Every Saturday afternoon on a race weekend, Jaguar Racing hold a media briefing at their motorhome with driver Mark Webber. This almost invariably clashes with the start of the Formula 3000 race, and Webber makes a point of watching the start and the first few laps on the large screen at the back of the room before getting down to business, primarily because he still enjoys watching motor racing, not just participating in it.
The F3000 race is shown live in almost every motorhome in the Formula One paddock, and yet Webber is the only notable Formula One people I have seen watch any of the races. Are the young drivers and their teams wasting their time? The whole point of Formula 3000 is to be under the noses of the senior personnel in the F1 paddock, to have them pay attention in the hope of furthering their careers. But if no one is watching Bjorn Wirdheim claim the championship at the German Grand Prix, then is it all in vain? "I don't know," Webber – who raced in F3000 in 2000 and 2001 - states as he stares at the screen, "I could see him in F1; he's done a really good job.
"I don't know what's the right way to get into Formula One - we've all got here in different ways. Formula 3000 is a very frustrating category in a lot of ways, but it's very good for you to deal with the pressure. When I was doing it you had one qualifying session and the race, but technically it's quite strange - you don't learn too much on that front, but you learn the tracks and you learn how to deal with pressure."
For Webber, however, it seemed to be a chore that had to be done for his paymasters. "I was treading water really. I didn't really want to do it - the most I learnt was in Mercedes and Renault. I don't think what I did in F3000 helped me massively. Monte Carlo was good, winning a few races keeps putting it on the map. It complimented my test programme very well with Renault, and that was the main reason we did it. I wasn't very keen on doing it but we thought it was very good to stay race sharp, and Formula 3000 at the time was over thirty cars, was quite competitive." The four race wins he achieved in two years couldn't have hurt his career, either.
Formula 3000, and Formula Two before it, has traditionally been seen as a finishing school, as the last port of call for a young driver to prove his worth to the Formula One teams so as to claim a spot on that grid.
The grid has generally been made up from various junior category champions and race winners, and any driver who shines against this competition should have done enough to prove his worth. Or so the theory goes. "There are very, very good drivers who find their way into F3000," Webber confirms, "but there's a lot of guys who sink unfortunately – it's a bit of a strange one to judge who's doing well and who's not, and it's very difficult to dominate.
"It's good for (learning) the circuits, and there's quite a bit of pressure in qualifying - you've got your sets of tyres and things as in any junior category. But it's a bit messy at the moment to be honest."
The following is the list of drivers who have won the Formula 3000 championship since its inception in 1985:
1985: Christian Danner
1986: Ivan Capelli
1987: Stefano Modena
1988: Roberto Moreno
1989: Jean Alesi
1990: Erik Comas
1991: Christian Fittipaldi
1992: Luca Badoer
1993: Olivier Panis
1994: Jean-Christophe Boullion
1995: Vincenzo Sospiri
1996: Jorg Muller
1997: Ricardo Zonta
1998: Juan Pablo Montoya
1999: Nick Heidfeld
2000: Bruno Junqueira
2001: Justin Wilson
2002: Sebastien Bourdais
2003: Bjorn Wirdheim
In that list there are no Formula One World Champions, and there are only three drivers to take Formula One race wins (three to Montoya, one each to Alesi and Panis). Discounting Wirdheim, who is still competing in F3000, two of the former three champions have not raced in Formula One, with the other one needing to bring money with him to get a seat in back of the grid Minardi. Muller, the only driver to ever claim the F3000 title in his debut year, has never had so much as a sniff of a drive in the senior categories - the closest he got was test driver for BMW when they were preparing to join forces with Williams.
So how relevant is Formula 3000 to Formula One? There is no question that the drivers get to learn the circuits (at least the European ones on which they race), and the tight nature of the timetable of an average race weekend mean that they have to learn to deal with the pressure that brings, but the lack of technical changes available to the car means that there is little work a driver can do in the area to affect his race - something that is vital in the senior category.
Formula 3000 is a control series, meaning that there is one chassis supplier, one engine supplier, and one tyre supplier. The advantage of this approach is clear – the biggest difference is the person driving the car, and therefore whoever wins the most races should be the best racer. The input a driver can make is at present restricted to a few different settings on the cars wings, and lack of technical input on the cars is a feature of the control series theory, but this could be rectified with ease as a result of discussions with the chassis manufacturer Lola, if not for the current chassis then certainly for next year's model.
The first problem that needs to be resolved is the lack of depth in the grid – there are currently only sixteen cars from eight teams competing in F3000, and only a few years ago there were grids of around forty cars. The worldwide economic downturn has certainly had an effect on the number of people competing in championships everywhere – even Formula One is down to twenty cars – but it is clear that the cost of racing in Formula 3000 has to be reduced. It currently costs an estimated one million dollar (US) per driver per season, and with a learning season a necessity before challenging for the title a driver needs to find effectively two million dollars to run in the series.
It has been suggested that bringing in other chassis and engine manufacturers would drive the costs down for the teams, but this is a false economy – competition between manufacturers may mean that they offer initial discounts, but it would also ensure that they spend more money to beat their opposition on track, which will ultimately be reflected in the end price to the team. The only true way to reduce costs would be to ensure the involvement of a major auto manufacturer, as a series sponsor and an engine supplier, to reduce or eliminate the major cost centre in racing.
But is there enough incentive for a major manufacturer to invest in the series? If a company like Renault or Ford had invested in the series in past years they could have used the successes of Montoya, Heidfeld, Webber or Wilson in their advertising and claimed a part in their ultimate success. Likewise, they could run an ongoing campaign in support of the series, to promote their position in the junior category.
Which brings us to promotion. In most markets around the world, Formula 3000 receives little to no exposure on television, which is ultimately how most fans see (and learn about) a series. The notable exception to this is in the United States of America, where the cable channel Speed TV gives more time to the series than to Formula One. A part of this is the involvement of an American driver (Townsend Bell), but the major reason is that the channel has little else to show at the time of the race, and has a longer lead time (and more access to the teams) than for the Formula One race.
It is clear that more television exposure would mean more interest in the series, and the FIA can play a part here – by rebadging the series as Formula Two it would clear up the position the series holds on the motorsport ladder for the man on the street, and a campaign extolling the virtues of seeing today the stars of tomorrow would further help this process. If there is more interest in the series, then the television rights will be sought more earnestly, which would give more publicity to the series and their sponsors (both the manufacturer and those supporting the individual drivers), which would create more interest from young drivers wanting to join the series, which would promote the racing itself, which would further increase interest in the series.
