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

This weekend marks the 50th running of the illustrious Formula Ford Festival, first held in 1972, which has been won by some of motorsport's biggest names down the years. In the first instalment of Autosport's decade-by-decade look at its history, here's a look at the Festival's formative years in the 1970s when it was first held at Snetterton

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

The Formula Ford Festival began its history in 1972, when the very first competition took place at Snetterton. After the mass fanfare around its launch and promotion leading up to the event, 85 cars were in attendance for a quartet of heats, two semi-finals and the grand final.

As expected, it sported some of the best Formula Ford pilots around at that time, not just from the UK but also from overseas locations such as the USA and Australia. Despite early morning rain, British favourites Ian Taylor (Dulon LD9) and Derek Lawrence (Titan Mk6) won their heats unchallenged, while Robert Arnott (Merlyn Mk20A) and David Loring also came out on top of theirs - but had to battle hard to get to the front.

Despite a broken roll bar on the warm-up lap, Lawrence came incredibly close to winning the first semi-final after a superb six-car fight at the front of the pack. Among the opposition were future Indianapolis 500 winner Danny Sullivan (Elden Mk8), Australian legend Larry Perkins (Elfin 620) and fellow Antipodean Buzz Buzaglo (Elden Mk10), while heat winner Taylor and Tiff Needell - competing in a Lotus 69F that he’d won in an Autosport competition - was also in the mix. A spin into the bank for Lawrence on the final lap damaged the side of his car, dropping him to fifth as Sullivan took the win ahead of Buzaglo, Taylor and Needell.

Arnott, Richard Sterne (Titan Mk5) and Loring all took turns to lead in the second semi-final, the latter of the three ending up in front by the chequered flag. American Loring did have to survive a slide wide at the Hairpin (back when Snetterton had one on its original layout), but he soon caught back up to the top two. Arnott then had a mishap of his own trying to repass, which left him third behind Loring and Sterne. Patrick Neve (Merlyn Mk20A) redeemed himself from a spin in his heat to make the Final, finishing a strong fourth from the ninth row of the grid.

With the final set to be 25 laps, almost everyone was forced to fit auxiliary fuel tanks to make the finish without stopping or running out. Despite Buzaglo leading at the first corner, Sullivan was in front come the completion of the opening lap. He initially contested an entertaining dice for the lead with compatriot Loring, while Taylor and Lawrence worked together to catch them, helped by Sterne’s car expiring after a few laps.

Two laps later, the British pair had caught the American duo and quickly took their turns in the lead before bidding to pull away. Loring had to drop back thanks to oil on his visor, while Sullivan’s gear lever broke and he spun. Taylor waited until the last lap to pounce on Lawrence, becoming the first ever winner of the event and writing his name into the history books in the process. Perkins benefitted from the issues of others to round off the podium, ahead of Loring, Sullivan and Neve.

Inaugural Festival winner Ian Taylor (Dulon-Rowland LD9) leads Rob Wicken (Merlyn) and Danny Sullivan (Elden) into Riches in 1972

Inaugural Festival winner Ian Taylor (Dulon-Rowland LD9) leads Rob Wicken (Merlyn) and Danny Sullivan (Elden) into Riches in 1972

With the first Festival a thumping success, the grid was near doubled for 1973 as 140 cars competed in untimed practice. Heats were reduced to five laps each, increasing the element of jeopardy for all those contesting the quartet of eliminators, where Roger Manning (Elden Mk10), Tiff Needell (now also in an Elden Mk10), Robert Arnott (Merlyn Mk20A) and Syd Fox (Hawke DL11) all took one each as they sojourned into the semi-finals later that day. Manning and Needell were both beneficiaries of late incidents for cars directly ahead of them, Arnott stealing his win from Sterne on the final lap of his heat while Fox passed future F1 hopeful Stephen South’s Ray 73F early on to secure honours.

The first semi-final was a thriller, with five different drivers taking turns to lead each of the opening five laps - but victory eventually fell the way of Lawrence ahead of Neve, Robert Joubert and Donald Macleod. South then got his own back on Fox, as his great start in the second semi gave him a lead he wouldn’t lose, leaving Fox to deal with Rob Wicken and Jon Bicht to progress in the runner-up spot.

