Formula Three, also called Formula 3 or F3, is a class of open-wheel formula racing. The various championships held in Europe, Australia, South America, and Asia form an important step for many prospective Formula One drivers. Formula Three has traditionally been regarded as the first major stepping stone for F1 hopefuls - it is typically the first point in a driver's career at which most drivers in the series are aiming at professional careers in racing rather than being amateurs and enthusiasts. F3 is not cheap (a competitive seat in British F3 now costs around £400,000 and about £80,000 in Asia, for a year's racing), but is regarded as a key investment in a young driver's future career. Success in F3 can lead directly to more senior formulae such as GP2, A1 Grand Prix, or even a Formula One test or race seat.
Formula Three (adopted by the FIA in 1950) evolved from postwar auto racing, with lightweight tube-frame chassis powered by 500 cc motorcycle engines (notably Nortons and JAP speedway). The 500 cc formula originally evolved in 1946 from low-cost "special" racing organised by enthusiasts in Bristol, England, just before the Second World War; British motorsport after the war picked up slowly, partly due to petrol rationing which continued for a number of years and home-built 500 cc cars engines were intended to be accessible to the "impecunious enthusiast". The first post war motor race in Britain was organised by the VSCC in July 1947 at RAF Gransden Lodge, 500cc cars being the only post war class to run that day. The race was won by Eric Brandon in his Cooper Prototype (T2).
Cooper came to dominate the formula with mass-produced cars, and the income this generated enabled the company to develop into the senior categories. Other notable marques included Kieft, JBS and Emeryson in England and Effyh, Monopoletta and Scampolo in Europe. John Cooper, along with most other 500 builders, decided to place the engine in the middle of the car, driving the rear wheels. This was mostly due to the practical limitations imposed by chain drive but it gave these cars exceptionally good handling characteristics which eventually led to the mid engined revolution in single seat racing.
The 500cc formula was the usual route into motor racing through the early and mid 1950s (and stars like Stirling Moss continued to enter selected F3 events even during their GP careers). Other notable 500 cc Formula 3 drivers include Stewart Lewis-Evans, Ivor Bueb, Jim Russell, Peter Collins, Don Parker, Ken Tyrrell and Bernie Ecclestone. 500cc Formula Three declined at an international level during the late 1950s, although it continued at a national level into the early 60s, being eclipsed by Formula Junior for 1000 or 1100 cc cars (on a sliding scale of weights).
A one-litre Formula Three category for four-cylinder carburetted cars, with heavily tuned production engines, was reintroduced in 1964 based on the Formula Junior rules and ran to 1970. These engines (a short-stroke unit based on the Ford Anglia with a special 2-valve Cosworth SOHC head being by far the most efficient and popular) tended to rev very highly and were popularly known as "screamers"; F3 races tended to involve large packs of slipstreaming cars. The "screamer" years were dominated by Brabham, Lotus and Tecno, with March beginning in 1970. Early one-litre F3 chassis tended to descend from Formula Junior designs but quickly evolved.
For 1971 new regulations allowing 1600 cc engines with a restricted air intake were introduced. The 1971–73 seasons were contested with these cars, as aerodynamics started to become important.
Two-litre engine rules were introduced for 1974, still with restricted air intakes. As of today engine regulations remain basically unchanged in F3, a remarkable case of stability in racing regulations.
Historically, March (up to 1981), Ralt (up to the early 1990s) and Reynard (1985–1992) had been the main chassis manufacturers in two-litre F3, with Martini fairly strong in France; Reynard pioneered use of carbon fibre in the mid-1980s replacing traditional aluminium or steel monocoque structures. Dallara, after an unsuccessful Formula One project, focussed their attention on the formula in the early nineties and almost obliterated all other marques.
By the start of the 1980s however, Formula Three had evolved well beyond its humble beginnings to something closely resembling the modern formula. It was seen as the main training ground for future Formula One drivers, many of them bypassing Formula Two to go straight into Grand Prix racing. The chassis became increasingly sophisticated, mirroring the more senior formulae —ground effects were briefly used in the early 1980s but were banned, in line with other FIA single-seater formulae; carbon fibre chassis started to be introduced from the mid 1980s.
Engines in Formula 3 are all 2-litre, 4-cylinder naturally-aspirated spec engines. Engines must be built from a production model block ("stock block"), and often must be sealed by race or series organizers, so no private tuning can be carried out. Honda engines (prepared by Mugen) have perennially been popular, as have engines produced by Volkswagen, Alfa Romeo, or Renault. Currently the HWA-tuned Mercedes engine dominates the British and European series, with Mugen, Tom's-Toyota, and Spiess-Opel all being used by some teams. Volkswagen are returning to F3 later in 2007.
There has never been a World Championship for Formula Three. In the 1970s and into the 1980s the European Formula Three Championship and British Formula Three Championship (once one series had emerged from the competing British series in the 1970s) were the most prominent, with a number of future Formula One champions coming from them. France, Germany, and Italy also had important Formula Three series, but interest in these was originally subsidiary to national formulae—Formula Renault in France and Formula Super Vee in Germany (also seen in the U.S.). These nations eventually drifted towards Formula Three. The Italian series tended to attract older drivers who moved straight across from karting whereas in other nations drivers typically graduated to F3 after a couple of years in minor categories. The European series died out in the mid 1980s and the national series became correspondingly more important. Brazil's SudAm Formula Three championship, which now has the most powerful engine of all Formula Three series, was known for producing excellent drivers who polished their skills in the British Formula Three championship. Perhaps the most curious of all was the small All-Japan Formula Three championship. Although few drivers spent a significant amount of time there, future stars such as Ralf Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve scored victories there. An Asian series was established in 2001 and grew to produce current A1 drivers for Indonesia and Australia. For 2003, French and German F3, both suffering from a lack of competitive entrants, merged to recreate the F3 Euroseries. In Germany there is still a lower-key Formula Three series called the Recaro Cup The most recent Formula One racer to come out through Formula Three ranks is BMW-Sauber driver Robert Kubica, who finished seventh overall in the Formula Three Euroseries in 2004, and converted a pole position to second place in that year's prestigious Macau Grand Prix.
Other major ‘crossover’ races include the Grand Prix of Pau, the BP Ultimate Masters of Formula 3 (formerly held at Zandvoort, now at Zolder), and the Korean Superprix at Changwon. These events give fans in locations not visited by other major series to experience major international racing.
The Monaco F3 Grand Prix held until 1997 was also a famous special race. It has been restored for 2005 as a part of the F3 Euroseries.