Is the solution to Formula 3000's woes as simple as renaming the series? No, but it would be a start. More interest in the series, and reduced costs for those wishing to compete, would create an environment where there is another genuine series for race fans to be involved in, and a lot of the questions around the series could be resolved fairly simply.
Speaking to a wide array of people involved in this series, it is obvious the will is there, but they need the support of the FIA, the manufacturers, and race fans in general - every one of which should want to see F3000 back up to the heights it enjoyed only a few years hence.
The F3000 Champion
Born on the 4th of April 1980, Bjorn Wirdheim's interest in motor racing grew out of following his father's progress in the GT Series around Europe at a young age. He started karting at the age of 10, was the Swedish Formula Ford champion at 17, progressed through Formula Palmer Audi to the German Formula Three championship, took pole and third overall at the Macau Grand Prix, finished as rookie of the year and fourth overall in his first year of Formula 3000 in 2002, before taking three poles, six fastest laps and two wins on the way to claiming the championship this year, with two rounds remaining.
Formula 3000 champions don't pop up fully formed overnight - they're grown over time. Drivers almost never win the championship in their first year, and Wirdheim is no exception to the rule. In Formula Three, a driver can win right out of the box because of the vast differences in chassis and engines, but F3000 is a control series – the cars are effectively the same across the grid, and the range of drivers moving up means that experience counts.
"It takes a while to get to Formula 3000," Wirdheim says. "You normally go from Formula Three to Formula 3000, and I think you gain a lot of experience, not only of the European circuits but also because it's a quite difficult car to drive.
"It's necessary to have one year learning [in F3000], and it's been a little bit easier for me this year than it was last year because we went straight into qualifying last year – we now a free practice session first. The circuit was usually quicker in the first two or three laps in qualifying and then it would go a second or so slower because of the Formula One rubber. But now there is a free practice, so it makes it a little bit easier for the newcomers."
The raison d'etre of Formula 3000 is to put as many fast young kids together in the same cars in front of the Formula One paddock and let them fight it out. In a control series the quickest guy usually wins, and with it being on many of the same circuits as the main show it allows the drivers to learn the tracks at the same time as they show their abilities in a car halfway between those in F3 and F1, albeit without the technical tweaks of either.
"Well I think for sure you want to learn more than you learn in F3," Wirdheim states, "because in F3 you can change a lot more things on the car and you are free to develop the aerodynamics and so on. So I think for that reason F3 might be better, but on the other hand F3 is a more powerful car and there was a huge difference the first time I drove a F3000 car compared to a F3 car - it's half the power of a Formula One car. I think if they could increase the power and make it a little bit cheaper to rent the engine then it should be a better alternative."
And the cost of the series is the biggest problem for any young driver trying to get into Formula One. "At this moment it's far too expensive. Fortunately I made a deal with Christian (Horner, Arden team boss) last year that if I score more than 25 points and finish better than fifth in the championship he would reduce the budget for this year - if it wasn't for that then I wouldn't have been able to continue. So I think it's far too expensive at the moment. I know they're trying to do something about it - they're trying to get some other manufacturers to provide engines at a better price."
With only sixteen cars currently on the grid, it's clear to see that the economics have kept the hopefuls away from F3000, with many running into the arms of alternate series. "It's a lot cheaper to run in other formulas," Wirdheim says. "For example, the Nissan World Series. Those cars are not as quick as the F3000 cars but they're still good cars. And then there's the Renault V6, although that's not really on the same level."
But how much weight does the F3000 championship give a young driver trying to break into Formula One? Everyone has a different answer to this, but Wirdheim see it thus: "It should give you more than winning the F3 championship. In F3, it's unlimited testing – you can test as much as you want – but it's not like that in F3000. In F3000 you are very limited; we did six days before the start of the season, and we did two hours of testing at Snetterton, and that's it. That's why it's so important to do a learning year before challenging for the title in the second year.
"Apart from the official six days before the season, we're allowed fourteen hours of running with the engines, and it's quite expensive if you do a lot of mileage with the engines, so we've only done two hours and there's no more testing." Which brings it back to being all about the driver, and how he adapts to the changing conditions on the day, to his ability to show he can win despite the limits placed on him.
The factor that separates Formula 3000 from the other similarly powered series is that if a driver gets it right, he does it in front of the Formula One paddock. "I think one of the best things is that it gives you quite a lot of credit if you win the championship," Wirdheim states, "because people recognise that it's a difficult formula to win, and then also because it's held before the Grand Prix all the people in the Formula One paddock know what I've done this season, which is good for me."
But is it enough? The list of F3000 champions is littered with drivers who have failed to make any impact on the big game, with only Juan Pablo Montoya having scored more than one Formula One win to date. Wirdheim is realistic enough to know that winning the championship is no guarantee of Formula One success: "I have a few tests lined up at the moment, Formula One tests, and if I do well enough there I'm sure there will be an opportunity to go for a race seat. But it's not enough to prove that you're a good driver - you have to prove that you're an extremely good driver, in all areas.
"I'm happy, because at least I get a chance to prove myself, and then we'll just have to wait and see what happens. But I don't have the financial backing I need to be sure to get the seat in Formula One, and that's not the way I want to enter Formula One either – in that case I'd rather go and do something else.
"So the next step would be Formula One or CART, and if you're a good driver in F3000, like Sebastien Bourdais - and what he has done this year [in CART] has generated a lot of interest in F3000 from the CART teams - if you prove to be a good driver in F3000 then there's a big possibility you can get a free seat in CART. But it's not a guarantee for getting into Formula One."
Ultimately F3000 needs to raise its profile – it's not enough to rely on running in front of the Formula One teams and hoping they notice. Substantial changes need to be made to improve the series, and ultimately the chances of the drivers graduating into the big league.
"I would make it the official feeder series to Formula One, so you have to do it to get into Formula One," Wirdheim says. "And I would make sure to lower the costs and try to get backing from a manufacturer to supply cheap engines, and maybe also to change the chassis to make it more cost efficient, because at this moment spares are really expensive – the car is really cheap, but the spares are just too expensive!
"I think it could be done for sure, because if you get backing from a car manufacturer to supply engines for the car at a good price it would be a lot better, and then there would be more drivers. The third thing would be to allow the teams to develop the cars a bit more, so you could change the wings and everything." Because a little technical know how couldn't hurt when trying to get into Formula One.