South, Lawrence and Fox made up the front row for the final, but despite a less than ideal start it was Lawrence who made his way into the lead by the exit of Sear corner. He was three and a half seconds in front by half distance in the 20-lap decider, as a pack including Fox, Macleod, Joubert, Graham Cuthbert, Richard Eyre and Arnott all diced amongst each other behind.

As attrition hit, Fox and Macleod were left to scrap over second. Lawrence won on the road with relative ease, while Macleod survived a late challenge from Fox to settle the second place debate ahead of Arnott and Cuthbert. After the meeting, Lawrence had his victory taken away on a technicality, giving Macleod victory.

Not content with one fast start, Fox did it again when the final got underway, but cruelly it would be for nothing when a fuel pump failure put him out after the opening lap

Given the speed of progression with which the leading drivers were moving up the ladder into Formula 3 and beyond, 1974 brought new names to the fore. While the likes of Macleod and Arnott jumped back in for another go, there were plenty of first-timers at Festival to mix it up with those who had been there from the start.

Richard Morgan’s Crossle 25F pulled off some simmering overtakes to lead and win that year’s first heat from early leader Peter White’s Rowland RP16A and the Elden PH10D of Fred Sigafoos, while late pressure from Roy Klomfass (Hawke DL11) meant Frank Hopper’s Crossle only won his heat by 0.2 seconds with Bernard Vermilio third.

Fox was on form, winning his heat from the front and leaving the Merlyn of Lou de Marco and Rick Morris’ Hawke to head up a frantic multi-car battle for the podium, while in the final eight-lap qualifier Tim Brise worked his way past Mike Young, Needell and Jim Walsh and Mike Young.

Then came one of the best semi-final battles yet – a classic scrap between friends and rivals Hopper and Morgan. Despite a lower than expected crowd, those who were there witnessed an incredible duel as the pair swapped the lead between them on every single lap. Morgan just pipped Hopper to victory, while Klomfass broke away from the rest of the pack to finish third.

Syd Fox (18) takes the lead of the 1973 FF Festival from Derek Lawrence (56), Stephen South (138) and John Bicht (140)

Syd Fox (18) takes the lead of the 1973 FF Festival from Derek Lawrence (56), Stephen South (138) and John Bicht (140)

Fox, meanwhile, almost missed the start of his semi-final as his engine stubbornly refused to fire, but a demon start allowed him to hit the front after two corners and make it two wins from two ahead of Walsh and Needell.

Not content with one fast start, Fox did it again when the final got underway, but cruelly it would be for nothing when a fuel pump failure put him out after the opening lap. This left Morgan and Hopper in the top two, the former's Minister-powered Crossle enjoying the pace advantage over the Rowland powerplant in Hopper’s example as Morgan secured the win. Klomfass and Richard Hawkins enjoyed a fabulous late battle for third, the South African beating his Kiwi rival by just 0.4 seconds. Already, the Festival was living up to its brilliant potential.

The 1975 Festival was the last to take place in Norfolk, but not before it provided a dramatic finish. A 114-car field took to practice, among them future grand prix stars including Derek Warwick, Derek Daly and Geoff Lees.

Future Lola managing director Mike Blanchet (Crossle) and David MacPherson both closed down Vermilio’s early Heat 1 advantage to claim first and second respectively, but the finish was much closer between Rad Dougall’s Royale and Needell’s Crossle in the second qualifier, the former just stealing the flag by a nose.

Another tight conclusion left Canada’s Rod Bremner also just a fraction ahead of Walsh in the third heat, Daly and Warwick trailing in their wake. But Lees’ fourth heat performance aboard his Royale was anything but close - he dominated a two-part contest that was red-flagged midway through. Matthew Argenti and Richard Wills did their best, but had to settle for the podium.

Dougall and Needell were at it again in their semi-final, dicing between each other at the front before a stone in Needell’s radiator eventually dropped him back to third behind Blanchet. The other semi-final produced arguably the best race of the day as Walsh beat Lees away from the start, the pair soon joined by Daly and Bremner for an enthralling race-long four car battle. It fell in Lees’ favour by the flag, with Bremner and Daly following him home.

By the time the final was ready to start, light was beginning to slowly fade. What followed was a tense one-on-one duel between Bremner - who it transpired had jumped too early, earning a 10-second penalty - and the chasing Lees. Bremner had initially managed to pass Daly after the Irishman led into the first corner, but soon enough Lees was in hot pursuit, blissfully unaware of Bremner’s penalty.

