Take a look at the picture above. The late 1980s was a real heyday of the British Formula 3 Championship, as a host of teams fielded upwards of 40 cars, with qualification races held at the shorter tracks.
Career-minded drivers, many of them future Formula 1 stars or professional aces, sported the colours of Marlboro, Benetton, Camel, Jewson, Cellnet and many other big backers. They shared the grid with impecunious youngsters or amateurs who could afford to compete in the one-year-old rolling stock that came on to the market every winter. Great days.
The birth of the championship, on March 4 1979 on the Silverstone Club Circuit, had featured 20 cars. Grids wouldn't boom for another few years, but this was a crucial step, born of the realisation that having two F3 championships in the UK - one organised by the BRDC at Silverstone, the other (generally more prestigious) by the BARC at Thruxton - didn't make sense. The new series, belonging jointly to the BARC and BRDC, was given British championship status by the RAC, then the governing body of motorsport in the UK - the first time this was awarded for F3.
"Everyone doing it was looking for one championship," says Dave Price, whose team at the time was running Unipart-backed, Triumph-engined Marches for Nigel Mansell and New Zealander Brett Riley. "If you tried to do both you ended up doing 30-odd races a year and it was too much. Even then budgets were getting a bit stretched, but it didn't guarantee full grids going forwards. In 1980/81 the grids started shrinking a bit, and around '82 and '83 they were very up and down."
At some of the mid-to-late-season races over 1982 and '83, grids barely scraped into double figures, and the decision was taken to form the Formula 3 Teams' Association (FOTA).
"FOTA came into being in '82 because all the teams were trying to look after their interests," continues Price. "It was me, Eddie Jordan and Murray Taylor [both of whom ran eponymous teams], Dick Bennetts [from West Surrey Racing] and Glenn Waters [Intersport Racing]. We formed it to have a voice with the BRDC. BARC were very easy, but Pierre Aumonier at the BRDC was bloody hard work - they thought the world revolved around them, which at the time it did. But things needed to change."
Price's 1979 team ("Brett was naturally talented and extremely lazy, and Nigel was so determined!") took just two wins in that inaugural season. Driving a pristine March run by Ron Dennis's Project 4 team, Chico Serra won the opening race at Silverstone and came out on top of a title fight against Andrea de Cesaris, driving another March but run by Team Tiga, the squad of Tim Schenken and Howden Ganley.
Another winner that year was Stefan Johansson, and over the winter of 1979-80 he tested the new Ralt RT3 for Tiga. Marque founder Ron Tauranac was attempting to introduce ground-effect principles to F3, but it took time for the potential of the RT3 to be unlocked.
"I tested it at Goodwood for two days before Christmas," says Johansson. "It was even snowing a bit. But then Ron Dennis offered me a great deal and that's where we went." Dennis also had good connections with Marlboro, Johansson's backer. "Marlboro was like Red Bull is now - the same kind of system," says the Swede.
The problem was, Dennis and Project 4 were March customers, and it was with the constructor's new 803 that Johansson started the season. It was an incredibly tight three-way title battle between Johansson, Kenny Acheson (who switched back to the older March 793 for much of the season) and Roberto Guerrero in the Argo. Acheson and Guerrero were edging ahead, until a remark from Project 4 engineer Dick Bennetts changed the future of F3.
"March couldn't get the 803 running properly," recalls Bennetts. "I dropped into the conversation with Ron Dennis that there was some Kiwi I'd never heard of [future driver-coach guru Rob Wilson], with a scruffy little team, doing a good job with the RT3.
"Shortly after that Ron said, 'You've got the car you wanted.' I said that wasn't the car I wanted - I just said it was a good car! At first we couldn't get it working - we took it to Goodwood two or three days a week. It was a proper downforce car, with tunnels on the side of it. The set-up from Ron Tauranac wasn't that good so we had to push the boat out - suddenly we hit the sweet spot and made it work."
Johansson ran the last five races in the RT3, won the last four on the trot and snatched the title from the despairing grasps of Acheson and Guerrero at the final round ("Had we had the Ralt at the beginning of the year we'd have smashed everybody!" he jokes now). All three moved up to Formula 2 in 1981 and left behind a British F3 scene that was switching wholesale to the RT3.