The F3000 Team Boss
Christian Horner formed Arden Motorsport in 1997 as a one-car team to allow him to compete in that year's Formula 3000 championship. Growing into a two-car operation the following year, with Horner stepping out of the cockpit and into management at its conclusion, Arden has steadily grown since that time. Following their win in the Euro 3000 constructors' championship in 2000, Arden took both championships in Formula 3000 in 2002, although Tomas Enge's championship was later revoked after a positive drug test. This year the team has already won the drivers' championship with Bjorn Wirdheim, and is in a strong position to follow up with the constructors' title.
Getting the man on the street interested in Formula 3000 is a tough sell – it used to be that the junior category to Formula One was Formula Two, and anyone interested in seeing the stars of tomorrow would know where to look. With an increasing number of series available, and with confusion surrounding the series as it stands, Horner thinks it's time for a change.
"As far as the people's minds are concerned, I think the confusing factor about Formula 3000 is its name," he starts. "Your average man in the street understands where Formula Three is in relation to Formula One, but when faced with Formula 3000 will raise the question where does that fit - is it above, below or whatever.
"I think the best thing that can be done in the interim is to address the name and rebrand it to Formula Two, which would state where it was in the motorsport pecking order. Obviously Formula Two existed successfully for many, many years and petered out when costs escalated out of control and there were two manufacturers who were competing vehemently against each other. Formula 3000 has obviously been established for eighteen years but maybe now is the perfect time for a rebranding of the name."
There's more to the series success or failure than just the name, of course. "In terms of what can it do to make Formula One look at it more closely, I think Formula One do look at it in the driver that I both represent from a team and managerial point of view (Bjorn Wirdheim). His performances this year have opened doors in Formula One, and in any other championship they wouldn't have opened the same doors because he's competing at ten Grands Prix under their noses, with every European event this year, so the positive issue is that it's associated with Grand Prix weekends and plays an important role in that. I think maybe seventy percent of the current F1 drivers have come through Formula 3000 at some time in their career.
"The downside is that the costs are high for what we have at the moment, which is a 450bhp car; the engine costs are too high, and the chassis costs are too high. In a competitive marketplace we need to be competitive with other formulas, and what we need to see is the formula clearly ahead of its rivals in performance, promotion and cost. I think if that were to be addressed through natural process there would only be one formula that fed Formula One."
The problem that keeps being pointed out in Formula 3000 is the lack of any technical learning for the drivers - the regulations are so tight that there is little that the drivers can do to affect the setup of the car. "It would be good if there was a variance of aerodynamic packages maybe, high downforce and low downforce configuration," Horner agrees, "but what it does teach them is to look at themselves and extract the most out of themselves.
"In our case, Bjorn Wirdheim has been with us for two years, and the car that he was running at Hockenheim is probably a whole of front wing different compared to last year, but he's going at most circuits a second quicker. It's coming from himself - he's forced to extract the most from the tyres, the most out of the car, the most out of the package that he has, and it really disciplines the drivers immensely because they don't have any excuses to hang their hat on.
"I think if we had a quicker car, if we had a bigger engine with softer tyres and a pitstop and a bit more downforce for the car, you're automatically going to go a bit quicker, maybe different brakes. The biggest difference when drivers get out of this car and step into a Formula One car is the braking capacity. So they're all things that would improve what we currently have, and I think there are moves afoot to address this for the future. So I don't think there's anything wrong with what the formula is - the only thing that it lacks is some promotion."
Promotion is the bete noir of every junior motor racing series in the world. The junior categories, including Formula 3000, are the cradle that supports tomorrow's Formula One stars, but there is little interest outside of real motor racing aficionados. Money always has to be found to allow people to go racing, but one step removed from the Formula One circus perhaps this money could be found within the industry. "For me I think it's just a great shame that we've got a tremendously valuable spot here on the Grand Prix calendar - Porsche pay for their spot but we don't, we're here at the generosity of Bernie Ecclestone to allow the formula to be here.
"What would be great would be to see a manufacturer recognise the value of this slot, badge or label the formula, which would in turn reduce costs, introduce a prize fund, and with all of the marketing hype that goes with a manufacturer programme that would automatically deal with the media side of things, because at the moment there's no media representative for this championship really. And it just needs that kick, that push forward on it, and it lends itself perfectly for a manufacturer to get involved.
"And it would be right for a manufacturer to have recognition; the benefit of that is that if they'd supported in previous years they could already have the marketing tool by now that Montoya would have stood on the podium eight times or whatever it was, Heidfeld the same, all the other guys, Alonso, Justin Wilson, it goes on and on and on really. The benefit you would think is logical, and it would be great to see it happen."
There really needs to be a bigger show to keep people's interest in the series, though. As recently as 1999, Nick Heidfeld took the championship from a field of over forty drivers, and with the grid dwindling to sixteen at present, this is clearly a problem that needs to be resolved. "Well I think there's two or three teams that are actively showing interest in coming into the championship – maybe as early as the next race at least one of them will make it. What can be done to encourage them? The current prohibitive side to it is there's only one more year left on the current specification – maybe if that specification was changed in advance of 2005, or maybe extended, it would be something to persuade a team to invest in the short term in equipment that wouldn't be potentially obsolete in twelve months' time."
Away from the racing, Horner believes that the FIA does not use the championship as much as it could; with the number of changes made to Formula One each year it makes sense to test them elsewhere first, and F3000 would be a willing test pilot. "If I was the FIA I'd say okay, to race in Formula One you've got to achieve an international A licence through our international Formula Two championship" he laughs, "although unfortunately I don't think that's feasible. And, if I was the FOM, I'd use Formula 3000 to compliment Formula One more.
"There's sixteen or seventeen Grands Prix a year, and there's twenty five circuits; why not use us in addition to the ten or twelve races a year - our season's very short - why not send us to Bahrain a year early, or China a year early, to make sure that they can host, promote and run an event prior to the big boys coming into town? We could have run the HANS system a year in advance and addressed any of the early problems there. We could have run a different qualifying format, we could run the Handford rear wing to see if that improved racing. It could be used as a test bed in certain respects for Formula One.
