“Thoughts on rebuilding British F3”

Ratel speaking to the press at Spa. © V-Images.com / Fabre
Ratel speaking to the press at Spa. © V-Images.com / Fabre

When this year’s original British Formula 3 Series calendar was truncated to a mere four rounds in January, many commentators declared the famed championship dead and buried.

Yet series promoters SRO and several notable members of the paddock are less willing to see one of the oldest Formula 3 championships slip quietly into history.

“There have been tough times, but it will continue, we will carry the flag and even if it’s difficult for a couple of more years, we will be there.” – strong words indeed from Stephane Ratel, founder and CEO of SRO Motorsports Group, when he addressed a crowded press conference at Spa-Francorchamps last week.
While SRO have successfully grown GT-based championships, such as the Blancpain Endurance Series and the British GT Series, the promoter has struggled in recent seasons to keep British F3 both relevant and afloat.

Territories and the FIA
As costs continued to rise considerably in recent years, British F3 began to look like a less and less attractive option for drivers who were tight on budget.
Strong showings throughout the vast array European Formula Renault categories did not help matters, while the new-for-2010 GP3 Series managed to compound British F3’s problems. On the continent, FIA single-seater president Gerhard Berger backed the DMSB (German Motor Racing Association) run F3 Euro Series, with that category officially becoming the European Championship at the end of last year.
Berger’s assertion last summer that national championships should remain national in nature in order to maintain Formula 3 certainly gave notice to FIA’s intentions; something the former-Ferrari and McLaren Formula One driver spoke of again at Silverstone in April: “The ideal scenario would be three to four national championships – let’s say England, France, Spain and Germany – and one international championship,” before adding “Championships with eight cars, twelve cars, old cars, new cars, one engine or another engine – these are not championships, it’s rubbish.”

Reworked calendars
With a calendar that originally boasted five UK rounds and five (later reduced to four) international trips, British F3 attracted little driver interest with only a handful of driver confirmations by January, prompting SRO to axe a majority of the rounds, leaving only four meetings for this year.
For Ratel, this decision was pivotal in keeping the series alive long enough to regroup. “We have decided now that with the FIA European Championship, there is no point having another international series and [British F3] will revert to what it was before, which is a pure British F3 championship with five races in the UK and one race at Spa.” The Frenchman also commented: “There is no point competing against it. With only six events, it should greatly lower the costs to less than half of the FIA championship for drivers with no budget.”
Berger, meanwhile, believes that costs levied to drivers and sponsors in recent seasons had simply become too prohibitive to be workable. “You look at the British championship in the past, it was £600,000-700,000. One big part of that is logistic costs – if you do exactly the same with one race less or two races less and stayed just in Britain, you should be able, with the same regulations, to do something for €50,000 less.”

“Doing this matches what some of the teams need,” notes Peter Briggs, chairman of the Formula Three Teams Association (FOTA). An experienced hand in the motorsport world, Briggs has seen the British F3 series in similar states over the years. With authority, he added, “We need six [rounds] to make it a viable business proposition – any less that that and it’s hard for a team to set it up and a lot of [UK-based] teams were unsure about travelling abroad a lot.”
Commenting on Autosport.com {note 1} this week, MotorSport Vision (MSV) chief executive Dr Jonathan Palmer believes there is potential in a more UK-centric British F3, with the former Grand Prix driver suggesting eight meeting, including four at MSV owned properties. Palmer also sees the possibility in working with SRO should the latter desire. “I want someone to run British F3 to make it healthy. It doesn’t have to be us, but MSV are very happy to do it and I’d like to because I have big history with F3. I believe we can do it and we’d enjoy the challenge.”

Kits and internals
The calendar was not the only area where budgets were being examined. The equipment being used also came under scrutiny and it is here that some of the more drastic alterations have been made.
Ratel explains: “We have decided to run this year’s engines next year with the new chassis and the older chassis and we are confident that this news will bring a lower budget for drivers and make it a Formula 3 for drivers who not have the budget for FIA F3 and also give F3 experience with a limited calendar and limited costs in the UK. [The teams] have old chassis, so it is good that they can use them.”

Elaborating on this, Briggs believes, “Logically we should be using the FIA engine, but I think next year it will be too new, because the cost of the kits, plus the lease of the engine. It is why we have decided to stay with the old engines. They are readily available and can be supplied quite cheaply, because they have been written off by the manufacturers over the years – in theory, they should be quite cheap.”
However, when asked earlier on this year whether such a plan is workable – or favourable – Berger was somewhat sceptical to say the least. “I can smell that there are some people trying to be clever and putting some engine in the back […] and saying that will cost £350,000 and this is the wrong. It does not make sense at all to have a car, a race team and everything set for a […] championship and then there’s a European championship race, but they cannot participate, because they don’t have they right car.”
The ten-time Grand Prix winner also went on to say: “I want all exactly the same chassis. We are doing four-year windows now – the next four years, we are going to be very careful that we do not do any big steps.”

Parts and industry
Yet, despite that scepticism, team owners, such as Trevor Carlin (Carlin Motorsport) and Hywel Lloyd (CF Racing), have welcomed SRO’s plans, with Carlin noting that, “The reason the [engine allowance] makes sense is not because of the engine, but the electronics. If you want to run the new engine in the old car, it costs £30,000 for the electronics.” The team boss also said, “The car is only worth £30,000 and we all own the electronics for the old chassis. It is already in stock and only costs around £10,000; so if someone wants to buy a car and electronics, it will only cost them £40,000. We need to use up the old stuff to get the championship moving.”
Briggs also foresees potential supply issues for the new FIA regulation engines when they do finally come to play in the new year. “How many will be available next year? That is a problem. With the current engines we can start testing in October, while with the new ones, we may not start testing until February or March, because we don’t know if they will be available, so it is important that people can get out and do their business now.”

Meanwhile, Lloyd sees a greater potential danger for the UK motorsport landscape should British F3 disappear. “I hope it works; it’s what we need – the only other higher levels [of motorsport] in the UK at the moment is touring cars (BTCC) and GT’s (British GT). I remember a few years ago when British GT was down to nine cars and it was struggling and now it’s at capacity.”
Indeed, the global recession has left something of a scorched mark across the motorsport world. While the likes of BTCC and British GT are standing up well to the elements, the motorsport and automotive industries as a whole in the UK and Europe have taken quite a battering. The loss of Formula Renault UK, along with the near collapse of Formula Ford GB last year have merely added to a growing list of woes.

The Future..?
Realistically, the British F3 Series still has a long way to go before it can be taken out of intensive care; however some of the main players believe this to be possible, as long as every side does their bit to keep the ship afloat.
According to Briggs, there is interest in the future of the category. “What we’re doing for next year is very positive. We are trying every way of saving money for the drivers. It’s going to allow new teams into Formula 3, because it will be so cheap to do relative to what it was. We need new teams – West-Tec and Performance are looking at it; Fortec, CF Racing and Carlin have said they will do it.”
Lloyd, whose CF Racing will most likely compete in the National Class, agrees with the FOTA Chairman, adding, “If we can get the numbers, it seems like a good way of keeping it. We need something in the UK, because the circuits are still what they were years ago. The people involved are trying their best to keep British F3 going and that can only be a good thing.”
Carlin believes, rather than rushing into a transformed category, that playing the long game may well be the key to longer-term success. “This should be a building period for British F3 and if in two or three years time the championship is looking a bit stronger, it can be upgraded again, but it really needed a bit of a rebuilding moment.”

{note 1}
“MSV boss Jonathan Palmer makes proposal to save British F3” (Kevin Turner, Autosport.com; August 6th 2013)

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