F3000 SEASON REVIEW 1999
1999 was the most competitive season for years in F3000. Huge fields meant a third of the entry list failed to qualify each race, and qualifying well was a desperate scramble. If the car wasn't set up right, the 45 minute sessions didn't offer time to make adjustments. There was the need for every team to score points, as only the top 14 would be allowed to compete in 2000, along with the winning team in the new Italian F3000 series. As a result the driver market in the smaller teams was the most active in years. The grids were made up of quality drivers; established stars like Heidfeld, Watt and Rodriguez were joined by the champions and competitors from all the major European F3 series.
Despite the pressures Nick Heidfeld totally dominated the year. Driving for West Competition, the junior McLaren team, the German clinched the title with two rounds to go, but could have done so earlier had he not thrown it off the road at Hockenheim. That was his only real mistake of the year. Heidfeld knew that staying in F3000 was a risk. After he challenged Juan Montoya for the title in 1998, he knew he had nothing to prove; he was expected to win the championship. He did so in style, winning four races and consistently qualifying at the front of the grid. During the year he equalled Montoya as the most successful driver ever in the series for wins.
No other driver looked like beating Heidfeld from early in the season. Gonzalo Rodriguez, the revelation of 1998, continued his good form in his third year of F3000. He soon established himself as Heidfeld's only real rival, winning in Monaco when Heidfeld was penalised, and picking up a series of good points finishes. His season soon went downhill, however. As Heidfeld continued to score points and win races, a series of mistakes and lacklustre performances put the German out of reach. Gonzalo had done enough, however, to be given a seat in Champ Cars with the struggling Penske team. Finishing in the points in his first race, tragedy was to strike in his second. At Laguna Seca Gonzalo crashed at the Corkscrew, his car flipping over the wall and over the fence. The crash looked survivable, but tragically the much loved "Goncho" was killed. He will be sadly missed. Finishing a posthumous third in the standings and his final race in F3000 at Spa were testament to his talent. Many will remember him for his joy at taking his first race win at Spa in 1998; rarely does a driver express so much raw emotion.
A shadow was always going to be cast over 1999 then, but more tragedy struck soon after season's end. Jason Watt, who finished second in the standings, was severely injured in a motorbike accident when riding for a magazine photo shoot. He was paralysed and told he will never walk again. The end of the likeable Dane's driving career is a major blow to motorsport. Like Rodriguez, he saw his future lying in America, and he had just found the best form of his career. His season for the most part was disappointing. In his third year in F3000 driving for a David Sears run team, Super Nova, he was expected to be a major contender for the title. He finished second at Monaco, going some way to resting the memories of his 1998 crash while leading. A series of poor performances in qualifying often left him in the midfield, and he didn't score again until the A1-Ring when he finished fourth. His season continued its disastrous form until the penultimate round at Spa, where he qualified on pole and dominated the race. In the final round at the Nurburgring he qualified on the front row and resisted pressure from Heidfeld throughout the race, to take a second win in succession. His wins moved him up to second in the final standings, ahead of the late Gonzalo Rodriguez, to whom he dedicated his final win. Our thoughts are with him.
Stephane Sarrazin, driving for Gauloises Junior, the Prost affiliated team previously known as Apomatox, had a good season. Scoring points in six of the ten races, his was one of consistency rather than outright speed. He was normally a contender for the lower points finishes, but showed he could win races by taking victory at Budapest, where he had also driven well in 1998. A superb performance fighting to sixth from the back of the grid at the A1-Ring and a third at Hockenheim were the other highlights of his year. Not yet championship material, then, but he proved his maturity over the year. He also had his big break in 1999, driving for Minardi at the Brazilian Grand Prix. Although he crashed spectacularly he acquitted himself well. Team-mate Andre Couto had a less successful second season. His year started well with a third place at Barcelona, but that was to be his only points finish of the year. He did finish seventh twice, but otherwise was more likely to be found in the gravel or even failing to qualify on two occasions.
The revelation of the season for many was Bruno Junqueira who drove for the Williams affiliated Petrobras Junior team. He was the only driver to come close to matching Heidfeld's consistent pace in qualifying, although he was not as consistent in terms of race results. Often he was the victim of bad luck; in Spain he was stripped of his qualifying effort when it was set under yellow, in France he was rammed by Jason Watt while he was also one of many victims of the A1-Ring qualifying farce. The first group were sent out in appalling wet conditions where many, including Junqueira aquaplaned off. He was then disqualified for running across the track back to the pits. It was hardly fair that the second group's session was postponed until the following day when it was dry. As a result, title contender Gonzalo Rodriguez failed to qualify and Wolf Henzler, a backmarker, started from second on the grid! With two years experience behind him, Bruno Junqueira will be title favourite if he stays for 2000.
