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An unimpressive British F3 champion



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Richard Robarts


Brabham-Cosworth BT44


Buenos Aires


XI Argentine GP (13 January 1974)


You hear the sound bites all the time - it's that common if grossly exaggerated claim made by F3 championship organizers that their category (and of course their national championship in particular) has produced more F1 talent than any other feeder series. There are a couple of obvious reasons, though, and all of them have nothing to do with the intrinsic values and features of the category, which is not what organizers want the public, the sponsors and the young drivers themselves to believe.

Are the engine formula and the chassis characteristics indeed finely honed to bare out the finest crop of future F1 drivers? No, it's a simple case of numbers: F3 has been around for decades and there have been national championships in most large European countries plus South America and Japan. With this amount of cars around for such a length of time, they are bound to be occupied by some of the best talents at any moment of time. Its opposition comprises of two European-wide series (F2/F3000, and lately the Renault Eurocup) and several local series competing with F3, such as F Nippon (itself delivering Ralf Schumacher and Pedro de la Rosa to F1), F Nissan and F Palmer Audi. And while the British F3 championship has successfully forced out Palmer Audi, the Open Fortuna by Nissan championship (as it is officially named) is now the premier single-seater category of the Mediterranean.

Of course it's easy to point to former F3 greats such as Senna and Prost, Häkkinen and Schumacher, Alboreto and De Angelis, Herbert and Barrichello, Verstappen, Fisichella, Trulli. All have been impressive F3 champions before stepping up to F1 while skipping F3000. But that's it really. A worrying number of F3 champs are now languishing in sportscars and touring cars, where they are known as sound and professional performers hired to do the job. It's that, or they have crossed the pond to try their luck in the States. While some have managed to scrape into F1 for a season or two, most have never even made it to motorsport's top category.

This is not a modern trend. There have been "good" and "bad" F3 champions all along. Or to put it more mildly, lucky and unlucky ones. Take 1973 and the British F3 championships. One of them was the Lombard North Central championship and its honours that year were split between two drivers: Tony Brise and Richard Robarts. While Brise was undoubtedly the better talent of the two, he had to wait another year for his F1 break - but then made his entry with a bang. Robarts on the other hand, who had been a Formula Ford club racer all the way to 1972, became an international driver within the space of a single year.

With the shared title in his pocket and some money promised by a wealthy estate agent friend Richard bought his way into the second Brabham seat for 1974 after it had been vacated by Wilson Fittipaldi. Wilson had departed for the creation of his dream: a GP car born and bred in Brazil. In Argentina Richard qualified an encouraging 22nd, which was not too bad for a man of his experience, but in the race saw his engine expire 12 laps before the end. Meanwhile team leader Reutemann but for a self-minded airbox came within laps of Ecclestone's first win as the Brabham team owner.

The next two races Richard's qualifying gap to "Lole" was still three seconds, with Interlagos (our picture) handing Robarts his best finish with a 15th place, and while Carlos went on to win at Kyalami, finally delivering on the promise of Gordon Murray's stunning design, poor Richard was languishing down the field, finishing 17th, 4 laps down, fighting for places with the likes of Migault and Pescarolo in their outdated BRMs. All that was left for Richard at Brabham were the two traditional British non-championship events, the Race of Champions and the International Trophy, and frankly, in both of them he was an embarrassment. At Brands he was responsible for punting off James Hunt's Hesketh at Clearways while himself struggling to keep up with the F5000 machinery. In the Silverstone event Richard was beaten fair and square by the poorest of low-budget British kit-cars, John Nicholson's Lyncar. For Bernie, Richard Robarts was merely a driving cash register.

So as soon as the money supply stopped - in fact it never started flowing, as is to be judged by Robarts' pristine white car - Richard was out. Ironically, the well-funded man responsible for ousting Richard was Robarts' predecessor as the Lombard North Central F3 champion, Rikky von Opel, another living testimony to the fact that not all F3 champions are true F1 stuff.

Richard hung on to a second chance at Williams, which had a vacant seat for the Swedish GP but he stood no chance to qualify as the team decided to hand his car to Tom Belsö. Tom had already driven for Frank at Kyalami and Jarama but destroyed his own car during practice. With the Swedish GP coming as close as it could get to a home race for the Dane, Belsö got the nod from Frank to continue with Richard's car.

For the next one and a half years Robarts was effectively clutching at straws until he found some money to buy himself a year-old March F2 car, but he was unable to score a single point. Prolonging the life of his car, his last outings in big single-seaters were reserved for the British-based Shellsport Group 8 series for F1, F5000 and F2 cars.

With the same March 752 he had already taken part in round 1 of the 1976 series, taking a remarkable second on the grid but failing in the race with an ignition problem, before setting of on his European campaign. At the end of the season, now in possession of a BDA-powered 762-15, Richard raced the remaining four rounds of the Shellsport series and came good in the final two events, placing second to Keith Holland in the Motor Show 200 and third in the final round, also at Brands.

In 1977, having switched his engine supply to a Hart 420R, he took part in just one round (round 4 to be precise) and after qualifying 9th he was disqualified for receiving outside assistance during the race. Then in 1978 his career fizzled out with a couple of hardly noteworthy F2 appearances. So you see that winning the world's most acclaimed F3 championship is not always a bed of roses. Ask Kelvin Burt.

Reader's Why by Geza Sury

A driver who started his first F1 race at the age of almost 30, and competed in only four races driving a works car in the seventies - that's Richard Robarts. The driver from Bicknagre, Chemlsford started his carrier as many others in Formula Fords. After a couple of successful seasons in this category, he switched to F3, and in his first year, he became joint champion in the Lombard North Central Championship and finished 3rd in Forward Trust Championship. Sponsored by a wealthy estate agent, he went straight into F1 and secured a drive in the Brabham team for the 1974 season. With so little experience, this was a brave manoeuvre!

The year started as early as 13th of January. During practice, Richard recorded 22nd quickest time beating only four of his opponents. By contrast, his team mate Carlos Reutemann was up to 6th, more than three seconds quicker than the Englishman. Robarts clearly lacked experience there. The pair drove sponsorless, white-liveried Brabham BT44s. During the race, Richard drove until lap 36, when the gearbox broke.

The next race on the long Interlagos circuit brought more success as after starting from 25th position, the Englishman at least finished the race in 15th place, 2 laps down on winner Emerson Fittipaldi.

At Kyalami Robarts wanted some more publicity and asked his boss, Bernie Ecclestone to do something about it. He responded to Robarts' request for greater recognition by simply covering the all-white cars' flanks with enormous black letters, leaving no doubt as to the driver's identity. As Robarts was paying for his drive the other car remained white.

This strange manoeuvre didn't help Richard as he recorded a 17th place finish, which was enough for Bernie and he dropped the English driver. He was replaced by Rikki von Opel. Richard tried to make a comeback with the Iso-Marlboro in Sweden, but he didn't manage to qualify the car. That marked the end of his short GP career.

He went back to F2 probably to gain some experience. He drove a year-old March 752 Ford for Team Myson. He didn't manage to qualify for the first round on the long Nürburgring circuit. He did make the grid in Thruxton (that was the second round of the series) but finished way down the order. Practicing for the third round at Vallelunga, he survived a huge accident, which totally destroyed the car but left its driver nursing nothing more than a broken nose. He did make a comeback, but good results avoided him. In fact his best result was a lowly 14th place at Nogaro. Now Richard Robarts lives at Steeple, in Essex, and he is a director of a large, specialist coach-building company.