In the 1950s, Formula 1 was specifically the pinnacle of European motorsport. Drivers from across the globe would pack up their bags and move to Europe in the hope of achieving the ultimate goal to race in the world’s finest motorsport category. For as much as it was a world championship, it was about racing in and beating the best of one continent.
The capital and labour of modern F1 is still Europe-based, but the calendar has massively diversified, a symptom that the junior ranks are not immune to.
F1 started as an entirely eurocentric event in 1950, with the only long-haul event being the Indianapolis 500, a race many statisticians consider invalid due to its differing rulebook while on the F1 calendar. With that in mind, drivers ventured no further west than England, and no further east than Italy.
By the 1980s the calendar had more than doubled in size, but in a 16-race season only five would be outside of Europe.
Bernie Ecclestone had a grip on the commercial side of F1 by then, and he could see that new countries meant new money. In 2005 Europe held 10 of the 19 races, and a similar ratio has been kept since.
So many drivers aim for F1, but with just 20 seats available there’s inevitably an excess of demand from drivers whose skill set matches the championship’s niche and elite requirements.?Many just change careers after failing to break into F1, but further afield than Europe the single-seater marketplace still has some options.
North America picks up most of the slack through IndyCar – the current home of the Indy 500 – a more popular career ambition for homegrown talents than F1. Grids are larger (33 is the limit at Indy), the calendar includes ovals and the lack of power steering makes the single-spec Dallara DW12 chassis difficult beasts to handle. It’s a different challenge to F1, but not an inferior one. It can also boast to be older, tracing its roots as a fully fledged championship back to 1905.
Alexander Rossi was runner-up to Stoffel Vandoorne in GP2 in 2015, and made a few back-of-the-grid appearances in F1 the same year. His junior single-seater career didn’t have the returns of what his talents promised, but he had learned the skills required to be a professional in single-seater’s top echelon.
He returned home to the United States in 2016 and picked up a IndyCar drive with top team Andretti Autosport. A Indy 500 win came on his first attempt in a remarkable display of fuel management, and a year later two-time F1 world champion Fernando Alonso chose to skip the Monaco Grand Prix to be his Indy 500 team-mate, wisened to the fact that the challenge would be at least equal to that of racing a midfield F1 car.
Rossi almost won last year’s IndyCar title, while Josef Newgarden – currently second in the 2019 standings – got to single-seaters’ third tier in Europe before the more promising opportunities led him back to America.
Japan is another country that has its own pinnacle series in the shape of Super Formula (SF). It started in 1973 and roughly followed the regulations being used in single-seaters’ second tier in Europe until the mid-1990s, when a promoter overhaul sent it on its successful and divergent path that it follows to this day.
Although IndyCar and F1 have manufacturer rivalries, they are nowhere near as intense as the local battle between Honda and Toyota in SF. Like IndyCar it is considered to be staging a resurgence, with established stars such as Naoki Yamamoto, Kazuki Nakajima and Kamui Kobayashi being joined by multiple Red Bull juniors and Formula 2 winners for 2019.
It introduced an all-new car this year too, which uses underbody downforce and high grip tyres, and is also designed by Dallara. It’s distinct enough from F2’s aesthetically similar machine and the current era of F1 to pose its own unique challenge.
So why doesn?t Europe have a pinnacle series of its own?
For one, many still consider F1 a European invention. When Azerbaijan joined the world championship in 2016 it signed a contract to become the European GP, believing the title would generate greater coverage and revenue, as well as helping to market Baku as a European destination.
The identity complex comes up in another capacity, with the success of Formula E meaning the creators of new ‘F1 rivals’ want to put their name next to something all-electric. Besides the long-planned FE, now in its fifth season, most of these opportunities within motorsport investment exist in touring and sportscars.
Really the biggest problem though is the European junior single-seater ladder being too diverse. It’s by the far the biggest in terms of drivers involved, and increased demand leads to an increase shift in cost. In essence, drivers have already spent too much money racing in Europe before a hypothetical premier championship.
What used to be the cost of an F1 seat is now a middling F2 drive, with Formula 3 prices inflating to match a GP2 seat from a few years ago.
In America and Japan there are far clearer paths, and ones which promoters have worked hard to protect against the financial crisis, their own increasing costs and the FIA’s recent ‘Global Pathway’ from karting to F1.
North Americans can start their racing career in USF2000, and stay in the same paddock as they climb through Indy Pro 2000, Indy Lights and then IndyCar. The scholarship system certainly helps with financing steps up the ladder, but many drivers make informal contact with IndyCar squads when they’re in their first steps of racing.??Once they’re ready for a IndyCar seat, they usually have several team bosses to call.
In Japan you can take on the capacity grids of F4 (in JAF and FIA variants), the ultra-competitive F3 championship and of course Super Formula. It’s budgeted in a way that many drivers can afford to spend multiple years in each category.