Junqueira's team-mate Max Wilson, had a disappointing third season. He had to start delivering the promise he'd shown on previous occasions and start winning races and regularly scoring points. He failed to do so, although every time he finished a race (three) he was on the podium. Too often he became involved in accidents, most often of his own creation. In the opening round at Imola he led the race until Heidfeld pushed through. Heidfeld was not totally to blame for Wilson's retirement; Max could have salvaged second if he'd let the German through. At Barcelona a points finish was lost when he pushed Justin Wilson onto the grass to defend his position; Justin wouldn't be intimidated and both went off. Max was disqualified. At Hockenheim Max started from pole and looked like winning for much of the race. Junqueira took the initiative and passed (forced to do so on the grass) to take the win. A dejected Wilson would have to wait for another day. That day didn't come, and even worse he was banned for a race after punting off Norberto Fontana in Budapest.
Kid Jensen Racing had an excellent first year in F3000, especially considering this was only their second year of racing. Nicolas Minassian looked a totally different driver to when he was Heidfeld's team-mate in 1998. He was lying second at Monaco before a rare car failure took him out, but his day would come. He dominated at Silverstone, winning from lights to flag, and followed it up with third places at the A1-Ring and Spa. If he stays for a third year he could be a championship contender. Team-mate Andrea Piccini, a rookie who starred in Formula Opel, was very impressive on occasion. Lying fourth in his first race at Imola, car problems also robbed him of a dream result. He would score points at the A1-Ring, but on occasion he suffered from his inexperience and also failed to qualify four times. The team and both drivers can look forward to a bright future.
Oreca gave Soheil Ayari another chance in F3000; in his first two years he has proven fast, taking two wins, but erratic and accident prone. This year was no exception, although he failed to win any races. Three fourths and a second at the A1-Ring were his only results; too often he threw it off the road or qualified in the midfield. He may yet return for 2000, but must perform more consistently. At least he did better than his team-mates. The eternally slow Gregoire de Galzain failed to qualify and was replaced by 1998 driver Alex Muller, who once again failed to show his F3 potential. Rookies Steve Hiesse and Roman Dumas had a race each, but couldn't qualify.
David Saelens had a reasonable first season. Initially driving for WRT Fina, the reigning French F3 champion then moved to Super Nova. In his debut for the team he was a stunning third at Magny-Cours, but subsequently the results failed to materialise until the final rounds where Super Nova seemed to find some form. While Watt took a pair of wins, Saelens took two fifths. He deserves another chance next year. Other F3 graduates found it equally hard. Mario Haberfeld drove for West Competition, but the reigning British F3 champion had a miserable year. Understandably the team were focused on Heidfeld's title challenge, but the Brazilian should have qualified for more than five races. Bas Leinders, German F3 champion of 1998, had a difficult time with the Kurt Mollekens-run Witmeur KTR team. His best run was at Magny-Cours where he was sixth but otherwise he was generally nowhere. Team-mate Jeffrey van Hooydonk, a fellow German F3 star, was also impressive at Magny-Cours, finishing fourth, but struggled elsewhere. Wolf Henzler also came from German F3, but seemed out of his depth with Durango. He qualified second at the A1-Ring by staying on the flooded track, but dropped back immediately in the race before spinning out. He was replaced first by rookie Nicolas Filiberti and then by Giovanni Montanari, neither of whom qualified. Team-mate Paolo Ruberti had another mediocre season, generally qualifying but often crashing.
WRT (World Racing Team) had a difficult first year. The former Rafanelli sportcar team had 1998's rookie talent Tomas Enge driving for them. He was generally unimpressive except for at Magny-Cours where he finished an excellent second. His team-mates, David Saelens, Andrea Boldrini and Norman Simon were most likely to be packing their bags on the Thursday afternoon. Nordic Racing had a disappointing year, apart from Kevin McGarrity's second in the opening Imola round. Thereafter he was generally qualifying in the midfield. His team-mate Sascha Bert could not qualify and was replaced by former Champ Car driver Arndt Meier. A driver with his experience at the highest level should have been able to qualify easily, but he never made the grade. Another driver who should have done better was Norberto Fontana. Driving for Fortec, a team graduating from British F3, he was only in the points twice and was accident prone. A man with F1 testing and race experience, not to mention some years in Formula Nippon, he should have adapted better. Team-mate Andre Pavicevic was only in his second season of single-seater racing, and was always going to struggle. Qualifying four times was a major achievement for the Australian.
