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

Autosport (UK) - - CONTENTS - MAR­CUS SIM­MONS ALL PHO­TOG­RA­PHY FIA F3/SUER

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)

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