Dr. Jonathan Palmer has lauded the success story of the reborn FIA Formula Two Championship last year – contending that the recruitment of 'inaugural' champion Andy Soucek by F1 2010 newcomer Virgin Racing as its test and reserve driver for the forthcoming season is a ringing endorsement of the revitalised feeder series.
The original incarnation of Formula Two faded out back in 1985 in favour of International F3000, which was subsequently superseded itself by the GP2 Series two decades later still. However, with the costs of competing in GP2 beginning to climb out of hand, Palmer decided that a cheaper alternative was required, to prevent too many talented – albeit penniless – young drivers from falling by the wayside so close to their career goal.
It was a race against time to get everything together, but in tandem with official partner and chassis-designer Williams F1, 25 cars were produced and 25 drivers attracted to the fold for the curtain-raising meeting at Valencia in Spain last May, with Soucek joined by the likes of World Series by Renault, F3 Euroseries and A1GP World Cup of Motorsport race-winner Robert Wickens and highly-rated Red Bull protégé Mirko Bortolotti.
Just over five months later, and following interceding outings at Brno in the Czech Republic, the popular Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, the MotorSport Vision-owned Brands Hatch and the now-beleaguered Donington Park in Britain, Oschersleben in Germany, Imola in Italy and Barcelona in Spain, the 2009 campaign drew to a close, having supported along the way the World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) as well as other high-profile series'.
“I think our first season was a remarkable success, quite frankly,” MSV founder and chief executive and former grand prix ace Palmer told Crash.net Radio
. “Creating a brand new championship from an absolute standing start was a huge challenge. We only got the contract awarded to us by the FIA to do Formula Two in September, 2008; Williams did an incredible job of designing the car in the time [limit] and the JPH1 Formula Two cars were all built at our Bedford Autodrome facility.
“To get the whole lot onto the grid on time for the first race in Valencia I think was a remarkable achievement, but also of course the other thing was to sell all the drives. It was a time of recession – it still is, in fact – and it was a big, big challenge as I say coming in with a completely new championship that didn't displace anything, to fill the cars.
“That I think was very successful, and it was also extremely successful to have 14 different nationalities of driver. It was great to have the racing so close that we had eight different winners from the season's 16 races, and it was most important that we had a wonderful champion in Andy Soucek, who every driver in the championship recognised deserved to win the title.”
On the subject of the Spaniard, indeed, it seems fair to say that the reincarnation of Formula Two effectively rescued his career from the washed-up mire into which it had descended. A brace of disjointed and largely unspectacular campaigns in GP2 – primarily due to a lack of funds – had done little to bring the Madrid native to the attention of the key movers-and-shakers in the grand prix paddock.
That the 24-year-old went on to thoroughly dominate proceedings in F2 last year – outscoring chief rival Wickens by almost twice as many points and taking seven victories to the Canadian's tally of two, to add his name to an illustrious roster that had previously included such motor racing luminaries as Jacky Ickx, Clay Regazzoni, Ronnie Peterson, Mike Hailwood, Jean-Pierre Jarier, Patrick Depailler, Jacques Laffite, René Arnoux and Palmer himself – is clear evidence, the former BBC F1 commentator opines, that MSV's remit in re-launching the series had palpably produced the goods.
“The point is that Formula Two, the very low cost of it and the quality of it has given a driver like Andy Soucek the chance to prove what he can do,” the Englishman underlined. “One of the problems with motor racing before Formula Two came along at this level is that it is just so expensive. For a GP2 season, if you're going to run with a top team like ART, you're talking €1.5 million. A top drive in Formula Renault 3.5 is €800,000 to €1 million; in Formula 3, it's £700,000.
“Very few drivers can afford this sort of money, and it is only the privileged few that can. Often it's family money that supports them in a big way, sometimes it's philanthropic organisations like Racing Steps or the Red Bull scheme – but if you can't afford a top drive like that, you are just not going to be competitive. That's exactly the situation that Soucek found himself in; he had a potted record in GP2 and Renault 3.5 with some promising results, but not solid seasons because he couldn't afford it.
“Formula Two provided at just £200,000 an opportunity for him to be on an equal footing to everybody else, and when he had that he won. The majority of drivers are in that situation; the drivers that can afford these big budgets for top teams are quite frankly the minority. The chances are that whoever wins in F2 is going to be probably a better talent than whoever wins in GP2 or Renault 3.5, just because they're competing against more drivers in the same equipment.
“When Andy had his prize drive in the Williams car at Jerez [in December], he ran on day one and Nico Hülkenberg – who is of course driving for Williams this year after winning the GP2 championship – drove on days two and three with the same fuel load and same tyres, and whilst there were only hundredths in it, Andy was a bit quicker. He certainly held up very well in terms of his talent.”TO LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW IN FULL: CLICK HERE