Tag Archives: british f3

On the Vergne of greatness?

Jean-Eric Vergne Formula Renault World Series

Vergne could be the best Red Bull racer since Vettel (ash-brown)

Trophies tell you one thing, the stopwatch can reveal a little more, but ultimately you can only judge a driver by what your gut tells you. Mine says that a chap by the name of Jean-Eric Vergne is a bit special. Following in the line of Carlin’s Red Bull-backed British F3 champions behind Alguersuari and Ricciardo he is now engaged in a thrilling duel with Robert Wickens for the Renault World Series. There are moves afoot to place the Frenchman in a Torro Rosso for Friday practice during the last few Grand Prix and if I was the type to take a flutter I’d bet he will shine.

A cool customer if ever there was one, Jean-Eric Vergne is 21 years of age and already one of the most experienced of those on the edge of F1. He’s got the speed, a healthy dose of aggression and he just so happens to be a dashing young thing too. There is a rare collection of talent in the Renault World Series this year, to shine in this pack you have to be a decent peddler.

Clearly Red Bull believe in him, Jean-Eric appears to be following an identical path to Ricciardo; soon the Frenchman is to make his debut as a Red Bull Racing pilot at the Abu Dhabi young driver test after his practice outings for Torro Rosso. If it is up to Red Bull he would clearly be in Formula One soon, but a spanner could be in the works for Vergne in the form of the impending sale of Scuderia Torro Rosso. From Monza onwards Spanish oil company Cepsa will appear on the car and those better informed than I are predicting that this is part of a wholesale change of ownership for the team formerly known as Minardi. Let us hope that the new owners pick the fruits of Red Bull’s labours and continue to support their young drivers, although Jamie Alguersuari as a Spaniard will be less worried by the presence of a major brand from his homeland than the Swiss Sebastian Buemi. With only two seats at the main Red Bull team, one of which will belong to Sebastian Vettel for as long as he wants it, there could be a few juniors looking for an alternative way into the top flight rather than the rookie-friendly Torro Rosso squad.

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Senna – more than PR gold

Bruno Senna in the Renault at Goodwood 2011

Burn-outs are fun, but racing for Renault would be better. (p_c_w)

Does a famous family name really make a driver’s life any easier? It certainly doesn’t make them any faster, that much has been proven many times. It can make them richer, but not always – Damon Hill would know all about that. Bruno Senna is both blessed and burdened by the most famous name in racing, a name that frankly nobody could live up to. Bruno has been granted a go in free practice this coming Friday at the Hungaroring while his Renault team are also making positive noises about their fellow reserve driver Romain Grosjean. It’s about time that Renault noticed the potential in its own reserve drivers.

Of course Renault will be hoping neither driver is needed to step into a race seat although they are facing the grim reality that team leader Robert Kubica has to overcome many hurdles before he can return to F1 and Nick Heidfeld is solid but not able to lift the car to the highest heights. Meanwhile Vitaly Petrov has gone against type and is within only two points of the veteran, which appears to have brought Eric Boullier and his merry men round to the idea of finally considering a youngster for Heidfeld’s role – 18 months ago the quiet Russian was a far bigger gamble than either Senna or Grosjean are right now.

Some forum warriors on t’internet have been quick to dismiss Bruno Senna, many before he had turned a wheel in a contemporary Grand Prix machine. I genuinely believe that Bruno has the talent, he just needs the chance to use it. He had barely begun in karting when his exploits were cut short by the loss of his uncle prompting his family to stop his career almost before it started. Damon Hill, another man who was the second generation of a driving dynasty, also skipped the karting step and he still did alright for himself. To my knowledge Senna and Petrov are the only drivers who came from a largely non-karting background to make it into F1 in recent years, an achievement that cannot be underestimated.

