RELIVE THE STORY OF 50 YEARS OF FORMULA 2
As it reaches its 50th year, we track the roots of Formula 2. By Paul Lawrence
Between 1967 and 1984 Formula 2 was Grand Prix racing’s waiting room. Just about everyone destined for the pinnacle of the sport had to first prove themselves in Formula 2. Each of the 18 European Formula 2 Champions went on to race in F1 and over the same period 13 World Drivers’ titles went to former F2 racers.
At the height of its pomp, Formula 2 had big grids, quality drivers, glorious cars that made the right noises and some spectacular racing. Through the 1970s, when F1 drivers joined in on their spare weekends, a gaggle of talented racers used F2 as the most effective springboard into the grand prix arena. Inevitably, times move on and F2 finally reached its sell-by date in the early to mid-1980s. But there has never been a better second string single-seater category.
The story of Formula 2 dates back to 1948 although the concept of a category beneath grand prix racing has its origins in pre-war racing for 1500cc Voiturettes. Into the early 1950s, the two-litre F2 class allowed drivers and manufacturers, notably Cooper, to move up the racing ladder. In fact, in 1952 and 1953 there were so few genuine F1 cars that the rounds of the World Championship ran for F2 cars.
The sport changed in 1954 with the introduction of the 2.5-litre Grand Prix regulations, a move that sent F2 into a period of decline but it was reintroduced in 1957 for 1500cc cars and Cooper, using the four-cylinder version of the fire pumpbased Coventry Climax engine, enjoyed great success. The basis of that Cooper took the company into F1 and so began the rear-engined revolution.
For several years, at the end of the 1950s and into the 1960s, the rising star in the single-seater firmament was Formula Junior, which at its height was running scaled-down F1 cars, and F2 and F3 were sidelined. However, as Formula Junior costs spiralled, Formula 2 and 3 were reinvented for the 1964 season. F3 was for cars with one-litre production engines, F2 was for one-litre pure race engines. Cosworth and Honda engines were the leading power units.
When Formula 1 moved to three-litre engines for 1967, and opened the door to the Cosworth DFV era, the gap to a one-litre F2 category was judged too great and F2 was relaunched for cars using 1600cc production-based engines. The formation of the FIA European Formula 2 Championship, half a century ago, was a decisive boost for the category, which duly entered a golden period.
Belgian rising star Jacky Ickx was the inaugural European F2 champion in the early stages of a career that would take him to eight Grand Prix wins and six victories at Le Mans. Ickx’s Cosworth Fva-powered Matra MS5 was entered by Ken Tyrrell and opened a run of three-straight F2 titles for the French manufacturer.
For five years the 1600cc F2 cars delivered some fine racing, often at the less notable European tracks that were not able to host a Grand Prix. The 1967 schedule included races at Snetterton, the temporary airfield circuit at Tulln-langenlebarn in Austria, Enna in Sicily and Vallelunga in Italy.
A year later, the first major event at the newly-constructed Thruxton circuit was a round of the European championship, won by Jochen Rindt in Roy Winkelmann’s Brabham BT23C. Ten of the 26 drivers on that grid went on to race in Formula 1 and the field included Chris Irwin, Piers Courage, Peter Gethin and Max Mosley as well as Rob Lamplough, who is still racing in historic single-seaters half a century later.
During the 1600cc era it was common for F1 drivers to have F2 programmes as well. At the time, the F1 schedule was only around a dozen races and an F2 campaign allowed some grand prix drivers the chance to supplement their income.
Grahame White was closely involved with the running of F2 in the period. “It was at a time when most of the grand prix drivers were also doing Formula 2. The pressure was off, they could have a great time and the cars were very competitive. The drivers were more relaxed and it was a friendly atmosphere.” Sadly, the opening race of the 1968 European season at Hockenheim claimed the life of Jim Clark when his Lotus 48 crashed into a tree.
French drivers were always prominent in F2 and in 1968 Jean-pierre Beltoise and Henri Pescarolo finished first and second in the European championship. A year later Johnny Servoz-gavin was champion alongside an F1 career that was cut-short when he quit the sport midway through 1970.
In 1971 F2’s first future world champion was Ronnie Peterson, who won the F2 crown for the fledgling March organisation. His March 712M was the best car of the 1600cc era, which was now in its final season as 1972 heralded a two-litre formula and perhaps the greatest era for the class.
Cosworth BDG and BMW engines set the initial pace, but in 1976 a further change to engine regulations opened the door to pure racing engines and a very effective Renault V6 unit combined with major backing from Elf to propel a new generation of French drivers into the limelight. Mike Hailwood and the Surtees team took the first two-litre European crown in 1972, but after that came a run of five French champions thanks to the foresight and commitment of Elf.
BMW later fought back with a well-funded junior team in factory tended Marches and late 1970s titles fell to Bruno Giacomelli and Marc Surer. With eight wins from 12 races in ’78, Giacomelli was one of the most emphatic F2 champions as the classic 782 design dominated the season, with only Chevron’s B42 offering any challenge.
Ron Tauranac’s fledgling Ralt operation joined the manufacturers’ roster in 1979, the year of Brian Henton and the Toleman, and the Ralt-honda combination was to be the dominant force in the final years of twolitre F2 with three titles in the last four years for Geoff Lees, Jonathan Palmer and Mike Thackwell. However, the success of the works-backed Honda V6 engine had pushed costs higher and scared some people away, leaving F2 on borrowed time. In September 1984, a rain-hit race at Brands Hatch marked the end of Formula 2. Just 15 cars arrived and Philippe Streiff took aggregate victory in his Bmw-powered AGS. With seven wins from the first nine races, Thackwell was long since secure as the champion.
For 1985, the FIA replaced Formula 2 with Formula 3000 as a cost-cutting initiative. It was also a move that conveniently mopped up the supply of Cosworth DFV engines now rendered obsolete for grand prix racing by the turbo era. The Formula 2 era was at an end, save for a four-season revival that started in 2009 and ran as a Motorsport Vision package for Audi-powered chassis from Williams.
But for most fans, F2 died at the end of 1984. Fortunately, the cars live on in Historic F2 and they still look and sound as good as they did up to 50 years ago. ■
Formula 2 visited Donington in ’83
Carlos Reutemann leads Ronnie Peterson in ’72
Jochen Rindt tackles the Thruxton chicane in 1968
Jacky Ickx led the way in the first season in 1967
Marc Surer took the 1979 title with BMW power