March and Argo just never got to grips with the tricky business of bringing ground-effect to a category for cars that were - with only 160bhp - hardly rocketships in a straight line anyway. There was one win for March in '81, but otherwise Ralt RT3s won 76 of the 77 races up to the end of '84.
Bennetts, meanwhile, had left the employ of Dennis, who had taken over McLaren and wanted the Kiwi as his F1 test team manager. Shying away from being a small cog in a big wheel, the freewheeling Bennetts carried on running Johansson's old Ralt for Jonathan Palmer in 1981 under the banner of Palmer's FF1600 mentor West Surrey Engineering, owned by Mike Cox.
Renamed West Surrey Racing for '82, it came close to carrying Enrique Mansilla to the title in a battle with Tommy Byrne, who was very highly rated by a young Brazilian named Ayrton Senna da Silva.
SENNA VERSUS BRUNDLE
Impressed by WSR's work with Mansilla, Senna chose the team for his F3 graduation in 1983, when he would win an epic fight with Martin Brundle.
"Martin had been racing in touring cars because he'd stalled a bit," says Price, whose David Price Racing team ran him in '82. "I managed to do this deal and BP came to us, and after he got his shit together Martin took the last four poles of the season. It was proposed we'd run a two-car BP team in Europe in '83 with Martin and James Weaver. Then BP dropped Martin and took Calvin Fish instead. Martin was sitting in my office in despair, so I rang Eddie Jordan up - he had a habit of being able to make something work from nothing - and did a deal for Martin to run there."
Unbeknown to WSR and Senna, Jordan had an ace up his sleeve that carried Brundle to a mid-season run of wins, and Senna to a pile of wrecks. "What we didn't cotton on to early enough was that EJ had got a Mk2 Novamotor Toyota engine," says Bennetts. "Ours was being rebuilt in England to a standard spec; his was being rebuilt in Italy by Novamotor. We had to run a whisker less rear wing and Ayrton had to overdrive a bit to get through the corners.
"He also felt that no one should beat him - he wasn't happy to finish second - and I had to sit him down and tell him that by non-finishing he was chucking away valuable points. Before the last round at Thruxton, Ayrton went to Novamotor himself and stayed there while his engine was rebuilt. We ran it in a test at Snetterton and it was quicker straight away." Senna had slipped behind Brundle in the points, but a win in the finale gave him the title.
Senna's future Lotus team-mate Johnny Dumfries would clean up in 1984. David Price Racing had a works Volkswagen engine deal, and Dumfries was BP's new prospect. "He was an absolute natural - although he didn't have much success in anything else!" says Price. "We made our own chassis, with a new RT3 at the rear end and an older one at the front. We were working out of [ace fabricator] Mo Gomm's workshop, working with FORCE [the talented but short-lived Haas F1 team of the mid-80s] - some of the ex-McLaren guys there were pals of mine. We did our own sidepods, our own noses."
Through FOTA, Price had also boosted the F3 grids through the new Class B, introduced in 1984 for cars at least a year old for drivers with a lower grade of licence. "Yes, most of the initiatives were FOTA," he says. "Eddie [Jordan] was ostensibly chairman, then when he was voted off I took over. Exclusive tests came from FOTA as well, and when I took over I did a deal with Steve Rider's company and got them to show some of the races on the BBC."
Price had on his staff two youngsters named Andy Miller and Bruce Jenkins, who would form the leadership of the Paul Stewart Racing team that went on to dominate the 1990s, but by then F3 would look very different. The FIA had banned ground effect for '85, and Reynard - entering the category for the first time - initially looked to have the best flat-bottomed car with its new carbonfibre 853. But Bennetts and WSR worked away on the asymmetrically sidepodded, aluminium-monocoque Ralt RT30 and carried Mauricio Gugelmin to the title thanks to a Johansson-style late run.
"Ralts never came out of the box like a Dallara does today," says Bennetts. "There were always a couple of hidden problems and it was us who sorted getting to the bottom of them."