This lack of a childhood spent behind the wheel meant that Bruno Senna’s very first full season of racing was in British Formula 3, a crucial distinction in his career that is lost on many. Those drivers who are multiple karting and junior formula winners often fall at this hurdle; Bruno gamely went into F3 with only seven races to his famous name. After a solid debut year in 2005 with Raikkonen Robertson Racing he took things up a notch in 2006 by winning the first two rounds in style at a wet Oulton Park, not a bad way to begin only your second year of racing. He went on to win another three races to take third overall at the end of the year, a great achievement for any driver, let alone one with such little experience who carries such great expectations. I’m struggling to think of anybody from the current crop of Grand Prix stars who was winning such high-profile races within just over a year of starting out. Nope, can’t think of any – not even Vettel the wunderkid.

After Formula 3 Senna went on to impress in GP2; in 2008 he took second in the title race to the vastly more experienced Giorgio Pantano – a guy who had been at this level of competition or above for eight seasons, far before Senna had even started his career. Testing for Honda’s F1 outfit beckoned, their emotional link with the Senna name made a hook-up between them a no-brainer. Bruno looked set to hit the big time only four years after he started car racing. Then the Japanese manufacturer pulled the plug on F1, the team became Brawn GP and they plumped for their old pal Rubens Barrichello rather than his more youthful countryman. Senna was left to compete in sportscar racing where he struggled for the first time since his early days. Even harder lessons were learned by taking his F1 bow with the woeful HRT squad in 2010. The impressive momentum built up from 2005 to 2008 was broken and Senna was passed over for this year, winding up as one of Renault’s many testers. A shame in my view. Anybody who can drive the wrong way down Eau Rouge while filming on his phone is pretty handy in a race car!

While I don’t know for certain what Bruno could do with a decent F1 chance, there is no way we’ll ever find out unless he gets the time on track. Hopefully his practice run in Hungary is an audition for a proper go at Interlagos or even sooner.

In the same week that Senna gets his run with the team Eric Boullier has been extolling the virtues of Romain Grosjean. As much as he has been a delight to watch in GP2 this year, Romain has been racing for long enough to know how to win by now, anything less would be disappointing.

What needs to be remembered is that amongst the complex web of ownership at Renault is the Gravity driver management venture. Like Flavio Briatore before them, the current management are tied commercially to drivers so it is in their interest to talk them up, although Senna is not one of them. Grosjean is part of the Gravity stable, but they need to remember that throwing Grosjean into an F1 race seat too soon damaged his market value back in 2009. In my fantasy team manager role I would leave him to focus on winning GP2, he already has F1 on his CV.

Since its rebirth in 2002 the Renault team has never felt a compulsion to run a French driver, so that is not in Grosjean’s favour as Bourdais and Montagny will testify. These days the F1 effort isn’t an outpost of the French manufacturer anyway, indeed the team wouldn’t even be called Renault if the top brass had their way.  The chassis would most likely take the title of its sponsor – Lotus – if the team could find favour with enough of the F1 paddock to allow a name change. The car is already painted in black and gold, a yellow helmet would sit nicely in there and they know it.

Group Lotus have bold ambitions which thus far are mostly based around creating a PR buzz. Right now their game-plan is more about building the brand than the brand building thousands of supercars. For the most part their racing efforts involve putting stickers on established racing teams – Renault in F1, ART in GP2 and KV Racing over the pond in Indycar. They’ve badged Judd’s forthcoming Indy engine too, although interestingly there is increasing talk that Lotus-affiliated KV Racing are not interested in running their main sponsor’s motor.  With the PR push in full swing Danny Bahar and company must be itching to see Senna race, their marketing department wouldn’t miss Nick Heidfeld at the Brazilian Grand Prix even if his vast experience is valuable to the engineers at Renault.

I can’t stand to see talent go to waste, so I would unashamedly love to see Bruno Senna get a proper crack at driving in F1 again. Hungary is a start, but surely Renault could find a proper place for Senna come Interlagos? Despite the last three years being trying for Bruno, the previous three seasons showed that he is packing more talent than the doubters would have you think. Is it enough to make a real impact on F1? Well we won’t know until somebody gives him a half-decent car, will we? Come on Renault, roll the dice.

