I first drove a racing car, a Merlyn Formula Ford 1600, at the Jim Russell International Racing Driver's School at Mallory Park in 1972, aged 14. That was a Trial Lesson I'd saved up to do while still at school. I continued three years later with a full Jim Russell IRDS course at Silverstone Circuit in 1976 and a second full course at Jim Russell IRDS in 1977. I also completed a skid control training course at Jim Russell Snetterton.

Following the courses and some practice sessions, in 1978 I started racing with the Jim Russell Racing Drivers' Club (an offshoot of the school) in their own 'closed' races, and won the first race I ever took part in. I went on to do several races with the club and during that time.

After Jim Russell I gained a lot of experience through testing in a Formula Ford belonging to a friend who I helped to run his cars, and was paid in free testing throughougt 1979. I also did one race in 1979 win a National Championship  race, with a hired car.

In 1980 I acquired my own Formula Ford, albeit 3 years old, and competed in numerous Formula Ford races up until 1983 when I ran out of money. I had naively believed I could make it on talent alone and entered National level races, but soon realised that the drivers doing most of the winning had big budgets and it was nearly impossible to compete at that level on the limited budget I had. For example I raced during 1981, mostly funding it myself with a little help from a local business; I was working at the time and my annual gross salary was about £6,000. The same year a Brazilian driver called Ayrton (Senna) da Silva was winning nearly everything in Formula Ford with a works car and engine and a £30,000 race budget. I still managed some good results with my tired 3 year-old car and engine, usually finishing in the top 7 - 10 places.

Since the early 80's I have continued racing occasionally (when budget has allowed or someone else has paid) in a variety of classes.

More recently I have returned to Formula Ford in both Historic FF1600 and Classic FF1600.

I'm planning to do more in 2016.

What Is Historic & Classic Formula Ford 1600?

To answer that, first let's explain what Formula Ford 1600 is:

History

The origins of Formula Ford began in the early 1960s, where motor racing schools such as The Jim Russell International Racing Drivers' School and Motor Racing Stables featured single-seat Formula Junior and Formula 3-like machines from world class constructors like Cooper and Lotus. Many aspiring Formula 1 stars looked to these schools in the hope of learning the craft and also looking the part. However, although there was no shortage of aspiring drivers, these schools had much trouble avoiding bankruptcy. The highly stressed 1 litre Formula 3 engines, 1.1 litre Coventry Climax Formula Junior and later the Ford Anglia 105E based engines, cost around £3,000 at the time. These engines were incredibly fragile, meaning they had a tendency to self-destruct. In addition, the Dunlop racing tires cost £80 per set. All these factors contributed to a steep maintenance and upkeep cost of these schools. Simply, Formula Junior and Formula 3 cars were expensive to run and beyond the reach of most aspiring drivers.

Merlyn MK11 Historic Formula Ford

THE CAR IN THE IMAGE ABOVE IS A STUNNING EXAMPLE OF A HISTORIC FORMULA FORD. IT IS A MERLYN MK17 RESTORED AND LOOKED AFTER BY SIMON BROWN AT TRACKSTAR RACING SERVICES FOR HIS CLIENT. IT IS USED ON THIS WEBSITE ONLY TO DEPICT A HISTORIC FORMULA FORD AND DOES NOT IMPLY ANY CONNECTION BETWEEN THIS WEBSITE, THE CAR OR TRACKSTAR RACING SERVICES.

In 1963, Geoff Clarke; the owner of Motor Racing Stables, moved his racing school to the Brands Hatch circuit. This brought him in contact with John Webb; Managing Director of Developments at Brands Hatch. At about this time, two of the school’s Lotus Formula Junior chassis were fitted with a stock 1498cc Ford pushrod engine as featured in the then-recently introduced Cortina GT sedan. The 1500 Cortina, with its sensational reliability and horsepower output fairly close to “F3 proper” proved a resounding success in the school. The earliest experiments with radial tires bore fruit as well: the students of the day didn’t care that these weren’t the racing engines or racing tires, just that the cars were equal.

