This piece was originally written last August, but has ben updated slightly and published here to coincide with the imminent start of the 2017 European Formula 3 Championship. Further updates will come later.
Last July, at a small press conference at Spa-Francorchamps, the Director of Racing Activities for the FIA revealed several measures designed to tackle the increasingly thorny issue of rising costs and a perception of a lack of competitiveness in the European Formula 3 Championship.
Frederic Bertrand announced a ban on wind tunnel testing by teams, a restructuring of testing and a rewording of the engine regulations – alongside several sporting regulation changes – that aim to lower costs and increase competitiveness.
Since the introduction of the current engine package in 2014 (the current chassis technical regulations came into play in 2012), costs for a full season drive in the category have risen from approximately €600,000-650,000 to €700,000-750,000, depending on which team you ask (and how much success you may want to achieve).
Italian squad Prema Powerteam has also secured each of the drivers’ titles since 2011 (then known as the F3 Euro Series) and all of the teams’ titles since its introduction in 2013. Although each season is generally peppered with race wins from a number of outfits – including Van Amersfoort, Carlin, Mücke Motorsport and more recently, the re-launched Hitech GP – Prema Powerteam have taken the silverware over the course of seasons.
In recent years, however, Mücke Motorsport’s light has faded and the team has decided not to field entries for the 2017 season, while T-Sport are also unable to find a funded driver for this season, and have opted to run an entry in the fledgling LMP3 category in sportscars.
It follows the loss of Double R Racing, EuroInternational and Team West-Tec at the end of 2015. Hopefully some of these will eventually return to the category.
While wind tunnel work by teams will be outlawed, Bertrand revealed instead that aerodynamic work will be undertaken by existing chassis manufacturers – in this instance Dallara, the sole chassis manufacturer currently competing in European F3. The results from these tunnel sessions will take the form of an ‘aerokit’ and data package to be produced for each entrant.
All manufacturers who enter into FIA F3 will be required to produce a data package for a customer; however at the time of writing, it is believed these data packages will only be available to a team once a car has been purchased.
‘We wanted to give the feeling to the current teams, the ones this year [who are] not able to invest or to the ones who want to come into the championship to be incentivated and to think that they come with the same level,’ Bertrand said. He added that Dallara will deliver a full aero model, so that competitors get all the information necessary to do the job that needs to be done, allowing teams to focus on the development of driver. ‘This will put everybody back to zero or at least back to basics. All the teams have agreed on [this] element; this was validated in the last world council.’
According to FIA F3 Technical Delegate Robert Maas, the package will limit teams to work within the confines of the aerokit provided – placement of wing angles for example – effectively locking down a manufacturer’s aerodynamic profile for the period of homologation. Bertrand added that, ‘It is good to develop the engineers and it is still the DNA of F3, so we keep that open. We keep the possibility where the teams have areas to work on, but we limit it to where we think it is actually valuable for the drivers and the engineers.’
Expending further on what is and isn’t allowed, Maas explains, ‘On the current car, we still have some small areas where [teams] put small winglets, small gurneys. They started working on the brake ducts, which is quite a big area and this is all banned for next year, so you have the standard Dallara car.
‘The chassis manufacturer is delivering options for the rear wing – so for example high, medium and low downforce. You have certain options on the front wing to adjust the balance, you have the possibility to work with brake ducts to either put them on or leave them off, but you don’t develop something.
‘On the suspension side, you still have a lot more freedom – you can choose out of a lot of different dampers, adjust these dampers and still have the possibility to work with a third element in a very limited fashion, so the teams just work with a basic spring to keep the ride height during driving.’
It will be interesting to note whether these alterations will be enough to challenge engineers within the Formula 3 paddock, but it must be remembered that these updates came with the blessing on the teams, with Maas adding, ‘In the end, a driver can still feel what set-up or aerodynamic changes [are made], but without any development on the team’s side.’