But Reynard, with Andy Wallace and Madgwick Motorsport, got a free run in 1986, after overcoming an early challenge from Jordan's man Maurizio Sandro Sala. Madgwick's effort, run by Robert Synge, was founded on top engineers Mick Cook (running Wallace) and Paul Haigh, with Teo Silva and latter-day T-Sport chief Russell Eacott as mechanics on Wallace's car. "It was one of those things - everything was right," says Eacott. "Mick was one of the best engineers I ever worked with, as a person and as an engineer. Andy was a lovely guy as well - he used to pick us up and drive us in his diesel Fiesta."
Wallace's season was made easier by tragedy. Formula Ford 2000 champion Bertrand Fabi was to drive for WSR, with FF1600 graduate Damon Hill as his team-mate, but the Canadian was killed when he crashed his Ralt in a pre-season test at Goodwood. "That was devastating," says Bennetts. "It hit me hard, and I was thinking of giving up racing. Such a talented, nice young lad. I'd just been to hospital for microsurgery on my knee, because I'd jumped off the wall at Macau when Mauricio won! Bertrand picked me up from hospital in Windsor on the way down. I was going to use the profit from him to run Damon."
Instead, Bennetts transferred Hill's deal to his great friend Murray Taylor, and ran Gugelmin in F3000 for a year instead. He was back for 1987 with Bertrand Gachot spearheading the effort, but everyone lost out to Eddie Jordan Racing and the super-talented Johnny Herbert as the engine war ramped up. "We had VWs from John Judd and EJ had an exclusive electronically injected VW from Spiess," says Bennetts. "Then we went to Novamotor and got some Alfa Romeos."
PACIFIC - THE 'BRAWN' OF BRITISH F3
Another strong engine was the TOM'S Toyota, which hit a strong run of form with the Cellnet-backed Intersport Ralts of Hill and Martin Donnelly, but it was a private Toyota powerplant that stole the honours in 1988.
Pacific Racing had cleaned up in FF2000 in '87 with Marlboro protege JJ Lehto, using Neil Brown-tuned engines. For his F3 entry, team boss Keith Wiggins - who'd worked as a mechanic on Serra's March with Project 4 in '78 - brought Brown on board. "I did a deal where you could buy the parts and build your own Toyota," says Wiggins. "We'd worked with Neil in FF2000 and built a relationship, and all the elements played a part. We had a good relationship with Reynard too and got the car working well."
Wiggins also had to convince Marlboro, which often sent drivers to WSR, to keep Lehto at Pacific. "We'd won championships for Philip Morris with Harald Huysman, Bertrand Gachot and JJ," says Wiggins, who also engineered Lehto. "Timing's everything - Dick Bennetts was the obvious choice but there was a wave of something new with us. It took a lot of persuasion to work on them, but we were pushing the establishment."
The Reynard was overtaken in the latter stages of the season by a new team named Bowman Racing and running Gary Brabham. Run by Steve and Vic Hollman, it had a team manager in the form of their nephew Trevor Carlin and young engineers Anthony 'Boyo' Hieatt and Adrian Burgess, who would set the template for Carlin Motorsport's domination in the 21st century.
All were in thrall to the late Australian engineer Bruce Carey, who reworked the Ralt and whose ideas revived the marque's fortunes for the next few years. "About a third of the way through the season Bruce worked his magic on the Ralt RT32," says Carlin. "He did a total redesign, which we built ourselves, and Gary dominated the second half of the season. Because of that we were in such demand over the winter that instead of turning down drivers who wanted to sign with us we found a way to pull it off."
Bowman's pre-Carlin template of a six-car line-up was helped by Wiggins moving Pacific into F3000. "We kept moving up, and Adrian [Reynard] and Rick [Gorne, Reynard's commercial partner] said it didn't make much business sense," says Wiggins. "But I was tunnel-visioned: we'd done it, and I wasn't interested anymore. These days an older person would probably say we should have stayed on and capitalised on it..."
JAPANESE POWER INVASION
With Bowman running Brabham's younger brother David in 1989, WSR hit back with Marlboro new boy Allan McNish - and a new engine.