"And what I think could be more beneficial to Formula One - not just from a driver's perspective as a training ground but as an engineer, as a technician, as a truck driver - is the format of the race weekend. It would be great to see the F3000 race on a Sunday morning – ideally the new drivers take two years because of the relative lack of running time they get during the race weekend, and if there was a little more running time, and maybe if we were to introduce a pitstop into the race so that more strategy came into play, then the teams could be more involved in that as well. And I think it would address the learning curve the drivers are faced with before they go into Formula One."
The F3000 Rookie
Born August 6th 1981, Tonio Liuzzi was bitten by the karting bug at an early age. Beginning his karting career in 1992, he won the Italian championship the following year and pushed up through the ranks, winning races in the various karting categories before claiming the European karting championship in 1999, the world championship in 2001 (in which year he narrowly missed the German Formula Renault title at the last round), with a stint in German Formula Three (and a one-off test drive for BMW Williams) leading to his debut in Formula 3000 this year, where he is now the rookie of the year.
After a successful junior career Liuzzi needed to consider his next move, and with his manager Peter Collins he chose to come into Formula 3000. It was a good choice, as he is currently battling for second in the championship in his debut year, following in the footsteps of Nick Heidfeld and Juan Pablo Montoya who both managed the feat.
"I think it was really the best choice we could have done," Liuzzi avers. "After last season in Formula Three we had a really good experience with one of the best teams in Germany, and after that I thought Formula 3000 was the best category for me because I saw it was really competitive, it's on the weekend with Formula One – I thought it was the best choice.
"The category is really good, and this new car they developed this year is a really well balanced car and better than the one before. I think there is a really good level overall, the cars are all more or less the same, so you can have a big chance to show what you can do in this category. I saw last year in F3 that if you don't have the right combination of car and engine it was really hard to win. I think this category shows your best potential."
Liuzzi is sold on the potential of Formula 3000, although not blind to its flaws, and he rates it the toughest category he's raced in, as well as the most useful: "being in the weekend with Formula One helps a lot, and you have more or less the same cars, the same engines, the same chassis, so you have only to work on the set up of the car. It's good that we're with Formula One, and we hope that they look at us.
"The races are really long and they teach you a lot, because they are half the distance of a Formula One race - 150km - and after Formula One it is the longest race in single seaters. You also have to be really fit because even in the new car the steering is really heavy. You need a lot of fitness and strength because it's an endurance race – thirty laps – these types of tracks are not easy, and if you are under pressure you will feel it a lot. The first time I raced in Imola I was thinking I was ready physically, but the race was really tough.
"The worst part is that there are not that many cars because of the price of the series. I think the teams and the manufacturer charge too much – we are with Formula One and it's really an important category, but if you look at the other three litre categories they are less expensive, even if they have a similarly developed car – the Super Nissan is cheaper, and Dallara did a really good job with the car. I think they just used the potential too much, and they put the price so high, and I think it is just this that is making Formula 3000 go down a bit."
Liuzzi is one of the few drivers in the Formula 3000 paddock to have already driven a Formula One car, and it was his test with Williams that led him to realise the necessity of F3000. "We need something because there is too big a step from Formula Three to Formula 3000 because of the difference in power – the Formula Three does not breathe, and the Formula 3000 you start to feel the power because there is a lot of torque, the top speed, and it's really nice to drive. When I drove it the first time I felt a lot the power, because when you jump in a higher category you feel it straight away, and it was really nice.
"I think at the end of the day Formula 3000 is a good medium step between Formula Three and Formula One. I always remember my Formula One test like a dream, because sometimes I don't realise I did it and I have to look at my pictures and say ‘oh shit, that was me!'
"When I sat in it and put on my helmet I was really excited, went out and for half a lap was quite slow, a bit of throttle, and after that I went on the throttle and I went flat out on a straight. The car went second third fourth fifth and I wasn't able to keep the car straight - the car was right and left and I thought ‘whoa - I can't drive this!' - it was like a crazy horse and I wasn't able to keep it straight; I couldn't imagine how the corner was going to be!
"The power was amazing - the car was driving me around as well and it was really strange. But in Formula One, with all the electronics around, it gives you a lot of confidence. The Williams was really comfortable, and after three or four laps I was already feeling confidence, I wasn't scared of the speed, was sure of the brakes.
"But the first two or three laps were incredible – I wasn't sure I could drive the car, and my head was like speeding in someway and I thought it was too much. But soon everything becomes normal. And when I drove Formula One it was the same feeling as when I changed from F3 to F3000, the same feeling for the first few laps after which it was becoming natural."
Unlike some of his contemporaries in the paddock, Liuzzi is not convinced that horsepower is the be all and end all for Formula 3000. There are moves afoot to increase the power of the cars, make them ‘more relevant' to the Formula One experience, and most feel it would be an improvement, but there is more required than to just stick a larger engine on board. "For sure it is what everyone is trying to do, to increase the speed and power is the idea for the future, to put an engine of 650hp - it would be great for us.
"I think Lola can work to make a better car – I think this one is good, but they can work to make more grip, and maybe from Avon to get better tyres. We had a race where there was a difference in the second set of tyres, and this can make you unconfident because you never know what set of tyres are a bad one, there could be a bigger selection.
"But I don't think we need a stronger engine, because this one is good enough for the show and a good race – for sure I would like to have an 800hp engine to be closer to Formula One because that's the dream for everyone, but of course it would be even more expensive and we don't need it at the moment."
Liuzzi has had a good first year in Formula 3000, and expectations will be high for him next year. At the moment he is shutting this out, concentrating on the things that F3000 can teach him in his driving, preparing himself for what he hopes lies ahead in his career.
"F3 and F3000 teach things, but in Formula One you can never go sideways on the throttle. Formula 3000 teaches you to drift a lot, and the techniques to do this, and in Formula One you need all this experience and then you are ready to know which is the best way to drive Formula One because it's really technical in some ways - in a corner you have a lot of downforce but the corner speed is really quick so you have to be really technical, put the tyres in the right place, the apex in the right place. The traction control works really often and sometimes it's not good that it works, so you have to find the way to not let it work when you don't need it.
"I think Formula 3000 helps you a lot in the reflexes, how to drive the car drifting sideways, because there's a lot of real power; you don't have traction control so you can let it drift for twenty, thirty metres, and I think this helps a lot. And also in the physical condition, because after Formula 3000 you are nearly ready for Formula One, apart from the neck which you need to work a lot, because the Formula One car is really light compared to the Formula 3000 car. In Formula One you have traction control, and in Formula 3000 when you are over the limit you have a car that goes sideways, and if you go sideways in Formula 3000 you lose time so you find the small line not to cross."