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A walk in the park

Anthony Reid takes the plucky Chevron through the chicane.

Since we got our beloved basset hound I’ve seen a lot of parks; there isn’t a green space in Liverpool that I don’t know like the back of my hand. While I’m in the Wavertree Mystery or Allerton Towers everyday, it’s been a lot longer since I’ve been to my favourite park – Oulton Park. My parents and I remedied that yesterday with our first trip in nine years as a threesome to the glorious Cheshire track.  Oulton has been likened to the Nordschleife, it’s crests, bumps and tree-lined straights are largely unchanged since Stirling Moss was racing Grand Prix machinery here in the Gold Cup – and this living slice of history is less than 45 minutes away from my house, which is always a bonus.  

It has to be said that Jonathan Palmer’s MSV have done a great job with their portfolio of circuits. While Donington still looks rough around the edges and Silverstone surrenders its spirit to the needs of F1, the MSV quartet of Oulton, Brands, Snetterton and Cadwell have all kept the changes on the tarmac to a minimum while ensuring that off-track things are nearly as slick and professional as the billion-dollar state-sponsored race venues of the new world. There were few queues on the way in, a lovely restaurant to enjoy, a tidy pitlane to wander round and toilets that were clean as the proverbial whistle. These things may not sound important if you are viewing on TV, but getting these little things right keeps the punters coming back to the track. Visitor numbers for the F3 and GTs looked as healthy as I’ve ever seen them, while the BTCC regularly has its biggest crowd of the year at Oulton.

After a very slow stroll through the car park (Astons, Lambos, Ferraris, a convincing Porsche 911 RSR replica and a mint-condition 1969 Alfa GTV are quite a distraction) we elected to park our chairs at Cascades where we had a great view from the run out of the first corner all the way to the fearsome Island Bend. You then glimpse the cars in the trees as they climb the hill before they brake hard into the Knickerbrook chicane before hammering out of sight towards Druids. It’s the best view you can get here, we could see roughly two-thirds of the venue while grazing on my Mum’s tasty picnic.

After a shameful lapse in attending live racing we were struck immediately by how impressive even a humble Formula Ford is. When the British GT championship runners burbled, popped and banged into life we were back in petrolhead heaven. GT racing surely has the finest and most varied soundtrack of any kind of modern motorsport. From the near silence of the new Lotus Evoras to the shrill sound of a Ferrari 458 or the rattling flat six of the ever-present 911, the GTs are as much an audio pleasure as they are a visual one. As for the Jones twins’ brutal Mercedes SLS, that sounded like the Devil farting!

Into the Knickerbrook chicane it was the SLS that provided the most action. In race one the Jones’ were on the back-foot as the 911s of the brilliant Bridgman and Westbrook monstered them for third, while in race two the Mercedes was back on the attack. But the car that got the most cheers was the plucky little Chevron of Anthony Reid and Jordan Whitt. It was often on the tail of the Speedworks Corvette or the hordes of Ferrari F430s, the little yellow bullet darting across the kerbs like no other. The Cheshire-based marque was once famous for huge cars, but this little whipper-snapper was quite the opposite – a Dinky car by comparison.

It was 2010 champions Trackspeed with their garish Porsche driven by Ashburn and Westbrook that took one race, while the other fell to the fantastic Ferrari 458 of Bateman and Lyons. I’m chuffed we got to see Westbrook at his best, he’s so entertaining in any GT car, especially a 911. It was also a pleasure to see the exquisite 458 take what must rank as one of its first victories anywhere, I suspect these sleek machines will become a racing staple for the rest of the decade.

The F3 races weren’t quite so entertaining, especially after watching the magic Monza races on youtube. Come to think of it, I don’t know when F3 at Oulton last produced a truly memorable race, I much prefer watching them at Donington or Silverstone. It’s amazing how little has changed in that category over the years, surely it’s time for a re-think of F3?