"We were the first to approach Mugen Honda," says Bennetts. "They wanted one Ralt team, one Reynard, so JYS [Jackie Stewart] got the Reynard deal. I recommended three engine builders to Hirotoshi Honda [Mugen boss and son of Honda founder Soichiro] and at the end of the day we chose Neil Brown."
This was a pivotal point in British F3 history, as Brown's Mugens would power 15 of the next 16 champions. But it was also controversial: McNish was initially crowned '89 champion, only for this to be overturned in VW Spiess-powered Brabham's favour.
"You couldn't add material to your engine block or cylinder head," says Carlin. "We knew Honda had done that to help with the starter motor - that was illegal. We protested this, then they did a tit-for-tat against the VW. Both were deemed to be in breach of the regulations."
"We proved theirs was illegal," says Bennetts, "but we still lost the championship because the scrutineer wouldn't verify it. But it didn't bother us: we already had Mika signed up!"
The golden era continued, with WSR-run Hakkinen ("He had such raw talent, but he couldn't tell you much about the car!" says Bennetts) beating Alan Docking Racing's Mika Salo to the 1990 title. The following year, it was WSR's Rubens Barrichello defeating Paul Stewart Racing's David Coulthard. No one knew that this would be the last title won by a Ralt...
The key to this change was Gil de Ferran, who'd been unbeatable on his day in 1991 - even against Barrichello and Coulthard - in a new-design Reynard run by new-to-F3 Edenbridge Racing, whose boss Peter Briggs would run FOTA in British F3's last few years. De Ferran had been at Paul Stewart Racing in Formula Vauxhall Lotus in 1990, but there was no room at the F3 team alongside Coulthard in '91.
"DC and I were the original beneficiaries of the Staircase of Talent at PSR," says de Ferran. "But there was a hiccup on the funding and they couldn't take me for the year after.
"I'd driven for Reynard in FF1600, and they couldn't sell their brand-new F3 car in '91 because the '90 product wasn't great. They needed to run it so they said, 'Why don't you drive the car?' Originally it was from the factory with Roly Vincini [long-time F3 engineer], and then they struck a deal with Edenbridge. Jackie Stewart took me back for '92, and he also had a prior relationship with Reynard. The '92 car was just an evolution of the '91 - it was a great car, my baby!"
PSR switched to Reynard. So too did long-time Ralt loyalist WSR. "Ron Tauranac had sold Ralt to March," explains Bennetts. "Andy Thorby [who had produced the superb TOM'S chassis of 1991] designed the RT36 - we thought it looked difficult to work with so we switched to Reynard." Even so, Philippe Adams took Alan Docking Racing's Ralt to runner-up behind de Ferran.
THE DALLARA INFLUX
Bowman had also been producing its own bespoke chassis, but the team collapsed in 1992.
"I went to run a wine bar with my sister, and 'Boyo' went to work with Formula Project in French F3," says Carlin. "He worked with the '92 Dallara, saw the '93 and told me how fantastic it was. I wanted to set my own team up, so I saved up £350 for a ticket to fly out to see Mr Dallara.
"I took a photo of the Bowman BC1 to show him what we'd built, then he showed me the '93 Dallara and I was completely blown away. He was going to help with chassis, get Fiat to help with engines, and I was trying to get [Bowman race winner] Steve Robertson to drive it. We'd have won the championship..."
Dallara was already talking to ADR.
"Dallara knew 'Doc' and his partner Dick Puxty, who was the De Tomaso importer [Dallara designed De Tomaso's 1970 F1 car]," says engineer Chris Weller, who was at ADR after stints at Madgwick and EJR.
"The Ralt was doing well so the Dallara people wanted to look at it. They did a tear-apart and a few measurements and said they'd like to bring a Dallara over for us to try. We had a Mugen engine put in it, got Philippe Adams to drive it and he thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread.
"I had a long chat with 'Doc' but he said he'd done a deal to be the works Ralt team. I'd got to know Richard Arnold [who was setting up a team for his son Steven] and convinced him that buying the Dallara would be the way to go. We had a lot of pressure from Reynard, who saw the writing on the wall.
