Whilst incarnations of Formulas 3 and 2 have been around for a very long time, the FIA’s Formula 4 category is a relatively recent addition to the ladder of opportunity designed to take young racers from karting towards Formula 1.

Created to run independently (and region-specific), here in the UK, it replaced the much-loved Formula Ford and the once prestigious Formula Renault and Formula BMW championships; each having waned under different pressures and each leaving a noticeable void for ambitious teenage driving talent. Its success was immediate: Launched in 2015, the inaugural champion was Lando Norris. The short, geeky kid, who bounced around the paddock still sports his wide flourescent smile but now to an audience of millions. There might not be much history to British F4, but its impact is already global, thanks largely to the team from Ford and RacingLine who adopted the FIA’s vision and built something worthy of all those who started their careers sporting a sewn-on patch of a dark Blue Oval.

Lando Norris, British F4’s inaugural champion – Jakob Ebrey

Just over a month ago, Motorsport UK, the membership organisation and governing body for UK four-wheel motorsport, announced that it will take over the promotion of British F4 from 2022 in a move that will coincide with the introduction of the FIA’s next generation of safety-focused cars. A few days later, we learned that Tatuus would succeed Mygale as chassis builder and Abarth would replace Ford, delivering a harmonisation of cars across a number of current and new national F4 series’.

At a glance, the ‘new’ British F4 shows a clear alignment with the FIA’s thinking on safety. The adoption of the F1-style Halo being welcomed by all who know that flying wheels & tyres can kill. There’s also a sensible increase in chassis and cockpit size whilst Abarth’s involvement is tried and tested across both the Italian and German series’. The racing itself is set to continue alongside the British Touring Car Championship, benefitting from live broadcast coverage on ITV4 and a trackside audience of many tens of thousands. For the drivers and their families, success in F4 also brings the reward of FIA Super Licence points (you need at least 40 to be eligible to progress to F1, accumulated over three successive seasons). But then to use Oscar Piastri (BritishF4 2017) as an example, his points won in 2017 are now pointless; it’s those from F3 and F2 that will see the talented young Aussie progress to join Norris in F1.

On the face of it, there are a number of strong positives for British F4 to take forward, but equally, I have a growing list of concerns as to the how’s and why’s. I approached the current British F4 team to try to arrange a conversation that should have perhaps lasted an hour, yet it was over within a minute: They simply weren’t in a position to talk about the future, only what was happening on track that weekend.

As it’s now that young drivers’ career plans are being shaped. If the people in the paddock couldn’t talk to me, I had to approach the one person who could.

Australia's Oscar Piastri, British F4 in 2017, now leading the 2021 Formula 2 Championship

A Conversation with Hugh Chambers, CEO of Motorsport UK

I want to start with an acknowledgement: There’s a lot going on at Motorsport UK right now and to be fair, the management team didn’t need to bump me up their list of priorities, but they did:

HC: “The UK has a long history of well-supported junior single seater championships. Formula 4 was established by the FIA in anticipation of the need to not only address declining grids but to also offer a single recognised entry-level series for racers everywhere, wanting to progress from karts. So whilst Ford, RacingLine (the current promoter), Sam Roach (RacingLine’s MD) and the whole team have done a fantastic job in establishing British F4 and guiding us through the first chapter, the advent of the FIA’s introduction of Gen 2 (the new car) meant that we had key questions to ask as to where we in the UK were going with our single seater pathway.

“My thoughts are clear: I want to see Britain return to leading the way in attracting young racing talent from all over the globe. In recent years, several other national series’ have started to rival us, and so very simply, we agreed that the advent of the new car was the right time to start with a clean sheet of paper.”

My understanding is that the ‘we’ is Motorsport UK. Not Motorsport UK, British F4 and Ford. Early conversations were taking place, but it would appear without the crucial input of the people on the front line, or the people currently paying the bills.

HC: “The first thing we had to do was to put out a tender for the power unit and right from the start, Ford informed us that they wouldn’t be participating. This changed things quite dramatically as Ford has been at the heart of single seater racing since the 1970s. Even in the current iteration, they’ve been a significant contributor to the business model of the championship, so without Ford’s involvement, we needed to look closely at how it might work going forward. It was here that we felt that it was appropriate that Motorsport UK, as the governing body, should step-in to take-on both the organisational and promotional roles of the championship, given that we have the resources and credibility to ensure that teams and drivers can see an underwritten commitment going forwards.”

