Formula Ford Festival at 50: When future F1 stars showed their mettle

The likes of Mark Webber and Jenson Button triumphed in the Formula Ford Festival on their way up the single-seater ladder in the 1990s, continuing its relevance to up-and-comers against increasing competition from other series. On the eve of its 50th edition this weekend, Autosport takes a look back

Formula Ford Festival at 50: When future F1 stars showed their mettle

The 1990s was a decade of enormous transition for the single-seater landscape, including the Formula Ford Festival. For 1990, a massive push from Renault UK for its own category had resulted in a slashing of grid numbers for Britain’s two major FF1600 championships, although the twin Junior series remained largely unscathed.

But the Festival entry was superb, and a weekend of sensational racing resulted in a dramatic victory for category veteran Dave Coyne in his works Swift. Coyne, back in an FF1600 cockpit after a season in FRenault, had been put to the back of the grid for his heat with a 10-second delayed start thanks to a yellow-flag offence in qualifying. His progress through his heat and quarter-final was unspectacular, but he suddenly became a force in his semi-final. On a wet track, he carved through from the ninth row to defeat 1989 Festival winner Niko Palhares (stepping down from an F3 campaign, with a Manor Motorsport Van Diemen) and the Graff Racing Van Diemen of French FF1600 champion Jean-Christophe Boullion. Michael Edgar, a leading contender on the Irish scene, won the other semi at the wheel of his Cliff Dempsey Racing Van Diemen from Fionn Murray’s works Fulmar Reynard and Jeremy Cotterill (Venom Racing Van Diemen).

On the dry track, Coyne took the lead of the final as Edgar faded. But Palhares’s Van Diemen was more than a match for the Swift and took the lead, only to stop with an electrical fault. That left Coyne to defend from Boullion, but their battle slowed them, and Murray latched on in the late stages. At Clearways on the final lap, Murray got ahead for second and finished just 0.29s adrift of Coyne, with 0.50s covering the top three. RAC British champion Michael Vergers had just scraped his works Van Diemen into the final, 28th on the grid, after a spin in his semi, but was fourth after a sensational drive, ahead of Marc Goossens, Neil Cunningham and Edgar.

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Edgar, Palhares, Murray and Vergers had won the quarter-finals, while heat victories went to Simon Harrison, Goossens, Andrew O’Hara, Palhares, Murray, Martijn Koene, double Junior champion Warren Hughes (his was the fastest heat, but he went out of the final in a clash with Duda Rosa) and Vergers. Out at this stage was Motorcraft champion Gareth Rees, who started heat one from the back after qualifying, tangled with Ivan Arias and could not make the quarter-final cut.

With the new Formula Vauxhall Junior category launched in the UK for 1991 and aimed at karting graduates, this could have been further bad news for FFord. But increased backing from the Blue Oval was combined with a merger between the four major national series (two senior and two junior), and resulted in one strong British championship. This was won by Marc Goossens at the wheel of the Duckhams-backed works Van Diemen RF91, and he started as Festival favourite.

Sure enough, the Belgian led all but two laps across his four races to claim the coveted event, with a new lap record. But it was rarely easy. Goossens took two laps to pass Finn Tomi Veijalainen, driving a Van Diemen run by former Laser constructor Howard Drake, in his heat, and came under pressure throughout his quarter-final from Veijalainen, thanks in part to a clout from an inattentive backmarker. His semi-final was easier, but the final was a tough one. After fending off an early attack from poleman Warren Hughes, who had stepped down from Vauxhall Lotus to drive a Team JLR Van Diemen, and had won the other semi-final, Goossens came under attack from team-mate and season-long rival Russell Ingall. The Australian was shaping up for a challenge when, with five laps to go, he was accidentally nerfed off the track by third-placed Dino Morelli’s works Fulmar Reynard.

Marc Goossens, Van Diemen RF91, on his way to winning the 1991 Festival

Marc Goossens, Van Diemen RF91, on his way to winning the 1991 Festival

Photo by: Sutton Images

When Morelli stopped on the penultimate lap with a loss of drive, Hughes was promoted to second ahead of Veijalainen. Recent karting graduate Jamie Spence was a superb fourth, just pipping Andrew McAuley, who had stormed through the field after being placed at the back of the grid for his heat for passing under yellow flags in qualifying. Formula First king Oliver Gavin drove a works Swift to sixth on his FF1600 debut, just ahead of local hero Chris Hall’s Jamun, semi-final fastest lap setter Claudia Hurtgen and Vincent Radermecker.

Ingall, Hall and Hughes had all joined Goossens as quarter-final winners. This quartet were all triumphant in their heats too, as were Morelli, Gavin, Andy Stapley and Patrick Lemarie.

With the new Zetec powerplant set to replace the trusty Kent unit for 1993 at the behest of Ford, the 1992 Festival shaped up as the end of an era. And it produced another classic. Jan Magnussen, who had starred in the British championship in his rookie season of car racing, became the third driver to win the Brands classic after starting at the back of the grid for his heat. In his case, it was because his Foundation Racing Van Diemen was found to be 4kg underweight after qualifying.

Magnussen enjoyed a heat of remarkable attrition and then, thanks to a shunt between Mark Marchant and Brian Saunders as they battled for the lead, the Danish teenager inherited second place behind Swede Thomas Johansson. Wet weather for the quarter and semi-finals did not suit the set-up of Magnussen’s car. He was narrowly defeated by the works Swift of Neil Cunningham in his quarter-final. Then, in his semi, he trailed not only Cunningham but race winner Oliver Gavin – the 1992 Vauxhall Lotus runner-up had been drafted into the factory Swift squad to replace British FF1600 title winner Jamie Spence, who was serving a ban for his driving tactics in the championship finale at Silverstone.

