|The Answer To Our Prayers?|
|by Max Galvin, England|
One question often asked by young people to editors at Atlas F1 is "How can I become an F1 driver?". The answer is invariably that karting is a good start then a move from something like Formula Ford or Formula Vauxhall Junior, into Formula Opel or Formula Renault, then to Formula 3 and finally Formula 3000. Sadly, all this can cost a budding driver up to $1,000,000 and a large amount of talent can be lost simply because the drivers have no budget to get themselves into F3000 and get noticed by F1 teams.
What's the answer to this? Well Jonathan Palmer, a former Formula One driver and BBC Grand Prix commentator, thinks that his new single seater class, Formula Palmer Audi (FPA) is, and he invited Atlas F1 to the 2nd round at Snetterton, in the middle of June.
The first thing that strikes you as you arrive in the FPA paddock is the air of professionalism that shrouds everything. Having visited many national class events over the years, seeing 5 transporters all liveried in the same manner was unusual to say the least and that we got to walk on prepared walkways rather than muddy footpaths was another departure from the norm.
The main reason for all this is that rather than having a chassis and engine that someone buys and races like most categories, FPA owns and runs all the cars and leases them to drivers for the season. For £80,000 (around $130,000) the driver gets 16 races, testing and hospitality for sponsors, family and press for the entire period. The prize for winning the Championship is a fully paid season in the International F3000 Championship, something not to be sniffed at. Furthermore, Jonathon Palmer has said that the winner of the 1998 Formula Palmer Audi Championship will be in F1 by the year 2001. A hint that Audi are going to return despite their claims to the contrary?
For the technically minded people amongst you, the car is a Van Diemen designed and built aluminium honeycomb chassis, powered by a 1.8 litre Audi turbocharged engine capable of pushing out 250BHP. In addition to the "normal" power available, eventually the driver will have access to an overboot button giving them more power for 5 seconds at a time, but only a few times in a single race. Stack electronics ensure that the full range of telemetry is available to get that extra performance from both car and driver.
Big name partners like Dupont, Avon, Shell and, of course, Audi give the series instant credibility as drivers, press and sponsors can be sure that companies like those won't be involved with any kind of shoddy operation.
The drivers themselves are a fairly even split of talented drivers whose careers have slowed due to lack of finance or luck or those who have money (usually called pay drivers). Of this group, the biggest names are Darren Turner (1996 McLaren Autosport Young driver of the year, sometime McLaren test driver and former British F3 driver) and Justin Wilson (1996 and 1997 Formula Vauxhall driver with Paul Stewart Racing) among others. Similarly there are some unknown faces such as Daniel Dror Jr. from the USA and C. Suzane from Brazil.
Before and after the race, the drivers are usually hanging around their cars under the transporter awnings, talking to their engineers and are invariably friendly and open when it comes to talking to either press or the general public. Again, this is a departure from some classes where the drivers lock themselves away "preparing" for the race ahead or dealing with sponsors.
The overall feeling is that not only is FPA trying to increase the racing and technical abilities of the competitors but that it is also acting as a kind of school to teach the drivers off-track skills as well. This was never more evident than in the drivers briefing where Palmer informed his young charges that there would be a £100 fine for any driver missing, or arriving late to the briefing, as he felt that there was no excuse for being absent and if fines were good enough for F1, they were good enough for FPA.
All this off track effort is great but it all means nothing if the on track performance isn't of a high quality. Invariably in one make categories the people who win are good drivers backed up by a good team, but with everything operated by one team, the cream should rise to the top.
In qualifying things were certainly close, with the top 13 drivers separated by less than one second and the top 5 separated by an astounding 15 1/100ths of a second. Pole position was claimed by Finnish driver Topi Serjala, closely followed by Shinya Nakazawa from Japan. Barring any technical problems, the grid was as could be expected, with the talent hustling the cars around the Norfolk circuit quicker than their less illustrious colleagues.
In the briefing, drivers had been concerned that the race would be run in wet conditions, but the rain stayed away for the FPA race (but sadly not for the rest of the day) and the drivers were able to keep their slick tyres on.
As the lights went out, the pole sitter, Serjala, made a perfect start and lead into the first corner, followed by Richard Tarling who had managed to pass Nakazawa. Shinya paid a visit to the scenery early in the race, shortcutting the chicane and luckily only dropping one place (which he eventually recovered).
Topi Serjala lead from lights to flag but was put under extreme pressure by Richard Tarling. The third placed driver Nazakawa, was also pressured hard by Darren Turner and Justin Keen throughout the race. While some would argue that a lights to flag victory does not indicate good racing, Serjala was by far the most impressive of all the drivers, taking precisely the same line through the chicane, the slowest part of a very fast circuit, on every lap and, as far as we could see, never putting a wheel wrong throughout the race.
Even the drivers at the back of the field showed that despite their relative lack of pace, they were intelligent and professional enough to get out of the way of the leaders (something that could not be said for a certain driver in the F3 race) and drive within their own limits.
All in all, FPA showed that a junior category that leads into F3000 does not have to be expensive, or that inexpensive has to mean small scale. Wandering around the F3 paddock later in the day, the contrast between this "bigger" forms of racing and FPA was not in the quality of preparation, nor in the quality of drivers but rather in the effort to help young talent develop (as opposed to merely using it) and offer value for money offered to everyone concerned. It is hard to see who loses out with FPA apart from other formulae in the UK.
If things continue as they started, Formula Palmer Audi and its drivers have a bright future ahead of them.