The list of former Formula 3 drivers who have gone on to "make it" in Formula 1 is so long, and so chock full of household names, that there simply isn't room in this story to mention even half of them. But to convey how significant F3 is, perhaps the best way is to recount the tale of one Ayrton Senna da Silva, as he was known before he reached F1.
Back in the day, Senna realized that if he was going to make his mark in F1, he would first have to conquer F3. And so he took a look around, realized that the only series in which he would truly be recognized as a future World Champion was the British national series, and duly secured himself a seat.
He hated the weather in the UK, apparently – didn't much like being away from his native Brazil at all, really. But he stayed over here because he knew that he had to; and, after an epic, season-long battle with Martin Brundle, he won the championship. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Not much has changed since then in terms of the significance of the British F3 Championship. It's still the place to make your mark on your career path toward the big time. The most recent series victor to make it into F1 is Spaniard Jaime Alguersuari, the highly rated Toro Rosso driver, while this year's champion, Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne, is similarly tipped to go all the way.
But how difficult is an F3 car to drive? How similar, for example, is it to a modern F1 car? And how much faster would it be around a circuit compared with a really quick road car – such as the mighty Nissan GT-R Black Edition? That's what I went the Pembrey race circuit in Wales to find out.
The car I drove was Carlin Motorsport's number one car, which has won the championship outright for the past three seasons, so there would be no excuse. Except, perhaps, that it was raining cats and dogs on the day, which meant I had to run on wet tires, not the usual Cooper slicks.
That was a real shame because, as I was to discover later, driving an F3 car properly is all about grip – about finding and managing grip and trying to maintain as much momentum as possible before that grip drops away. And, in the wet, despite the highly advanced aerodynamic package that adorns a modern F3 car, there's an awful lot less grip than there is in the dry.
“To get the most out of a car like this, you need to squeeze every last ounce of performance out of the engine,” team manager Gary Bonnor told me. The engine in question is a 2.0-liter four from Volkswagen that produces a mere 210hp if you're lucky, due to the huge air restrictors through which it is required to breathe. Once you've unlocked the straight-line performance, reckons Bonnor, you must do everything you can to sustain it through the twisty bits – and that's where the real skill of driving an F3 car lies.
Anyone can open the accelerator down the straight and then cruise through the corners, after all. What separates the haves from the have-nots in F3, apparently, is the speed they can carry not just into and through corners but out of them as well. And to do that, you need a sixth sense about the exact level of grip that's available at each corner, which is a whole lot harder to do when it's wet than when it's dry, of course…
During my first few laps, the rain was so hard and the puddles so deep, that it was all I could do to keep the thing pointing in a straight line. The instant impression was of an extremely compact machine, one in which you sit with your butt seemingly on the floor, with your feet way up in front of your nose. And there's almost no room to operate inside the cockpit. With the various bits of camera gear installed, I was only just about able to turn the wheel without fouling the high-sided bodywork.
But the steering itself, alongside the brakes and accelerator, feels hardwired directly into the center of your cerebral cortex. You move the wheel a millimeter and the nose of the car reacts, immediately and in direct relation to the amount of lock you apply, no matter how tiny. Same with the accelerator. Open it by as little as a quarter of an inch and there's a burst of response that hits you surprisingly hard in the kidneys. And the brake pedal just feels like pressing against a brick wall, except the harder you press, the faster you slow down.
In sixth gear, you can hit the pedal as hard as you are physically able to and, even in the wet, you won't lock the front tires. Only as you shed speed – and therefore lose aerodynamic grip – do you need to tailor the brake pressure. So, as your speed drops, the downforce disappears, and that's when you need to ease away from the pedal to avoid locking up.
Sounds simple enough but, in reality, it's about as easy as walking down a set of stairs, backward, with your eyes shut, carrying a tray full of scalding hot drinks. Hence the reason I had a huge lock-up into the hairpin on virtually every lap during my first stint.
Feeling the point at which the downforce fades and is replaced by what is – in the wet – not much mechanical grip at all is almost impossible, however. And when there are four manual downshifts to execute at the same time – an F3 car still uses a conventional stick change, albeit one with a sequential fore-aft shift plane – the task becomes even harder to perform without making a mistake.
Around the rest of the lap, however, the car felt glued, even in the pouring rain. Just as with the Honda F1 car that I drove a couple of years ago, there comes a point at which you realize that to go fast – to fully exploit the level of grip available – you need to use more throttle, not less. Because the more speed you carry into corners, the more grip there is, basically – up to a fairly clearly defined point, beyond which you simply fall off the cliff and never come back.
The best example of this was through the fast Woodlands kink, at the back of the circuit. To begin with, I was going through it on tip-toes in fifth at maybe 110mph (it was very wet, remember) and the car felt heroically close to the edge. Eventually, I went through it flat in sixth at nigh-on 130mph – and the car felt three times more stable as a result.
Trouble is, unless you learn to trust that the car can do what they say it can do, you never get anywhere near realizing the thing's potential. And, if you don't, you end up sliding around all over the place because you're not driving it quickly enough. Which, let me tell you, is as infuriating as it is embarrassing in someone else's championship-winning F3 car.
So, anyway, after a good few sessions of eight to 10 laps each, all in the pouring rain and all of which I thoroughly enjoyed, I climbed out and got into the Nissan GT-R instead. And after about three corners, I realized just how fast an F3 car really is.
In corners through which I'd been almost flat in fourth in the F3 car, I was sideways and all over the place in second in the GT-R. And in the braking areas, the differences were absolutely ridiculous. It was one of the more dangerous things I've done for quite some time, in fact, because the differences in speed, grip, balance, entry speed, fear factor and so on were monumental – pretty much the whole way around the lap. Except at the hairpin.
Through here, the F3 car had been going so slowly that there was virtually no downforce at all, so it had felt fairly conventional in its behavior (in other words, slow in, slow at the apex, wheel spin at the exit if I was clumsy with the throttle). And, in its way, the GT-R felt much the same, hence its almost identical apex speed. At the exit, in fact, it generated a touch more traction than the F3 car thanks to its four-wheel-drive system.
But this was the only part of the lap where the GT-R felt competitive. Through every other corner, not even its all-wheel-drive hardware could prevent it from sliding where the F3 car had felt rooted. And through Woodlands and the Honda Curve that follows it…well, the minimum apex speeds say it all. The GT-R went through Honda feeling like an accident waiting to happen at 67mph, whereas the F3 took it at 87mph. Through the kink, the GT-R was all over the road at 98mph, whereas the F3 car was doing 128mph – despite accelerating less quickly out of the previous corner. That's why the GT-R was an incredible 11.38sec slower on a full lap of what is a very short circuit.
And that was with me driving the F3 car. With a younger, lighter, less married, more committed hot shot at the wheel whose entire life is focused on making it into F1, the differences would have been much bigger still.
So next time you see an F3 race and think, “That looks easy, anyone could drive one of those things quickly,” think again. Because, in many ways – and in my very limited experience of both – an F3 car is probably harder to get the most out of than an F1 car. That's why the formula remains as significant as it is.
Also, I'm sure there's a lesson in here somewhere about the direction in which the world's sports car makers might want to look for their future inspiration. Smaller cars, with less power – and far less weight – aren't necessarily a bad thing. Quite the opposite, in fact. Maybe some of them could have just one seat…