Formula Ford Festival at 50: A golden era as the ultimate proving ground

Formula Ford enjoyed something of a golden era into the 1980s, and into the second decade for the Festival it firmly established credentials as a must-win event on the way up the single-seater ladder. Continuing Autosport’s decade-by-decade history of the Festival on the eve of its 50th edition this weekend, here’s a look back at a halcyon period

Formula Ford Festival at 50: A golden era as the ultimate proving ground

At the start of the new decade, the Formula Ford Festival proved more popular than ever in 1980. Some 190 drivers from 15 nations vied during practice for 160 starting positions in the eight heats run on Saturday. Such was the worldwide interest in the event that Marlboro agreed to instigate the World Cup team challenge to run concurrently with the individual driver’s competition.

The heat winners were Jesper Villumsen, Raul Boesel, future CART race-winner Roberto Moreno, Robert Gibbs, Andrew Gilbert-Scott, Steve Lincoln, Jonathan Palmer and the evergreen Rick Morris, who was back for another attempt to claim a long overdue, deserved final victory. Other notable names to progress were double event winner Don MacLeod, again out in his Sark, Tommy Byrne, Terry Gray (back from F3 for a one-off outing), Dave Coyne and Dave Scott.

The quarter-final victors were Gibbs, Moreno - who set a stunning new lap record and was looking unbeatable – Palmer and Morris. The pick of the races was the one in which Morris took the honours from Byrne. The pair battled furiously for the entire 10 laps, Morris edging it by a tenth of a second.

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The first semi-final went to Palmer from Gibbs. Warren Briggs in his Laser-run Ray 80F held second initially but spun off at Paddock Hill Bend in a cloud of tyre smoke. He rejoined, but his chances of making the final were thwarted by a faulty ignition cut-out switch. Gilbert-Scott was third from Bo Martinsson, who had finished runner-up in both his heat and quarter-final in his Rushen Green-run Royale RP26. The second semi was more clear-cut, Moreno winning by nine seconds from Byrne and Morris, who continued their thrilling battle.

The final belonged to Moreno right from the off. As predicted, he won comfortably from Byrne and Morris, this occasion being the furthest apart they had been all weekend. Palmer came home fourth from Coyne, while Chris Hackman (son of actor Gene) impressed greatly to claim tenth.

The inaugural Marlboro-supported World Cup Trophy was won by England, as the team consisting of Morris, Palmer and David Wheeler amassed enough points to overcome the Brazilian challenge of Moreno and Boesel.

The main story of the 1981 Festival was more about the driver who failed to appear than the 180-plus names who made the pilgrimage to the birthplace of Formula Ford.

Tommy Byrne, Van Diemen RF81 Minister, on the grid at 1981's FF Festival. Senna's name on the side of the car was covered by the Sponsorship News sticker.

Tommy Byrne, Van Diemen RF81 Minister, on the grid at 1981's FF Festival. Senna's name on the side of the car was covered by the Sponsorship News sticker.

The dominant driver of the season, Ayrton Senna da Silva, had reportedly retired from racing and gone back to Brazil. Van Diemen boss Ralph Firman now had a big problem: his lead car was now vacant with only a few weeks before the Festival. He duly called Byrne.

The Irishman had made his English racing debut at the Festival four years previously behind the wheel of an old Royale and had shown great potential, his raw ability and courage outweighing a lack of finesse at the early stages of his career. But he had learnt quickly, with two national FF titles and a second-place at the Festival in 1980 followed up by winning both the British and European FF2000 titles in 1981.

Byrne was therefore hotly tipped for success and started well by winning his heat from John Village. Other heat winners were Wheeler, Gilbert-Scott, Enrique Mansilla, Gibbs, Cor Euser, Morris and Alfonso Toledano. Heavy overnight rain made conditions treacherous for the first quarter-final, in which Byrne was a tad over-eager with his getaway and earned a 10-second penalty. Once informed by his pit crew of his misdemeanour, he quickly opened up a five-second lead over his closest pursuers, Village and Wheeler. With the track drying quickly, he used the superior traction of his Van Diemen to overcome the penalty and take a thoroughly deserved victory. The other three quarter-finals went to Toledano, Morris and Mansilla.