From the bulk of evidence he's learnt where that line lies. Liuzzi clearly loves his involvement in the series – about the only change he sees as vital would be a change in the timetable, something that would make sense to the overall racing weekend from the perspective of the fans.
"I think for sure they have to change the system of the weekend," Liuzzi concludes, "the spectators are interested because of Formula One so maybe they could have switched with the Porsche (Supercup) – I don't think Porsche is at the same level as Formula 3000. They are good and important drivers, but I think because we are single seater in some ways we are more important to create the new talent of Formula One. I think they could put the Formula 3000 race on Sunday just before the Formula One race. And for sure work out a way to reduce the price."
The F3000 Driver Manager
Growing up as a motor racing fan in Sydney, Australia, Peter Collins took any work that would allow him to further his involvement in the sport, including time as a press officer at the Warwick Farm circuit. Moving to the United Kingdom via a spell in California working with Dan Gurney's AAR team, he moved swiftly through the ranks, working as team manager for Lotus (where he brought in a young Nigel Mansell), Williams, and Benetton (where he brought in BMW, Gerhard Berger and Johnny Herbert) before taking over Team Lotus (where he hired Mika Hakkinen). Since the closure of the team, Collins has worked in driver management, consultancy for a variety of teams, and he is currently a writer for F1 Magazine as well as Vitantonio Liuzzi's manager.
Peter Collins is a big believer in Formula 3000, and it shows. He talked his driver Vitantonio Liuzzi into the series, a move that it starting to show dividends, and he thinks it will only improve despite the relative decline in the series recently.
"I actually think it's in a healthier state than people realise," Collins starts, "because, yes, the numbers are down on last year, one team has fallen away this year, but you have to look at motorsport with a global view - this year was the first year I think in the history of the Indianapolis 500 where they struggled to get 33 cars, and that's the one race in the world where there's never a struggle to get sponsors. So when you have only 33 drivers entering to run in the 500 you know that there's a global economic problem in the motorsport industry.
"Formula 3000 has survived this year, and I think it's actually produced some good racing and some good talent. Part of Formula 3000's historical problem is that it was conceived as a drivers' formula where there was a level playing field, so equal engines, tyres, chassis, and it's suffered a little bit because people with a vested interest in creating legends of their own, like F3 teams and engineers, will tell you that Formula 3000 is rubbish because it's not technical. It is actually just as technical and difficult to make your 3000 car better than a F3 car because you're not actually allowed to make any different parts.
"Formula Three teams like the idea of being able to manufacture their own parts and add little tweaks here and there, but the reality is from my experience working in F3 and F3000 with various drivers is that the F3 teams don't actually have as deep an understanding of the aerodynamics as a F3000 team, because in F3000 if you don't understand aerodynamics you don't get the points.
"I actually think it's a very good formula, and if you look at it in terms of the performance capability it's a 400+ horse power V8 engine, it's a 550 odd kilo car, reasonable level of downforce and grip, and it's the equivalent of a driver going to Formula One in the early eighties, so it's fantastic training. And I think if you ask some of the Formula One teams they'll say, yeah, it provides a level of power training that you don't get in F3. I think F3 at 200hp to Formula One at 950hp today is just too big a step."
The biggest question for young drivers is how relevant is the series to getting into Formula One, which is after all the ultimate goal. There are a few series around which are comparable, but Collins doesn't see them as being in the same league as Formula 3000.
"Renault V6 is a long way away - they're around 350bhp, and the car is ten seconds slower at Monaco and Barcelona, so to me it's not even in the same range. Formula Nissan I think is not bad, but in all honesty those formulas tend to attract the drivers who can't afford to be in this arena. To win at this level, or even to be in the top six in Formula 3000 you've got to be bloody good – it's tough – you've only got to look at the qualifying times in Germany.
"If you actually go through the teams there's a lot of drivers who got to Formula One through Formula 3000, and there's actually quite a few who created their careers through Formula 3000. [Juan Pablo] Montoya was nothing in F3, just another driver who won a couple of races in the championship.
I was a bit skeptical before this year, but I know for example with Vitantonio Liuzzi was apprehensive about doing Formula 3000 because he thought the F3 car was great, it had a lot of grip in the quick corners and it had a lot of feeling, but after he'd done a few tests in Formula 3000 he said this is a very difficult car to drive really fast; to drive it really fast you have to drive it really, really well, and if you work hard you don't find a few hundreds like you do in F3, you get big chunks of time; you can find half a second in a corner.
"So for me that was a very relevant comment – if you drive these cars well you'll get the time, if you don't you won't, and that's what it should be about. I believe it should be a drivers' formula, not an engineer's formula, which is what F3 has become, and who makes the nicest replacement roll bars or uprights or rockers – the difference is production."
Most people put the cost of running in Formula 3000 as the biggest problem with the series, and the lack of cars at present seems to indicate this. Collins, however, feels that it's money well spent. "I think that it needs to be a little more spicy; it needs a bit more grip, a bit more power, needs more revs, and more cars would be better certainly but that is symptomatic of the current economic climate.
"The real price for Formula 3000, a sensible budget would be about 850,000 euros – that's not massively expensive when you consider a ten round F3 series with two races at each event is around 650,000 euros. It's not a massive difference, not for what you get, not for when you're racing at a Grand Prix. With F3000 you race at Monaco with a powerful car, big car, heavy car, which is fantastic preparation for an F1 Grand Prix, and better than you'll get anywhere else."
Not that there is nothing he would improve if he could – no motor racing series is perfect, or even claims to be. "I think there are things that can be done – if the costs can be reduced, which is possible, if there could be somebody who took a financial interest in it and supported it and promoted it that could help, and I think there's potential to make the whole thing more appealing to young drivers.
"Unfortunately, I think one of the main problems is that few people get the real story of what Formula 3000 does give you – nobody talks about the exposure in front of the Formula One teams. I know from experience what it's like, how they react to what they see on the televisions at the circuit, and I guarantee you they won't watch another race between the Grands Prix. So it's the only race they'll watch apart from the Grand Prix, so that a fantastic advantage. It's very difficult for people to understand the importance and the value of competing at a major sporting event and the atmosphere, and the psychological pressure that brings – you only prepare for that by actually experiencing it, so it's the ideal situation.
