The final instalment in our columnist Ben Evans’ look at the history of Formula 3000.
In the 1990s the series briefly tasted success before grid numbers tailed off again. Although it could still occasionally provide great comedy moments and good racing, it was pensioned off at the end of 2004 to make way for GP2.
Oliver Panis and Pedro Lamy fought for the championship in an excellent season in 1993. The title was eventually settled in Panis’ favour, but only after the Frenchman had been shunted off at the final round by Vincenzo Sospiri, leading to a hilarious pitlane punch-up between the pair.
Although not as badly hit by the early 1990s recession as F1, by 1995 the calendar only ran to 8 races with a maximum of 20 or so regular drivers. The season was marred by the death of the Brazilian Marco Campos on the last lap of the final race of the year at Magny Cours the only driver fatality in the history of the Championship.
In 1996 championship adopted single chassis, engine and tyres specification in order to bring costs down and minimise the dominance of works teams. The changes enabled the grid to grow thanks to reduced costs and produced better racing.
However F3000 was still badly promoted and had no visibility outside the motoring press – UK TV coverage for example, was at 3am up to six weeks after the race, with limited satellite highlights. For sponsors putting in up to $1m this hardly represented good value.
In 1998 the decision was taken to make F3000 the primary support race to the European F1 races, raising the championship’s visibility and value at a stroke, with a number of the teams being acquired and operated as ‘junior squads’
This was the beginning of a golden era for F3000 with four years featuring big grids, close racing and a high progression rate for its alumni. Furthermore the ‘control’ formula lowered costs to the extent that, if not hugely affordable, F3000 was a realistic next step for many drivers.
The 1999 season stands out as perhaps the greatest and strangest season of them all. The entry was enormous, frequently enough to fill the grid twice over, and there were probably up to 20 drivers in the field who could win races. This, and a single 45-minute qualifying session, ensured that drivers who had been on the podium at one race could be to make the grid at the next.
Needless to say the races were absolute cavalry charges and drivers sought to take maximum advantage from every race start. The Lola parts department did very good business.
By 2002/03, rapidly increasing costs, mainly as a result of F1 investment, were driving grids down and the Arden team had become an overly dominant force. Justin Wilson and Mark Webber’s battle for the 2001 title was perhaps F3000’s last hurrah. The 2003 championship saw Bjorn Wirdheim claim the title, but by then he had already fatally wounded his career prospects by throwing away a guaranteed race win at Monaco.
In 2004 F3000 died an ignominious death. Vitantonio Liuzzi faced extremely limited competition and strolled to the title. Grids stagnated in the mid-teens and pitstops were introduced as a last ditch attempt to attract entrants.
So why couldn’t F3000 survive?
In the wake of 9/11 F1 saw a massive downturn in sponsorship revenues and this had a far reaching impact on the junior formulae as drivers simply couldn’t raise £1m to compete.
Furthermore F3000 was not seen as a vital step on the career ladder, the graduation rate was not high (no F3000 Champion has been F1 Champion), and the series seemed to offer limited value for the expenditure required, something exacerbated by the time constrained F1 weekend.
In 2005 it was replaced by GP2. This was conceived from the outset as a single make formula with a maximum grid size. Teams would have to apply for their places in the championship, and the cars would have minor revisions each year and wholesale replacements every three years.
The first three years have gone well for the new series, despite some reliability problems. The racing has been excellent, regularly embarrassing F1’s typically processional races.
The talent pool has seen the likes of Nico Rosberg (2005 champion), Lewis Hamilton (2006 champion), Timo Glock (2007 champion), Heikki Kovalainen (2005 runner-up), Nelson Piquet Jnr (2006 runner-up) and Kazuki Nakajima (2007 top rookie) ascend to F1.
This year sees the first season of the new Asian GP2 championship. The regular GP2 championship will feature the likes of Romain Grosjean, Sebastien Buemi, Mike Conway and other promising talent.
F3000 hasn’t disappeared, however. The European F3000 championship runs a small number of races, and it was this series that put Felipe Massa on his way to Formula 1.
Read more about the champions of Formula 3000 and GP2