The main story of the 1981 Festival was more about the driver who failed to appear than the 180-plus names who made the pilgrimage to the birthplace of Formula Ford

Byrne took the first semi-final from Morris, performing miracles with his Royale to stay on terms. Gibbs took third from Wheeler, Mario Hytten and Village. The second semi-final gave Festival returnee James Weaver, debuting the revolutionary new Reynard, victory after Van Diemen team-mates Mansilla and Toledano had continued their season long rivalry and had taken each other out in a needless incident. Coyne took second place from Euser, who fought off the challenges of Gilbert-Scott, future British Touring Car championship ace Anthony Reid and Lincoln.

The final was a carbon copy of the first semi-final, with Byrne being harried by Morris for the entire 15 laps in an immaculate display of high-class driving. Weaver was a distant, but still impressive third as underrated privateer Gibbs took a thoroughly deserved fourth. Reid, in his only drive of the year, was a revelation in an ageing PRS, starring to claim 10th.

Once again, England came away with the World Cup honours as three-man team Morris, Village and Lincoln accumulated 195 points to take a resounding victory over Holland (with Byrne’s 100 not going to Ireland as he was appointed too late to be nominated).

In a somewhat unusual turn for the Festival final, the front row in 1982 comprised the three most successful drivers in British Formula Ford with Julian Bailey (Lola), Mauricio Gugelmin (Van Diemen) and Morris (Royale) each having won a major title. For the three pre-Festival favourites to have made it through the rigours and hazards of the three qualifying rounds was unprecedented.

Julian Bailey, Western Model Cars, Lola T640 Minister, celebrates victory at the 1982 Formula Ford Festival

Julian Bailey, Western Model Cars, Lola T640 Minister, celebrates victory at the 1982 Formula Ford Festival

But future grand prix driver Bailey didn’t put a foot wrong all weekend and remained unbeaten throughout to come away with the spoils of victory. Equally impressive was the eternal bridesmaid Morris, who used every bit of his experience and guile to make up for his Royale not being the equal of his rivals’ machines. Gugelmin was probably the fastest man over the course of the two days, but a couple of mistakes in the final cost him dear. The first dropped him behind Morris for three agonising laps while Bailey opened up a lead and then, after he had overtaken Morris and closed the gap to the leader, he rolled his Van Diemen out of contention. Benefiting from the demise of Gugelmin, John Pratt (Lola) took third to again secure the World Cup for the home nation for the third consecutive year.

After Lola had broken the Van Diemen domination in 1982, it was the turn of another relative newcomer to Formula Ford to claim Festival victory in 1983. Driving the Pegasus Motorsport Reynard 83/4FF, Gilbert-Scott remained unbeaten as Bailey had the year before. What made the performance more impressive was the fact that the team and driver had made a late switch to the Reynard for the Festival after claiming both the RAC and Townsend Thoresen titles aboard a Lola.

Future Le Mans winner Andy Wallace rounded off a perfect day for Reynard with second, having to play second fiddle to the flying Gilbert-Scott in the subsequent three races after winning his heat, while Pratt showed that there wasn’t much wrong with the Lola by finishing third for the second consecutive year. Pratt set a new lap record of 49.00s in the final, failing by the narrowest of margins to be the first driver to lap in the 48s bracket, while Paul Sleeman was a remarkable 10th in his 1973 Rostron CT3. Through the efforts of Gilbert-Scott, Pratt and Perry McCarthy, England again claimed the World Cup Trophy.

After the domination by English drivers in 1982 and 1983, it looked after the first three heats that the strong international presence would shift the balance. Norwegian Harald Huysman took the heat one spoils, Brazilian Alvaro Buzaid the second and Germany’s Uwe Schafer the third, before local drivers Coyne, Peters and Pratt made their presence felt in the next three heats. Dutchman Gerrit van Kouwen looked unruffled to win heat seven from newcomer and future grand prix winner Johnny Herbert, before Tim Jones’ victory in heat eight delighted his commentator father Brian.

The quarter-finals went to four of the heat winners: Schafer, Buzaid, van Kouwen; and Pratt, before, van Kouwen led Schafer and Huysman to win the first semi-final. The second semi-final was a classic that brought together Coyne, Buzaid, Pratt and Bertrand Gachot. Any hopes of the fabled “Patch” engine taking a fifth consecutive Festival victory evaporated when Pratt spun at Clearways while trying to take the lead. Coyne emerged victorious from Buzaid and Gachot.