Both Bertrand and Maas were keen to emphasise that this is not a step to Formula 3 becoming a spec category, with the former acknowledging that any additional manufacturer(s) will need to provide a similar data package to buyers.
As I previously covered in the feature ‘Carbon Dating’ in Racecar Engineering Magazine (Vol. 26; No. 4), the current Formula 3 regulations have been extended to the end of 2019, meaning a high percentage of the chassis in use will be eight years old and will have experienced close to (and in some cases over) 100,000km of racing and testing.
While keeping costs at an optimum level was the key driver to these regulatory updates, questions were raised as to reasonable life expectancy of a carbon composite monocoque, especially when one takes into account that young and inexperienced drivers who pilot these machines have a tendency to crash from time-to-time. ‘To do this, we had to push the safety level, because we saw that we had some crashes last year and we had some inexperience and we wanted to upgrade the safety level, particularly in view of keeping the cars to 2020,’ Bertrand notes.
‘Some specific evolution will be done and Dallara will produce a kit that will be delivered by 2017 to all the teams so that they can upgrade the level of safety for the life of the car.’
Bertrand also revealed that engines will be budget capped to €65,000 for approximately 10,000km usage over the course of a season, with the current package remaining in place until the end of 2019 as well. The existing engine regulations quote a cap of €50,000; however that cap related only to the engine unit. ‘I think the main issue was there was a €50,000 budget in the regulations, but that was not the reality, because you had to add service, so we created a complete figure that everyone who reads the regulations will know what he is looking into,’ explains Maas.
The rewrite of the regulations will include servicing and it is believed this will save €20-40,000 per car. ‘The cost of the engines is still too high, so we have agreed with the manufacturer to have something where all is included. It will help the teams to be a little bit more effective on this cost management side.’
When Frederic Bertrand sat with the media and laid out the future direction for Formula 3, one could not help but feel a deep pang of disappointment.
These junior series’ exist not just to define champions, Super Licence points tallies and improve racecraft, but also to allow drivers to develop relationships with engineers and vice versa. Categories, such as Formula 3, are classes of learning. What these competitors learn here potentially shapes their outlook as they look to progress up the ladder toward Formula One.
One of the last bastions of open technical regulations in single-seater racing, the cost of competing in Formula 3 has admittedly risen to a level beyond many aspiring drivers. But a balance must be found. The slide toward regulations whereby teams no longer develop these machines and come up with intricate solutions to problems could damage our sport’s future as a battleground for engineers and drivers.
There appears to be precious little appetite in the current climate at the FIA for wind tunnel usage at Formula 3 level, with the governing body questioning the need for such testing in F3. ‘In the end, it made no big difference what they discovered there, because we don’t discover many things,’ says Bertrand. ‘In the end they go there and this puts in the system the idea that if you don’t go [wind tunnel testing], you don’t get [data]. The easy solution is to first of all say “you are not allowed to go anymore”, so this is one of the decisions validated for next season.’
Yet over the years, several drivers who had graduated from Formula 3 had often relayed to me that they had learned more in a short period of F3 than they had in season-long campaigns in the various spec categories that proliferate the single-seater ladder today due the nature of F3’s open engineering approach. Admittedly, the regulations have tightened significantly over the years, but they always provided teams the option to develop. One only needs to look at ArtLine Engineering’s efforts last season with the ArtTech P315 to understand the regulations still have plenty of scope.
On the other hand, the FIA also recognise that these teams are businesses and it can be easy to forget that plenty of jobs rely on the continued existence of these squads. By moving to ensure lower costs makes teams better equipped to survive, they could have gone some way to securing the future of these teams – whether the concept of F3 survives this to remain a significant engineering category is a different matter.
Should you have it, I would suggest a re-read of Danny Nowlan’s excellent feature from the August 2015 edition Racecar Engineering Magazine (‘Industrial Strife’; Vol 25, No. 8) to get a more nuanced view of the ‘open regs vs spec regs’ discussion.