Euro F3 review: Schuey Jr’s shock title
Mick Schumacher won the final Formula 3 European Championship title, and there was some terrific racing from a host of new talents. But despite the strong field, there was discontent during the category’s uncalled-for requiem
When Nikita Troitskiy crossed the finish line at just after 10.40am on a sunny Sunday morning at Hockenheim last month, he brought the curtain down on a thriving championship that apparently has no obvious reason to slide into oblivion. The Russian, his front wing collateral damage from the multitude of first-lap skirmishes, had pitted for repairs and hence, on that balmy autumn October 14 day in Baden-wurttemberg, he gained the unwanted distinction of being the last driver to complete a Formula 3 European Championship race.
How did it come to this? Why should a category in rude health – there were 24 starters for that finale, pretty representative of the season average – be put to the sword after the best part of seven decades of unearthing the best young talent in the sport? OK, some will say that F3 continues in the new one-make FIA F3 Championship that, from 2019, will slot in beneath Formula 2 on the Formula 1 undercard at European grands prix. But that’s disingenuous: it may have the F3 title, but it’s GP3 in all but name. While contemplating the fact that two of the most loyal F3 teams – in the forms of Motopark and Van Amersfoort Racing – hadn’t been selected for the category’s new era, one paddock veteran was moved to remark at Hockenheim that the FIA had sold the soul of F3 to F2/GP3 svengali Bruno Michel.
You could benignly put the situation down to a well-intentioned gambit from Jean Todt, whose unopposed run to his second presidential term at the FIA included a desire to streamline the single-seater process so that F2 and F3 raced alongside F1, just like Moto2 and Moto3 support Motogp. Not necessarily a bad idea, but a one-size-fits-all philosophy rarely works in any business or industry – what suits bike racing won’t always fit with cars, and vice versa.
So the F2 name, unused since the Msv/palmer series of 2009-12, was eventually attached to Michel’s GP2 Series in time for the ’17 season, before unreliable new bespoke F2 cars were introduced for this year (some F3 drivers are shying away from stepping up here for ’19 because of the troubles teams have had with the machinery).
During that ’17 campaign, the existing F3 teams debated what to do, their grids having dropped since the frantic ’15 season, and they decided that the development costs in their category had become too expensive and that the only way forward was the one-make route. And then their phones started ringing and emails started pinging and a whole glut of Formula 4 drivers came in to F3 in ’18, so it was just a normal cyclical thing that motorsport always goes through. But by then the decisions had been taken for F3’s new era. And, as if there was ever any doubt this would happen, Michel won the tender to promote it as a replacement for his GP3 Series.
And now our new, ‘streamlined’, single-seater ladder (for ‘ladder’ is what it now is, as the abolition of GP3 and old-era F3 in favour of a new F3 also abolishes the pyramid structure that is crucial for F2 in the long term) is more confused than ever before. F3V, the subsidiary of the Dtm-promoting ITR that has organised the F3 European Championship on behalf of the FIA since 2013, is continuing with the old cars – as also is the Japanese F3 Championship. Euroformula Open, which has used the current-spec Dallara F3 chassis since ’12 with a one-make engine, is opening its series up to Euro F3 powerplants. And the FIA’S wish to introduce one series for its new Regional F3 concept to Europe in ’19 has instead produced three: by giving approval to Italy’s WSK instead of Renault Sport, it merely caused the French manufacturer to press on anyway with its plans, while keeping the old Formula Renault Eurocup name. These are all series that allow in men and women, while the new-and-divisive W Series – another for Regional F3 cars – restricts itself to female participation. What a mess.
Amid all this, the F3 European Championship of 2018 developed into the most ill-tempered and political season since the series’ name was revived in ’12. It also, for much of the year, produced some fantastic racing, launched a clutch of new talents onto the international scene, and featured a title battle that was unpredictable bordering on bewildering. It’s probably fair to say that none of the leading drivers are as well-formed and ready to shine in higher echelons to the extent of predecessors such as Lando Norris, George Russell, Felix Rosenqvist, Antonio Giovinazzi, Nick Cassidy, Esteban Ocon or Max Verstappen. But, in a way, that’s what made it so fascinating – until late summer, a good half-dozen or so Zebedeed up and down the points as they took one step forward and two back.
Eventually some sort of out-of-focus pattern emerged and it appeared that the most exciting talents were Dan Ticktum and Marcus Armstrong, with Juri Vips potentially even more explosive but playing catch-up after a relatively poor start to his season. Ticktum and Vips generally spearheaded the attack of Motopark, with Armstrong looking the most impressive of a very potent
Prema Powerteam line-up alongside Ralf Aron, Guan Yu Zhou,
Mick Schumacher and Robert Shwartzman.
