Celebrating 50 years of Formula Ford

With 2017 marking 50 years of Formula Ford, we reflect on one of motorsport's most entertaining formulae

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It’s not difficult to see why celebrations for Formula Ford's 50th anniversary have been numerous throughout 2017. Whether it’s to highlight the sheer longevity, the impressive roll call of past drivers or the way in which it continues to provide some of the finest and closest racing of any series to date, few would deny Formula Ford its time in the spotlight for such a landmark birthday.

Making sure those celebrations hit the right note is more difficult, however. Entrants and their teams, ardent fans and those completely new to the series all have to be able to indulge equally; events have to sustain the full duration of the season and commemorate the past. All while giving a nod to the future.

The history in question owes much to John Webb, the boss of Brands Hatch in 1967. His vision was for an affordable single-seater series – in theory a complete car could be bought for £1000 (roughly £17,000 in today's climate).

Originally nestled in the spaceframe chassis was a 1.5-litre engine borrowed from a Ford Cortina. Although 50 spare units were supplied by the company, Ford didn’t open its chequebook to get the series off the ground. But the now iconic 1600 Crossflow Kent engine replaced the pre-Crossflow 1500 motor soon after. The result was an accessible series with cars that were relatively easy-to-maintain and run. This led to an entry list for the Formula 3-gateway spiralling up to an excess of 100 drivers per race meeting.

As chief executive officer of the Historic Sports Car Club, Grahame White has been tasked with overseeing much of the celebratory events. His connection to Formula Ford stretches far beyond the remit of his day job.

‘50 years is quite a long time. I was at the very first Formula Ford race, which is a pretty frightening thought, really. Of course, none of us thought in those days that this was going to last as long. You don’t think about it, do you? You’re into the right now, lapping it up and enjoying it.’

Autosport International

For many, the Autosport International Show remains the curtain-raiser for the upcoming year’s motorsport action. Entire cars and race programmes have been unveiled and newly signed drivers often get their first major chance to interact with the media and the fans. Similarly, it was where the HSCC decided to kick-off celebrations for Formula Ford.

An eight car stand was put together for 2017 featuring cars raced by Formula 1 world champions Michael Schumacher, Emerson Fittipaldi and Jody Scheckter; and it covered the entire history of the series. A Lotus 51, the car that made up so much of the grid at the inaugural race at Brands Hatch on 2 July, 1967, was on display.

Covering-off the more contemporary seasons, there was also the then brand new Medina Sport JL016K. A Crosslé 32F represented the Northern Irish firm’s accolade of being the longest-running racing car constructor in the world. Two championship-winning Royales were also present. The whole spectrum in terms of history and success was recognised.

On announcing that Formula Ford would take centre stage on the HSCC stand, White said: ‘I think the display will generate a great deal of interest.’ And that’s exactly what was needed to begin the anniversary – a cake and a press release wouldn’t cut it.

And, speaking at the Walter Hayes Trophy at the end of the season, according to White it worked: ‘I think we’ve had quite a lot of interest in Formula Ford this year from those who perhaps wouldn’t have in normal circumstances. They wanted to be a part of it. We’ve tried to keep the momentum going all through the year. We don’t want just one event to celebrate 50 years, we want it to be special every time we’ve been out and we’ve been rewarded by some superb racing.’

On track

But more importantly, throughout its history, Formula Ford has been renowned for closely fought racing action. So, in order to fully celebrate its appeal, the HSCC had to go a step beyond static displays.

‘We’ve done a number of things [to celebrate],’ says White. ‘This year, we’ve given Formula Ford more track time than they have had in the past because, obviously, we’ve had more interest. That’s been really, really good. We’ve tried to provide them with races at all the right tracks, which we were able to do.’

Surprisingly, the number of brand new entrants for 2017 has been relatively few. But in many way, there’s an argument to be made for the HSCC not having an influx of new cars wheeled out of the garage just for the anniversary. That is to say, Formula Ford’s enduring popularity as both a competitive feeder series and as a historic championship hasn’t dwindled.

‘We’ve had some brand new enquiries, but I wouldn’t say we’ve had a lot. People have bought cars that perhaps wouldn’t have done so otherwise, but most of the people who are racing with us this year have, at some stage, raced with us in the past. We’ve just had constantly good grids and numbers which is testament to the popularity of the series. We go to the good tracks, they know they’re always on the programme and it’s a tremendously nice atmosphere among the competitors,’ says White.

Crucially too, the racing has been sensational. With 50 years of running and the heritage that brings, there must be an incentive to lift off when two cars are battling for a one-car-space, an incentive to preserve the cars. But this seems totally absent from the Historic Formula Ford series. The racing is close, but fair.

'We’ve had multi-car battles for the lead often,’ reflects White. ‘At our championship finals a short while ago we had eight or nine cars within a second and we’ve had also tremendously safe races which again is so good. I think Formula Ford has done itself a huge favour this year by being so close, so competitive and including so many different makes and models – cars you won’t have even heard of.’

