As part of the second VivaF1 blog swap shop, Pat Wotton of I Watch Too Much Racing has penned a fantastic post on the Formula 1’s ladder system.
I shall also be taking part in this with a post on Grab Bag Sports later in the week.
“Pruning the Feeder Series”
Apologies for a fairly long post but I know my host isn’t averse to the occasional long write-up. A theme often touched upon both by Leigh and myself in discussions around the internet is that of the junior and development series.
There are too many of them. If the Indy car debacle of 1994 was described as a split, the European junior scene could be described as shattered. While it is pretty bad elsewhere Europe has it worse and that’s where I’ll focus my attention here.
I’m going to defend several of these championships. I’m not necessarily advocating a complete return to the old days of the simple ladder progression from Formula Ford through F3 and F2/F3000 (GP2 now) and finally to F1, or whichever top level series is chosen – for simplicity for this post we’ll assume that is F1.
There are arguments for having an alternative route, when there are many good talents working their way through the ranks as well as diamonds in the rough or those with as-yet untapped potential we cannot just assume the ‘favoured’ series will always pick them all up.
I believe the two development series directly below the top level, namely GP2 and F.Renault 3.5, complement each other perfectly. Drivers with the requisite talent and budget can jump into GP2 directly from the tier below (whether it be F3 or whatever).
Those drivers needing a little enrichment and experience – and increasingly those unable to raise GP2 budgets – can slot themselves into FR3.5. GP2 should be for the last bit of refinement before F1, and then as an F1 rookie there should be a learning curve. FR3.5 is a good place to do a bit of learning without the pressure of GP2, particularly for those who haven’t as much experience with car set-up.
There is nothing wrong with having a net to catch those good talents who, due to budget or whatever other reason, might have been lost to motorsport or consigned to their national touring car series (nothing wrong in that either, many make good careers of touring cars, but if they are good enough for F1, Indy or Le Mans let’s try to get them there first, eh?).
FR3.5 is a small step below GP2 yet it has proven itself as a good grounding for the likes of Sebastian Vettel and Jaime Alguersuari, both of whom were considered to have been promoted too early and yet one of them is now World Champion. I’m undecided though, perhaps I would still like to see its’ graduates complete one year in GP2, perhaps instead of the usual 2 or 3.
If we take a look at what we might call ‘the third tier of racing’ traditionally that would mean the various Formula 3 championships across the continent plus those in South America (SudAm F3) and the strong Japanese series. Again, nothing too wrong with this because each would be the top level of junior development in that nation or region.
The structure was set up like a pyramid, lots of F3 series all feeding up into a smaller number of series above them. Equally the level below F3 features a far greater number of series feeding upward, and most of them are some variant of Formula Renault 2.0 (too many of those actually). This whole approach has worked well for getting on for a couple of decades. The great advantage of F3 is that it is the best school for teaching race car set-up to young drivers. Everything else out there is a spec series, F3 is more open.
Then came a new tranche of championships, intentions unknown. Money-spinners? Dissatisfaction with the current establishment? Political moves? Who knows?
When F3000 died and relaunched as GP2 the cars were moved to Italy and run in a series based there, which seemed to pitch itself as an alternative route into GP2, it grew to become Euroseries 3000, has relaunched as AutoGP and now features the original A1GP machines. I am not sure how AutoGP sees itself. There are GP2 teams in the series, perhaps the teams see it as a feeder series to GP2, or is it a different business venture for them? I don’t see the need to have this step between F3 and GP2/FR3.5. We don’t need an alternative to any of them or a middle step.
The only way I can see AutoGP succeeding as a venture is if it distances itself entirely from the ladder series and becomes something else entirely – a Europe-based single-seater series in its own right, in the same way Superleague Formula is on the path to becoming. I’d be okay with that because you can argue with falling European F1 rounds, Europe needs a ‘domestic’ single seater series that isn’t a feeder series. What we don’t need is another feeder series.
Formula Master came and went. Few noticed. For what its worth, it was at F3-level and raced with WTCC. The only driver of note to come through that route was Jerome d’Ambrosio, current GP2 driver and F1 tester for Renault and Virgin.
