Jonathan Palmer pays tribute to Formula Palmer Audi

Pioneering championship ends after 13 successful seasons

"By the mid nineties many young drivers desperately trying to reach F1 soon found that the financial hurdle to progressing their careers was simply too high to clear. After a season of Formula Ford costing £90,000, Formula Renault Sport required a budget of £170,000 and F3 £350,000. All excellent formulas, but ones that inevitably favoured those able to pay for the coveted top team drives, usually through funding from wealthy or well-connected family.

I felt that there had to be an alternative. It should be possible to provide a high performance single seater championship that could provide a level playing field at a fraction of the cost. Somewhere where drivers of more modest means but great talent could prove it and progress to become professional racing drivers.

The key was finding ways to radically reduce and control costs. Providing identical cars was important, but what was critical to achieving the objective of high quality but low cost was to innovate and operate all the cars by just one team, which would apply exactly the same methodology to the running of every car.

For the chassis I had no hesitation in using Van Diemen. Ralph Firman had been a major help to my Formula Ford career and understood value engineering. My brief was simple - we wanted a great looking F1 style car that was inexpensive to produce and to run. Designer Dave Baldwin did a fantastic job, particularly as the timescale was unbelievably short. The project only got the go ahead in October 1997 and 24 cars were to be on the grid for the first round at Oulton Park on 9 May. Of course it was tough, but it was achieved through the phenomenal effort of all involved. 

The power unit was carefully chosen. We wanted 250bhp with the greatest reliability, consistency and of course, low cost. Formula 3 engine supply contracts were costing £50,000- £100,000 for 220bhp. Our budget comparable cost was just £10,000 - and for more power. The only way to achieve it was through a standard production engine, and to keep the weight down that meant it needed to be small capacity and turbocharged. An evaluation of all such production engines identified Audi's 1.8 litre 20 valve turbo unit as the most suitable. It was to prove an outstanding success and a great strength of FPA, particularly with Mountune's development and management.

With FPA being targeted primarily as an affordable alternative to F3, it made sense to use the same tyre size, and indeed supply from Avon, albeit in a harder compound to provide the required longevity. By the third year of FPA in 2000 tyre size had grown to half way towards F3000, to the benefit of both the appearance and durability of the tyres - FPA cars could be slid around without losing pace.  Avon's contribution has been superb.

The concept of Formula Palmer Audi was bold, and it pioneered many features that have been copied since. Perhaps most significant was the introduction of the overboost concept, to facilitate overtaking to add to the strategy for drivers and entertainment for those watching. We also launched double header events and indeed reversed the top four on the grid for the second race with points for qualifying to ensure no sandbagging. The first year even featured rolling starts for some races, though these were dropped when it was clear it was impossible to police fairly. Later on we became the first major UK series to use a triple header event format.

In making FPA more affordable it was important not only that costs were down but value for sponsors was up, so FPA also set new standards in sponsor benefits with great looking cars, extensive advertising space, superb hospitality, television coverage of every race, its own magazine and then a great website.

Setting up the operation of Formula Palmer Audi was a huge undertaking, especially as we had never run any racing team before. My business had been limited to running corporate events. It was a steep learning curve.  Project management was critical and mercifully after an early mistake in this area Giles Butterfield joined in February 1998 with just 8 weeks to do 8 months' work!  Commercially FPA was a mammoth commitment, and looking back I can't quite believe I made it! My corporate business was quite small at the time - a £3.5m turnover, yet I pushed the button on funding 26 race cars, 8 trucks for cars, equipment and hospitality, plus of course a team of nearly 50 employees.

But our first year in 1998 proved that FPA was a lifeline to a lot of drivers, with a fixed price of just £85,000 for 20 races and a free F3000 drive for the champion.  Such was the demand that we actually had 26 cars racing by mid season. The championship was really closely fought, going down to the wire with Justin Wilson just pipping Darren Turner to the title. Given the subsequent success of both drivers, it is clear FPA was doing its job from launch in enabling the best drivers to highlight their talent, and it only ever got more consistent and equal thereafter.

It is a testimony to the original design and evolutions by our MSV engineering team that FPA has continued for so long with the original car, albeit with every component replaced several times, like the proverbial axe. Even on retirement it is still a great looking racing car.

I'm extremely proud of Formula Palmer Audi.  It has provided hundreds of drivers with affordable, fair single seater racing to help their careers, as intended.  Commercially it has not made a profit overall - and that was not intended! It has however been run with total integrity for 13 years since the day it began and despite the occasional ignorant critic no driver has ever been given any kind of advantage. I conceived FPA because of my love of motor racing and respect for the efforts and ambitions of budding F1 drivers and their families, having been there myself with only funding that I could generate on my own. 

Justin Wilson's great success, going on to win the F3000 championship, race in F1 and now be a top IRL driver, has always been FPA's proudest achievement, but many other drivers such as Andy Priaulx, Robbie Kerr and Giorgio Pantano have proven their ability in FPA and gone on to greater things. Conversely, and perhaps equally significantly, the harsh reality is that no driver who has not shone in FPA has ever gone on to do great things! FPA has always reflected talent!

Running FPA provided us with enormous and unique experience to launch the FIA Formula Two Championship in 2009, and now our efforts are focussed on continuing to develop F2 with the FIA to build its reputation as the most affordable and equal, outstanding quality, international feeder championship to GP2 and ultimately F1.

A huge number of people have been involved with Formula Palmer Audi over the years to enable it to be the great success it has been. Some, like Giles Butterfield, Lisa Davis, Kevin Barrett, Clare Forster and Andy Wildman have been involved from the very first race! To them all, thank you very much. Thanks too for the support of all our partners; particularly Audi, Mountune, Avon and of course the 1997 Van Diemen team under Ralph Firman for that original great car. Finally, the most important part of any business is its customers, and I thank all those drivers, families, friends and sponsors who have chosen Formula Palmer Audi during their careers."

Jonathan Palmer