The niggles between the two teams came thick and fast. Both operate under very different philosophies, entirely opposite to lazy national stereotypes: the Italian Prema operation, super-organised, methodical, briefings coming out of the drivers’ ears; the German Motopark squad, instinctive, informal, the youngsters driving with flair and aggression. At Zandvoort the arguments began flying over allegations that Prema had exploited a loophole in the testing rules
(Prema boss Rene Rosin suspected his Motopark counterpart Timo Rumpfkeil of dragging this into the open); meanwhile, Aron and Armstrong cheekily used a press conference to cast doubt upon the maturity of Ticktum’s driving (he wasn’t there to answer the charges), Ticktum read the comments, and declared they “make me laugh” and are “pathetic”. All good old-fashioned sporting kidology.
Just a few weeks later, the extraordinary run of form that gave Schumacher and Shwartzman a run of one-two finishes for Prema – and Schumacher the title – completely changed the narrative. Whispers even from within Prema had reached Autosport as early as the first weekend at Pau, to the effect that Schumacher had the best Mercedes engine of the lot, that there was nothing Prema could do about it and that this frustrated the team. When Schumacher and Shwartzman notched up five one-two finishes out of the six September races at the Nurburgring and Red Bull Ring (the sixth of those races was a one-three), the whispers accelerated that their engines had been turned up. At the same time, the form of team-mates Armstrong, Aron and Zhou slumped. Armstrong needed a new engine at the Nurburgring, taking an enforced 10-place grid penalty, and he was never as competitive again, although this ultra-smooth driver began wrestling his machine, perhaps overdriving as he became a serial track-limits offender.
Most eye-opening of all was Schumacher’s pole position for race one at the Red Bull Ring – 0.247 seconds clear of the field on a relatively short circuit (0.195s covered the top nine in Q2 in 2016) only served to ramp up the theories. Furthermore, one team told
“SOME SORT OF PATTERN EMERGED AND IT APPEARED THAT THE TALENTS WERE TICKTUM, ARMSTRONG AND VIPS”
Autosport that it had spotted a trick suspension part on Schumacher’s car at the Nurburgring and alerted the series’ technical delegate. This was probably more a case of a rules loophole than illegality and, as Rosin told Autosport over the weekend of the Hockenheim finale, if Prema was cheating then it had been cheating throughout the seven years of the current generation of F3 – ie. the team was doing nothing it wouldn’t normally do. Red Bull Junior Ticktum, who had already hinted in his Red Bull preview before the Austrian weekend that post-season he would tell all on what had been going on, gave an emotional interview to Autosport denying that he was cracking under the pressure, that Schumacher’s advantage was obscene and that his and Motopark’s title had been stolen but “fair play to the kid. I like Mick. He’s a good lad and I have a lot of respect for what he’s come back from.” He then blurted all on social media in an ill-advised Sunday-night post. To be fair, the puzzling inversion of the form from the first several weekends of the season can’t not have affected
Ticktum, as well as Armstrong, Zhou, Aron etc.
With the title effectively all but sealed in Schumacher’s favour, the Hockenheim finale went back to what would be regarded as a normal weekend. Zhou, who had been confused and baffled, suddenly bounced back with a pole and a win. Aron, who’d been mystified by engine performance all year, was suddenly more competitive. Ticktum raced brilliantly, but being fifth fastest of the six Motopark drivers in Q2 illustrated that he wasn’t his normal self, and he admitted to screwing up.
The incredible step change in Schumacher’s form in the second half of his second year of F3 did border on the unnatural, leaving enough of a shadow of doubt that is a shame for him as much as anyone else. Does this prove that open competition on engines, chassis etc has had its day in junior motorsport? Not if you ask many who compete in tightly controlled one-make formulas, where differences can be even more pronounced and you’re often told to like your equipment or lump it, with very little scope for changing it. That’ll be the new F3 – a big step back from the old.
“FAIR PLAY TO THE KID. I LIKE MICK. HE’S A GOOD LAD; I HAVE A LOT OF RESPECT FOR HIM”
Vips was often stunning but his title bid unravelled with Nurburgring harpoonery
Armstrong was superimpressive but somehow only won at Norisring
Ticktum, here leading Scherer and Daruvala, took stunning Spa win from 10th on the grid
11 Sacha Fenestraz (Carlin Dallara-volkswagen) 121; 12 Jonathan Aberdein (Motopark Dallara-volkswagen) 108; 13 Ferdinand Habsburg (Carlin Dallara-volkswagen) 87; 14 Fabio Scherer (Motopark Dallara-volkswagen) 64; 15 Nikita Troitskiy (Carlin Dallara-volkswagen)