I know Ford well. Nothing gets done quickly but always, solutions will be attempted if it benefits the brand by positively promoting current and future product. Hence the reason why Ford’s engineers have been working feverishly with M-Sport to develop the new powertrain for the 2022 World Rally Championship Puma that will not only combine hybrid technology with a turbo-charged engine but will also run using sustainable fossil-free fuel. Indeed, it’s only two years ago that Ford announced that it would trial hybrid power for British F4, working with Mygale to develop a 2nd generation car. OK, this was halted due to the pandemic but the will was certainly there.

I also know that Ford has been immensely proud of the part it has played in helping to develop future champions: It’s not a decision that would or could have been taken lightly. So, for Ford to abruptly say that it wasn’t going to participate in the tender process makes me suspect that either there was little or no consultation beforehand, and / or the sort of timeframe given was wholly unrealistic for sign-off to be achieved.

HC: “They never put anything in writing to us … It’s a fantastic legacy that they leave behind but the issue (of Ford wanting to promote hybrid technology) is not one that was communicated to us, though I think it’s fair to say that their global motorsport strategy, as with so many other manufacturers, is probably one that very much focuses on electric and hybrid powertrains.”

SH: “So for clarity” I ask, “is it correct that the Abarth powertrain that MSUK has chosen for 2022 is not hybrid, nor are there immediate plans for it to be so?”

HC: “I think you know that it won’t be hybrid.” I’m told. “It’s the same engine that runs in the Italian championship, though ours will be a UK-spec version.”

Ford and Sam Roach had a clear vision for future F4 hybrid power

Maybe I’d had a few too many coffees that morning? For whatever reason, I just felt the need to get some things off my chest.

SH: “To be honest” I interject, “losing Ford is bad enough but at a time when, as you readily admit, manufacturer support of motor sport relies principally on the adoption of ‘green’ technologies, why are the FIA and MSUK not grasping this? And can you not see that the Gen 2 product will, in the eyes of many, appear to be the wrong car at the right time?”

Chambers didn’t bite-back.

I didn’t want to labour on the hybrid issue because as I suggested in the introduction, it’s not all bad. The Gen 2 car looks good (appearances count). It’s well sized, there’s clearly been a lot of thought given to the ergonomic design, plus the Halo introduces a key additional safety structure. But right now, there are influences at play that overshadow even this:

* Sustainabilty

* Diversity

* Cost

These are front page topics and what I’m not yet seeing from the vision of F4’s future (as pencilled by the FIA) are competent measures designed to address each. Yes, there’s investment in Academy programmes, aimed at broadening engagement, but ultimately, what we’re currently presented with is not only a car that cannot claim to be sensitive to environmental issues but also a car that will be substantially more expensive than the one it replaces, thereby restricting participation to those with the deepest pockets.

HC: “You’ve talked about a desire to see hybrid powertrains but these would have only added to the cost. The initiative that the FIA has set out is for the price of the car to be fixed (in Euros) across all championships, irrespective of the chassis manufacturer. This is a key step going forward.”

However F4 is dressed, ultimately, its success (or failure) will depend on the participation of its teams. At this level, very few drivers are in family-owned cars. Rather, the teams make the purchases then seek to attract drivers to the grid. Not only are there no guarantees that drivers will be found or retained but there’s a far wider picture to consider too. A top team has to offer its own ladder of opportunity. There’s little point in investing in three or four F4 cars, only to see a talented and funded driver disappear off your books after just one season. Progression is key. Here in the UK, this normally means GB3 (what used to be called F3 until the FIA objected). So a team might have to invest in 4 x F4 cars, 3 x GB3 cars, and then possibly 2 x Formula 3 Regional cars, together with all the necessary spares, trucks and crew, just to make a living.

The current British F4 car was cost-capped at £36,000. I think we’ll find that the true cost of a Gen 2 car will see a substantial increase (€60,000 for chassis alone), so I ask how MSUK sees teams being able to afford the switch given the current financial climate?

