Formula Two: A Subtle Proposition

The second-tier series that runs below Formula One has gone through many names and changes since it was first formalised as the FIA European Formula Two Championship in 1967. For around the first dozen years of Formula Two, Formula One drivers would sometimes appear on the entry list to gain valuable time behind the wheel and collect appearance fees and prize money in the process.

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By racing alongside Formula One drivers, their Formula Two peers could learn all they needed

One notable “Buschwacker” was Jochen Rindt. Already a respected name in Formula One by 1967 owing to his stellar efforts behind the wheel of a Cooper T81, Rindt appeared in 20 Formula Two championship races between the series’ formation and his premature death in 1970, mostly for Roy Winkelmann Racing. He won no fewer than twelve of them, a startling insight into his talent and a feat that even the likes of Jack Brabham, Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart (all also racing in both F1 and F2) couldn’t replicate. Of course, these guest appearances did not always end so well: Jim Clark’s tragic accident at Hockenheim in 1968 came at that season’s opening Formula Two Championship race. It is therefore no surprise that in a dangerous era of motorsport, the idea of teams letting their star drivers risk life and limb driving powerful single-seaters at tracks like Hockenheim, Thruxton, Enna-Pergusa, Salzburgring and the Nordschleife quickly went out of fashion.

The 1977 season was the last to see a Formula Two race be won by a “Buschwacking” Formula One star, as Jochen Mass took home the honours at the Jim Clark Trophy (Hockenheim) and the Eifelrennen (Nordschleife). By this time, he was already a Formula One race winner and into his fourth season as a McLaren driver. In those years where front-running F2 drivers had to compete against front-running F1 drivers in equal machinery, the series did an excellent job of producing top talent for Formula One. Of those first eleven champions, only three (Servoz-Gavin, Hailwood and Jarier) failed to win Formula One Grands Prix, while the remaining eight (Ickx, Beltoise, Regazzoni, Peterson, Depailler, Laffite, Jabouille and Arnoux) would go on to score 40 Grand Prix wins between them, also combining for eight top-three finishes in the World Championship.

This was the best it would get for a long time to come.

The International Formula 3000 Championship delivered memorable events, but forgettable drivers.

The International Formula 3000 Championship delivered memorable events, but forgettable drivers.

The absence of “graded drivers” – the aforementioned F1 regulars who could compete for races, but not for the championship – demonstrably hurt the series’ ability to produce F1-ready talent in the decades to come. It would be another 12 years before the second-tier series produced another Champion who would go on to win a Formula One Grand Prix: 1989 Formula 3000 (more on that later) Champion, Jean Alesi. The next to win multiple Formula One Grands Prix, 1998 Champion Juan Pablo Montoya, owed just as much to his marauding years as a CART driver before he made a belated (and winning) entry to Formula One. Worse still, the International Formula 3000 Series – a continuation of Formula Two now named for its mandated 3000 cc engine capacity – had started to produce not only Formula One washouts, but most damningly four Champions who would never so much as start a Formula One Grand Prix: 1995 Champion Vincenzo Sospiri, 1996 Champion Jorg Müller, 2000 Champion Bruno Junqueira and 2003 Champion Björn Wirdheim. For those keeping score, that is four champions of F1’s premier feeder series who never even made it to F1, and only three others who won a race.

By this point, the powers that be had quite evidently had enough of the nonsense and sought to reform the aged husk of a series into something that would properly prepare precocious prospective pilots for the World Championship. Thus, the GP2 series was born from the combined ideas of Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore, the latter of whom – despite his many leopard-print faults – is quite probably the best talent-spotter in recent Formula One history.

The legendary Hamilton-Rosberg rivalry was fought between the first two GP2 Series champions.

The legendary Hamilton-Rosberg rivalry was fought between the first two GP2 Series champions.

