For wide-eyed youngsters aspiring to reach Formula 1 stardom, Formula 3 has traditionally been the way to go. The category’s success rate speaks for itself, with Formula 3 alumni forming ¾ of the current F1 grid. It goes without saying that Formula 1 legends Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna honed their skills in F3, while the groundwork for the fierce rivalry between Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher was laid in their infamous collision at Macau in 1990.
Despite its huge success, in recent years F3 has come under threat from a flashy new pretender. When Bruno Michel’s GP3 Series emerged on the F1 support roster in 2010, F3 saw a mass exodus of top names: drivers and teams alike choosing to drop F3 in favour of a chance at glory on the F1 tour. In 2011, the F3 Euroseries hit an all-time low, with multiple champion team ART – who delivered titles for Jamie Green, Lewis Hamilton, Paul di Resta, Romain Grosjean, Nico Hulkenberg and Jules Bianchi – pulling out to devote more time and expertise to the GP3 arm of its operation, and a worryingly low car-count of just 12 cars in regular competition. Roberto Merhi waltzed to the title against the weakest field seen in years, and F3 – despite its prime billing on the DTM circus – appeared to be on its last legs.
However the tide appears to be turning.
“It has taken a big part of Formula 3 away, but now GP3 is a bit more down. I think Formula 3 has taken a big step compared to last year,” agrees Swedish starlet Felix Rosenqvist, who won the 2011 running of the Zandvoort Masters.
“The F1 package is rather more bad than good,” says Rosenqvist. “Really, the only good thing with it is that you get to say I’m running together with Formula 1. There’s a lot of budget required, and you have to stand really far away, do your practise sessions at seven o’clock in the morning. The mechanics almost can’t sleep because you have to work really late. Everything is really just built around Formula 1, unlike here in F3 where we are actually a big part of the event.
“F1 is so closed – unfortunately that’s the way it is – that nobody really cares,” adds American Michael Lewis. “I experienced it when I raced in Formula BMW: you’re out in the middle of nowhere.”
Alarmed by the deterioration of Formula 3, the FIA have stepped up to the plate and appointed ex-F1 star Gerhard Berger – himself an F3 graduate – to revive the category’s fortunes, starting with the creation of an official FIA Formula 3 championship. This has seen the Euroseries pitted against the British championship several times this year with apparent success, a 29-strong grid of cars turning up at Spa in July. Since then, series promoter Stephane Ratel’s calls for a wholesale merger next year have been met with a warm reception from team owners.
At the same time, the GP3 entry has dipped below 30 cars, and is starting to loose the initiative gained back in 2010. Far from the epic 9-car scrap for the title last year, the 2012 field is largely comprised of rookies and competent, if uninspiring second year drivers. And although GP3 landed the coup of Monaco this year, it lacks the heavy hitting F3 events Macau, Pau and Zandvoort, which no junior driver’s resume can be complete without.
“I think the standard Formula 1 track is not really hard to learn. Any good driver can learn it in one session. I think its better to go on the tracks like Brands Hatch or Zandvoort, the classic ones which go up and down, they are narrow and don’t just have flat curves. I think you learn very much more as a driver,” Rosenqvist says.
“Somewhere like Hockenheim is good for finding small bits in your driving, like braking a bit later and playing around with your driving style. But it’s nothing like when you come to Paddock Hill Bend or something like this. It’s in another league really. I like it and I think it’s important.”
As of yet, the only driver to have competed in GP3 and graduated to a race seat in Formula 1 is Jean-Eric Vergne, whose four appearances in 2010 were fitted around his championship winning campaign in British F3. Former GP3 champions Esteban Gutierrez and Valterri Bottas will surely go on to change this statistic, but this is undermined by the fact that each had also previously raced in F3.
“I’m not a big fan of GP3 since it has shown really strange results,” says Rosenqvist. “Some good drivers have delivered in other classes but don’t deliver in GP3, which is not right.”
The inverse is also true, as shown by the illuminating case of Gutierrez. After a mediocre 2009 spent in the shadows of fellow F3 rookies Bottas and Alexander Sims, the Mexican switched to GP3 for its inaugural season in 2010 and won the title at a canter, beating drivers well established at that level: Robert Wickens, Mirko Bortolotti and Renger van der Zande to name but a few.
Another mark against GP3 is its comparative inflexibility to F3. With track time on grand prix weekends at a premium, the freedom offered by F3 is unrivalled among the junior formulae.
“You just race more in F3 than in GP3,” says Lewis. “Even though maybe you won’t be on the big name circuits all the time, you can run most of them, and you can test much more. You get way more bang for your buck.”
“I can do the British championship, FIA and the Euroseries. It’s great.”
Northern Irishman Will Buller currently competes in both series for Trevor Carlin’s team. For Buller, who won at a soaking wet Silverstone in GP3 from last on the grid, a place in history alongside the greats of F3 holds a greater significance than GP3 success, which tells a story in itself.
“At the moment Formula 3 is the most valuable to me,” Buller says. “GP3 is a very good proving ground for young drivers. It’s got the live TV and you get the experience of racing at Monaco.
“There are lots of good aspects to GP3, but Formula 3 is the one I want to win the most.”
Should this trend continue, Formula 3 may well regain its rightful place at the top of the junior tree sooner than is predicted. The new chassis introduced this year has negated the clear advantage Carlin has enjoyed for years, and presented the likes of Felix Serralles with an unexpected shot at glory. And with new engines set to further reshuffle the pack next year, GP3 will have good reason to start looking over its shoulder.