At an informal meeting at the December 1966 racing car show day at Olympia, John Webb and Geoff Clarke were discussing the possibility of building a fleet of identical open wheel race cars based on the success of combining the Ford power plant and road wheels, radial tires, and Formula Junior style chassis. Not only would they make ideal school cars, but would also provide a new entry level formula for a race series. They felt if they called it “Formula Ford” they could get backing from Ford itself. Webb was on the phone the next day to Ford competition manager Henry Taylor, who agreed to provide Clarke and MRS with 54 Cortina GT engines at £50 each (£15 below retail). Webb also approached the Royal Automobile Club's competition director, to establish rules for this new class. Late in 1967, Ford announced the new Formula Ford class to the world.

Specification

Keeping it simple and to the main points, a Formula Ford 1600 had to:

  • Be an open top, single-seater racing car as defined for Formula 1, Formula 2 and Formula 3.
  • Have a tubular steel 'spaceframe' chassis.
  • Be powered by a 'standard' (blueprinting was allowed) Ford 1600 pushrod 'Kent' engine from the Cortina GT.
  • Have a 4-speed manual gearbox.
  • Weigh a minimum of 420kgs.
  • Have steel wheels with a maximum width of 5.5" fitted with road tyres (originally road tyres then follwed by all weather race tyres manufactured by Dunlop and today replaced with a 'historic' replica of the Dunlop tyre manufactured by Avon).
  • Have pukka race car suspension.
  • No wings or any other downforce.

The output of the blueprinted Ford Cortina engine was around 105bhp, which gave the Formula Ford a power-to-weight ratio of around 220 bhp/tonne including with an 11st driver on board. To put that in perspective a 2014 Porsche 911 (standard model) has only a 10% better power-to-weight ratio and the 1970's FF1600 has a power-to-weight ratio 25% better than the current top of the range 2014 Ford Focus ST.

The result was a reliable, light, fast, pukka single-seater racing car that quickly became the internationally accepted entry level to 'formula' racing, and in the late 70's and early 80's the standard route to Formula 1 soon became Formula Ford 1600 > Formula 3 > Formula 1.

The highly responsive handling and relatively low grip of the cars made Formula Ford 1600 the perfect training ground for aspiring professional drivers to hone and improve their skills. Many renouned instructors and driver coaches maintain that drivers who have never raced a single-seater have never experienced or attained the level of skill that puts single-seater drivers on a higher plain.

In its heyday during the 70's and 80's Formula Ford 1600 was the place to start if you were a serious carreer driver. There were several National level championships in the UK and abroad and at the end of each season the truly International Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, which attracted more than 300 entries from around the World. Many future World Champions started in Formula Ford 1600.

Formula Ford remained as the first rung on the ladder for aspiring single-seater racing drivers all through the 70's and 80's. In the 90's an new engine was introduced, the more powerful Zetec engine, which was then replaced later by the lighter Duratec engine. More recently, in 2012, the turbocharged Ecoboost engine. Costs increased with all these engines and gradually the popularity of Formula Ford began to wane, with drivers aspiring to the higher echelons of the sport favouring 'wings and slicks' cars such as Formula Renault.

Formula Ford 1600 'Kent' Today

In recent years the 'Kent' (Cortina GT, Escort Mexico) engined Formula Ford categories have gained a renewed poularity with the growth of Historic and Classic Formula Ford categories, helped along by the increasing value of these cars making them a good investment. Historic Formula Ford is for pre-1972 cars, while Classic Formula Ford is for pre-1982 cars. While these cars are technically up to 45 years or more old (Classic's 35 years), they are all very much like 'Trigger's Broom' some literally being brand new.