HC: “Everyone has known that the Gen 2 car has been coming for a long time, so these are not decisions that are suddenly being thrust at them. What we’ve done is to line-up a finance partner to allow teams to lease finance engines and chassis’, allowing capital costs to be amortised over a sensible period. It’s an arrangement that we set-up following dialogue with the teams, and indeed, this whole process has pretty much been driven by the inputs the teams have given us, including the choice of chassis supplier and powertrain.”

Tatuus has now commenced testing of its Gen 2 chassis

Moving on, I want to explore Chambers’ thoughts on the impact of the pandemic, specifically regarding the inflow of overseas drivers and the measures MSUK takes to protect and nurture those that are already here.

HC: “The welfare of our competitors, some of whom are only just fifteen, is absolutely paramount to us, both as a championship and within our role as the governing body. We have a fundamental duty of care to all our members, whether drivers, volunteers or officials which is why we have a dedicated team of three who work solely on safeguarding. Additionally, we have the Academy team which focuses on the career development of young drivers navigating the pathway, so this is a big priority for us. Welfare and education are at the top of any parent’s list and this is where we see British F4 holding a real advantage over our European neighbours. Of course, it helps that the vast majority of drivers who come from overseas either have English as a first or second language, and our political system allows them to be domiciled here whilst studying. But it’s not just great racing and great schools that are on offer, we’ve also developed strong links with tertiary education providers, giving overseas student racers the opportunity to base themselves in one place for longer, progressing not only through racing’s ranks but attending universities too.”

Formula 4 drivers classroom session - Jakob Ebrey

The F-Factor

 Back when the UK was firmly at the centre of the motor sport world, the route to Formula 1 was fairly straight forward, but recent moves from the FIA have seen this shift. Recently, our national Formula 3 championship (backed by the BRDC) was forced to rebrand. Moreover, a lack of endorsement from Paris means that those competing are ineligible for Super Licence points, so my next question asks how this might affect the attractiveness of racing in the UK, versus what’s on offer elsewhere (especially with continental Europe homing a growing number of major teams that can seamlessly cross borders and offer key routes to Formula Regional, F3 and F2)?

HC: “GB3 remains an important step on the ladder; the car delivers increases to both power and downforce and MSV’s 2022 upgrade is very much in line with what drivers exiting F4 are looking for. But of course, the ladder of progression doesn’t only have a single route; some might look to head straight to FRECA (Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine), but then the very nature of that championship, being held across seven different countries poses a challenge to anyone in full-time education, not to mention the fact that this year, it was heavily over-subscribed, so there’s an important place for GB3, irrespective of what it’s called.”

These are sensible words. Formula Regional is a clear target for drivers wishing to head to F1. It holds three rounds on the F1 calendar and prepares drivers for the heady competition of FIA F3. Yet despite its success in Europe, it’s appeal elsewhere is limited; the Asian series not happening at all (and having to resort to eSports) whilst the Americas grid struggles to muster just a dozen entries. This ought to be good news for the UK, driving talent from right around the world in our direction, only the FRECA calendar chooses to remain solely on the continent, despite Britain’s boast of enjoying some of the finest motor racing circuits and heritage of anywhere in the world.

To put this into context, when you’re just starting your single seater career, circuit knowledge is invaluable, so compare British F4’s absence from the international stage with its Italian counterpart, which shares 5 of the FRECA tracks (and even three of its meetings) It’s also not surprising to see teams such as Prema, Van Amersfoort and R-ace running duel Italian F4 and FRECA campaigns; you’ll find these three in German F4 too, meaning that the step on the European ladder is very obviously far more accessible than our own.

Britain's Oliver Bearman has chosen to race, win and build his career in Europe (© Italian F4)

With all this in mind, I have perhaps the most important questions to ask: (1) What are Motorsport UK’s priorities? And (2) Is there not a serious conflict of interest in being the sport’s governing body whilst actively promoting the agenda of a single series (which is in direct competition with others that they regulate)?

HC: “There’s bound to be some overlap as motor sport pathways are rarely perfect, but we just have to focus on doing an outstanding job for British F4; we’re in advanced talks with a number of Formula One academies and the fact that we have Super Licence points is clearly a strength. Historically, the academies have tended to place drivers with either the Italian or German series’, but the feedback that we’re now getting is that they see the importance of working with a ASN (a national motor sport authority). This already happens with obvious success in Italy and the combination of our relationships with both the FIA and the Single Seater Commission means that we can push open doors and deliver exciting new plans with real backing and support.”