The new series, which was to be not only a feeder series but also a support series to Formula One, achieved twice in its first two seasons something which its Formula Two and Formula 3000 guises had both failed to accomplish: its Champions, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, would go on to become Formula One World Drivers Champions. In Hamilton’s case in particular, the feeder series champion arrived in Formula One as an immediate front-runner, capable and worthy of a drive at one of the sport’s very best teams. In each of his first nine Grands Prix, he finished on the podium, highlighted by two wins and three pole positions. It was absolutely the most prepared a rookie driver has ever been to thrive in Formula One. His team-mate, the reigning double-World Champion Fernando Alonso, had no answer at that point in the year. There could be no clearer advertisement for Ecclestone and Briatore’s brainchild than this startling statistical outlier.

However, it did not take all that long for the GP2 Series to regress to the mean: its next two Champions, Timo Glock and Giorgio Pantano, had both previously driven in F1 for Jordan in 2004. Although Glock managed to earn himself a deserved opportunity at Toyota, the paddock collectively shrugged at Pantano’s triumph and carried on with its day. He instead found himself a drive for AC Milan in the delightfully weird Superleague Formula, though his lack of motivation was palpable as he found himself being beaten by the likes of Esteban Guerrieri, Ho-Pin Tung, Max Wissel and Craig Dolby.

By 2012, GP2 was consistently failing to produce F1-ready drivers: both Davide Valsecchi (2012) and Fabio Leimer (2013) were overlooked by the Formula One paddock before Jolyon Palmer (2014) spent a year and a half with Renault mostly demonstrating why he probably should have been in the same boat.

It’s not a great look for reigning Formula Two Champion Oscar Piastri to be without a race seat for 2022.

It’s not a great look for reigning Formula Two Champion Oscar Piastri to be without a race seat for 2022.

A 2017 rebrand to the FIA Formula Two Championship has so far brought more of the same, although the classes of 2017 and 2018 (where rookies Charles Leclerc, George Russell and non-champion Lando Norris arrived in F2 and immediately achieved success – then also excelled in F1) certainly suggested that the F2 had the ingredients to prepare the next generation of drivers. They were then followed by Nyck de Vries, who has since become a World Drivers Champion of a different kind with his Formula E triumph; Mick Schumacher, who some consider fortunate to be in Formula One, and Oscar Piastri, whose collection of Championships sees him arrive in F1 as probably the most overqualified test driver of all time.

Despite all this history, all of the rebrands, all of the tinkering and all of the admittedly entertaining on-track action, Formula Two is failing at its stated objective. But for its first two years as the GP2 Series, it has been failing for over 40 years. So what is to be done?

Looking at some of the world’s most successful feeder series can help us approach some sort of an answer.

Moto2, as MotoGP’s official feeder series has been known since 2010, is the textbook feeder series. Grand Prix motorcycle racing’s most successful riders have all been World Champions at this level first: Valentino Rossi in 1999 before going on his top-tier tear from 2001 to 2009, Jorge Lorenzo in 2006 and 2007 before becoming a perennial front-runner and three-time MotoGP champion, and then Marc Marquez turned a 2012 Moto2 World Title into six MotoGP World Titles between 2013 and 2019. Indeed, 2021 MotoGP World Champion Fabio Quartararo is the first such rider not to have been a World Champion in either Moto2 or Moto3 since Casey Stoner (who came second to defending champion Dani Pedrosa in his only year in the second tier). Before him, only Nicky Hayden (plucked straight out of a dominant Superbike career) and Kenny Roberts have won the MotoGP title this century without first winning a lower tier Motorcycle World Championship.

Johann Zarco (number 5) not only won a World Championship in Moto2, but could also return to defend it.

Johann Zarco (number 5) not only won a World Championship in Moto2, but could also return to defend it.

Immediately, you will notice some terminology that differs from what fans of formula racing have become familiar with. For one thing, the second-tier series is a World Championship just like its more famous brother. For another, Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo (as well as Johann Zarco more recently) were able to stay and defend their second-tier titles in want of a desirable MotoGP ride. Since 1985, a Formula 3000, GP2 or most recently Formula Two driver has been prohibited from doing this: feeder series Champions have only two choices: either move up or move out. Indeed, the lone exception to this rule has been Mike Thackwell: his European Formula Two title in 1984 did not render him ineligible for Formula 3000 in 1985, as it was considered an entirely new racing series.

