennard, the National Class frontrunners could well embarrass some of their Championship Class rivals.
Though on paper perhaps not likely to be a vintage year, the 2005 season could prove to be the best for years with no clear favourite, lots of new tracks, and loads of F3 rookies. As for my prediction – I’ll let you know in October.