We were rooting for Mclaren-affiliated Kevin ‘Kev’ Magnussen, our excuse for such blatant favouritism was that we had a soft spot for his Dad after meeting him just before the start of his record-breaking F3 season back in 1994. Surely Jan couldn’t possibly have a child in F3 already? It’s enough to make you feel old. Sadly Kev was beset by problems, he won’t be beating his father’s records this year especially with the brilliant Brazilians Nasr and Foresti looking so good. Felipe Nasr certainly looks capable of going all the way, just imagine what dear old Murray would make of Felipe Massa and Felipe Nasr racing together! It would be even more of a tongue-twister than Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell…

The Formula Ford races were good, although nowhere near as exciting as the championship’s opening encounters at Silverstone earlier in the month. The entertaining Volkswagen Cup was also on the bill, but I was disappointed that there were no vans racing – it’s certainly the only championship I find myself saying that about! However, there was a Golf liveried as a cop car, a Beetle dressed up as Herbie and a rogue Seat on the grid, so the racing wasn’t totally sane. The lead battle was a cracker in the second VW encounter where the Walker family took charge in their Golfs in a four-way dice for first.

The next day we were pink with sunburn but it was all well worth it. If you haven’t been to Oulton Park you really must go. It’s a place where you don’t need the most exciting racing to amuse you, it’s just such a pleasure to see the cars navigating their way around a proper racing venue steeped in heritage. At the weekend it’s the thrilling British Superbikes, although I reckon it will be the Gold Cup in August when I can next find the time and money to take the short trip to this little gem of a track. Meanwhile I’ll content myself with a walk in the park this afternoon, there’ll be no horsepower but there will be a speedy dog to keep me amused.

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Tarquini by a nose, Foresti by a mile

The World Touring Car Championship looks a little forlorn at the moment. It’s chock-a-block with privateers that struggle to keep up with the RML Chevrolet power-house and it seemed that nobody other than Huff, Menu or reigning champion Yvan Muller would ever score a win. But in race two at Zolder Gabriele Tarquini muscled his way to a narrow victory in my race of the week.

The benefit that the Seat star gained from the reversed grid was far outweighed by the disadvantage of not being in a blue Chevrolet, so the Italian stalwart made sure his car was wide and wild. The speedy race one winner Rob Huff was brave enough to try to pass Gabriele, but the Italian defended hard and the resulting contact saw Huffy limping home. I’m not usually one for strong-arm tactics, but nobody can expect to beat the Chevy team in 2011 unless they push things to the limit or the blue cars take themselves out, as nearly happened in race one.

My not-very-coveted racer of the week award goes to Lucas Foresti for his dominant display around the leafy Oulton Park in round four of British F3. The Fortec Mercedes pilot notched up a first win for a non-Carlin car in 2011 as he tamed the gorgeous Cheshire track, taking the lap record along the way. By the end of the half an hour of racing he had a staggering 18 second lead over Felipe Nasr, his compatriot who is the favourite for the title.

While both Brazilians gave best to Riki Christodoulou in race two, it was Nasr who won the third race of the weekend from Foresti. Unlike Foresti, Nasr struggled to open up much of a gap over his rival despite the race being ten minutes longer than the earlier encounters. Although Felipe Nasr may well end up confusing the F1 commentators in the future, Foresti was the driver who appeared to truly master the majestic Oulton Park from where I was sitting. The last time I attended such a dominant F3 performance at Oulton was from one Jenson Button; you have to be packing talent to be able to humiliate your rivals around this most traditional of tracks.