This hasn’t been the case everywhere though: in the World Series Formula V8 3.5 series – known throughout its 20-year history by what feels like 20 different names, but often preferred by Formula One teams as a place from which to pluck talent – Champions were allowed to return. Mikhail Aleshin did so for three winless seasons after his 2010 triumph with Carlin, and one-time French hopeful Franck Montagny was able to record successive finishes of 1st, 2nd and 1st in the series from 2001 to 2003. That series at least looked after its champions in a manner that the present Formula Two championship has failed to do for its reigning Champion Oscar Piastri. The 20-year-old Australian has won the European regional series, the FIA Formula Three Championship and the FIA Formula Two Championship in consecutive years, yet he finds himself without a race seat thanks to that same self-defeating rule. Without it, he would presumably stay and defend his crown – also serving as an exemplary benchmark for 2022’s more fancied drivers. Instead, he spends 2022 as a test driver for Alpine with no racing programme announced and who will instead be “very involved in the simulator”.

There is also a long-standing tradition of motorcycle Grands Prix including corresponding races for the smaller-capacity categories. In past eras, these were regarded as similarly prestigious titles to win: Jim Redman is rightly hailed as a legend, despite only racing seven times in the top-capacity 500cc category. This is something the GP2 Series, and since then Formula Two, has tried to replicate: by sharing its race weekends with Formula One, it has been able to guarantee itself spectators, TV viewers and the attention of the paddock. However, because it is not considered equal, it also deprives itself of the opportunity to have prestigious flagship races: remember earlier when I mentioned that Jochen Mass turned out for (and won) the Jim Clark Trophy and Eifelrennen? This notion of meaningful races died with the introduction of the GP2 series, and can be demonstrated no more clearly than by the fact that the BRDC International Trophy, able to trace back a clear lineage older than the F1 World Championship, was not a part of GP2. For the first time, its 2005 edition was contested as an event for historic cars, and by 2009 it had ceased to be held at all.

From these conclusions, I believe that we can derive a set of conclusions that could shape a truly excellent FIA Formula Two World Championship.

At present, Formula Two drivers pull into their grid slot knowing they may not be able to pull away again.

At present, Formula Two drivers pull into their grid slot knowing they may not be able to pull away again.

The first point is in the name: World Championship. The Formula Two series should be regarded as prestigious in its own right, and not merely as a means to an end. The deeply flawed Super Licence points system does nothing to help this, as it makes Formula Two the only realistic path for a young driver wishing to either drive or (more likely) buy their way into Formula One. Should Formula Two be a World Championship, there is no problem with it remaining a spec series. If it does, the spec car in question needs to be considerably better. Bruno Michel’s penny-pinching when it comes to machinery has led to significant problems in this regard. The present Mecachrome Formula Two engine is simply an old GP3 engine retrofitted with a turbocharger, which caused very visible reliability issues. This culminated in the world’s most predictable incident at Jeddah in 2021 after remaining unaddressed since 2018 to the bemusement of the series’ former drivers. This does less to prepare drivers for top-tier racing, and more to give them experience in what some have described as “a three-million pound rental kart”.

While elevating this series to World Championship status, I would further recommend allowing for past and present Formula One drivers to compete. In recent years, occasional attempts by young drivers temporarily between F1 seats to get back onto the F2 grid have stalled due restrictions wherein drivers who have completed a full F1 season cannot return to the second-tier series. According to a reliable source, this rule ended a chance for one of F1’s biggest junior operations to secure F2 an seat for one of its drivers after he’d lost his F1 drive at the end of the previous year. This was despite the driver never competing in the GP2 Series, and said driver never returned to Formula One. That said, the rule prohibiting drivers from running double duty on a race weekend would scupper still-employed F1 drivers from dropping down for more than very occasional weekends unless the two series opted not to share race dates.