With time is running against me, there’s still much to cover; first-up is eSports, because love it or loathe it, it’s going to become an ever more intrinsic part of motor sport’s framework.

SH: “How do you see the relationship between eSports and British F4 developing? And will you consider incorporating an eSports event into the championship framework?”

HC: “You’re probably ahead of our current agenda and right now, I can’t say too much about it, but eSports is very much a part of British F4’s future. I sit on the FIA’s Digital Commission and we’ve studied the relationship closely. Intellectual Property Rights is often an issue for a governing body wanting to engage in an area where an independent promoter owns the title. However, this won’t be the case with British F4 and we’re already exploring opportunities with potential partners for not only working within eSports but with simulations too.”

SH: “And my final questions: How different will UK motor sport look in five years’ time? What’s your vision and what do you think will shape the agenda?”

HC: “Funnily, I had an early call this morning with David Richards (Motorsport UK’s Chairman) and the team from Motorsport Australia where we discussed this very same thing following David’s visit to Le Mans. It goes back to your point about hybrid engines and manufacturers seeking to move to a more sustainable strategy.

“The fact is that as an ASN, we have over 40,000 licence holders in a normal year (pre-COVID) with over 4,500 committed events and around 125,000 competition starts; 98% of these are made by amateurs within a mix of fourteen disciplines, ranging from circuit racing and rallies to drifting, hillclimbs and trials, and all funded from their own pocket. Very nearly all of this is populated by people using machines powered by internal combustion engines and for the foreseeable future, this is going to remain the case. What we see as the breakthrough, allowing ‘sustainability’ whilst still using the existing vehicle stock, is the development of synthetic fuels. It’s leading-edge technology, as was superbly demonstrated by Bentley (with the Continental GT3) at Pikes Peak. So there are a lot of conversations going on right now, seeking to explore the development of net-zero fuel, available in commercially costed quantities. This is what we want: What we don’t want is to see millions of vehicles thrown away and then the unprecedented demand to replace these with an equivalent number of battery-powered machines. This is the real danger to the impact on the environment.”

I agree, yet with an abundance of political capital being used in promoting ‘electric’, I wonder if MSUK and the FIA can shift the conversation to an understanding that this is not a single solution?

HC: “Yes, 100%. We’re active here all the time. We’re the funding partners for the all-party political group for motor sport and top of the agenda is a dual approach to powering vehicles. EV’s are here to stay but clean, sustainable, fossil-free fuels are another important part of the solution. I’ve talked about this for some time now and I’m starting to hear a different tone from ministers. I think that there’s an underlying realisation that we already have a well-developed infrastructure for fuelling cars so time and money spent on clean, sustainable fuels will be time and money well spent.”

Hillspeed is one of the first major teams to commit to GB4 (©GB4)

I’m left with two issues to consider: (1) The future of British F4 (and the role of Motorsport UK as its promoter); and (2) Motorsport UK’s governance of the industry.

British F4

What I heard from Hugh Chambers was a narrative of MSUK’s rescue of British F4 following Ford’s withdrawal from the series: What I think has happened is a little different: I think that the combination of engine type, together with the likely timeframe for bidding not only precluded Ford’s involvement but also its investment in powering the championship.

I also have to question the removal of RacingLine as promoter and MSUK’s self-appointment. Sam Roach and the RacingLine team did an exceptional job to build and maintain a healthy F4 grid, attracting some of the world’s best young drivers through engagement with the teams and by creating a first-class support structure with Mygale and others.

The teams are pivotal here. They’re the ones who buy the cars and spares, and they’re the ones trekking to Anglesey and elsewhere to test newcomers. Despite the high costs (a season in British F4 can easily reach over £300,000), the margins are frighteningly low, so teams need certainty (that the product is right and that demand is strong) if they’re to invest in new stock.

I don’t know if MSUK spoke to Jonathan Palmer and Motorsport Vision about plans for British F4, MSV didn’t respond to my request for comment, but I do know that if, for whatever reason, faith in RacingLine’s ability to deliver a strong championship going forward was lost, the first call I would make would be to JP. As promoter of GB3, Motorsport Vision has the knowledge and resources to do a brilliant job.

