How Alonso owes his career to an F2 car built in a bus factory
What's the link between this rare and obscure Belgian Formula 2 car from the Seventies and Fernando Alonso?
Back in the Seventies the world of Formula 1 was a lot more accessible than it was today. Pretty much every team that had been trundling around in the lower feeder series now had to opportunity to upgrade to the big leagues thanks to the Cosworth DFV V8. The revolutionary engine quickly became main power supply of over half the cars on the grid in F1.
Formula 2 racing greatly profited from the success of its bigger brother. Many drivers, and even entire teams such as Hesketh, made the move to F1. Several new teams and drivers were itching to take their place. The main car choices consisted of either March, Alpine or Chevron. most of which were powered by BMW or Ford 4 cylinder engines.
F2, despite being the stepping stone for F1, was still a grass roots racing series at heart. literally.
While the March, Chevron and Alpine cars were proven to be fast and reliable. It didn't stop some teams and manufacturers to create entire new cars from scratch. In late 1975 one manufacturer did just that. As a matter of fact it was to be their first car ever.
The manufacturer in question is Van Hool. A highly succesful Belgian coach and bus company that sells its wide variety of vehicles all across the world. Marcel Van Hool, one of the 8 sons of Bernard Van Hool who founded the company in 1940, was quite fond of motorsport and decided to enter F2 with a car bearing the Van Hool name. Luckily for him Van Hool had just built a brand new factory in Zaragosa, Spain.
The Van Hool VHM F2, note the spanish flag on the airbox.
Simply called the Van Hool VHM F2, the car took some styling cues from the Ferrari 312T and was powered by the proven and reliable Ford-Cosworth BDA 4 cylinder engine. Nothing out of the ordinary so far. When it comes to the chassis however the VHM used an unusual torsion beam suspension.
It was a tremendously complicated and higly ambitious setup. The aim was to have the tyres make as much contact with the road as possible so the car had a camber and caster angle of exactly 0.0 degrees.
Giving a normal car this kind of alignment is perfectly possible. But as soon as a corner comes up its regular suspension setup will flex and change its geometry. The Van Hool, with its tricky torsion beams, wouldn't. This gave the car a great advantage in the corners as well as the straights.
At least, that was the idea. Several test sessions were had organized in mainland Belgium with Bernard de Dryver as main driver. Patrick neve and even the legendary Jacky Ickx have supposedly test driven the car as well. In 1976 the car was deemed ready for action.
The Jim Clarck Trophy in Hockenheim, a race held outside of the European championship, was chosen as the maiden competitive outing. Despite (or due to?) the ambitious suspension the VHM proved to be anything but competitive. De Dryver's best time of 2.09.400 was a whopping 10 seconds slower than Hans-Joachim Stuck's pole lap in his March 762. Which was powered by the same engine.
This first outing proved to be its last. At least in Formula 2. Freddy Grainal, a different Belgian F2 driver with close ties to Van Hool, managed to buy the VHM and slightly modified it for hillclimb racing. Wether or not it was succesful in its second lease on life is uncertain.
The VHM during its hillclimb career.
the brand Van Hool stayed active as a sponsor in F2 for a few more years but never made any racecars again. Certain Family members however did stick around with Mikke Van Hool being the most succesful. He drove in the 1994 F3000 championship. Despite being relatively on pace, he decided being a team owner instead was the way forward.
He founded Astromega in 1995 and even got backing by the Minardi F1 team. Minardi's test and development driver got the opportunity to drive for Astromega in the 2000 season with the main goal of preparing him for F1. After a false start finishing P9 and P15 in the first 2 races he went on to finish higher and higher as each round passed. It culminated in a dominant P1 finish at the final round in Spa Francorchamps. Who was this driver? none other than Fernando Alonso.
18 year old Alonso at the start of his career