Europe currently has club championships at all levels, which have proven to be genuine career launchers, and a FIA-led system of F4, regional F3 and the new F1-supporting ‘international’ F3. F2 should really be included in this too, as the line-up of teams is near-identical to that of the new FIA F3 Championship and most also compete in Europe’s F4 championships.
One counterargument is that Europe consists?of so many countries with strong motorsport interest that a high number of national and continental championships is needed. The vast majority of drivers only have eyes on F1, unlike Japan and America where scholarship schemes can take them to the top of the local or European ladder, and where a career in Super GT or NASCAR is also sought after at a young age.
This is an issue that sportscar racing has thrived off, and reigning Blancpain GT Series champion Raffaele Marciello was very vocal that young drivers in Europe should have a more open mindset in a interview with Formula Scout earlier this year.
The previous attempts to create F1 alternatives in Europe have admittedly held races further afield, and had teams from other continents too, but have still been grounded in European thinking and approach.
In 2005, A1GP was created and called itself the ‘World Cup of Motorsport’. It genuinely had team operations based all around the world, branded as different countries, but its global approach came to bite when the financial crisis hit in 2008.
During that time it sent drivers on the way to F1, such as 2006-’07 champion Nico Hulkenberg, and already had ‘career’ drivers like Neel Jani, who was champion once and runner-up twice.
After Adam Carroll won the 2008-’09 title, A1GP went into liquidation and the Ferrari-powered cars were sold on. They’re now set to race in a pan-African championship, starting next year. The international array of drivers in IndyCar and SF would suggest ‘AFRIX GP’ would have European stars pushing the local talents, and if it comes to fruition and success, then a European equivalent would?likely be ignored.
A spiritual successor to A1GP, and based in Western Europe, was Formula Acceleration 1. It used first generation A1GP cars and lasted for one year, with drivers representing?nations. The Netherland’s Nigel Melker won the 2014 title, with Felix Rosenqvist cameoing and Dani Clos finishing 10th for the UK.
There was also Superleague Formula, that ran for just over three seasons. Again, a number of strong drivers participated for teams that were branded as football clubs. However, after a reasonable inaugural 2008 season, the football clubs lost interest, the series president stepped down, and and then the owners ran into difficulties with circuits in the last two seasons. It fizzled out after two rounds in 2011.
Therein lies a major problem – money. F1 has for years been shouting that costs need cutting and many teams have folded due to cash flow problems. The same problem happens in lower categories, but not just to the teams as the above examples show.
Therefore, in order for there to be a successful category at the pinnacle of European motorsport, an owner is needed who can sensibly manage the series, keeping costs kept to a minimum and grids to a maximum.
Evidence would suggest this is near impossible to achieve, but FE is now in its fifth season and stronger than ever. Alejandro Agag had?a clear plan of what he wanted to achieve, and unlike many bosses of racing start-ups was neither new to international politics, entrepreneurship or motorsport.
FE had the unique selling point of new technology, enabling it to not only get off the ground but advance quickly. A premier European championship would all but certainly be bridled with existing ‘traditional’ single-seater technology. The introduction of hybrids outside of F1 after all has proven far too expensive.
Using existing chassis – such as the first generation A1GP car or similar Auto GP designs from Lola – will keep costs low, and only small aerodynamic changes would be needed to make them resemble modern single-seaters. But by committing to dated equipment, that would automatically put the series below F2 and possibly FIA F3, especially in the safety stakes.
So does a premier European series have to position itself above F2? If it wanted to attract ‘career’ drivers then it would certainly need to, but the higher costs associated with introducing a brand new car could also isolate the next Hulkenberg or Carroll from entering.
A trick that FE and Superleague Formula got right was basing the championship around existing recognisable brands (and names) in motorsport and the wider world. That brought history to the series without the cars having to turn a wheel, and FE gained world class drivers due to manufacturer involvement.
Smaller brands, not willing to invest the personnel or R&D costs to compete in FE, could put their names on cars in a European championship without having to design or build anything themselves; and if a calendar was based around said brands’ interests, the appeal could be more localised. Think of the publicity a Lada team winning in Russia would gather.
Europe clearly needs a pinnacle single-seater series for drivers to aim at (to avoid an exodus of talent to BGTS and other sportscar series), but?before this can be achieved the structure below needs to be reorganised.
There are too many different championships, and a genuine streamlining of the ladder to give it a more pyramid-like structure would give drivers a clear path where they know?what they need to do, where they can go, and how much they will spend on it. Today, there is too much choice.
Once resolved, success in each of those championships would be worth greater merit to a driver’s career, and there would be more genuinely ‘overqualified’ single-seater drivers sitting on the F1 sidelines rather than those whose money just ran out.
If enough backing can be found and the category can be managed properly, there is no reason why it would not be a success to have a ‘Formula Europe’, and ensure that less single-seater talent is wasted. Just as long as they don’t give it a silly name…