Top 10 Formula Ford Graduates

So many future top flight champions passed through Formula Ford in their formative years. We pick just ten of those who went on to success

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Nigel Mansell

Despite going on to race for Ferrari and, most notably, winning the 1992 Formula 1 championship for Williams in the infamous FW14B, Mansell’s early life in car racing was slow. He was thwarted by a lack of finances, and sold many of his personal belongings having quit his job as an aerospace engineer to fund his career. But the gamble paid off, he won six of the nine Formula Ford races he contested during 1976, including his debut at Mallory Park. The following season he competed in 42 races, winning 33 to become the 1977 British Formula Ford champion.

AutoFact: Mansell discharged himself from hospital following a broken neck suffered in a qualifying crash at Brands Hatch '77 – doctors told him he’d never drive again.

Gil de Ferran

Following in the footsteps of his hero and fellow Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi, Gil de Ferran rose from karting to Formula Ford in 1987. Today, de Ferran is remembered as one of the greats in American motorsport with back-to-back CART championships in 2000 and 2001 where he drove for Penske. He also finished second and third in the standings in IndyCar in 2002 and 2003 respectively; also climbing from 10th on the grid to win the Indy500 for Toyota in 2003. With such a CV, he was ranked inside Autosport’s top 50 drivers never to have raced in Formula 1.

AutoFact: De Ferran coached Fernando Alonso ahead of the two-time Formula 1 champion’s debut at the Indy 500 this year, part of the Spaniard's pursuit to win the Triple Crown.

Jenson Button

Just one year separated Jenson Button belting himself into a Formula Ford and into a F1 car. The 1998 campaign was stellar for Button. He won the British Formula Ford championship at his first attempt, clocking nine wins for Haywood Racing; and was runner-up in the European championship. To round-off the season he was again a winner at the Festival in his Mygale SJ98 ahead of none other than Dan Wheldon. After finishing third in the 1999 British Formula 3 standings, Button moved to F1 in 2000 with Williams. He retired at the end of last season with 15 wins and the 2009 championship from a massive 306 starts.

AutoFact: At the end of the ‘98 he was named as the coveted McLaren Autosport BRDC Young Driver Award, receiving an F1 test with the then constructors’ champions.

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Dan Wheldon

The late Dan Wheldon’s Formula Ford career was renowned for his rivalry with Button. He finished second in his Van Diemen RF98 to the Brit at the 1998 Formula Ford Festival, a year on from taking third in the UK championship standings. The Buckinghamshire-born driver then moved across to America to pursue his racing at a lesser cost than the continuing in the UK. In 2005 he won the IndyCar championship for Andretti, winning the Indy 500 that year at an average speed of 158mph also. After three seasons without a win, he clinched the 2011 Indy 500 victory before his untimely death.

AutoFact: A young Wheldon was taught by Terry Fullerton, who Senna named as his closest competitor.

Mika Hakkinen

Nine race wins combined won Mika Hakkinen both the Swedish and Nordic Formula Ford championships at his first attempt, competing in a second-hand Reynard. For the 1988 Festival he switched to a current model year Reynard but, struggling with its handling, crashed in the semi-final. Nevertheless, Malboro tested him in a FF2000 car with slicks and wings. He impressed and was signed by the cigarette giant aged 18. With both an Opel-Lotus Euroseries and British F3 title sealed, he made his F1 debut for Lotus in 1991. Back-to-back F1 championships were won with McLaren in 1998 and 1999 against fierce rival Michael Schumacher.

AutoFact: Hakkinen bought the Reynard he used for 1988 from fellow Finn and and former F1 driver JJ Lehto.

Emerson Fittipaldi

In unconventional fashion, Emerson Fittipaldi began his racing career with motorcycles and hydrofoils before moving to karts. As a sign of things to come, he and his older brother Wilson entered the 1967 Brazilian Formula Vee championship in a chassis of their own construction, winning five out of seven rounds. Two years later Emerson moved to Europe to race a Merlyn Mk11A in Formula Ford. A British F3 title followed as did third place, behind Clay Regazzoni and Derek Bell, in Formula 2. For 1970 he graduated to Formula 1 with Lotus, winning the title for Colin Champion in 1972 and then a second for McLaren in ‘74.

AutoFact: In 1969 Fittipaldi dovetailed British and European Formula Ford campaigns, before racing in the Brazilian Formula Ford BUA Trophy where he won three out of five rounds, taking pole in each.

Michael Schumacher

The most decorated F1 driver of all time also cut his teeth in Formula Ford. Michael Schumacher competed in the national German series in 1988 where he amassed three wins from seven rounds. That same year, racing his Van Diemen RF88 for Eufra Racing in the European championship, one win from four meant he finished runner-up in the standings behind Mika Salo. His meteoric rise over the following two years led to drives in both German and European Formula 3, DTM and the World Sportscar Championship. In 1991 he made his F1 debut, deputising for Bertrand Gachot who was imprisoned for tear gasing a taxi driver. From there seven world titles and utter domination followed.

AutoFact: Schumacher entered the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch in 1988 but crashed out and so failed to progress from his heat.

Ayrton Senna

After impressing in his karting career, Ayrton Senna da Silva moved to England to take his racing to the next step. For 1981, he joined British Formula Ford 1600 and drove a Van Diemen to 12 wins from 20 races, racking up seven victories on the bounce in the latter half of the season. He graduated to the 2000 class for ‘82. In like fashion, 21 out of 28 races went his way. After a British F3 title the following season he moved to F1, winning three world titles. He is still regarded by many as the greatest driver of all time.

AutoFact: Despite cleaning up in ‘81, Senna returned to Brazil at the end of the season to join the family business. Thankfully, £10,000 tempted him back across the Atlantic.

Andy Wallace

Andy Wallace is among the elite class of drivers to have won the 24 Hours of Le Mans outright in 1988; he also has a further three class wins to his name. It was Wallace too behind the wheel when the McLaren F1 set 240.14mph – a roadcar top speed record that stood for 11 years. All of that stemmed from working as a pot washer to fund his own way through the Jim Russell racing school. An initial rise to notoriety came courtesy of winning the pre-74 Formula Ford Championship in a Hawke DL11 and taking second place at the 1983 Festival at Brands Hatch.

AutoFact: As a teenager he was unable to take a bank loan to fund his Formula Ford career so Wallace bought a car on hire purchase which he then sold on for a £200 loss.

Josef Newgarden

The newly crowned IndyCar champion is one of the more recent Formula Ford stars. He won the Festival as recently as 2008 in a Ray GRS08 run by infamous Formula Ford team boss Cliff Dempsey and supported by the Team USA Scholarship. For the following season he contested the full British Formula Ford season where he finished runner-up having amassed 550 points. Current British Touring Car driver James Cole beat Newgarden to the title, describing him as ‘a very, very good driver and a very fair driver’. Then 18-years-old, Newgarden scored nine wins and 16 podiums from 25 races before graduating to GP3.

AutoFact: Newgarden’s form at Brands Hatch continued as he also won two of the opening three rounds of the Formula Palmer Audi championship in 2009 at the Kent circuit.

Images courtesy of LAT

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