The pair diced spectacularly for several laps, but despite a pit board confirming Bremner’s punishment, a dark visor and the ever fading light meant that Lees not only had no idea of the penalty, but neither any knowledge that the race was over at its conclusion. He was pleasantly surprised therefore to be declared the winner, while an equally frantic fight between Blanchet and Dougall for what became second and third went the way of Blanchet, as Bremner dropped to fourth.

The Festival moved to Brands for 1976. Rick Morris (Hawke) leads Derek Daly and Mike Blanchet

The Festival moved to Brands for 1976. Rick Morris (Hawke) leads Derek Daly and Mike Blanchet

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The decision was made in 1976 for the Festival to change venues, moving away from Snetterton and, thanks to the influence of John Webb, switching to Brands Hatch on the shorter 'Indy' circuit that had been slightly reprofiled that same year. 

The 1976 edition was marked as a celebration of newly-crowned F1 world champion James Hunt’s remarkable achievement and was dubbed the 'Tribute to James' race meeting, which also featured the final round of that year’s ShellSport European 5000 Championship. All of this no doubt helped spectator numbers and indeed the number of cars entered for the Festival. The BRSCC received 183 entries, but only 140 or so could be accommodated.

Due to the sheer number of drivers taking part, more heats and additional quarter finals were introduced to the format. Through awful weather conditions and heavy rain, Ian Bell, Bremner, Daly and Morris won the opening four heats, while the second quartet were taken by Kenny Gray, David Kennedy, 1973 winner Macleod and Warwick. All of the above made it through their respective quarter-finals, Bremner, Daly, Gray and Macleod all doing so as winners to put themselves among the favourites for victory.

Daly got into the lead of the first semi-final from the start and with Morris also moving into second not long after, the Hawke twins charged clear to a straightforward 1-2 finish with Bremner’s Crossle not far behind.

The driver everyone was anticipating to chase in 1977 was Chico Serra from Brazil – and he didn’t disappoint

Warwick, Macleod, Gray and Kennedy were all in contention for the second semi-final, along with additional opposition from Dutch pilot Michael Bleekemolen and Bobby Scott, but it was Macleod who booked his ticket to the final with victory after a final-lap pass for the lead on Gray, while Warwick followed him through to finish second in a valiant drive despite running on just two cylinders.

From the outset in the final, Daly got the jump on Macleod and Warwick from the front row. Macleod stayed pinned to Daly’s tail in the opening laps, but his challenge faded when a clump of mud hit his visor and caused him to spin down to seventh. Freed from the pressure of his closest challenger, Daly was crowned Festival champion with the win and a clean sweep, followed by Warwick and Morris in an all-Hawke podium.

Derek Daly claimed the first Formula Ford Festival to be held at Brands in 1976

Derek Daly claimed the first Formula Ford Festival to be held at Brands in 1976

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Just six heats, two semis and a final would be the format for 1977, a year in which overseas drivers outside of Europe began to show their prominence in the category. While there were plenty of familiar names in the mix for victory - including Blanchet, John Village, Morris, David Leslie, Macleod, Bernard Devaney and even a young and promising Nigel Mansell - the driver everyone was anticipating to chase was Chico Serra from Brazil – and he didn’t disappoint.

Serra recovered from a grassy moment at Druids to capture victory in his heat from Blanchet on the final lap, with Yves Sarazin of France capturing heat two. Macleod captured the third, with Leslie on his gearbox at the end, while Trevor van Rooyen prevailed in the fourth. Colin Lees was a surprise winner of the fifth after engine issues for Morris, and Michael Bleekemolen took top spot in the sixth to round off the preliminaries.

The front row for the first semi-final featured Serra and Sarazin, joined by another rapid Brit in James Weaver. But after Weaver spun down the field midway through, Serra was free to pull a gap of more than six seconds by the end, with Sarazin a dutiful second and Blanchet moving into third.

Devaney started on pole for the second semi and led for the first couple of laps before Leslie squeezed through. When van Rooyen tried to do the same, Devaney (his engine suffering from a lack of power) showed him to the grass - a move for which he was reprimanded after the race. Leslie charged into the final with a win ahead of Macleod and van Rooyen, as Devaney dropped to fouth. A third semi-final took place on this occasion too, Bleekemolen taking a lead he wouldn’t lose ahead of the duelling Roger Pedrick and Peter Argetsinger.