Also essential is for past champions to be able to remain in the Championship and defend their title. This would prevent an Oscar Piastri type of dilemma where it might actually have worked out better for his career had he found a way to throw away his commanding Championship lead, rather than continuing to a rookie title and immediately being barred from returning. The up-or-out method only works if there is a guaranteed scholarship seat provided in the parent series, and with how Formula One operates that simply isn’t something that could ever be implemented. What without doubt would be guaranteed is that Prema would sign him up again for 2022 in a heartbeat, and any driver who came along and beat the reigning champion would immediately earmark themselves as the real deal. There is of course the argument that allowing (for example) Oscar Piastri and Nico Hulkenberg to fill a team’s 2022 line-up would get in the way of other young drivers’ development by blocking their entry to the series. This has already proven to be an issue in the series with the the amount of talent already priced out of a Formula Two career while Roy Nissany, for example, returns to the grid for his fourth season of F2 after three prior seasons of World Series Formula. The counterpoint to such an argument is that those drivers who do find a place on the grid may learn more from driving against such experienced and proven opponents than they would against a field of similarly-experienced drivers to themselves.

Also present since 2005 is the concept of having multiple races in a weekend, something which does present drivers with more races in which to hone their craft. It is not something that I could point to explicitly as a problem, despite my personal preference being for one-race events. With the weekend having been restructured for the second time in two years, the 2022 format looks like the best one yet with a Saturday sprint race worth 40% of the Sunday feature race that is now restored as the focal point of a Formula Two weekend. This is a huge improvement, and would allow for named races to return to the Formula Two (World) Championship. There is no reason for the Feature Race winner of the Silverstone event not to be awarded the BRDC International Trophy, provided that the BRDC is willing to do that. Quite why this wasn’t the case from 2005 to 2021 is a mystery, as the distinction between Sprint and Feature Races is as old as the GP2 Series.

(For completeness, the list of “lost” International Trophy winners from 2005 to 2021 comprises: Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton, Andreas Zuber, Giorgio Pantano, Alberto Valerio, Pastor Maldonado, Jules Bianchi, Esteban Gutiérrez, Sam Bird, Mitch Evans, Sergey Sirotkin, Pierre Gasly, Charles Leclerc, Alex Albon, Luca Ghiotto, Nikita Mazepin* and Guanyu Zhou. *Callum Ilott won the second feature race at Silverstone in 2021, but this was not supporting the British Grand Prix.)

GP2 and now Formula Two turn away from the prestige of named events like the International Trophy. Why?

As things currently stand, a long-standing rule preventing Formula One race drivers from pulling double-duty in a race weekend would also serve to rule out the possibility of current drivers from “Buschwacking” – only by moving certain events away from Formula One race weekends, as happened only twice in the GP2 years, could that currently be facilitated. Regardless of the path that is taken with regard to scheduling, I consider it to be entirely necessary for Formula Two race meetings to be granted the prestige that comes with being named events as the F3000 series used to do with such named events as the International Trophy, Eifelrennen, Mediterranean Grand Prix and others. The Sprint Races can remain, perhaps with a traditional laurel wreath for the winner to bring it into line with Formula One’s sprint races if they continue, but the Feature Race must be the one that comes with a perpetual trophy as a reward.

Of course, the biggest forward step that Formula Two can make is to stand on its own merits and not simply as a feeder for its parent series. Naoki Yamamoto’s Super Formula Championships aren’t impressive because they led him to a grand career in Formula One – they are impressive because he earned them against top drivers like Cassidy, Kobayashi, Lotterer, Nakajima and Nojiri in one of the world’s four premier open-wheel Championships. With spec cars and top-class drivers, Formula Two has some of the best open-wheel racing anywhere in the world: it can position itself as the drivers’ formula to counter F1’s engineering formula; the Euro-centric answer to IndyCar and Super Formula. There is room for both.

Or it can continue to position itself as the sole feeder to Formula One, a series for which it provides only one rookie driver in 2022 – a driver who finished 7th, 6th and 3rd in its Championship in his three attempts at driving for the series’ second-best team – while two of its last three Champions must look for drives elsewhere. In setting its aspirations so low, that is to merely be a stepping stone en route to somewhere else, it only makes itself less likely to succeed on its own merits. If instead it sought to be a great series in its own right whose best drivers may choose whether or not they want to move on elsewhere, that is when it could become something that it has only fleetingly been in the last 44 years:

A success.