The front row line-up put van Kouwen on pole, flanked by Coyne and Schafer. The Dutchman judged the start to perfection to lead into Paddock Bend and was never headed. Coyne, Huysman and Buzaid fought furiously over the runner-up spot until Huysman pushed Coyne off at Surtees, delaying them both, which allowed Buzaid a safe run in second until his engine blew just before half-distance. The impressive Schafer therefore claimed second from future Le Mans winner Gachot, while top Britons Jonathan Bancroft and Damon Hill replicated their first semi-final finishing positions in fourth and fifth.

To add to his trophy haul, van Kouwen became the first FF1600 driver to lap the Brands club/Indy circuit in under 49s, a feat he achieved in both the semi-final and final, earning himself a £5,000 bonus courtesy of Tim Clowes and Chris Wilson’s Road & Racing Accessories concern. England took World Cup honours for the fifth consecutive year over runners-up Germany.

1984 Formula Ford Festival overall winner Gerrit van Kowen celebrates victory alongside Uwe Schafer.

1984 Formula Ford Festival overall winner Gerrit van Kowen celebrates victory alongside Uwe Schafer.

Unlike previous years, when the outright winner set his stall out right from the first moment of practice onto the heats, quarters and semi-finals with an unblemished record, the story couldn’t have been more different in 1985. Herbert planted his Quest into the catch-fencing on the first lap of practice on Friday morning, having to start from the back of the grid in his with a 10s penalty adding further to his woes. His recovery to win the final therefore was the stuff of dreams, appearing too far-fetched even by Hollywood standards.

His feat was made all the more remarkable by the opposition he had to overcome. In one of the strongest entries in Festival history, the field included future F1 world champion Hill, F1 sparring partners Mark Blundell and Gachot, plus the likes of Paulo Carcasci, Bancroft, Jason Elliott and Steve Robertson. Bancroft took second, and Hill was third – enough for England to again claim the World Cup, despite Herbert not being a member of the team.

Universally remembered by those present and regular attendees as the best final yet seen, the 1986 event produced a classic two-horse race between the Van Diemen pair of Austrian Roland Ratzenberger and Switzerland’s Philippe Favre. The Austrian got the nod by a whisker – or should that be a Rat’s whisker, as per the headline of Autosport’s report?

To add to his 1984 trophy haul, van Kouwen became the first FF1600 driver to lap the Brands Indy circuit in under 49s, earning himself a £5,000 bonus

The pair had gone unbeaten throughout the meeting and started from the front row of the final. Ratzenberger made the better start to lead into Paddock Hill Bend with Favre tucking in behind. The two soon established a cushion to their pursuers and for the remainder of the race were almost glued together. Never once did Favre find a chink in Ratzenberger’s armour, but the Austrian could never afford to relax.

It all came down to the drag to the line from the final corner, Clearways, with Ratzenberger using every horsepower of his Minister engine to overcome the Scholar power of his rival. The official winning margin was a scant 0.05s, equating to the length of a nosecone!

Somewhat overshadowed by the leading pair was the performance of Pete Rogers – tragically killed at Donington Park the following year – in one of Howard Drake’s attractive Lasers. He overcame some forceful defensive driving from Robertson to claim the final podium place and set a stunning new lap record of 48.73s in his pursuit of the leaders. Other notable performances came from a couple of the overseas entries, Gerald van Uitert (whose nephew Job is today a top LMP2 driver) taking fourth while Jyrki Jarvilehto (who would become better known as two-time Le Mans winner JJ Lehto) came unstuck early in the final after tangling with Rowan Dewhurst.

For the first time since its inception, England didn’t come away with the World Cup honours, as Austria pipped the Northern Ireland team of Alan McGarrity, Eddie Irvine and Jonathan McGall. England languished some way behind in sixth place.

Roland Ratzenberger (right) leads Philippe Favre in the 1986 Formula Ford Festival

Roland Ratzenberger (right) leads Philippe Favre in the 1986 Formula Ford Festival

After a couple of years of upsets, the status quo was restored in 1987 as Irvine, the dominant driver of the year, emerged out on top at the Festival. The works Van Diemen driver and 1999 F1 world championship runner-up never looked like being beaten all weekend, on his way to taking the works team’s first win since 1981. His small final-winning margin of 1.2s over the Reynard of future BTCC double champion Alain Menu didn’t quite tell the full story of his dominance.

The Swiss had his work cut out defending his hard-fought second place from veteran Coyne’s Swift. He felt that without having to fend off Coyne’s advances, he could have challenged Irvine. Coyne echoed the same thoughts, feeling that he had been held up by the Swiss pilot.

