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F3000 - A Fast Track To Success Or The Road To Nowhere ?

Lined up on the grid for the first time in Australia were European F3000 champion Felipe Massa, British F3 champion Takuma Sato and International F3000 frontrunner Mark Webber. The International F3000 champion, Justin Wilson, on the other hand was missing from the grid, unable to find an F1 drive for this season. It seems somewhat odd that he has been overlooked, he has consistently outperformed Mark Webber and Tomas Enge, both of whom have been given F1 opportunities, and he has impressed in testing for Jordan. Some say that at over six foot, he is simply too tall to be a successful F1 driver; certainly most team's technical directors would baulk at the idea of having to design a car for a six foot plus driver, but this fails to explain how he fitted quite easily into last year's Jordan and proceeded to set fast testing times in the car. Cynics might mutter that he is simply not glamorous enough to appeal to F1 sponsors, and certainly its hard to imagine him getting the kind of tabloid attention that, say, Jenson Button has had to contend with over the past two years. Justin Wilson is hardly the first person to discover that success in F3000 does not necessarily open any doors to success in F1. The series' very first champion, the equally tall Christian Danner, could have told him that.

Formula 3000 was created in the mid 1980s as a final training ground for Formula One, to replace international F2, which had died a death in the early eighties after years s the number 2 motorsport category. The formula also served as a convenient dumping ground for the masses of obsolete ex-F1 Cosworth DFVs that were lying around at the time. Christian Danner won the inaugural championship in 1985 but failed to achieve much in F1. For 1986 he found himself starting the season driving for the hapless Osella team. When Marc Surer was seriously injured in a rallying accident, an opportunity to drive for the Arrows team presented itself, but Danner was able to do little in the Arrows A9, widely regarded as one of the worst cars the team has ever produced. Thereafter, his talents were wasted with also-ran German teams Zakspeed and Rial. The highlight of his F1 career was a lucky fourth place in a Rial at the 1989 US Grand Prix in a race with an absurdly high attrition race. By the 1990s, he was regarded as simply too tall for the new generation atmo-F1 cars (Eurobrun wanted to run him in 1990 but were unable to do so as he simply could not fit into their car) and he never raced in F1 again.

The two following years saw a pair of Italian hotshots, Ivan Capelli and Stefano Modena, walk away with the F3000 championship. Sadly, while each impressed intermittently in F1, especially during their early years at March and Brabham respectively, neither ultimately lived up to their early promise and both saw out dismal final F1 seasons with Jordan in the early 1990, ending their careers without ever winning an F1 race.

The first F3000 driver to win a Grand Prix was the mercurial French-Sicilian Jean Alesi. The Frenchman edged out Martin Donnelly for the 1989 F3000 championship, and had already put in some impressive performances for the Tyrrell team during the course of the year. He made the headlines in his first full year of F1 by fighting with Senna for the lead of the US Grand Prix in a Tyrrell. He too never fully lived up to his early promise. Five years with Ferrari netted just one win in Canada in 1995, while subsequent seasons with Benetton, Sauber, Prost and Jordan never gave him the chance to add to that total.

A series of Frenchmen driving for the crack DAMS team walked off with the title in the early 1990s. but Olivier Panis was the only one to win in F1, and the only one to establish a successful F1 career. Jean-Christophe Boullion drove for Sauber in 1995 but failed to make much of an impression while Erik Comas (who beat Toyota new boy Allan McNish to the title way back in 1990) was never afforded much opportunity to impress driving for Larrousse (once they had run out of money) and Ligier (during the nadir of their fortunes in the early 90s).

They did at least do better than mid-nineties champions Jorg Muller and Vicenzo Sospiri, neither of whom ever got to drive in Formula One at all. The gradual culling of less well funded, uncompetitive F1 teams over the course of the 90s meant that an F3000 championship win was no longer an automatic passport to an F1 drive. At the same time, spiralling costs in F3000 and the after effects of global recession meant that F3000 itself was increasingly uncompetitive and ill-supported.

This changed when the FIA acted to cut costs in F3000 by making it a one make formula. This helped to increase the size of the grids, while running the races on the Saturday before Grands Prix ensured that the relevant team bosses got a chance to see up and coming talents in action. Two late nineties champions stand out from the crowd as potential F1 champions. Williams driver and CART champion Juan Pablo Montoya needs no introduction and looks like a got bet for the first F3000 champion to win the F1 world championship. His 1998 title rival Nick Heidfeld picked up the title the following year, and, after a troubled year at Prost in 2000 he looked much more the coming man at Sauber last year.

The 2000 champion. Bruno Junquiera serves as a reminder, if one were needed, that success in F3000 is still no guarantee of a worthwhile F1 drive. At the end of 1999,. Junquiera was in the frame to partner Ralf Schumacher at Williams. That drive ended up going to Jenson Button instead, and Junquiera was forced to spend a year in F3000 instead. He picked up the title, but at the end of the year, was still unable to find an F1 drive and he followed Montoya's example and went off to race in ChampCars. After enduring a disastrous season there, his stock seems to have fallen considerably, and he is no longer a name on F1 team managers' lips.

So why hasn't F3000 proved a useful training ground for future F1 champions ? There are, in my opinion, several reasons for this. The first is that some of the most promising young drivers are able to skip the category entirely. Mika Hakkinen won the British F3 series in 1990 and went straight into F1 with Lotus the following year. Recently Jenson Button and Takuma Sato have also gone straight from F3 to F1, while Kimi Raikkonen went one better and went straight from Formula Renault to F1.

There is also a suspicion that F3000 cars really aren't similar enough to F1 cars to perform a useful training function. F3000 cars run on slick tyres and use Cosworth DFV derived engines. The result is cars with a lot more grip than power that are perhaps simply too easy to drive. Certainly Michael Schumacher considered his time with the Sauber Mercedes sportscar team to be more useful experience for F1 than the handful of F3000 races he competed in. These days, sportscar racing isn't nearly so competitive, but some see Stateside single seaters as a useful way to break into F1, where a driver can get used to a single seater with a lot more power than an F3000 car.

It also seems that success in F3000 is more down to the professionalism of the team and the quality of the engine than the talent of the driver. Certainly a number of F1 stars failed to do much of note in F3000. Heinz Harald Frentzen was never very competitive there, while Damon Hill was at best intermittently so. Allan McNish won races and challenged for the title in 1990, but was nowhere in 1991, driving for a different team. Only an extended spell in sportscars driving for Toyota resuscitated his career.

So what does the future hold for Wilson ? Another year of F3000 would probably be counterproductive…its hard to see what more he could prove in the category, and if he were to have bad year his reputation would be ruined. There aren't many worthwhile drives left in IRL or ChampCars at this time of year, while sportscar racing is little more than a graveyard for old Formula One drivers (think Pirro, Herbert, Gachot, and even Paul Belmondo). His best bet may well be to get a good testing contract with an F1 team, which would give him the opportunity to impress at least one F1 team manager. That way if Sato or Massa fail to impress, if Yoong runs out of money, or if Villeneuve simply gets bored of tooling around in the middle of the field in a BAR, a gap may open up for Wilson. Else its all to likely that he will simply end up adding himself to the growing list of forgotten F3000 champions.

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