Having now driven a Formula Three car (this year’s championship-winning machine from Carlin) and a relatively recent F1 car (the not exactly championship-threatening but still fairly tasty Honda RA-107 from 2007), I’m convinced that, in most key areas, an F3 car is harder to get the most out of than an F1 car.
Is that how it should be, given that F1 represents the pinnacle of the sport while F3, highly regarded though it may be, is still a mere stepping stone on the ladder towards F1?
I drove the F3 car at Pembrey in the rain. The Honda I drove at Silverstone, again in the wet. And while the RA-107 was one of the last of the F1 cars still to feature driver aids (traction control and all), it still had 850bhp and was quite some monster to keep under control around the soaking wet National circuit at Silverstone.
Yet lap time-wise, I was far more competitive in the F1 car than I was in the F3 car, only some of which can be explained by, shall we say, my less-than-F3 physique.
Fact is, the F3 car is all about momentum; about squeezing every last ounce of performance out of the 2.0-litre 210bhp engine, and then trying to maintain that momentum into, through, and out of corners. And if you lose that momentum for whatever reason - making a less-than-perfect gearchange in the manual sequential gearbox, not braking in the perfect spot, getting a teeny bit of wheelspin out of a slow corner or just being a bit clumsy with your turn-in technique, thereby scrubbing off half a mile per hour on entry - you are, relatively speaking, screwed compared with the next bloke. Because there is no way of getting it back.
In the F1 car, however, there is so much poke available at any given moment, you can always recover a small mistake by making better use of the power at the next corner. You can get yourself out of trouble, in other words, because there is always an excess of grunt to play with. And because there’s a flawless paddle-shift transmission as well, you simply can’t make a mistake when changing gear either, which has a knock-on beneficial effect to the braking process. You can’t fluff your braking while doing a heel and toe downshift, basically, because you don’t have to heel and toe - and that in turn allows you to focus entirely on the business of braking while braking, rather than changing gear.
Of course, managing the effects of 850bhp rather than 210bhp requires a fair bit more concentration. The aerodynamic performance of an F1 car is also rather more seismic than that of an F3 car. But, like I say, having now driven both, I’m absolutely certain I which one felt easier to get the most out of overall. And it wasn’t the one with that normally has a teenager behind the wheel.
The next time F1’s rule makers sit down and wonder how they can improve the sport, maybe they should think about making the cars themselves harder to drive - more like F3 cars, if only to make a clearer distinction between the haves and the have-nots within the sport.