|The Path to F1
|Paul Messham, England
The path to F1 is long, paved with pitfalls, and very expensive. Imagine investing your life savings in a sport with no guarantee of making it the top, where decisions are often made on purely fickle whims and if your face doesn't fit, you won't get the drive. That is motor racing.
(Just to get things clear, I'm initially covering the British path to fame and this is broadly similar to that used in Europe, not to mention that used by most of the current F1 field).The start of the winding path for most of today's F1 drivers begins in karts, often starting at the tender age of 8 or 9. To progress further in racing, kart drivers usually have to be something special..to have that certain something which marks them out from all the other young hopefuls. Those lucky enough to progress generally ascend the power curve to a junior single seater formula such as Formula Vauxhall Junior, in which, broadly speaking, all cars/engines are identical. The wing-less FVJ cars use 1600cc road-car engines and provide the racing aspirant's first taste of close single-seaters.
From there a driver can progress to a multitude of formulae, including Formula Vauxhall (as FVJ, but with wings and 2 litre engines), Formula Opel (similar to FVauxhall, but European based), Formula Renault and Formula Ford (the majority of these formulae have individual championships in Western European countries). Ironically it is the most basic formula, technology wise, that is the most popular - Formula Ford. RFFS is regarded as perhaps the best testing ground for young drivers with close racing, although the costs mount rapidly - to do a season of racing in FF with a good team can cost in the region of £70,000 ($110,000 ?).
From the wingless Formula Ford or bewinged Formula Vauxhall/Renault/Opel categories drivers generally progress onto Formula 3, for which championships are run all over Europe. Formula 3 cars produce around 200bhp from tuned road car 2 litre engines, and are relatively complicated machines to set up (ideally training F1 aspirants for a life of poring over telemetry..). In aesthetic terms, imagine a squat and small F1 car and you won't go far wrong (or just look at a slimmed down '98 spec F1 car). The fact that, in Britain at least, the vast majority of the cars are identical chassis (albeit with different engines) helps to sort out the good from the bad.
By this stage in the process numbers have slimmed down dramatically. Huge FF fields have given way to select F3 fields, largely filled with F1 aspirants - currently in the British series there are only 22 regular entries, although the level of competitiveness is high. The drivers running at the front in F3 would be fairly safe bets to progress further, although some promising drivers have simply vanished due to lack of money and more will fall before the next hurdle..F3000.
F3000 had, until 1996, acquired the reputation of being too costly for potential entrants. Thus it was set down that F3000 would become a one-make formula - i.e that all the chassis would be made by one constructor - Lola - and that all the engines would be made by Zytek. F3000 uses 3 litre racing engines, rev-limited to around 9000 rpm giving the drivers about 450bhp to play with. The new one-make F3000 is relatively affordable (perhaps about #500,000 for a season) and consequently the series has full grids leading to close racing. Few drivers dominate the series and, like F3, F3000 generally shows the true colours of a driver. But, in recent years at least, the F3000 champion has had little luck the following year. '95 champ Vincenzo Sospiri did very little in '96 before landing the Lola F1 drive for '97 (and look what happened to that..). 1996 victor Jorg Muller is currently in a state of flux, testing for Arrows but not doing very much else. Consequently some drivers have missed out F3000 completely - Mika Hakkinen went straight from winning the British F3 Championship in 1990 to a Lotus F1 drive. As an example of the vagaries of racing, runner-up Mika Salo didn't get into F1 until 1994 with the by then virtually bankrupt Lotus team. Nonetheless, F3000 remains the way to go with 30 drivers currently contesting the series.
If a driver feels they're getting nowhere in the conventional groove, there are a number of alternative routes, but the likelihood is they will not get to F1, and this is where the American route comes in. As I believe it (apologies if this is wrong), the North American system works by going from Toyota Atlantic to Indy Lights and then to full blown CART IndyCar / Indy Racing League. Not many drivers have got to F1 this way, although more have gone from F1 to Indycars. Notable exceptions include Michael Andretti who drove for McLaren in 1993, but never got to grips with F1 and left before the end of the season, and of course Jacques Villeneuve. (In the future F1 refugees Mark Blundell and Alessandro Zanardi may well return, the Briton having already had offers to return to F1).
Some drivers have started their racing careers in far more interesting ways, though Martin Brundle started in rallycross and touring cars - and obscure German Hans Heyer had never driven any sort of single seater before his one F1 drive in 1977!
I hope this makes the tortuous and confusing path to F1 clearer, as it certainly isn't easy to understand. You should be grateful I haven't included all the peripheral formula which F1 drivers have come from in the past or may come from in the future. I'll explain about Formula Vee, Atlantic and British F2 some other time!