"Steven tested it and we got Warren Hughes involved as driver coach. Before the second race at Thruxton, Mr Dallara sent over another car for Warren. It turned up on the Friday half-built in a van, and we spent the rest of the day testing with Steven and building Warren's car.
"He went from 21st [after a gear-ratio glitch in qualifying] to sixth with fastest lap, and everyone brushed it aside because of the characteristics of Thruxton. But the next race was at Brands Hatch, Warren did really well again, and that got people noticing."
By the end of the season, nearly all the teams had switched to Dallara.
"I'd fallen out with 'Doc', with Reynard, and with all the teams that had to fork out on new cars!" jokes Weller. Why was the Dallara so good? "Obviously it had an aero advantage, but the biggest thing was the mechanical construction. Particularly the gearbox - a lot stiffer than what Ralt and Reynard were doing."
From that day Dallara crushed British F3, apart from brief flashes from TOM'S, Lola (ironically in an effort spearheaded by Weller's Promatecme team, as well as P1 Motorsport) and Mygale.
STEWART VERSUS RENAULT
The first few years of Dallara domination from mid-1993 were a story of Paul Stewart Racing. The team won six titles between '92 and '98.
"The whole run of those years was just incredible," says engineer/team manager Bruce Jenkins. "It only came about because of the vision of Jackie and giving us the opportunity of doing what we believed we could do.
It was the first team to bring in that Staircase of Talent you see at others now - you only have to look at what Carlin are doing." The difference here was that Stewart acquired the sponsors himself to choose drivers on talent. "People knocked him, but it was a fantastic business model," says Jenkins.
Although Edenbridge interrupted PSR's run with an Oliver Gavin title in 1995, the team's biggest rival was Promatecme, which entered as a factory Renault squad in '96. Nicolas Minassian arguably should have won the '97 title only to be banned from some races for a stone-throwing incident, while Enrique Bernoldi looked set for '98 honours until his form faded.
New boy Jenson Button also starred in '99, but won only three races. The Serge Saulnier-run team counted Weller as one of its engineers in what he agrees was an edgy time. "It was, partially because of some of the characters involved," he says. "You had Bruce and Andy Miller on one side, and Serge was often on the limiter!
"Renault put a crew from the F1 factory on the F3 engine - even Bernard Dudot was involved on the initial design. But one of the downsides of an operation like Renault is you have to play along to their politics. They'd sold engines to Piers Portman Racing and Martin Donnelly Racing that weren't the same spec as ours, and we had to swap Enrique's engine to save a bit of face.
"The first engines had all been based around the Clio Williams, but they ran out of blocks, so they did a new engine which became the Formula Renault unit, and it was never quite as competitive." It was always strong at Thruxton, Weller says: "It had horsepower; it just didn't have the torque."
PSR was now under the ownership of Ford as a junior team to the F1 squad, and its titles dried up. "Maybe the focus wasn't as sharp as it had been before," suggests Jenkins. "The F1 project was more important."
MANOR/CARLIN: THE FRIENDLY WAR
By the time Stewart - now in the guise of Jaguar Racing - pulled out at the end of 2001, F3 was in a new era of domination: Carlin Motorsport and Manor Motorsport. Gone were the Stewart/Promatecme politics; it was now a friendly game between the lager-drinking southerners of Carlin and the Yorkshire Tea-quaffing northerners at Manor.
Carlin recalls: "What we learned from Bruce [Carey] has held us and 'Boyo' [Hieatt left to form Raikkonen Robertson Racing, now Double R Racing, for 2005] in good stead ever since. It's good old-fashioned, basic engineering.
"It worked for us and it's the secret of F3: doing a good, thorough job, but enjoying doing it. We've tried to keep it fun. We all know motor racing is hard work, but if you don't have fun... bloody hell."
Manor stepped up from Formula Renault with Promatecme refugee Marc Hynes (who'd won the Renault title with Manor in 1997) and Tor Sriachavanon (now Graves).
