The Ben Evans Column: Forgotten stars of F3

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Perhaps it’s because my 2006 season finished really early (my last race was in October) or perhaps it’s because I’m incurably sad.

But I have spent the winter yearning for any racing-related activity.

Thus far I’ve staved off the brutal pangs of withdrawal by reading motor sport books, going to Autosport International and visiting abandoned race circuits.

In recent weeks I have reached what must be an anorak zenith.

I acquired the British F3 seasons from 1988-1994 and 1999-2005 on VHS and DVD and sat through one after another. For ‘relief’ I dipped into my collection of live F3000 races from 2000.

Of course this has taken my social stock with non-race fans from ‘uncool’ to ‘pariah’ but, and this is a big, big but: the footage and racing is damn good and not a little addictive.

The earlier footage is fascinating:

Damon Hill looking like a kid – check,
Mika Hakkinen piloting the Raikkonen monotone – check,
Mika Salo proving he had an adept line in sarcasm as a teenager – check.

The number of drivers that made it through to the upper echelons of motor sport from what I consider to be a golden period of British F3 is incredible.

Martin Donnelly, JJ Lehto, David Brabham, Allan McNish, Gil de Ferran, Alain Menu, Mika Hakkinen, Damon Hill, Mika Salo, Christian Fittipaldi, David Coulthard, Rubens Barrichello and Pedro Diniz can all be seen plying their trade, often with spectacularly poor hairdos.

But what is more interesting is what happened to the really quick guys. Because, with the exception of McNish, Hakkinen and Salo, none of the above were all that exciting in F3.

In 1992 the undoubted early season star was Marcel Albers who, tragically, died in the third round at Thruxton. Watching the footage from the first two rounds confirms just how fast Albers was.

Jumping forward a decade 2002 witnessed some sensational performances from Australian James Courtney.

But his promise was de-railed after a monster crash during testing for Jaguar at Monza from which he never really recovered.

Equally Luciano Burti was often sensational in 1999 (even if his driving ethics were somewhat questionable) but his single-seater career was effectively ended at Spa in 2001 following an enormous accident with 1988 F3 alumni Eddie Irvine.

The above stories if nothing else prove that even in this ultra-safe era motor sport remains dangerous, and that is often those who live on the limit that are caught out.

Others simply didn’t make the transition between disciplines very well – or at all.

Kelvin Burt, the dominant champion of 1993, never got the breaks, nor backing, his talent deserved.

However it is 1994 title winner Jan Magnussen who is perhaps the greatest lost talent of them all. Magnussen was my hero from 1992 onwards having seen his sensational Formula Ford Festival win, and 1994 was the ultimate justification of his talent.

That he never made a successful transition to F1 is perhaps one of the greatest losses of raw talent seen in recent times.

The star of 2000 was Antonia Pizzonia whose career never recovered from totalling a Jaguar S-Type full of journalists shortly before his Grand Prix debut. After several stabs at F1 he has astonishingly dropped into GP2 this year in a desperate attempt to find a way back to the top.

Takuma Sato’s 2001 F1 campaign demonstrates that F1 has not yet seen the best the Japanese can offer.

Sadly recent years have seen British F3 fall into the shadow of the Euroseries and, in comparison to de Ferran or Barrichello, I find it hard to get excited about Alvaro Parente or Mike Conway.

Or perhaps the plethora of series that have sprung up between F3 and F1 means it is no longer the case that one season’s F3 stars all appear on the F1 grid within a year or two.

So where should an F3 history virgin get started?

The BHP tapes of 1989 and 1990 are perhaps the best place to start – and readily available from a certain prominent auction website. They feature great coverage, good racing, some big shunts and the chance to see the stars of the future at the top of their game.

From then on it’s a slippery slope. The racing in 1994 was often dull but Jan Magnussen is effortlessly breathtaking. The 1999 season saw a thrilling duel between Marc Hynes and Luciano Burti that had me in front of the TV for 5 hours straight.

For sheer entertainment value 2003 and 2004 cannot be beaten: close racing, packed grids, and the priceless chance to see Nelson Piquet Jnr get driven into by the fire truck, a moment for the rewind if ever there was one.

It certainly isn’t cool; it definitely isn’t a girl magnet. You may well come out the other side without any friends and feel the need to discuss 1988’s Snetterton wet race with fellow commuters, but those moments of seeing the really fast drivers like Allan McNish, Jan Magnussen and James Courtney at their best makes it all worthwhile.

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Tags: f1 / formula one / formula 1 / grand prix / motor sport

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Ben Evans
Motorsport commentator Ben is RaceFans' resident bookworm. Look out for his verdict on the latest motor racing publications on Sundays....

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6 comments on “The Ben Evans Column: Forgotten stars of F3”

  1. It’s strange that F3 has been the feeder formula for F1 for so many years. There has always been a supposedly higher formula than F3 – F2, Formula 3000, GP2 and so on – but generally the best drivers arrive direct from F3. I suppose that, if anyone has real talent, it’s pretty obvious by the time they get to F3 and the F1 teams grab them before they can make the next logical step.

    And that might be why so many potential stars look so ordinary once they get to F1 – they might have needed an interim year in a formula with more powerful cars to ease the transition to “the big one”.

    Great article, by the way.

  2. What I find fascinating is the F3 to F1 moves that no-one saw coming. Like Jenson Button in 1999…

  3. What do you think went wrong for Jan Magnussen? He looked so spectacular in F3 and was talked about as the next Senna but it just didn’t “happen” in F1.

    Oh, and I fully agree about the 1989 F3 season – one of the best 50p spends I have ever made on a certain auction site!

  4. Magnussen? hard to say. To some extent he was flattered by a weak field I think. Sure he won 14 races, but who did he beat? Can’t recall who else was around at the time, but I don’t think it was the most star-studded of F3 line-ups.

    The other part of the problem is that his talent was such that he never really had to work for it, until he got to F1. You see that in all walks of life – people who find everything so easy that when they finally hit a wall, encounter difficulties, they just don’t know how to respond.

  5. For me Magnussen was/is the best I’ve ever seen out of an F1 car. At the FFord Festival at Brands in 1992 he was just sensational winning the event despite a 10s penalty in his heat

  6. Sorry didn’t mean to submit. Admittedly 1994 wasn’t the strongest F3 year ever, but he comprehensively outshone team-mate Dario Franchitti. I think it went wrong for him for two reasons. Firsly his lifestyle was not F1 friendly shirking exercising and puffing on the cigarettes. Secondly his career really lost momentum, had he gone straight into a top F1 seat in 1995 with the right guidance he could have made the jump. The same is true of Alan McNish had he got an F1 drive in 1990/91 he would have gone all the way.

    I wouldn’t say the Button move came out of the blue, especially as a lot of the commentary in 1999 indicates he would be in F1 sharpish and don’t forget his management allegedly spent £1million on PR before he hit F1

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