Ayrton Senna in his Van Diemen RF81

There’s been quite a lot in the motor racing press recently about Gerhard Berger’s plans for defining a route to F1, focusing initially on F3.

On first reading, his plan makes sense, F3 has been a great learning ground for drivers and is a good place for them to show their talent but will it really make any difference? And I must confess, I’m tempted to ask “Did we ever have a clear route?”.

Purists (aka old people, a group to which I clearly belong) hark back to the days of FF1600, F3, F2 and F1. If you’re even older (my brother!) it might be Formula Junior,  then F2 and F1.

But even we purists would admit that F2 was often skipped, and at it’s height there were races with established F1 drivers racing against up-and-coming F2 stars, in fact if you look at the results of the 1969 F2 season, only one race was won by a driver that wasn’t already established as an F1 driver (Clay Regazzoni) and both the 1969 and 1970 F1 Champions (Stewart and Rindt) won races that year. And as we sadly remember, Jim Clark was killed racing in F2 in 1968 when he’d already been F1 World Champion twice.

Then there’s the question of equipment. Some championships (GP3, GP2, modern F2 etc) are one-make championships. Everybody has the same equipment, at least in theory.  F3 is open to chassis from any manufacturer, except everybody uses a Dallara, but with potentially different engines (Mercedes and Volkswagen being prevalent).

The problem with series using non-standard machinery (like F3) is that, because chassis and engines are so expensive, once a decision has been taken, it’s virtually impossible to make a change mid-season. So if you choose the wrong chassis, you can be condemned to a life at the back of the grid. Talented or not.

So one-make series are good, right? Surely at least all the drivers have the same equipment? Well, yes, and no.

If that was the case, there would be no difference in which team a driver chooses. But that’s clearly not the case. If you look at the GP2 team results for 2010 and 2011, you’ll see that one team ranks 12th in both years. Step forward Ocean Racing. So let me ask you a question. Do you think a driver is prepared to pay the same amount of money to race at Ocean as they would be to race for Barwa Addax?

No, you’d consider driving for Ocean for one year to get experience of GP2 at a lower cost than you’d pay to Addax, and then hope to move on to DAMS or another top team for the following year, and you’d expect to pay them more for the privilege. Or perhaps you believe you have so much talent you’ll make it to the front with any team. Well, in that case you’d better be VERY good. The equipment may be the same, but the engineers and mechanics at a top team manage to extract more from that equipment.

From a team’s point of view, it’s not straightforward either. Let’s say you run a team that finishes sixth in the championship. To improve, you need money and a talented driver. But anyone with talent or money will be looking at one of the top three teams, and comparing offers. So maybe you offer a (massively) reduced price drive to someone you believe is a fantastically quick driver, in the hope that he’ll make the team look good – and then use the fact that a fast driver has signed, to extract megabucks from a less-talented, but very well funded, driver. This is how the cattle market of single seater racing works.

And then, maybe a car manufacturer decides that it wants to improve it’s racing profile. Skoda, say. And they introduce World Series by Skoda, with cars as fast as GP2, but offering support to teams that run with them. Maybe there are teams that already run in F3 or GP2 – they are businesses that exist to run racing cars in return for money. They don’t mind who pays, regardless whether it’s Skoda or Johnny Fandango’s father.

And maybe a couple of fast drivers with no money are backed by Skoda. There are always fast drivers with no money, but not everybody knows they have no money. So other people look at the series and think, So-and-so has signed, and maybe if I do well in that series, people will notice me. Sound familiar? It happens in F1 too.

The success of a team determines its ability to attract sponsorship, and that’s true in F3 or GP2 (although the financial amounts are way lower) as much as it is in F1. And with team sponsorship, a team can subsidise (or even give a salary to) a driver. Especially if that driver’s team-mate is paying handsomely to drive the number two car.

But even when you ignore the cattle market, there’s a fundamental difference between GP2 and F1. In GP2 there is no car development. Teams know the cars (and the best teams know them better than anyone). So the driver doesn’t need to be able to evaluate a new front wing, or the difference between running with or without an exhaust-blowing engine map. But in F1 you do.

So in theory, F3 is a “better” preparation for a driver than GP3/GP2. Except that it’s not, because if a driver had the money to improve the car, by having new parts designed (which is very expensive) they’d probably spend it on “seat time”, maybe moving up to GP2 a year earlier or choosing a “better” team.  A well-funded team (which is a business run for profit, as well as to win) could consider it, but they would probably prefer to offer a seat to a quick driver.

When there are lots of drivers with enough money to race, the number of series will expand to take their money. And generally, whatever route you take, if you’re quick or have pots of cash, you’ll be noticed by a manager, a manufacturer or an F1 team – and become a desirable commodity.

And it’s important that you do get into a top team at some stage, not just because the team is quick, but because the driver believes that the team is quick. And having what is believed to be the quickest equipment makes a driver more confident – which is perhaps the biggest benefit you can have.

Which brings me to the title of this piece – Patch. Patch was an engine, an engine built for FF1600 by a company called Minister Engines. One day, in a race, that engine blew up, and a con-rod came through the side of the engine, leaving a massive hole. The engine was removed from the car and unceremoniously the block was left outside in the yard.

Months later, after the British weather had done its worst, the rusty block was bought inside, and Minister decided to patch the engine and see if they could repair it. They did, and on the dyno, it looked good. In 1980 Roberto Moreno went on to win the FF1600 Festival at Brands Hatch with it. And it’s believed that Ayrton Senna won two FF1600 Championships in 1981 with it. Patch passed into legend.

Every FF1600 driver wanted that engine. It was thought that perhaps the weathering had made it quicker. Maybe the changed characteristics of the cooling gave an extra bhp or two.  Andrew Gilbert Scott, one of Britain’s great talents, also won the festival with that engine, so did Julian Bailey, so dd Tommy Byrne. In four successive years, the same engine won the most prestigious FF1600 race of all.

It may have helped that it was the works Van Diemen team that was running the engine, but that engine was invincible. It can only have been the confidence level that made the difference. It’s alleged that a “son of patch” was also created, from a block left outside for a similar time, but I have no idea if that is true. I don’t recall seeing a Frankenstein Engines truck at Brands Hatch though.

So, if confidence is the main attributed required for a driver to progress to F1, should Gerhard Berger persevere with his quest  to reinstate F3? Or should he just take delivery of some GP2 and GP3 engines, and leave them out in the Austrian snow, so that he can give them to drivers that he believes have the talent to make it?