"Tor committed himself quite early so that gave us a chance to get organised," says team boss John Booth, whose squad would evolve into the Virgin/Marussia F1 operation. "Getting Marc on board was the icing on the cake. His second year in F3 was so important, so it was a massive gamble to him. Marc and Stan [his father] came up for a cup of tea and within 10 minutes of walking in they felt at home again."
Booth says the team worked using FRenault principles: "We didn't know any different! We went to Jarama for three or four days, shifting ballast, trying to understand it. We came back to Silverstone for the first official test and Marc was right on it. At the second or third test we were four tenths clear and had to get Gavin Harrison from Neil Brown to check our airbox!"
Hynes won the 1999 title, and Antonio Pizzonia followed suit in 2000 after a mid-season lull. "We ran Toby Scheckter [whose brother Tomas, at Stewart Racing, was Pizzonia's major title rival] at the Marlboro Masters," says Booth. "Antonio thought he was spying on us for Tomas and he had a wobble, but we got it back on track."
Manor should have run Kimi Raikkonen in 2001, but Sauber promoted him straight from FRenault to F1. That season, a field of incredible talent (featuring Andre Lotterer, James Courtney, Gianmaria Bruni and Andy Priaulx, among others) played second fiddle to Carlin duo Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson.
"We had two fantastic drivers, two good budgets, a dream team of engineers [Hieatt and Burgess] and mechanics," says Carlin. "That was an important year for us. It was a similar scenario in 2008: I managed to persuade Helmut Marko to give us a couple of Red Bull juniors, and he gave us two awesome drivers: Jaime Alguersuari and Brendon Hartley. And then we got Oliver Turvey - another fantastic driver - from Racing Steps."
Manor, meanwhile, had switched to the F3 Euro Series in 2004. The team had taken Lewis Hamilton to the FRenault UK crown in '03 and, as a protege of McLaren, he had to use Mercedes engines. Merc wasn't willing - yet - to supply engines for British F3. "We couldn't run Lewis without Mercedes, and we couldn't run Mercedes without doing the Euro Series," says Booth. "I would have loved to have stayed in Britain, but it gave us a fresh challenge and made us a better team."
Mercedes came to Britain in 2006, its attack spearheaded by the Raikkonen Robertson team. After Mike Conway won the title, this was the engine everyone wanted, and Carlin followed suit in '07 before switching to the new VW/Spiess product in '09. Now F3 was big money (up from £350,000, including 35 test days, for a Carlin seat in '01 to sometimes more than double that with certain teams).
British F3 was trying to take on the Euro Series by running rounds abroad and, when Gerhard Berger took over the presidency of the FIA's Single Seater Commission - and in the process converted the Euro Series to a full-blown FIA European championship - the end was nigh. What was the point in contesting a domestic series that went abroad, when for the same money - or less - you could do the FIA's?
By this time FOTA had almost total power, with the GT-focused Stephane Ratel Organisation, as promoter, happy to devolve responsibility to the teams, since they knew the market. The last 'proper' year was 2012 as Berger took the helm at the FIA, but even then the teams were struggling to make double-figure grids.
"We shot ourselves in the foot," says Trevor Carlin, referring to a last-ditch U-turn not to join the BTCC package for 2009. "The teams, the promoter all thought British F3 would go on forever. No one realised the world was changing. When we had meetings with TOCA [the BTCC promoter] we were moaning about the schedule and not being in garages - petty things like that. It was pride before a fall. We've ended up in the same position in the FIA championship."
An attempt to refocus with lower budgets for 2014, allowing older cars to compete on an equal footing, and continuing with older-spec engines, fell flat on its face. Grids dropped to as low as five cars. Martin Cao delivered a belated first title for Fortec Motorsport, whose owner Richard Dutton was arguably British F3's longest-standing competitor, but it wasn't a great contest.
Fortec and Double R fought hardest alongside FOTA chief Briggs to keep it going, but when German F3 chiefs rejected an offer of a merger for 2015 that was the final straw: for both series. Better to remember the great days.
"F3 is where my heart is and I'm still a big fan of it," says John Booth. "As a driver and engineer, it's the place to learn your trade."