FIA Formula Two: Great on Paper, Practice Not Perfect
Allow me, if you will, to start on (almost literally) the mother and father of all tangents.
At this stage in my life, I don’t know, but imagine welcoming a new child into the world is an incredibly nerve wracking experience.
Is the child going to be healthy?
Is the child going to be intelligent, successful?
I imagine this is something like how Jonathan Palmer must be feeling about now.
For those of you who don’t know, which I imagine is a great deal of you, Palmer is the head of an organisation called Motorsport Vision (MSV). The company own a number of race tracks in the UK, most notably Brands Hatch, as well as running various motorsport championships.
In the past, the most well known of these has been the single seater, Audi engined, Formula Palmer Audi (such an original name), a series that, despite attracting international talent races solely in the UK—with three of the four tracks to be used this season owned by Motorsport Vision themselves.
However, starting from this year, MSV is going international, having been selected by the FIA to run the newly created Formula Two series.
I won’t blame you if you haven’t heard of it. Since its inception late last year any news about it has been tucked deep away in the racing press, often restricted to a few lines here and there.
Formula Two (F2) is the FIA’s answer to GP2. GP2 is controlled by Bernie Ecclestone, and F2 is the FIA’s way to try and decrease the power Ecclestone has over the top echelons of world motorsport.
Alongside this aim, F2 was designed to offer a relatively low cost series, according to Palmer the target figure is around £200,000, while still providing good exposure and tough competition.
All this sounds fantastic. The cars are all identical, having been designed by Patrick Head, tested by the Williams F1 team and in line with the 2005 F1 regulations.
The cars are all prepared by MSV, so as such there are no teams in the series, the same setup that has worked in Palmer Audi. Another carry-over is the use of a powerplant from the German marque.
This standard car basis is a well tried and tested basis for feeder series. It allows the talent of the driver to shine through, rather than the skill of the people designing and preparing the car.
I bet you’re thinking this sounds great, it’s full of good ideas, with experienced people behind it at every level.
And you’d be right, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to be any good.
Let’s begin to take the idea off paper and see how it’s being put into practice.
Firstly, the drivers. They are a pretty eclectic bunch, 25 drivers, including a woman, from 15 countries. However, could they actually be too eclectic?
Perhaps, the most high profile driver is Andy Soucek, with two (not entirely earth shatteringly successful) seasons in GP2, but as you start to look down the field the level of experience and success varies hugely.
There are four drivers who have moved up from Formula Palmer Audi, while most others have come from various national Formula Three or Formula Renault series. However, even in these drivers there is difference in apparent talent.
Take Italian Mirko Bortolotti, last year’s Italian Formula Three champion with a Ferrari F1 test drive to his name. Now compare him to Lithuanian Kazim Vasiliauakas, who has a grand total of 18 Formula Renault races to his name, nothing else.
No wins, no podiums, no titles.
I could be jumping the gun on declaring this a problem, the official site is very quick to point out that at a recent test 21 of the 25 drivers were separated by less than a second.
However, the problem seems to be that rather than gather all the entries together before selecting the 25 best drivers, they have allocated a grid slot on a first come, first served basis.
Given the economic times (and that promise of a low budget series) I imagine interest has been quite high—it should be emphasised it is one of very few lower series with a full grid for this year. On top of that it’s late start (more on that later) would allow drivers to look at every other option before turning to F2.
However, rather than invite the best drivers (as they do, for example, in the Le Mans 24 hours) they have simply ignored experience and talent levels in a rush to put 25 cars on the track.
The second problem is the calendar.
Firstly, it is starting very late, the first race weekend over the final weekend in May.
Is this the best time to launch a whole new series?
As if the news of the build-up hasn’t been buried enough you want to have the debut weekend of a series once every other series of record has got underway (although, it could be worse, they could have opened a week earlier).
The series could have the greatest race ever, yet I imagine reports will still be buried under reports and news from other championship.
There was enough time earlier in the year to start and have a chance to garner some attention, but no, they waited until now. The fact I’ve chosen to write this piece now is only because I intend on bothering myself with such matters as Le Mans and the Indy 500 in coming weeks.
One of the reasons behind this seems to be the organisation. As GP2 follows Formula One around its European venues, Formula Two has been tied up with the FIA’s World Touring Car Championship for a majority of their rounds. And the reason for the late start?
Well, just as F1 starts the season with a host of “fly-away” races, so does the WTCC, already having raced in Brazil, Mexico and Morocco. Tying in with the WTCC means that the tracks the series visits aren’t exactly on par with some of GP2’s destinations.
While Bernie’s series visits such historic and grandiose locations as Monza and Monaco, F2 visits Brno, Oschersleben and Valencia’s permanent venue. Great tracks in their own right, but nothing to make pulses race – although visits to Spa and Imola go someway to redress the balance.
The next problem is GP2 itself.
As in anything, taking on an established name, is not an easy thing to do, and despite barely having any history of its own GP2 has become the established route to F1, with three of its four past champions currently residing in F1 race seats.
And there is no reason for it to change.
F1 team bosses all know exactly what they’re getting when they employ a GP2 graduate. Simply by doing a year in GP2 the driver is going to have experience of F1’s European tracks, and as well as assessing their chosen driver through the season in GP2, F1 bosses would have been able to see the level of competition that was present.
There is none of that for F2, and as mentioned above there are still question marks over the quality of the field.
Now, while undoubtedly many F1 teams will have people looking at F2 drivers (there are of course the obligatory Red Bull sponsored cars in F2), by not sharing the same paddock with the F1 teams opportunity for ‘face time’ with prospective employers is seriously decreased.
And if you were a team manager would you pick someone from a proven series you’re familiar with, or take a gamble on someone from a new series. I can easily imagine if an F1 team takes a shine to any F2 competitor they will be brought “up” to GP2, and if F2 only becomes a feeder series for the feeder series, it defeats the FIA’s aim for F2 in the first place.
And such mention of face time segues me nicely to my final point: TV.
Exactly what TV coverage F2 in given is probably only going to be clear when the title roll for the first race, but ‘minimal’ seems to be an expectation, with Eurosport, which in the UK at least probably means it will be reduced to 25 minute highlight shows sandwiched between second division Swiss football and something about cycling.
While Eurosport will broadcast in Europe and Asia there is no coverage at all for the Americas, despite drivers representing those nations being in the field, as well as a bevy of US Star Mazda alumni.
And even though there is a low budget for the series, some level of sponsorship and exposure is still going to be needed, and if there are better TV packages for other series, sponsors may start looking elsewhere.
Going back to my opening tangent, F2 is a beautiful child, healthy, happy, smiling, with attentive and supportive parents.
I just worry about it on its first day of school.
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