FORMULA 4 in Australia is over.
A press release from CAMS, the governing body of the sport, confirmed on Wednesday that the championship – owned and promoted in-house – would not function in 2020 and while they indicated they would be assessing a possible future, the number of people in the industry who believe that to be possible is most likely zero.
Detractors aside, in its brief history F4 actually did have a legitimate role in delivering new talent to the sport.
Will Brown, now active in Supercars and TCR, is one of the highest-profile graduates. Liam Lawson (pictured at the Gold Coast in 2017) was found, at least in Australia, in F4 and is kicking career goals. There are others, too, and that is laudable of the championship in such a short time frame of existence.
In reality, however, the championship departs with a legacy tarnished from a time before it even launched. Once operating, small grids and limited uptake stymied growth from day one and outside of a few moments here or there, it never really looked like going anywhere.
At times the racing was very good; especially at circuits like Phillip Island, but that wasn’t enough either.
Reasons as to why the series failed are broad and varied – but start before it even turned a wheel because F4 was pushed into a marketplace that for the most part, didn’t really want it or feel a need for it.
A 2014 review of Australian categories by CAMS relegated both Formula Ford, successful for five decades in producing young talent, and Formula 3 to second-tier status in what was publicised as a restructure, but in reality had the feelings of being a badly camouflaged way of sweeping the floor of any real rival series’ that could soak up the limited driver market.
It also put numerous teams in both F3 and Formula Ford camps – experienced open-wheel teams with a history of finding talent and developing it – off side, immediately ruling out any chance of them jumping on the Formula 4 bandwagon from the outset. So their own potential customers were gone before the series even started.
In an instant, that move alone generated a wave of apathy from within the sport; people frustrated that rather than embracing the existing classes, especially Formula Ford, as a feeder to F4 they instead took away their status and relegated them to state level competition. People with large investments in racing tend to not like things like that.
Plans to own and operate the series in-house also rankled many. CAMS argued that it was in the governing bodies’ best interest to ensure the success of the very vehicle that would find the next Mark Webber or Daniel Ricciardo, one of their stated aims.
That goal, of course, was laudable and some even accepted the reality of CAMS investing heavily in the series to make it work, if they didn’t like them actually owning it.
But like the moves to neuter the competition, a vocal crowd felt it was a misuse of members money and that the governing body shouldn’t be promoting a category when taking money from others to do the same. Right or wrong, in a situation that needed positive public uptake it only generated the opposite emotions.
F4’s introduction was promoted at the time as bringing Australia into line with the FIA’s open-wheel model, but few here actually thought that a) that the F4 model was particularly good and that b) the system here was broken in the first place.
Few would argue that there are not merits to CAMS being closely aligned to the power that governs world motorsport, but once again in this instance many in the sport felt dictated to: the French, pushing their streamlined open-wheel pathway around the world, would say ‘Jump’, and Australia would say ‘How high?’, with little thought from Paris as to what the very specialised local market needed or could take.
In New Zealand’s even smaller market the success of TRS – an internationally recognised category but with it’s own local slant – is proof that sometimes doing your own thing and actually catering to your own market is the best thing.
On its launch, the series announced that the cars would only be available for lease and not for sale, which unquestionably stopped some potential competitors dead in their tracks. The lack of ability to own an asset that could retain some value turned many off: like renting a house, many see leasing a racing car as dead money. After three seasons, F4 eased up on this requirement and allowed cars to be sold, but by then it was too little, too late.
The hits kept coming, too: F4 started with a blockbuster calendar on the Supercars program, but gradually drifted away to the Shannons Nationals series. The category said it was to save costs but Supercars were not thrilled with the categories grid numbers either. The lack of profile events, even with the inclusion of the Grand Prix this year, only made it an even harder sell to prospective competitors.
F4 was a category that entered the local market in a strained political climate, to a market that broadly didn’t feel like they wanted it and a competitor base who only supported it in limited numbers.
The teams that did invest – AGI Sport and Team BRM the biggest – worked hard to support it and were the only two who could actually make the model truly work for them. They’ll be hurt by its closure – as will CAMS’ bottom line given they’re now left with a fleet of non-Halo equipped Mygale chassis’ and Ford engines that now have very little market relevance or re-sale value.
Worst of all, the sport is left with a vacuum and no real category that can take its place. Australian F3 is entrenched on non-CAMS events and would be rather unlikely to come back – even if it did fit international rules, which it really doesn’t any more. Formula Ford floats between promoters doing their own thing: Some say it should come back to how it was but it’s unlikely the sport will go down that route – Formula Ford has its niche’ and has leveraged it well in the last four or five years.
Fortunately, young drivers can look to the TRS for an open-wheel breeding ground or, in reality, just do what they’ve always done in Australia once finished with karting, anyway: Go overseas and race there, or jump into a Touring Car.
That outcome, after five years and however many millions of dollars invested, is perhaps the saddest thing about Australian F4 closing of them all.