JUNE 2, 2009
Assessing the new Formula 2
The new FIA Formula 2 Championship kicked off last weekend in Valencia with Max Mosley in attendance to watch the first two rounds of the series, which was proposed (by him) less than a year ago. At the time many said it was impossible to have a series running at the level he suggested at the price proposed. In the 11 months since then Williams F1 designed a car with what it reckoned would be the right level of performance. This was no easy task given the cost constraints and the fact that the cars had to meet the 2005 Formula 1 crash test rules. The resulting JPH1 is a car that enables drivers to adjust a number of settings, notably the front and rear wings, anti-roll bars, dampers, cambers, tracking, springs and ride heights. The engine is a 1.8-litre Audi turbo, which produces 450hp. This is mated to a six-speed Hewland gearbox with pneumatically operated paddle shifts. The Williams designs were manufactured by Universal Race Technology in Bognor Regis and then the cars were assembled by Palmersport in Bedford. This required some major feats of organisation but all 25 cars were ready for a number of pre-season tests and last weekend the full field turned up in Valencia for the first of eight race meetings: each featuring two races.
Qualifying showed that the cars were evenly matched with the top 15 drivers covered by one second in each qualifying session. Pole in both sessions went to Red Bull's Canadian rising star Robert Wickens. The top 10 were all within a four-tenths of pole position. In the first event Wickens drove away to victory while Carlos Iaconelli and Lithuanian Kazim Vasiliauskas finished second and third. Vasiliauskas was the big surprise as the 18-year-old is just embarking on his first full season of racing and was competitive with much more experienced rivals. Wickens went on to win the second race as well, beating fellow Red Bull driver Mirko Bortolotti and Austria's Philipp Eng. The fastest lap achieved was 101.04mph. It is interesting to compare that to other championships, although the GP2 cars have not been seen at the Valencia circuit for some years. The winter testing of the Renault World Series resulted in a fastest lap of 108.31mph, while the fastest F1 in the winter was Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari at 125.84mph. The recent Spanish F3 race at the track resulted in a fastest lap of 97.23mph, so F2 does fit in between F1 and F3, although the cars are obviously slower than both GP2 and the Renault World Series. However, a season of Formula 2 costs just $310,000, which compares favourably to the $1.5m needed for GP2, the $1m needed for the Renault World Series and the $875,000 needed for the Formula 3 Eurocup.
GP2, which replaced the FIA Formula 3000 series in 2005, has the advantage running alongside the F1 races - it is owned by CVC Capital Partners, but there is little doubt that the FIA has created a new series which is very good value for money, with a suitable level of technology and safety. It will be interesting how F2 develops at the end of the season as the next generation of young drivers decide on which they think is the best route to F1.
One element which is probably going to follow will be a downgrading of Formula 3 specifications in the years ahead. The FIA has talked about the possibility of having chassis that drivers acquire early in their careers which enable them to progress without needing to buy additional cars, although Jonathan Palmer's concept of "an arrive-and-drive" series might not fit in with that.