The Red Bull Junior team had a disastrous season. The team had won the title in 1996 (as RSM Marko) with Jorg Muller, and expected good results from British F3 runner-up Enrique Bernoldi. The Brazilian proved accident prone, and only scored two points for fifth at Hockenheim, where he drove brilliantly from the back after stalling. Had he started from seventh it could have been a far better result. Austrian Markus Friesacher, out of his depth at this level, was soon replaced by Ricardo Mauricio after he was dropped by Super Nova. With exception of a point at Spa, his season was disappointing. Both drivers were too often in the barriers; at the Nurburgring finale both crashed in qualifying, and their season was over.
DAMS needed a boost after a lean 1998, but the formerly front-running team suffered from the inexperience of French F3 stars Franck Montagny and David Terrien. Terrien struggled, but Montagny was the rookie of the year in terms of consistent pace. Points finishes at Silverstone and Hockenheim were followed by a third place at Budapest, while he looked in contention at other races. Justin Wilson was his rival for the best rookie title. The Astromega driver won his drive as a prize for winning the Formula Palmer Audi series in Britain in 1998. He made good use of it, qualifying for every round and scoring points, although lost out on potential points when Max Wilson pushed him off at Barcelona. It wasn't their only coming together of the season. He emerged the most consistent of the British contingent. European Edenbridge suffered a break-up early in the season, and capable drivers Jamie Davies and Oliver Gavin suffered from the team's inexperience. Both only scored on one occasion.
Draco had a poor season, although Fabrice Walfisch, a backmarker in 1998, finished a surprising third at Imola and found the speed to qualify on pole at Budapest. He led confidently, too, until his throttle pedal broke and he retired. He proved this was not a one-off with a second on the grid at Spa, but dropped back in the race. Team-mate Oliver Martini rarely qualified despite this being his second year, while Cyrille Sauvage also had a go. Other teams struggled too, many failing to score any points. Lukoil Arden thought former front runner and race winner Marc Goossens was their passport to the big time. He finished third on the track at Budapest only to be disqualified, while the Russian F3 champion Viktor Maslov lacked the experience to compete at this level. Coloni once again struggled. Polo Vilaamil and Norman Simon were frequent non-qualifiers, and the latter was replaced by Marcelo Battistuzzi and Dino Morelli. Morelli proved his talents at Spa and by winning the Italian F3000 finale.
GP Racing fielded the mid-field runner Fabrizio Gollin alongside Giovanni Montanari, Gaston Mazzacane and Laurent Delahaye. The latter, with very little single-seater experience did well to qualify at Spa. Monaco had a trying first full season; Thomas Biagi couldn't qualify and was replaced by the impressive Alex Yoong. The Malaysian was fast in British F3 but lacked funds, and also impressed for Monaco in Italian F3000. He qualified at Spa, and was running well before Justin Wilson attempted to pass into Eau Rouge. The cars touched and Alex hit the barriers sideways with tremendous force. Knocked unconcious, he was thankfully uninjured. He qualified again at the Nurburgring, only to once again collide with Wilson. In the other car Brian Smith was replaced by Cyrille Sauvage, while veteran Marco Apicella and Marcelo Battistuzzi both attempted to qualify for a round. At least these teams lasted the season despite having no success. Portman Arrows folded after just three races. Boris Dereichebourg went off to race in Indy Lights, while Marcelo Battistuzzi became F3000's "super-sub", racing for Coloni, Petrobras Junior and Monaco while also competing in Italian F3000.
At the end of a difficult year, many teams found themselves pushed out for 2000. Monaco, Red Bull Junior, Coloni, Lukoil Arden and GP Racing will not return next year. The racing in 1999, the first year for the Lola T99/50, was not always close and Heidfeld's domination did not make for great entertainment, but at last the formula is being taken seriously as an F1 feeder category. With Juan Montoya driving brilliantly in CART, Nick Heidfeld being signed for Prost and interest in Bruno Junquiera as Williams test driver, combined with the satellite operations of F1 teams, F3000 is truly looking like a junior F1 series. Next year could be a classic, with no clear favourite to win.
AUTOSPORT MAGAZINE'S TOP 10 DRIVERS OF 1999:
UNOFFICIAL F3000 INFORMATION PAGES' TOP 10 OF 1999: