When Jonathan Palmer’s Motorsports Vision group announced the arrival of the BRDC Formula 4 championship on British racetracks in 2013, they faced stern criticism and cross-sectioning from the world of motorsport. Gerhard Berger’s efforts to create a pan-European F4 series to bridge the gap between karting and F3 promised nothing tangible for at least twelve months and even contradicted certain MSA regulations. Allowing 15 year-olds to race in single-seaters was banned in the UK at the close of 2012 while the Austrian continued to actively encourage it.
BRDC F4 promised what so many start-up categories had done before they made their all-too fleeting appearance on the UK racing calendar – to be cost effective in a world where hyper-inflated Formula One budgets permeate all levels of competitive motorsport. Berger, however, blasted Palmer for launching the series ‘too soon’ and without enough integration with its planned European partner.
MSV’s own Formula Palmer Audi folded in 2010 after thirteen seasons of becoming a cost-conscious rival to British F3, instead devolving into a series for those in the twilight years of their racing careers who were seeking competition merely as a sideline to their many lucrative business interests.
Palmer, who boasts the title of ‘Doctor’ after his initial pursuits took him into medicine, sought a way to put an end to years of blurred lines over the ‘correct’ route for young drivers racing in the UK to take up the racing ladder. He turned to former Van Diemen supremo Ralph Firman for the answer. What he produced was a single-specification winged car powered by a 2-Litre Ford Duratec engine, capable of 185hp and boasting a six-speed paddle shift gearbox.
A year on, and less than nine months since the car took its maiden outing at Snetterton in the hands of Jonathan’s son and GP2 race winner Jolyon, the series has its first champion in the form of nineteen year-old Jake Hughes from Warwickshire. A relative late-comer to the motorsport fraternity, Hughes did not begin racing karts until he turned fifteen; even more remarkable, this was his first season in cars.
Has the category been the springboard Palmer envisaged it to be? With his sights set on Formula 3 for 2014 and the chance to impress in a post-season F3 test with Carlin as one of his prizes for becoming champion, Hughes agrees:
“I chose F4 because of the cost.” he says.
“I am one of those who works on a tight budget so for me Formula 4 was the right choice to make. In 2014, I want to be in Formula 3, maybe Formula Renault. Being champion? Crazy. That’s it. Crazy.”
As 2012 Easykart E plate winner, Hughes has spent the season in company with some of the UK’s finest young chargers. Matthew ‘Matty’ Graham is, at 17, representative of the youngest to make it onto the F4 grid – but he did so with a fearsome reputation across the globe in Karts. 2011 CIK-FIA ‘Under 18’ World Karting Champion and 2010 Asia-Pacific Champion, Graham offers his own opinions on how selecting MSV’s brainchild for his first foray into car racing has aided his profile:
“The whole season’s been great. – I had one round at Snetterton that went a bit pear-shaped, but apart from that I think the championship is a great championship. Yes, it’s everything I wanted it to be!”
As a championship-hopeful heading into the final rounds at Donington, Sean Walkinshaw Racing’s youngest recruit was able to break down his year into a distinct tale of two halves:
“Bad luck played its part at the start…I had problems both on and off the track really, but yeah, the second half of the season has been brilliant.”
At the other end of the scale, 23 year-old Matt Bell chose F4 to reignite his own flagging career that had been blighted by budget constraints from his earliest days.
“I thought that in the first year of a single-seater [series], it created an opportunity for me to be able to do it a little bit cheaper. Everyone was learning about the car and that showed early on in the season where we were quite fast, if not the fastest.”
(Bell took the first win of the BRDC F4 era at Silverstone in April, but setbacks and rivals getting more familiar with their equipment blunted his progress.)
“As other teams have learnt more about the car and they’ve spent more time testing the gap’s grown a little bit. The prizes at the end of the year were quite good obviously! I’ve never done a full year of single-seaters and I’ve only ever done one full year of racing – that was last year in a radical, so I thought I want to do one full year and see where we are. Unfortunately, the car is made for people a little bit younger than me, smaller, who weigh less and I think my weight is affecting it quite a lot now. Not because I’m fat, just generally because I’m bigger than they are and the car’s made for them! I think I’m 15 kilos overweight so that, round a circuit like this [Donington], is probably three or four tenths which in this series is massive…”
“It all started off very well, [but] it all went a little bit downhill at Snetterton. The funny thing is we won mostly at tracks where we weren’t fast, and then when we did tend to be [competitive] we’ve had issues; a couple of failures with the car, the one mistake of the year I made, the crash at Brands Hatch GP, but that’s how it goes. At the end of the day it is what it is. We’re running out of a trailer with [Wayne] Douglas giving us a hand, but in terms of prepping the car we do everything ourselves.”
Bell is seeking a way out of F4 for 2014, and has revealed his plans to Bitesize_F1:
“We’ll see, I want to do Ginetta G55’s next year…That’s the plan obviously but I’ve got to find the budget. That’s always the tricky bit, the hardest bit obviously but once this weekend’s over I’ve got rid of the car – the Formula 4 car’s going now, that’s been sold to another team. Now I’ve just got to focus on getting the budget to do Ginetta’s and we’ll see were we go with that. Hopefully weight won’t be an issue in that one.”
Graham and Bell’s tales can be applied to any of the twenty four strong grid, whose ages fit perfectly into the bracket of ‘future Formula One’ racers. The series has even attracted international attention in its maiden year, including Pietro Fittipaldi, grandson of the double World Champion Emerson himself. Gustavo Lima adds his name to the Brazilian roll, while China, Malaysia, South Africa, Mexico, Poland, China and the United States have all had their flag present on the grid at some point during the season.
Does the degree of interest from abroad signal BRDC F4-style is the way to go in Europe as well?
Jonathan Palmer thinks so:
“Well, it’s blindingly obvious I was right; there’s no way it was too soon. There was a massive gap in the market, that’s why we’ve sold all 24 cars and we’ve had well over 20 cars average for the season.”
“We thought very carefully about what kind of car was the right sort of car. We’ve got a huge amount of experience at it and fortunately the combination of the two has meant that we’ve had, with Ralph Firman building it, a car that looks great, has got good performance…but as you say it’s enabled the racing to be very close; the cars get quite a good tow, they can overtake, they can follow closely through the quick corners and it’s probably been the closest any single-seater [championship] has for a long time.”
“Jake [Hughes] has done a super job, there were at least half-a-dozen of them who are exceptional drivers and I’m sure many of them will be back next year to try and get that top slot. But Jake’s done a wonderful job and I’m sure he’s destined for great success in single-seater racing.”
Where does Formula 4 go from here? With European F4 anticipated to get underway in 2014, Palmer’s creation foreseeably no longer has the field all to itself. But the former F1-racer turned entrepreneur remains convinced his dream is the strongest of its kind:
“For sure it’ll be stronger still next year.” he smiles.
“It’ll be absolutely full and it’ll be the dominant championship at this level for next year and the future.”