Today, Formula Ford 1600 'Kent' is enjoying a major resurgence with the HSCC Historic FF1600 Championship, BARC Classic Formula Ford Championship, BRSCC Formula Ford Championships, the Formula Ford Festival and the Walter Hayes Trophy; enjoying full grids and competitive racing.

Interested? See the Classic FF1600 Hire page...

Oulton Park Gold Cup, Bank Holiday Monday, 26th August 2013, HSCC Historic FF1600 Race

I was offered a last-minute drive in the HSCC Historic Formula Ford Championship race at Oulton Park's Bank Holiday Gold Cup meeting last Monday (26th August 2013) and decided to take up the offer.

Oulton Park Historic Formula Ford 1600

The Historic FF1600 championship is for pre-1972 Formula Ford 1600 cars. However, most of the cars in the Championship are effectively new, as with all racing cars, parts are refurbished or replaced regularly, even the chassis. FF1600 engines are Ford 'Kent' engines from Escorts, Capri's and Cortina's of the late 60's and early 70's, but they are 'blueprinted' by professional engine builders. Some engines are naturally better than others and some engine builders are better than others - occasionally some are 'extra good'! ;)

Competition in the HFF1600 Championship is very strong, more than half the field are previous champions either in Formula Ford or some other formulae, some recent, some from the past. Some are guys who were at the front of the grids in Formula Ford's heyday back in the 70's and 80's when the likes of Ayrton Senna were in it. The age of drivers in HFF1600 ranges from young 18 - 20 year old hot shots through to seasoned competitors on their 30's, 40's, 50's and 60's! None of them are pushovers though, there are many quick combinations of car and driver in HFF1600 all the way down the field.

When I decided to do the Gold Cup meeting, knowing how competitive HFF1600 was, I was aiming my sights on a top ten finish. However, Derek Buckton, who owns the Elden MK8/10 I was driving, told me there was no chance of the car being in the top ten as it was at best a front-mid-field car. On top of that I was going to be jumping into a car I had never driven before, for the first time, in qualifying! So I would have just 20 minutes to get used to the car, get up to speed and put some sort of a time in.   

There's not that much to say about qualifying. I lined up in the assembly area with the rest of the 30 car field, in order, which is decided by championship position, so as I had not previously raced in the championship, I was at the back. This would be the first time I had driven a Formula Ford competitively in 17 years (although I did do a few testing laps in a similar car at different tracks two years ago when I was coaching its driver) and I was up against guys who had been racing all this season and previous seasons in these cars, so when we were released I just had to get on it straight away!

I was immediately quicker than some of the other cars at the back and passed several of them. It was busy though that far down the order and difficult to get a clear lap. I had a big slide at the left-hander in the middle of Hislops when the rear end broke away, and ran very wide at the exit of Lodge halfway through the session on oil someone had dropped (there was oil dropped in various places around the track. After just 7 laps the chequered flag was out and qualifying was over (the front half of the field got an extra lap in, doing 8 laps). When the results came out I had qualified 19th, not as good as I had hoped, but not too bad under the circumstances.

So to the race! The Gold Cup meeting is always a busy schedule and the HSCC don't hang around, as soon as all competitors were lined up in the assembly area we were released onto the track for our green flag lap. As we took our positions on the grid, being 19th I was on the right hand side of row 10, but as row 10 of the 2-2-2 grid is staggered to the left I was basically in the middle of the track.

Very quickly the grid marshals cleared the track and indicated that we were ready to go. The start line marshal raised the 5-second board and shortly after, the red lights on the start line gantry came on, engines were now revving! It was some time since I did a standing start in a Formula Ford and I hadn't practiced it. From memory though I knew the way to do it was to avoid sitting there with the rear tyres lit up! I anticipated the start well and was already letting the clutch out as the lights went out. The tyres initially spun and squirmed until I modulated the throttle to compensate, then they gripped and the Elden shot forward. It was a good start and I was gaining on the two cars in front of me and looking at the gap between them, thinking I would go through it. That gap quickly disappeared though and I had to go to the right, towards the pit wall. In my peripheral vision I could see the yellow car of Dick Dixon reflected in my mirror. Derek had warned me that Dick is known for his lightening starts and his car has a strong engine, I could see he was gaining on me, so I squeezed over towards the pit wall and he had to back out.