Behind semi-final winner Antonio Simoes, Dunlop Star of Tomorrow Champion Allan McNish finished an impressive fifth in the final and was the first recipient of the Peter Rogers Memorial Trophy. Finnish duo Mika Salo and Mika Hakkinen made their UK racing debuts and it was Salo – who would give up his only shot at an F1 victory in the 1999 German Grand Prix – who outshone the future double world champion, who was eliminated in the semi-finals after a collision with Neil Cunningham and Thomas Mezera.

Salo won his heat and ran third in his quarter-final behind Niko Palhares and Julian Westwood, but had to take avoiding action when Westwood was pitched into the pitwall. He qualified for the semi-finals, but the damage sustained to both the car and to his leg brought about his retirement. Defending World Cup champion Northern Ireland was usurped by the Portuguese team of Simoes and Pedro Faria, who claimed the prize at the third attempt.

The 1988 Festival quickly shaped up to be one of the true classics. The largest entry for several years provided not just quantity, but real quality that ensured close racing from the first heat right up to the 20-lap grand final won by Vincenzo Sospiri.

The winners of the eight heats give an indication of the talent on offer: Jonathan McGall, Morris, Derek Higgins, Richard Dean, Palhares, Pedro Chaves, Vivion Daly and Jose Cordova. Throw in the names of Karl Wendlinger, Michael Vergers, Kelvin Burt, Salo, Adrian Fernandez and Bernard Dolan, who all secured quarter-final places with top six finishers, and you had a highly impressive cast list.

Another member of the cast was a prodigious German named Michael Schumacher, who was making his only appearance at the Festival. After qualifying in third place for his heat, he was involved in a collision with Andrew Guye-Johnson and retired with a wheel hanging off.

1988 Festival winner Vincenzo Sospiri

1988 Festival winner Vincenzo Sospiri

Sospiri, the 1995 International F3000 champion, finished runner-up to Cordova in his heat, quarter and semi-final, but turned the tables in the final with a top-drawer drive. The Italian made it difficult for himself by forgetting to select first gear on the startline, admitting he was watching the man with the flag – who was required because the low winter sun made it impossible for front-row starters Cordova and Higgins to see the red and green lights. Cordova, deceived by the sun glinting on the lights, took off with Higgins following suit. The rest of the field remained stationary. After a lengthy delay and much controversy, the organisers decided not to impose the expected penalty of 10 seconds for a jumped start, because the lights had not turned green and thus the race had not started...

Putting the controversy behind him and finally selecting first gear, Sospiri staged a remarkable recovery drive to climb through the field and overhaul Higgins – having trouble selecting second gear – with a couple of laps remaining to claim a victory few could have predicted 15 minutes previously. The crowd had witnessed one of the all-time great finals with Cordova, Higgins, Dolan and Morris changing places constantly – the latter pairing taking themselves out with a clash just after half distance. From a lowly 16th on the grid, McGall finished a splendid fourth as Brazil claimed the World Cup for the first time.

The last Festival of the decade showcased all that Formula Ford 1600 stood for, the variety of closely-matched manufacturers probably at its peak. While Van Diemen still held the monopoly on numbers, and was still very much the manufacturer to beat, the likes of Reynard, Mondiale, Swift, and to a lesser extent, Jamun and Ray, were snapping at their heels. New engine tuners Loynings and Quicksilver were also muscling in on the domination of Scholar, Auriga and Minister. The sheer quantity of impressive drives throughout the weekend was unprecedented.

While the eventual top three of Palhares, Vergers and David Coulthard put on a fine show of driving skills in the difficult conditions to earn their just rewards, many others came away empty-handed in terms of results but with reputations enhanced.

Warren Hughes made a big impression at his first Festival by finishing 10th, while Dolan deserved much more than sixth. He set a new lap record of 47.96s to become the first man under the magic 48 seconds barrier in the semi-final, and would have been hard to beat if the track had stayed dry. Unfortunately, he elected to start the wet final in second gear to give him more traction and, as he traversed the painted lines marking the finishing line, lost momentum when faced with massive wheel-spin. Dolan fought hard, but the damage was done.

Another classic Festival final rounded off a decade in which Formula Ford maintained its position as the premier junior category for all up-and-coming drivers. That would continue into the 1990s, when the holy grail – a Festival winner who would become F1 world champion – emerged onto the scene.

David Coulthard finished third in the 1989 Festival

David Coulthard finished third in the 1989 Festival

Formula Ford Festival at 50: How a British motorsport institution began
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