"And it's a level playing field, and for me that is one of the most important things, particularly this year with the European (F3) championship which now has a constructors' cup, and you have Mercedes, Opel, Mugen and Toyota developing factory engines – is that going to develop the best driver necessarily? If you've got one engine that's fantastic - the guys on that engine are going to be the guys that are doing the winning, and what does that say about the other guys? Does that mean they're not good drivers? They shouldn't progress? It doesn't, does it?
"A feeder formula in motorsport should be about producing the best driver. I'm a great believer in karting, where even a private entry can get very good quality equipment and can compete strongly, and skill shows. Formula BMW – incredibly equal opportunity. Last year in the series in Germany there was not one protest – that means that everyone accepts there's no way of cheating the car, and there was some fantastic racing.
"So for me control formulas are the most sensible thing because you're limiting the variables – okay, you've still got an engineer and a team involved, but you've taken a lot of the variables out and it's down to the driver and the rapport he builds up with his race engineer, how good the guy is and the chemistry between them, and that's what you've got to learn to go racing anyhow. So I think for me it comes down to the fundamentals – an even playing field, fantastic circuit experience, environment experience, connection with people who are operating at the top level."
The F3000 Pundit
Simon Arron is the voice of Formula 3000 – he is the FIA's official interviewer at the F3000 post-qualifying and post-race press conferences. He regularly covers Formula 3000 for Motosport News, does translation work for the FIA and other clients, is the editor of the Grand Prix Year annual, and is a freelance motorsport journalist with clients including the Daily Telegraph and The Times.
"I think Formula 3000 is suffering generally at the moment," Arron plainly states, "simply because motor racing is supposed to have a pyramid structure, with the chaff being sorted out as guys move up from Formula Ford, Formula Three or whatever, and you're supposed to have something sitting below Formula One which is an academy for guys for the future. At the moment you've got Formula One with twenty cars, and you've got Formula Nissan V6, you've got Formula Renault V6, you've got Formula 3000, and you've got the Italian based Formula 3000, so there's a dilution across the board – you've got four categories at about the same levels attracting different drivers.
"And if you took the top five or six drivers from each of them you could have a healthy 24 car grid in Formula 3000 – it was only 1999 when there were 42 cars and twenty odd teams in F3000, and now there are eight teams, sixteen drivers, and some of them are struggling and changing drivers every second or third race. Partly through circumstance you have a glut of powerful 450bhp style championships, a lot of it through the economic downturn. It's not as healthy as it's been – when it started there were between fifteen and twenty cars on the grid, and it's currently at its lowest ebb competitively since then; not a great thing.
"That said, I do think there are some very good drivers doing it, and I do think it's the training formula for the Grand Prix stars of tomorrow. It is ultra competitive, there is no mechanical advantage to be had, it is the shop window for the drivers because they can't do anything to the cars - the only fluctuating factor is the drivers. It's the same as the other formulas out there, but this one supports the Grand Prix; the drivers get the chance to experience the discipline of a Grand Prix weekend and see how the whole Grand Prix structure works ten or twelve times a year. They get that opportunity, and they learn the Grand Prix tracks. So it's got a hell of a lot going for it."
But the obvious problem is there are only twenty cars currently competing in Formula One, and the odds are overwhelming that most of the incumbents will stay, leaving the Formula 3000 drivers out in the cold. "The problem is that in the late eighties you had 35 people in Formula 3000, and eight of them would graduate to F1 at the end of the year – they may have graduated into back of the grid teams but they'd still graduate - and they'd get the opportunity that Justin Wilson's had at Minardi this year, or that Mark Webber had at Minardi last year, or Fernando Alonso had at Minardi in 2001. There were far more opportunities back then, but that was simply a sort of square peg round hole thing, it was simple mathematics - there were 48 grand prix cars to target.
"Now there are only twenty seats, and drivers do hang around a lot longer than they used to - and part of that is the sport has become safer so there are far fewer injuries or worse, and careers do tend to go on longer. I don't know how many countries currently have a top level Formula Ford or Formula Renault championship, but if you multiply that by however many, there are at least 400 or 500 kids who are between 16 and 20 who think they can make it into one of these twenty seats, and it just doesn't fit – they're doing well if they get up half a million pound level and that's the end of that. It's just simple maths at the moment as much as anything."
Which leaves the obvious question of why do the drivers bother if there is no light at the end of the tunnel? Beyond a love of motorsport, there has to be something for a young hopeful to aim towards. "I would like to see the governing body organise something – the Formula 3000 guys have organised a prize this year to go out and test a ChampCar, and not all of them want to go to CART but it's something, and they regard it as a worthwhile prize because up until this season a CART seat was something that was worth having.
"It'd be nice to see the FIA or the FOM or whoever arrange an end of season F1 test for the top three in the championship, or even just the championship winner – just something that is a guarantee. I don't see how there is a feasible way of creating a conduit to take the top guys – you can't just guarantee the champ here into Formula One, because there are commercial interests; nice though it would be, it's not a practical proposition.
"But I can't believe it's too difficult for the FIA or the FOM to persuade the top three teams during the test period or during the test ban to make a one or two day exemption for them to make an offer to the leading Formula 3000 drivers. It's something that gives a kid the opportunity to do a proper job under proper testing conditions, maybe with a test driver there as well, as a benchmark."
What about the cost of competing in F3000? "It is expensive – without having a commercial partner it's very difficult," Aaron says. "Having just one supplier of everything does keep things cheaper than it would be with two supplies – it just does.
"The spares thing would be cheaper because Dallara would say 'we can do the spares cheaper and spares would cost x' and Lola would come in and say 'buy our chassis because spares will cost x less 10%' - that would help drive some of the costs down, but at the same time the costs involved with windtunnels and development costs and whatever is going to increase massively. Whereas at the moment Lola has a car which is not 100% spot on, but it doesn't matter if everyone has got the same car. And that's in a 50,000 UK pounds car whereas back in 1995 in the old Reynard and Lola cars they cost something like 120,000 pounds, and that was eight years ago. I think that tells you the benefits of having a control chassis formula, and it's the same with tyres.
"The spares are expensive but the cars are cheap, so don't damage it and it won't cost much to fix it. I do think the control thing is quite good - I was against the idea a few years ago but now I've come to believe that it does make life easier for anyone watching it because if they have the same kit then the one component that makes the most difference is the one wearing gloves and a crash helmet, and therefore if he wins eight out of ten races he's probably the best – it aught to be a good shop window for the Formula One teams because the teams can't buy a technical advantage. If this is the ultimate 'spend whatever you want' formula then fine, but before you do get there I think you need to cap costs just to keep things as realistic as possible.