I was now on the inside line going into Old Hall (the first corner) and right up someone’s gearbox. I was stuck, boxed in, and a number of cars went past me on my left! A little further round the lap, at the hairpin, I got 4th gear instead on 2nd gear on the down change and the car bogged down, another car simply out-dragged me out of the corner and beat me to the next chicane. I was down to 23rd!

So now it became a job of trying to gain those places back! It becomes a bit vague from here because I was focussed on going as fast as I could and getting past cars. I remember coming off Island so much quicker than one car in front that it was easy to fire the Elden down the inside into the Shell hairpin. Another was despatched into Lodge and another into Cascades. I was soon circulating in a pack that was ultimately fighting for 15th. It was hard for me to know exactly what position I was in but a friend watching at Cascades told me I had 15th briefly. That doesn't show on the lap chart because it only lasted for part of a lap.

Towards the end of the race I had quite a difficult problem (I think a few others might have too), someone was spitting out oil and I had quite a bit on my visor, but that was only part of the problem. As well as the usual gnats there seemed to be an infestation of wasps at Oulton on Bank Holiday Monday, and at least three or four of them met their end on my visor, one fat juicy example smack in the middle. I couldn't see properly so tried to wipe my visor clean, which made it worse! I flipped the visor up slightly but that wasn't very useful as I was thern just getting dust, grit and flies in my eyes. So I did the last three laps at least with blurred vision!

I do know that I started the final lap in 18th place, being hassled by Greg Thornton. Greg had been in front of me but had spun and was now behind me and desperately trying to get past. For a lap and a half he kept trying to put the yellow trimmed nose of his green Merlyn in any gap there was. His car seemed have a stronger engine than mine and he was able to easily get alongside. He went for the outside at Cascades but I just let the Elden drift out earlier, squeezing him towards the grass. He got inside me at Island but I kept my foot in doing 'the wall of death' around the outside, giving me the inside into Shell.

We arrived at Druids, the penultimate corner. In a Formula Ford there is little braking needed at Druids, a slight lift is enough in the dry and the corner is taken in top gear. I approached it from water Tower taking a line down the middle of the track and turning in early to defend my inside. So I was surprised to see Greg go flying by down my left hand side to try to go around the outside, I thought that there was no way he would make the turn at that speed, and I was mostly right. He slid off the track halfway round the corner onto the dirt and got very out of shape. Now it's quite common in these circumstances for a car to be spat back onto the track, and it looked as if that was what might happen. Either he was going to carry on spinning into the gravel trap or he was going to be spat back, very possibly into me! I didn't want a bill for any damage to the Elden, so I backed off thinking I'd give Greg plenty of room to have his accident and then I'd continue on. If I had known he was going to recover it I wouldn't have slowed, I'd have easily held the position and finished 18th, but he did manage to recover it by which time I had slowed too much to recover my momentum quickly. Greg won the sprint down to Lodge, I tried to put the Elden up the inside into Lodge but he closed the door and I lost the drag race to the finish line! I was 19th!

All in all it wasn't too bad of a result given the level of competition and me having so little time in the car, plus the car being only a mid-field runner at best. Derek also called me during the week and said he had discovered something when he was unloading the car back at the workshop. The day before the race we had adjusted the pedal box to bring the pedals closer to me. It turns out that the brake pedal was being pushed down slightly by one of the chassis rails, so the brakes were dragging constantly!

I really enjoyed the race and now I'm looking towards doing another, maybe the finals at Silverstone, we'll see. I'm also going to work towards doing the full season next year, which will include a better engine, fresh tyres more often, plenty of testing, and me getting lighter and fitter!