In the final itself, Serra managed to successfully jump from the front row ahead of Leslie and Blanchet, repeating his previously dominant performances to take a relatively easy Festival win, becoming the first driver outside of the UK and Ireland to win the event outright. Behind Leslie’s excellent effort, van Rooyen completed a relatively international podium in third.

Interest and entry numbers remained sky high for 1978, as 178 drivers attempted to grab one of the 160 spots available for the eight 20-car heats. Among the winners of those eight heats were future grand prix winner Thierry Boutsen (Belgium) and Formula 2 king Mike Thackwell (New Zealand), along with Weaver, Michael Roe, former winner Macleod, Almo Coppelli, Trevor Templeton and Walsh. Macleod, Roe, Templeton and Walsh also added quarter-final wins to their tallies.

Devaney had kept his power dry through the preliminaries and began to show his hand in the first semi-final (there were only two once more, after the three held the previous year). He went into battle with Roe in the early stages, before Weaver's arrival on the scene made it a leading trio.

Michael Roe leads Bernard Devaney at the 1978 Formula Ford Festival

Michael Roe leads Bernard Devaney at the 1978 Formula Ford Festival

Photo by: Jeff Bloxham

Devaney and Weaver slotted past Roe at Paddock Hill Bend on successive laps, the first-named clinching the win to book his place in the final. A multi-car incident just two corners into the second semi forced a restart, after which saw Templeton got away cleanly to lead Walsh, Thackwell and Village. But it was Walsh who emerged victorious thanks to an opportune pass at Paddock.

Initially, Devaney got a flyer off the line to kick off the final, but his luck ran out at Paddock Hill Bend where he and Walsh tangled, putting both out on the spot and also compromising Templeton and Village. All this was to the benefit of Roe, who led from Weaver, Gray, Joey Greenan and Thackwell.

Weaver wasted no time in getting onto Roe’s gearbox, remaining there for almost the entire duration of the final - he did claim the lead briefly in the closing stages, before Roe took it straight back again. Just a tenth of a second separated the two drivers at the flag as Roe claimed victory, while Gray completed the podium.

The 1979 edition made history by delivering the Festival's first two-time winner, the second victory for Macleod a feat that wouldn’t be matched for more than 35 years.

Macleod drove his Sark clean through the standing water at Graham Hill Bend and simply disappeared into the distance. He wouldn't be seen again until parc ferme, the Scot powering to a superb win with a ten second margin

Another former winner, 1974 victor Morgan, charged to victory in heat one, his result matched across the other seven by Robert Gibbs, David Sears, Carlos Abdala, Macleod, Terry Gray, Argetsinger and Cameron Binnie. Morgan, Gray and Macleod were relatively dominant, while Argetsinger benefitted from a final lap steering problem for David Griffin to claim his heat.

Morgan, Sears, Fernando Ribeiro and Binnie were victorious in the quarter-finals, before Sears managed to get the jump in the first semi-final away from Morgan and Rick Morris. But Morris worked his way into the lead by passing Morgan after Sears spun down the order on lap three, and cleared off to win by six seconds, with Tommy Byrne capturing third behind Morgan. In the other semi, Gray and Roberto Moreno initially held the leading spots, before a charging Macleod carved past both to claim victory by more than five seconds.

MacLeod and Morris lined up on the front row for the final in wet conditions, but both were jumped into Paddock by Gray. However, Macleod drove his Sark clean through the standing water at Graham Hill Bend and simply disappeared into the distance. He wouldn't be seen again until parc ferme, the Scot powering to a superb win with a ten second margin, while Gray, Morris and Sears completed the top four.

The first eight Festivals had produced plenty of incredible talent from the British Isles that had proven themselves worthy competitors. But heading into the 1980s, the event was about to reach new heights that even the BRSCC hadn’t anticipated as entries numbers went through the roof. The Formula Ford Festival was about to truly go global...

Donald Macleod (145) leads Terry Gray and Rick Morris in the 1979 FF Festival final

Donald Macleod (145) leads Terry Gray and Rick Morris in the 1979 FF Festival final

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