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Great racing wherever you look

Plato rolls, Conway wins and Nascar entertains (pic Rob Dunckley)

F1 provided the race of the weekend from where I was sitting, but there was so much good motorsport going on that it was hard to keep up with it all. We had a four-wide finish at Talladega, the closest World Rally ever, a new and truly heroic winner in Indycar and the BTCC boys bent some metal. If I don’t get a chance to watch Superbikes from Assen or my beloved Aussie V8s on a wet street track then I know there was a lot of rubber being burnt around the globe…

First up was Talladega with the Sprint Cup race that anybody could win which was taken by Jimmie Johnson, the winner of the previous five championships. It may not be the ideal result for the fans or the title race, but it was certainly spectacular as the leaders finished four-wide after the tandems we saw at Daytona returned. Clint Boywer was a mere two thousandths of a second behind the winner, but I still can’t truly enjoy the bump-drafting. Nationwide saw Kyle Busch get involved in the ‘big one’ before driving his battered machine back to the front just as the race was halted for yet another big wreck. If anything the relative unknowns in the ARCA race provided the best and cleanest racing at ‘Dega, their cars aren’t built to run the whole race nose-to-tail and the extra space between them made for some far more satisfying racing that saw Ty Dillon edging out Frank Kimmel at the flag.

Astoundingly the WRC was very nearly as close and every bit as thrilling in the dust of Jordan. Sebastian Ogier continued in his winning ways, beating Latvalla by a mere 0.2 seconds – the closest World Rally to date. The event was shortened  after political and logistical problems, but it was still remarkable to see a smaller gap between the leaders after two days rallying than we saw in F1 after a mere 15 minute qualifying segment. It seems that Ogier is the real deal.

Another young driver with a very bright future is Britain’s Mike Conway who scored his first Indycar win at the Long Beach Grand Prix last night. Most Indycar viewers will know Mike best for his bone-breaking Indy 500 shunt that could so easily have taken his career away just as it started. Now recovered and driving for Andretti Autosport he drove a sublime final few laps to blast his way up from sixth place at the final restart to the lead. Conway endured a troubled pit-stop and had to dodge the now-predictable crashes to take the fight to Ryan Briscoe’s Penske that led for so much of the day. Long Beach is one of the greatest street tracks in the world and Mike Conway knows a thing or two about racing around cities after taking wins at Monaco in GP2 and Macau in F3; he’s certainly in the right series for somebody who excels at racing inches from concrete walls.

The walls aren’t quite so close at Donington Park but the BTCC boys still managed to find them. The races were won by Matt Neal, Andrew Jordan and crowd-favourite Matt Jackson, but the talking points were the slew of accidents including a roll for champion Jason Plato.  The racing was good and luckily everybody survived their crashes with nothing more than financial damage, although Plato said he “tweaked his manhood” as his Chevy Cruze rolled three times. Amazingly the RML boys got Jason’s car going again for race three and he even managed to score good points with the roof still squashed! The Craner Curves are a fine place to watch a race and for those stood by Starkey’s Bar they will have witnessed Plato’s accident, a multi-car crash in race three and a fast shunt for Neate’s Ford Focus on the final lap of the day along with a scary ride down the hill for Rob Collard too.  Wish I was there.

I will be heading to a race next week as British F3 heads to Oulton Park, just down the road from here. The F3 season is already underway at Monza where Felipe Nasr won twice for Carlin and cemented his status as championship favourite. Rupert Svendsen-Cook took a win too but it’s Nasr who everybody will be focusing on when British F3 heads back to Britain.

The best junior category in 2011 looks set to be Formula Renault 3.5 where there is some serious talent on show, not least of all is Red Bull’s test driver Daniel Ricciardo. He was absent from round one at Arragon, so whoever emerged on top from the two races on Spanish soil would likely become his main challenger for the season. It was Lotus-affiliated American hot-shot Alexander Rossi who took a win in a spectacular race one, his racecraft was top drawer as he diced with Move and Wickens in a very entertaining battle. He followed it up with a second place in the Sunday race just behind Kevin Korjus – the youngest driver on the Renault grid and a very surprising victor. Expect a bunch of these guys to follow fellow Renault World Series graduates Vettel, Kubica and Kovalainen into F1 very soon, there is a rare amount of talent on that grid this year.

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