Formula 2 was brought back in 2009 and had a fairly successful first year. It was the FIA’s attempt to do something about the stratospheric budgets needed by GP2 and to find another way into F1.
It has failed at that aim and now looks to be repositioning itself as a feeder into GP2. Again.. do we need another one? It has achieved the aim of digging up drivers that would’ve struggled elsewhere, the question is whether any of them were any good and whether it would have been good for them let them struggle. Maybe only a few of them were much cop.
Again it was a WTCC-support but will be going its own way in 2011, which could be the nail in the coffin for the series – does it infer a lack of confidence from the FIA under the new President?
2010 saw the start of GP3. I can perfectly see the reasons why GP3 was set up and I agree in principle with many of them. It has cars that go just about as fast and are just about the same size as F3, albeit as a spec-series GP3 is far more controlled, this means it should be cheaper to run cars. I’m sure travel costs balance that out, and perhaps it is better to gain experience on the F1 tracks rather than Snetterton or the Rockingham roval.
It also features many GP2 teams which is a great asset since that series is the next port of call. Running two levels of development series on the European F1 weekends makes perfect sense, it works extremely well for MotoGP where nearly all the successful riders of the modern era came up through the 125cc and 250cc ranks which race alongside the top class (indeed these are in the process of converting to Moto3 and Moto2 respectively), the Superbike converts seem to struggle.
It is too early to say whether GP3 will work as well as either 125cc or Formula 3. What we do know is it has basically sucked the life out of the F3 Euroseries, reducing it to just 14 cars.
As it enters Year 2 will the teams stick around or go back to F3? I really like the idea of a series a full ‘tier’ below GP2 running alongside it at the F1 meetings. I do think it could’ve been better if that series had been Formula 3.
What Can Be Done?
I was going to suggest a great deal of hard-nosed pruning and I was going to point out which series I would keep on merit, however the financial situation of the last couple of years may be making the decisions for me.
In any case, let’s recap what could be done:
F.Master was a pointless series and it has rightly died. F2 doesn’t appear to have a point, and unless they have something up their sleeve they are keeping quiet will likely to struggle greatly in 2011. The talent level in 2010 was not good. Let’s close it now. Ideally I’d have GP2 running under the Formula 2 name. Politically this probably won’t ever happen. GP3 is a good idea. I’d loosen up the technical regulations a little, perhaps offer a merger with F3 Euroseries and take that name. That way we’d have F1/F2/F3 as the series on the F1 bill. If we’re merging F3 Euroseries and GP3, the existing national F3 series in Britain, Spain, Italy and Germany can act as feeders into it or FR3.5. GP2 must persist, albeit the costs are too high for all concerned and that needs to be reviewed. Dallara and Renault can’t keep coming up with ever more expensive equipment every 3-year cycle. FR3.5 World Series should continue, deliberately positioned half a step back from whatever GP2 is doing. As AutoGP grows – as I hope it will – it should stop feeding drivers into GP2 and become a destination in its own right. Whether there is the money or the number of drivers for this is debatable. There’s a whole blog post in that for another time. Consolidate the eleven-hundred Formula Renault 2.0 championships, there really is no need for as many as there are! There’s the Euroseries, several regional series within Europe, and several national series. Keep a small number of healthier local series with the Euroseries at their head, and place drivers from the others into those. Don’t start any more development or junior series unless there is a need for them!
The feeder series should be working for the drivers and teams, not for the interests of the series. The economy is naturally contracting the number of entrants of some series, let’s go further and kill off the dying championships before they ruin careers. There are enough series in Europe not to be too sentimental about it.
I’m out of room and time but I didn’t touch on IndyCar, Indy Lights, USF2000, Star Mazda.. and the sad fall of Atlantics. It is fantastic that IndyCar has embraced the ‘Road to Indy’ ladder and prevented them from falling out of existence, as seemed possible.
Despite what I say above about dying series, it is a real shame that the Atlantics series couldn’t have been saved whether under the IndyCar umbrella or not, it was a great development category and could’ve potentially provided a route for future American F1 stars should they not wish to take the Indy ladder.
Unlike Europe there is room in North America for it, unfortunately the economy killed it.