Single seater racing - there seems to be more series than ever - so PH goes to understand the traditional F1 stepping stone of them all, F3.
The Lewis effect, it’s a strange thing. Like the drivers from the early 90s: the Sennas, Prosts and Mansells that inspired the drivers of today, Hamilton is doing the same for the young now. With the advent of more single make series the route to becoming the next Hamilton maybe confusing, but one certain tried method is Formula 3 – The Lloyds TSB Insurance British F3 International Series the choice for most.
To understand F3 PH took a visit to Carlin Motorsport. Current F1 drivers Anthony Davidson, Takuma Sato and Robert Kubica have strapped themselves into an F3 car prepared by the Aldershot team, and looking around their trophy room they certainly know a thing or two about this discipline. They are currently running 5 drivers this year, Maro Engel, the highest scorer, currently second in the championship.
Down on the workshop floor the team were busy preparing all 5 cars for the next round of the series at Rockingham. Each car in the process of the full dismantle and rebuild that happens after every race and every test session. Like the painstaking preparation these cars have heavy investment in technology too, there is extensive development, research and design elements throughout the season, they aren’t a simple buy and bolt racer.
The first ingredient in making a Formula 3 car is the chassis. The choices are between the major companies that provide chassis; Lola Dome, Dallara, and Mygale. A team could go for the laborious and costly task of building their own but the usual F3 budget doesn’t stretch that far. Carlin Motorsport choose a Dallara as it’s a formula they know well and have built upon years before. The helping of only small rule changes year on year means a more consistent development pattern for all the teams, and thus much closer racing.
Next selection to make is the engine, yet again another choice between two major manufacturers, Mercedes Benz and Mugan Honda. These 210bhp units are sealed to keep the racing close, but with the car only weighing 550kg – including driver – it can propel the car to 60 in 3 seconds. Fashioned next to the engine is a torpedo-like structure, which is used to control air flow to the engine, another feature to keep car performance close and emphasise driver skill.
Once these major components are in place then the real work starts. Up the road from Carlin is a wind tunnel that they have just started using to tweak the cars aerodynamics. Outside of the main crash structure the team is free to build upon - within regulations of course – further enhancements to the chassis. The aerodynamicists busy refining barge boards and wing modifications, modelling on computer and testing in the wind tunnel before bolting onto the car. “With the limited amount of season testing allowed this really helps speeds up development” commented Carlin Director, Martin Stone.
Walking around the workshop it is clear that not only the aerodynamics is fettled with. There were parts on the suspension under wraps from the prying wandering eye, development work on the brake system, all the time trying to shave that extra thousandth off a lap time, all of the standard top secret competitive advantage tactics akin to an F1 team. When asked how much speed these developments have improved on the original car, the answer was around half a second. It doesn’t sound a lot but seeing as the top 14 cars in the last F3 grid at croft was separated by 1 second, it counts for everything.
All this development, testing and wind tunnelling does not come cheap, so where does an F3 team like Carlin Motorsport get their money from? For this answer I suggest Mum and Dad trying to nurture the next F1 superstar to sit down – the majority is from the drivers –to get a seat in a Carlin car you are looking at an average of £450,000 for the season. Though for those determined to get the money they will find F3 has established itself as a prominent brand for potential sponsors, Carlin’s own Sam Bird has found the funding through major sponsorship by BP, so not just a rich mans sport.
Speaking to the mechanics on the floor I ask if they can tell that a driver will be the next big thing. “It is hard to tell, but usually if a driver is keen on why something is being changed, if they are keen on understanding the car beneath them, then the bond between driver and mechanic becomes stronger. Some drivers are much better at communicating what the car is doing, but it still requires heavy analysis of the data to back up their feedback. The driver could be reporting over-steer, but this could be due to over compensating under-steer. Sometimes you only get half the picture”
Formula 3 acts as a great stepping stone for not only future F1 drivers, but also the mechanics too (though unlike the drivers the mechanics step back down to F3 for quieter lives off the F1 circus). If you want your child to be the next Hamilton I suggest you start investing that Child Trust Fund wisely, or keep buying those lottery tickets. For those that are getting bored of the procession of F1, then British F3 maybe your answer, with the stars on show you are watching F1 in the future.