"I think the championship has all the strengths at the moment – they just have to fine-tune it. And by that I mean the F3000 people themselves. Getting more commercial investment might be a pipedream really but obviously everyone would like to see a commercial backer because it would make life easier.
"Nissan boast about being competitive and spectacular and say look at all the Formula One drivers they've got. But they're failed Formula One drivers, they're failed Formula 3000 drivers, it's a field of people who are all outrageously quite good but they're not on the way up, they've been close to Formula One or into Formula One at the back but fallen off the ladder, and they're not going to get back up there by doing Formula Nissan. I know for Justin (Wilson) it was a salvation there, but for him it was better than sitting at home playing PlayStation.
"But the ideal target is to get F3000 back up to what it was in late eighties / early nineties when you had thirty odd cars and they were all driven by guys who had an impeccable track record, one or two rich Italians excepted. This year you can look at someone like Liuzzi and there's something of a spark about him, and Wirdheim is obviously very, very good, but there aren't that many in the championship that people are saying ‘oh wow' about – there are maybe three or four that people might say have potential to be good, strong Formula One drivers. In 1988 or 1989 you could probably identify sixteen or eighteen people in the top twenty who, if given the right break, had the ability to become a Formula One driver, and a good strong solid Formula One driver."
The F1 Team Boss
David Richards' first love was rallying – he watched stages of the RAC Rally as a child and was smitten. While studying to be an accountant he entered the British National Road Rally championship as a co-driver, winning the title in its first year. Seeing this as his future he went professional, joining Lancia and the Ford, winning the World Rally Championship (WRC) as co-driver to Ari Vatanen in 1981. He quit the sport at the end of the year to form David Richards Autosport (later Prodrive), first as a sponsorship consultant and then as a team owner in rallying. Over the years his team won the Middle Eastern Rally Championship, the first WRC win for a privateer team, the British Touring Car Championship for BMW, the WRC Driver's title (with Colin McRae, in 1995) and three WRC manufacturer's titles for Subaru. In 1997 he was appointed CEO of Benetton Formula, quitting the next year after failing to persuade the team to sell shares to Ford, bought the rights to exploit the WRC in 2000, and took the role of CEO at British American Racing in late 2001.
David Richards is the only team owner in the Formula One paddock who has ever promoted a race series (the World Rally Championship), and as such if any of the ten men currently controlling teams understands the problems of the junior category it's him. In addition to this, he has helped Christian Horner's Arden team throughout its history, with their headquarters nestling in a section of Prodrive's large complex in Banbury, Oxfordshire. Further to this, BAR has recently announced that they are testing both Bjorn Wirdheim and Townsend Bell, teammates at the aforementioned Formula 3000 team, with an eye to the future and to gauge their abilities.
DC: How do you see Formula 3000 – what is the state of it from your perspective?
David Richards: "The problem with Formula 3000 is that it's a fairly expensive series to get into – it has the benefits obviously of appearing alongside the F1 Grand Prix, on the right tracks and everything, but when you compare it to some of these single makes series now, -the new Renault series or even the Nissan world series - you do have to wonder where it really fits in on the spectrum of things.
"I've been one who's advocated for many years that it should be a condition to get a superlicence that you have to do a year in Formula 3000, and you're actually on the same tracks there. Because it's very hard today for us as teams to compare where the real talents of drivers are when you're looking at them right the way through from like the junior BMW series through the Nissan world series through Renault and then Formula 3000, and where are the real talents of those people? But if you actually did have a situation that everyone was forced into one formula before they could get into Formula One it would be a great advantage for us all."
DC: What would you say are the strengths of Formula 3000 as it stands at the moment?
Richards: "Well, clearly the venues and the equality of the cars. But I haven't, to be honest, followed the technical side as much as I should do, although people tell me that there are other formulas that actually are far more relevant in terms of their learning if you like towards Formula One."
DC: So I guess the technical side of things would be the biggest disadvantage?
Richards: "I don't know if it's the biggest disadvantage – it's probably the overall cost of it at the moment – you can't get away from that."
DC: As a Formula One team boss, how much would you look at Formula 3000 with an eye to bringing someone onto the team?
Richards: "Oh, very much – you can't get away from the fact that every Saturday afternoon we see them flashing past our garage! And so it's on our doorstep and you do have the opportunity of meeting them, so that's a relevant point. And we do have a very close association with Arden, who's a 3000 team we set up and started with Christian (Horner). So we follow it with interest, but likewise we follow a lot of other series with interest as well. "
DC: Because they race in front of you ten times a year, how close are the Formula 3000 guys to Formula One? Do they come and knock on your door, do you go and talk to them…
Richards: "We see them a lot, and there's a lot of transfer from the test programmes for Formula 3000 drivers as well, so obviously of all the series it would have to be closest, albeit some of the manufacturers have their own linkage with their series – BMW with their programme, Renault with theirs and so on. For us, where we have no other feeder series through Honda, F3000 is of the more natural routes if we were to look at a driver for a test programme to put someone in."
DC: You ran the World Rally Championship – what do you think Formula 3000 could do to improve the promotion of their series?
Richards: "You know you can't summarise that in one sentence – it's a lot of activities you'd need to do around it, whether it's the promotion of television coverage of it through to the individual personalities that are involved in it. You have to ask the question, who is promoting Formula 3000? And if you answer that, you answer the question for yourself."
DC: Interestingly, there is more promotion of Formula 3000 on the American Speedvision television network than Formula One, which is different to anywhere else.
Richards: It's because Townsend Bell is driving in F3000, I would suggest – he's the link there, and the promotion is around the individual driver, and if there was an American driver in Formula One I think the situation would be reversed. It really is around the following of the individual drivers."
DC: Put yourself in the position of the person at the FIA or FOM who is responsible for the overall package of Formula 3000 – what would you do to promote Formula 3000 as a series itself and also tighten the links between it and Formula One, which is the obvious goal for the drivers?
Richards: "Well as I said the first thing I would do is make it a condition of entry into Formula One; that you'd have to do a season in Formula 3000 before entering F1. I think that would actually direct people into that way and add value to Formula 3000 straightaway. And I think that would precipitate a lot of the other promotional activities around it."
