Formula 1 is just three steps away. That’s the thinking as the cockpit opens for me to drive the first Australian Formula 4 car in Australia, a new ‘entry level’ Formula category for this country.
A ‘wings and slicks’ category, the FIA Formula 4 is a global category that offers a true step towards F1, earning 10 points towards the 40 required to gain an F1 Super Licence. With a French-made Mygale carbon fibre chassis, Ford 1.6-litre turbo four-cylinder and Hankook super soft slicks, the Australian cars emulate the British series, offering a real Australia-to-Europe step that would, for example, lead to Euro F3, and then F1; 17-year-old Max Verstappen is proof of that path, stepping from Euro F3 into the Toro Rosso Formula 1 team this season.
Australia’s newest open-wheeler category isn’t without its controversies, however, joining an already crowded, segregated motorsport marketplace, and offering a rival to – and slotting in between – the existing Formula Ford and Formula 3 categories; traditional breeding grounds for young Australian talent. But the kicker is that CAMS owns and runs Australian Formula 4, and that is both a very good (for the series) and contentious (for everyone else) issue.
Politics aside, the 2015 series is set to join seven rounds of the V8 Supercar calendar in 2015, and then, presumably, cherry-pick the best events for subsequent years. Today, at Winton Raceway in late February, is the first official private test day of chassis number 45, the first Australian Formula 4 car.
Air freighted from France just a week ago, today’s shakedown is one of a handful of pre-season days designed to promote the series, and to allow those who have already committed to it some seat time and the data acquisition opportunities that go with it. Series organiser Cameron McConville is also heading up the CAMS Australian Formula 4 team, bringing a wealth of knowledge from both sides of pit wall.
By coincidence, McConville jumps out after a handful of laps and waves me in. I squeeze into the relatively large (for a Formula car) chassis, and get the quick rundown. The steering wheel is contemporary, with six buttons covering speed limiter, radio, screen pages and a neutral gear selector. The turbo four fires into life with a prod of the button, situated at the top of a vertical strip of switches near my left knee. It’s all relatively calm, like a typical Evo or STi with an open exhaust. The clutch eases out, and we’re moving towards pit exit, but this is no time for restraint: the tyres are warm, there’s lots of grip and a moderate amount of aero, so the throttle drops and the right fingertips start paddling.
Pittle, pittle, pittle… behind me is a Velociraptor with a budgie stuck in its throat, punctuating every shift with a distinct tweeting whistle as the turbo builds and dumps boost. It’s quickly up to speed, but it’s no F1 car; this is an entry-level series, so with 119kW (160hp) and 580kg plus driver, it’s got the straight-line speed of a Volkswagen Golf R. It’s more the buffeting and open cockpit that reminds you you’re sitting in a central seat, with no screen – and that speed is found in the corners.
I push on, well beyond what the brain suggests is physically possible, and the F4 car is calm and glued, resisting any suggestion that I’m anywhere close to the limit. Winton’s tricky 150km/h sweeper can be taken flat, all data and driver feedback suggests, and while the track is very stop-start, there’s plenty of chance to feel the direct steering, the immense capacity of the brakes and the torque of the turbo as it grunts out of corners and quickly shuffles through the gears with a rally car-flat bark from the single turbo outlet and tiny resonator, offering a unique characterful sound that is remarkably different from inside to out.
The Mygale is a lively chassis, and shows signs of being able to power oversteer from the slower corners, therefore showcasing the qualities the FIA wanted from it: slow enough for teenagers to learn the basics, fast enough to offer them a solid learning curve for both mechanical and aerodynamic grip.
After five laps, I’m shown the ‘IN’ board, and while in this straight-from-the-factory setting, with maximum downforce wings, 35-degree track temperatures and being the only car on the track, the fastest lap time of the day is completed in 1min 26.9sec in the hands of 19-year old Aussie Formula Ford and Renault champ Anton De Pasquale. While that’s 0.7sec off Jamie Whincup’s Formula Ford lap record, it’s a solid starting point for a car in its ‘slowest’ specification.
For me, Formula 1 remains way more than three steps away, but when the field of young and upcoming Australian Formula 4 drivers fire up in Townsville on the second weekend of July, the dream of Formula 1 grows one step closer.
|Specifications||2015 Mygale Australian Formula 4|
|Engine||1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder|
|Chassis||FIA-homologated Mygale carbon monocoque|
|Suspension||Double wishbones and pushrods, twin dampers, adjustable sway bar|
|Aerodynamics||Adjustable front and rear wings|
2015 CAMS Jayco Australian Formula 4 Championship Calendar:
July 10-12: Castrol Townsville 400 – Reid Park
July 31-Aug 2: Coates Hire Ipswich SuperSprint – Queensland Raceway
Aug 21-23: Sydney Motorsport Park Super Sprint – Sydney Motorsport Park
Sep 11- 13: Wilson Security Sandown 500 – Sandown Raceway
Oct 23-25: Castrol EDGE Gold Coast 600 – Surfers Paradise
Nov 20-22: Phillip Island Super Sprint – Phillip Island
Dec 4-6: Sydney 500 – Sydney Olympic Park