Undoubtedly, the highlight of the celebratory calendar was Formula Ford’s two races at the Silverstone Classic in July. And while the status of the Classic played a large role in that, the racing it provided was the pick of the weekend. Michael O’Brien, in his Merlyn Mk20A, prevailing in the four car battle for the lead was the perfect Formula Ford snapshot for the some 100,000 plus fans watching on from the stands.

‘That was a great event,’ reflects White. ‘We were able to put the 50 cars on the grid for 50 years and it’s probably the best event in the UK from the point of view of exposure. As far as the event is concerned, most people say the Goodwood races are the best but in a very different way. For racing it is the Classic.’

Formula Ford today

Away from the historic series, the racing has been no less enthralling in modern Formula Ford. At Brands Hatch for the Formula Ford Festival, Joey Foster’s pass around the outside of Neil Maclennan at Paddock Hill Bend to take the lead, and eventual victory, will live long in the memory.

Equally, any of the top ten starting the final of the Walter Hayes Trophy – deriving its name from the former Ford vice-president and head of motorsport – could have walked away with the spoils. Michael Moyers’ eventual victory and outpouring of emotion on the podium is testament to just how much significance the Hayes carries.

'It’s a mega event,’ renowned Formula Ford team boss Cliff Dempsey said of the Hayes.

‘It’s just the best Formula Ford race in the world, no question about that. You watch that there, and there’s been a lot of us who are hardened racers from years gone by, and we’re standing on the edge of our seat watching what’s going on. It’s fabulous, it needs to be televised.’

And that sentiment stretched beyond just those intimately involved with Formula Ford, with the exciting racing of the Hayes attracting praise from former Formula 1 driver Howden Ganley also.

‘It’s wonderful that this event has grown the way it has and honouring Walter Hayes himself. It has to be the biggest, best Formula Ford event in the world. It’s lots of nice things coming together.’

From FF1600 graduate to IndyCar champion

That being said, Formula Ford today is harder to quantify. The Kent engine’s relevance dwindled, as expected over five decades and a pursuit for efficiency in recent times. Ford moved across with it to support to MSA Formula 4. In terms of its place on the driver career ladder to F1, that is modern Formula Ford. But with slick tyres and front and rear wings, without the distinctive thrum of a Kent motor, many would dispute that claim. In the UK, it has fallen to the British Racing and Sports Car Club to revive more traditional Formula Ford racing. And today, it’s in fine form.

For 2016 three races were adopted per round giving competitors additional track time, but more importantly there has been Mazda’s input. For the champion of any major Formula Ford championship, so long as they are 25-years-old or less, they win a plane ticket to America and coveted entry into the Mazda Road To Indy Shootout. Effectively, it’s a boot camp where championship winners are pitched head-to-head.

The eventual victor banks $200,000 and entry in the USF2000 series. Above that sits the Pro Mazda Championship, and then Indy Lights. Progression through those, and eventually into IndyCar, gives an aspiring driver a clear route up the ladder and onto a potential grid spot next to Formula Ford alumni and newly crowned IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden. What’s more, with the prize money increasing to reflect the rises through the different formulae, top flight racing doesn’t have to be thwarted by budget limitations as is so often the case. Once again, Formula Ford is a genuine feeder series.

With such an end goal presenting itself to aspiring drivers, it’s not surprising grids are packed and hugely competitive. The UK National Formula Ford 1600 paddock strikes the perfect balance between being approachable and friendly, but with professionalism running through its veins.

Entry in the MRTI Shootout has further consolidated the series’ credibility and brought TV coverage. The upshot of it all is that the racing gets the attention it deserves while drivers have a genuine space to race wheel-to-wheel and adapt to media focus. There’s still a heartwarming element of family racing, but with an all-consuming competitiveness that places Formula Ford well above that of conventional club motorsport.

With more Walter Hayes Trophy wins than any other driver and the joint highest number of Festival wins, and having racked those up since 2003, Joey Foster is best placed to evaluate the series in its current guise having seen how it’s developed once again in recent times.

‘Formula Ford is still mighty competitive. Everyone’s desperate to win it, it’s a prestigious and it’s crazy competitive. I first joined Formula Ford back in 2001 and that was the height I saw it and this is getting close. Especially when you see events like the Walter Hayes, there was never anything like this back then. Certainly the depth of competition is getting there and it’s only going to grow with the TCR package next year. It’s quite exciting.’

As Foster says, the 2018 Formula Ford season will support the inaugural season of TCR UK. With the attention the new touring car series will bring, so too will Formula Ford edge increasingly into the limelight. As much as 2017 has been about celebrating the series’ past, arguably, the future of Formula Ford is brighter than it has been this side of the Millennium.

Quite possibly, the most important celebration has been the efforts to further improve the future for the series. Whether any of today’s current drivers will have their names uttered in the same sentence as Gil de Ferran, Ayrton Senna or Jenson Button when Formula Ford graduates are discussed remains to be seen. But that in itself being a possibility once more shows just what fine health Formula Ford is in.

Regardless of whether it’s been the blue riband Classic and tightly contested historic grids or the thriving national series that has caught the eye most, the biggest takeaway from celebrating 50 years of Formula Ford in 2017 is its enduring popularity. Long may it reign.

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