The F1 Driver Manager
Jonathan Palmer, a fully qualified medical doctor in his native Britain, vindicated his move from medicine to motorsports by winning the British Formula 3 championship in 1982 and the European Formula 2 crown the following year. His Formula One career started at RAM in 1984, followed by two years at Zakspeed and three at Tyrrell (where he took the Jim Clark trophy for best placed non-turbo car) before moving into a testing role at McLaren. Palmer partnered Murray Walker in the BBC commentary booth for two seasons before establishing Formula Palmer Audi, and ambitious junior racing series which brought a young Justin Wilson to his attention. Palmer has guided Wilson's career through Formula 3000, where he won the championship in 2001, Formula Nissan and into Formula One, where he debuted this year with Minardi before moving to the Jaguar team.
The value of Formula 3000 could hardly be lost on Jonathan Palmer – he won the series as a driver when it was still known as Formula Two, and he guided Justin Wilson into the series, originally as a prize for winning Palmer's own Audi-powered series before picking up some sponsorship to allow the driver to compete, and claim, the title in 2001.
"I think it's a pretty good proving ground," Palmer notes. "It's obviously a spec formula - you've got a spec chassis, spec engines, spec tyres - clearly the team makes a difference, and that's something the driver can influence in terms of contributing to the engineering of the car.
"But I think the other thing that can be seen is that winning the championship is obviously no passport into Formula One; it's a combination of things, but getting some money together is an important part of it. Usually getting some money together to come to a Formula One team is very important. But I think Formula 3000 is still the best formula to try and prove yourself in, to try and get into Formula One."
The reasons why F3000 is traditionally seen as a proving ground for Formula One (which currently has thirteen drivers who have competed in the series or its Japanese equivalent Formula Nippon) are many, but Palmer see it thus: "I think the strengths are that it's a spec formula with spec engine, tyres and cars, it's pretty well controlled, and I think an important part is that the races do take place in front of Formula One at the Grand Prix weekends. Most Formula One people have a little bit of a passing interest to see what's going on, and can tell you the two or three top people running in it, if not more than that, but that's often enough. So those two things are the most important in terms of it being a value to drivers as a means to get to Formula One.
"Of course the weakness is cost, and clearly the grids are pretty small these days and I'm sure that cost is a big factor in that. I think as a driver proving ground that's probably the only weakness – the cost of doing it."
The problem with bringing costs down is that there is no clear way of doing it – nobody wants the costs to be as high as they are (reputedly 850,000 euro a season per driver), and if there was an easy way to bring them down it would have been done already. Palmer ponder the question before continuing: "I haven't run a Formula 3000 team, so I don't know precisely where the money goes, but obviously one element of costs is the travel and accommodation following the Grand Prix circuit. But I don't think there's much you can do about that – supporting the Grand Prix probably justifies the costs that it incurs being part of the Formula One package.
"I think things like engines are fairly expensive in the overall scheme of it – I think they have 450hp and I understand teams are spending around 120,000 UK pounds a season for that amount of horsepower, and that's an area where costs could come down substantially with a different engine deal. And probably there are a number of other ways you could bring the costs down. I suppose one of the key things it could benefit from is a title sponsor, and for there to be value for a title sponsor it needs better television coverage – if you had better TV coverage you've got a better chance of bringing in a title sponsor to put in some significant money. There's not one simple way of driving costs down - you've got to do it a number of ways.
"But you've really got to make it more appealing to sponsors. At the moment Formula 3000 is like most motor racing outside of Formula One, it's not really financially viable, and the benefits of sponsorship don't come anywhere near the cost of doing it - it's massively more expensive - or that the benefits of sponsorship and the value of the sponsorship doesn't come anywhere near the cost of running the cars, and that's a fundamental problem that Formula 3000 and a lot of motor racing has. Therefore it relies on drivers who can bring along some funding out of philanthropy, good will, support for the driver, rather than because it's financially viable.
"The biggest thing obviously is TV. If Formula 3000 could get a better TV package it could encourage more sponsorship, and if it's truly going to thrive in the harder financial times; Formula 3000 is no more expensive than it was three or four years ago. When Justin first did it there were 39, 40 cars – 42 actually, I think – but then there was more money about, and there's not now. But then it's affecting a lot of motorsports, so we're in a bit of a dip in popularity of grids on all sorts of things." And this dip is affecting all categories – there are after all only ten teams remaining in Formula One.
The above notwithstanding, Palmer still believes Formula 3000 is the right path to follow for a driver trying to get into Formula One, although he can see how that may not always be so. "I think it is still the formula of choice, but if the grids keep going down at the rate they are it'll be more questionable - you need to be beating a fairly big field for it to be meaningful, and it's down to sixteen cars now. It wouldn't get any less before it starts to seriously undermine the credibility of winning it. But I think for all that, it still has a reputation; I'm sure a driver given the choice would rather go to Formula 3000 than Nissan Dallara or Super Renault.
"You do have other formulae, but I think beyond that the most important moves that anyone could make - be it teams, the FIA, potential sponsors or anybody else - is to drive the costs down. The thing that's really going to make these formulae, that's going to affect their importance as a feeder into Formula One, is going to be getting good grids so that the teams are going to be more interested in any formula if it provides a better indication of driver talent, and one of the key things you've got to do for that is have a big field. And if you've only twelve or fourteen cars in it, it's not looking particularly strong as a differentiator of driver talent. So I think the primary issue is an increase in the grids, and the most important thing to increase the grids is to drive the costs down."
Much of it depends on the actions of the FIA, the governing body of the series, and what direction they want to take to ensure its survival. If the FIA came knocking on Palmer's door for suggestions, here is what he would say: "I think what I would do is discuss with some teams exactly where the costs are, and I'd aim to keep the costs of competing down to about 250,000 UK pounds, and I think if you could do that then that's the most important thing.
"I hear talk about 650hp V10s, and it all sounds very exciting - it sounds great, but I think when you have more power you drive up the costs, so unless someone was picking up the costs of the engines or contributing, I'm not sure that'll be very helpful. But if a manufacturer became involved that'd be good. But again it's not going to be cheap - when you think that at the moment it's 120,000 UK pounds for 470hp whereas in Formula One for 850hp it's fifteen, twenty million dollars shall we say, on that basis it looks very cheap.
"I think perhaps the reality is nobody's really cracked the challenge to make junior single seater racing, that is under Formula One, actually stand on its own two feet commercially."