Motorsport.com spoke exclusively with the FIA’s director of circuit championships Frederic Bertrand, who delved into the background of its new Formula 3 Light category planned for 2017.
The FIA has been hard at work recently creating a clear pyramid of progression for young drivers aspiring to reach Formula 1.
But then along came Max Verstappen, who rocketed from karts to European F3 and straight to F1 from there. Or as Bertrand calls him, “the exception”.
“For sure, the exception cannot become the rule,” he says. “Not everybody is Max Verstappen, with all due respect to the others.”
Bertrand, along with single-seater commission presidents Gerhard Berger and now Stefano Domenicali, set to work on creating a well-defined pyramid to create a logical progression for those who make the grade at each level.
“Formula 3 must be the backbone of the system,” he says. “If we create this pyramid for a driver to go through, F3 must be at its core, and it should put them in the position to turn professional after that.”
And the level before F3 right now is F4, created by the FIA in 2014 for karting graduates. It's been working well so far, with bumper F4 grids in Italy and Germany in particular, leading to the question…
Why do we need F4 and F3 Light?
Apart from the European F3 Championship, Bertrand quickly understood he had two difficulties with F3…
“Firstly, at the national level [F3] was too expensive from the chassis and engine side,” he admits. “We decided to work on an alternative product, which was F4. We wanted it cost-effective. To call it low-cost is maybe too much, because of all the safety requirements we insisted upon. We pushed the costs down as much as we could.
“This is why we decided that these cars should be used on a national basis, for drivers from 15 years old with the flag of the FIA behind it. It’s 100 percent our regulations.
“Secondly, we have the Formula 3 European Championship working well – up to 36, 38 cars last year, less this year. But last year was great to have so many cars – but not that good when you see we maybe missed a few steps. Maybe some drivers came there and should have had a second year in F4 or an alternative category.
“It was too soon for some, and I call this the Max Verstappen effect: he succeeded so much as a rookie, and with what he’s doing in F1, and then everybody thought they could go from karting to F3.
“For this reason, we decided to create this intermediate step for 2017, which we want to call Formula 3 Light. We want this category to prepare the kids from F4 so they’re ready for [European] F3, where the level is very high.”
What was wrong with national F3?
Traditionally, F3 has been run at national level to fill this void – but series have died out or been merged (the European series was originally a combination of French, German and Italian championships).
“If we take the same F3 and make it regional, we’ll have the same problem we had before,” says Bertrand. “So we need to do something about the costs. We are working on taking the F4 chassis, we have more than 350 cars built now, but this car has not been influenced by open competition.
“We will upgrade a little bit the chassis – give it a bit of aero, so the DNA of F3 is clear and its spirit. It’s entry-level F3.
“We will impose a single supplier for the chassis and the engine, and we think we can do this for half of the cost. It’s true for the engine, and it’s true for the chassis.”
So how will F3 Light fit in between F4 and F3 power-wise?
“We will have 220bhp instead of the 250bhp of F3, which means you can race 20,000km rather than 10,000km with the same engine. So it’s an upgraded F4 chassis, with a downgraded F3 engine.
“We will create a category that is half the price of F3 and a little bit higher than F4. We know we can manage EUR6-7 per km for an F4 car. For F3 Light we will aim for something like EUR20, and in F3 it is something like EUR40.
“The difficulty is how to manage the price, not the costs. In F4, because of the success in some countries, they are pushing the prices high. We think that can create a danger to the category, because it can start to make this unaffordable.
“We understand with F4 you cannot do a full season for EUR20,000 and that it costs EUR100,000.”
What regions are being targeted for F3 Light?
Bertrand believes that there is a huge potential market that could be satisfied by this new category.
“We have several requests since we announced our plan… USA, Asia – where we might have North and South. We have a great F3 championship in Japan, we don’t want to kill that. But we need to go to tender everywhere.
“We wanted to do Pacific with Australia and New Zealand, but for the moment we haven’t found the market to have F3 as well as F4. The Emirates and India might be one also, and then the question mark in Europe is how to upgrade our F4 and to run one, two or three championships for 20 cars.
“Maybe it’s North Europe, East Europe and South Europe. But it’s difficult to know if we have the market for 60 cars.”
But one thing he’s adamant on – apart from the particular case of BRDC F3 in Britain (we’ll come to that in a moment) – is that F3 Light must be regional, not national.
“We think national championships would be a mistake,” he says. “They must be regional, of course they can be centred on one strong country, but I think they must race two times outside – so it’s an international series.
“In F4, the individual country ASNs are handling it with our support. At this level, it will be an FIA championship where we nominate the officials and policing of technical regulations. In terms of staff, we have to be out in the field – so we will have a coordinator at each that is the face of the FIA.”
The Palmer/MSV BRDC F3 example
This year, Jonathan Palmer’s single-seater series – confusingly called F4 (but not FIA F4) – has been renamed BRDC British F3.
This has been achieved under a special waiver from the FIA, which means his Tatuus-Cosworth cars can run under the F3 banner despite not being F3 cars.
In fact, if they’re anything, they’re closer to F3 Light-spec…
“We had a very specific case in the UK,” says Bertrand. “First of all, Jonathan had an F4 there, and we also wanted our F4 there. We were in long discussions about the naming, and finally Jonathan had in mind to upgrade his F4 car to something more powerful.
“It was corresponding to our plans for F3 Light. We discussed it, and found that rather than losing energy in fighting, it was maybe better to put the energy into being complementary. Stefano was pushing, and everyone agreed that making a good deal was better than a stupid fight.
“We have agreed, for a short period of time before we agree on F3 Light regulations, he can call his car Formula 3 at a UK level. For sure, if we were to create a Northern Europe championship for F3 Light, [Palmer’s company] MSV might be an interested tenderer for this. I think MSV would be a player in this kind of action, and it would be perfect if somebody like that does that.
“We agreed on a waiver, which is a little bit against what we defended for years, but we tried to be a bit more clever and flexible, so we now have this transition period. Jonathan agrees that if he comes to F3 Light, he will fulfill those regulations at that time. Everything will come back to the normal situation.
“We hope that MSA Formula will become F4 again, so it will be clear what every F4 in the world actually is.”
What next for F3?
And what of the future for the true Formula 3? After all, there has still been no news of any agreements for the planned Formula 2 series to graduate to…
“Maybe F3 will be renamed in the future, because it might become more than only European,” he suggests. “It makes no sense to limit it only to Europe. And then let’s see what we do with F2, that question remains open.
“We tendered, and GP2 was the only one to make an offer. So we negotiate, negotiate, negotiate… Nothing to say yet.”