Palmer's perfect formula ready for road test

Andrew Longmore talks to the unfulfilled Formula One driver who is launching his dream series
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The three faces on the other side of the boardroom table looked absurdly young, but the glint of ambition in their eyes was unmistakeable. A Finn, a German and a Dane, all on the non-stop express to the top and nothing as stark as reality to spoil their dreams. Jonathan Palmer sees himself in them, too many years ago to contemplate. The same Dr Jonathan Palmer, the medical student turned Formula One ace, who sold stickers at a £1 a time to finance his next drive, the same Palmer who blagged, bluffed, wheeled and dealed his way to one of the worst drives in Formula One, simply because that was the only place to be a proper racing driver.

"It's from the heart, this one, not the head, that's for sure," he laughs. "It's hugely satisfying seeing these young guys going all out to prove how good they are and trying to get into Formula One."

Palmer, in that effervescent way of his, has had a brilliant idea, a concept so stunningly simple that one wonders why all the egg-heads in motorsport have not thought of it before. Take 20 drivers, put them in identical cars with identical engines, tyres, the lot, give them each a team of engineers and mechanics, the same testing facilities and testing time, send them out for 20 races at 10 tracks and see who wins. Total cost: £125,000 plus VAT. Not pocket money, admittedly, but approximately a third of the cost of a season in Formula Three, the traditional breeding ground for Formula One talent. Stir in a first prize of a fully funded drive in F3000, the step just below Formula One, step back and watch the sport.

Had Jenson Button raced in Formula Palmer Audi not F3 last season, we would have a better measurement of the boy's talent, which is, according to Palmer, considerable but not unique. Talent-spotting in motorsport, he says, owes more to well-orchestrated gossip, to money and contacts than pure talent. "Everyone has a great story to tell about why they should be in Formula One and why they're not," Palmer says. "One of the hardest things about my championship is that there really is nowhere to hide. They can't go to their fathers or their sponsors and say if they had a better team or a better engine they'd win.

"At the moment, in many of the lower formulas, there is no way for anyone to know how good a young driver really is. They might be winning but how much of that is due to the car, how much to the team and how much is down to their skill. The 'hot property' factor comes into it, 'Oh yeah, Button's yer man,' that sort of thing. With my formula, teams can look at the result and think, 'Well, that's it, then, he's the best because he won'."

Palmer launches his first European Palmer Audi championship with two races at Donington Park on Sunday. Though the venues for the series are still predominantly British, visits to Spa, Nürburgring and Magny Cours, three grand prix tracks, besides Silverstone, give the drivers a precious glimpse of their potential future terrain and lends FPA a genuinely European quality after two years as an exclusively UK-based series. Last Wednesday, at the Bedford Autodrome, the base for Palmer's hugely successful corporate events operation, the 20 cars were being loaded into three gigantic transporters in preparation for a full test day at Brands Hatch. Each team is allowed 150 laps of testing, and when not racing or testing, the cars stay in Palmer's keep. To further the element of democracy, teams change drivers every four races and every driver gets to see the others' data at the end of a race. It breeds respect, Palmer says.

Palmer himself acts as paymaster, father figure, nanny, sponsor, philanthropist. He talks about his drivers and is immensely proud that his inaugural champion, Justin Wilson, acquitted himself well in F3000 last season, very much better than the F3 champion. In return, Palmer has a chance to relive his own past and to leave his mark on a world he never quite mastered.

Palmer was quick, a champion in F3 and F2, but when Jean Alesi arrived as a team-mate at Tyrrell, Palmer swiftly realised the limitations of his own talent, which proved to be a decent fourth in the 1987 Australian GP and a couple of points finishes in Monaco. "Jean blew me away," he recalls. "It was the most painful season I had in F1."

A residue of ambition was left for his retirement at the end of 1989, fulfilled first as Murray Walker's sidekick at the BBC, then in building up his corporate motorsports business, which turned over £13m last year, and now in FPA. "I suppose I'd had a hundred dinner conversations when I'd be banging on about the need for a formula where all cars are equal, etc, and when I stopped commentating I had more time and thought I ought to get off my soapbox and go and do it."

On the brink of launching his first season in 1998, his financial partner pulled out. "I thought if I pull the plug on it now, I'd never do it again and my credibility would be shattered, so I've tried to ride that out and have done so far." A theatrical rolling of the eyes suggests a degree of foolhardiness.

In 10 years' time, Palmer hopes that at least half the Formula One grid will be graduates of his series, drivers dependent on their own talent, not some hidden fortune. "In FPA, the focus changes from trying to make the car go quicker all the time to digging deeper into their own driving ability. I know that whoever wins my championship this season will be every bit as good as Jenson Button, if not better, and will be quite capable of going on and doing a good job in Formula One."

That is why the Hakkinens and Schumachers of tomorrow have forsaken their homes, rented rooms in Bedford and bought a piece of Palmer's idealism. Most of them will fail, but at least they will know why they failed, which saves on the regrets further down the line. The touching thing is that each one believes they will succeed, that they will be the chosen one.

The bonus for the sport is that, come the last race of the season on 2 October, there will be no room for argument, a novel concept for the highly disputatious world of motorsport.