And with the recent announcement that GB4 is to be launched as MSV’s own entry-level series for junior racers, sitting in direct competition with British F4, how will teams who run cars in both F4 and GB3 now react? The GB4 car is priced at £30,000 (including engine): It’s the same chassis that has been used widely in other European F4 series’, so it’s not only well trusted but is widely available. Perhaps more significantly, it’s also likely to be less than half the price of the same package being assembled by Motorsport UK. To the benefit of the teams, it uses many of the same parts as a GB3 car and will appear alongside it at British GT meetings (as well as sharing test days). Competing in both will require teams to add to their burden by sometimes having to split key crew and resources; Of the six teams currently competing in British F4, three also run GB3 campaigns, so the pressure will undoubtedly be mounting.

I listened to Chambers talk about F4’s advantage from the award of Super Licence points but as I previously pointed out, if you do the maths, you really don’t need to think about these until you reach FRECA. The other benefit to GB4 is that discussions at MSV are never ‘on-going’; they’re had and then actioned. If a meeting with teams sounds out a commitment to a new series, Palmer won’t hesitate to pick up the phone and order the cars, and with plenty soon available, teams will undoubtedly already be planning testing for new drivers well before Christmas (in stark contrast to the alternative where there are still many unknowns):  I think that British F4 is in trouble:

*I don’t believe that currently, there are enough well-funded drivers to support multiple strong grids at home and in Europe.

* The loss of Ford’s sponsorship and RacingLine’s experience is likely to impact on both paddock presence and off-track support.

* A substantial increase in Gen 2 car cost appears to offer little proportionate benefit other than the Halo, especially when compared with the GB4 car.

* Teams have finite resources. They’re not all going to want to run dual F4/GB4 campaigns, and with GB3 offering the only close-to-home progression, a full grid of F4 cars is going to be hard to fill.

What would I do?

There has to be dialogue.

Failing to adopt hybrid technology is wrong. Yes, it will add to the cost but if both the FIA and MSUK are serious about addressing environmental concerns, they need to lead by example and demonstrate a commitment to deliver a forward-thinking agenda. It’s too late now for 2022’s car but there’s no reason why a funded programme to deliver a hybrid in 2023 cannot be initiated. Afterall, the vision for Formula One (2025) is already clearly set out: Hybrid power using sustainable fuel; F4 needs to be fully and visibly aligned.

Hybrid powertrains are essential to the professional development of both drivers and their crews. Just as a young racer will harbour ambitions to race in Formula 1, graduate mechanics and engineers will seek to climb the career ladder too. Experience of working with / racing hybrid cars is nowadays just as important as learning to race with downforce. And then, of course, there’s sponsorship to consider. It’s not just vehicle manufacturers that need to be seen to be following a green agenda, it’s brands of all shapes and sizes. Drivers want it, fans want it and budget-payers want it. MSUK needs to take the lead.

Finally, whether there is or isn’t a conflict of interest with MSUK acting as promoter of British F4, from the outside, it feels wrong. Any future judgement made by MSUK that adversely affects GB4 or GB3 won’t sit well. I get what Chambers has to say about the Italian example but there has to be a better way, possibly by divesting promotional activities into a stand-alone unit, funded by MSUK but run autonomously. There are plenty of other solutions too; all I want is to know is that Motorsport UK is right behind both British F4 and GB4, as well as every other race series, rally, hillclimb and drift . . etc.

As for Motorsport UK’s governance activities, especially in fighting for a sensible and sustainable future, I think that Chambers, Richards and their team are exactly on the right track. None of us wants to witness the needless extinction of multiple grids of bold and brilliant cars; few of us believe that ‘electric’ is the only way forward. Sadly, global leaders appear to have been corralled into adopting politically correct strategies that pay more heed to sentiment and less to rationale. What we need from Motorsport UK is not only a voice but a backbone. I believe they have both and I believe that a sporting passion, that first saw cars assemble to race in the grounds of Crystal Palace Park some 120 years ago, will thrive, so long as the governors govern and let racing’s entrepreneurs do the rest.