Russell Ingall returned full-time to the Formula Ford category in 1993, charged with winning the British title for Van Diemen. This he did convincingly, and he was clear favourite for the Festival

FF1600 returnee Jonathan McGall had taken resounding wins in his quarter and semi-finals, his Mondiale particularly suited to the wet. But the track was dry apart from a few damp patches for the final, and he would fade rapidly. While Gavin took an early lead, Magnussen was given a clear path to the front when 1991 French champion Franck Guibbert tangled with the works Van Diemen of Andrew McAuley, who had driven a blinder in his semi-final from way down the grid after two offs caused by a sticking throttle in his quarter-final.

Magnussen pulled off a sensational move around the outside of Paddock to take the lead from Gavin. Then, as Gavin tried to retaliate two laps later at Druids, they made contact. A nosebox clip that jammed the pedals forced Gavin into retirement, while Magnussen resumed in second place behind Cunningham. Magnussen repeated his outside-at-Paddock move to reclaim the advantage, before Cunningham suffered the heartbreak of gear-linkage failure. That promoted fellow Australian Russell Ingall, back from a German F3 campaign, to second: driving a quasi-works, Martin Donnelly-entered Van Diemen, Ingall had spun down to an eventual fourth in his semi while challenging McGall for the lead, but recovered to beat the Ray of Brands specialist Andy Stapley to second. Ken Bowes was a strong fourth from French title winner Alexandre Janoray and McGall.

Apart from McGall and Cunningham, quarter-final wins went to Gavin and Ingall. The heats were won by Justin Keen, Stapley, Chris Hall, McAuley, Cunningham, Ingall, Johansson and Bowes.

1992 Festival winner Jan Magnussen celebrates on the podium alongside Russell Ingall and Andrew Stapley

1992 Festival winner Jan Magnussen celebrates on the podium alongside Russell Ingall and Andrew Stapley

The introduction of the Zetec engine for 1993 meant a massive change for Formula Ford. While the 1800cc powerplant was used in the British championship, the UK and Ireland’s myriad regional and one-circuit series stuck with the Kent. Germany, France and the Benelux countries adopted the Zetec, but not the thriving Nordic scene. Festival organiser the BRSCC therefore cut its cloth accordingly: enough Zetec entries were attracted for three heats and a final; a parallel Kent Festival was battled out across six heats, two semis and one final.

Russell Ingall returned full-time to the category in 1993, charged with winning the British title for Van Diemen. This he did convincingly, and he was clear favourite for the Festival. Sure enough, the Australian won his heat from Marc Gene’s Manor Motorsport Van Diemen. The preceding heat went to the works Swift of Jonny Kane, who rose from third to defeat Rui Aguas (whose works Van Diemen was jumping out of gear) and team-mate Justin Keen. After Ingall’s victory, the concluding heat was a thriller. Ralph Firman Jr, son of Van Diemen boss Ralph Sr, made a superb FFord debut as the newly crowned Vauxhall Junior champion. He emerged atop a hectic scrap with Frederico Viegas, with the Portuguese also pipped to the post by Kurt Mollekens.

From pole, Ingall led the final throughout. An early crash between Firman and Mollekens as they fought for third allowed Gene through to challenge second-placed Kane, and he passed the Irishman at Druids on lap five. Guy Smith was the interloper in the Portuguese civil war of Aguas and Viegas and, when the Latins clashed, the Yorkshireman secured fourth from Viegas.

Andrew McAuley returned to FF1600 to win a gripping Kent Festival in an Aintree Racing Reynard 92FF. He lost his heat late on to Louis di Resta when he took to the grass to avoid a spinning backmarker. And McAuley was second again in his semi, rising from the third row in a thrilling race to be pipped at the post by German Patrick Simon.

Irish ace Peter Duke won the other semi and battled with Simon for the lead in the final before they tangled at Surtees. That promoted McAuley, who had just won an intense fight with Team USA scholar Jerry Nadeau, to the front. McAuley held on, as Swede Jan Lofgren rose to second from Australian champion Craig Lowndes and the fading Nadeau.

Another format tweak for 1994 meant there were just two first-round bouts – now titled semi-finals – before a Last Chance race to provide the last qualifiers for the final. Foundation Racing had taken over the Vector chassis designed by Dutch aerodynamics boffin Wiet Huidekoper, and its exciting Danish talent Jason Watt had won the British title after engine irregularities scuppered the challenge of Jonny Kane and the factory Swift team.

Watt was in the second semi-final, for which he was outqualified by Benelux champion Bas Leinders at the wheel of an MB Racing Van Diemen. But an alternator problem ruined the Belgian’s race, and Watt strolled to an easy victory to earn pole for the final. French title winner Soheil Ayari (Graff Racing Van Diemen) emerged atop a frantic scrap with Canadian Bertrand Godin (Mygale) and Vincent Vosse (works Van Diemen) for second. The opening semi had gone to another Foundation Vector, in the hands of Guy Smith. The Humberside youngster had lost the lead to Ralph Firman Jr – like Smith stepping down from Vauxhall Lotus – in the early going, before Firman crashed at Clearways. Smith then held off the charging Geoffroy Horion’s Manor Motorsport Van Diemen, with Kane third and struggling to get the power down out of Clearways.

Jason Watt won the 1994 Festival with his Vector TF94, breaking up a spell of Van Diemen dominance

Jason Watt won the 1994 Festival with his Vector TF94, breaking up a spell of Van Diemen dominance

In the final, Smith challenged Watt in the early stages at Paddock, ran wide and dropped back to fourth behind the duelling Ayari and Horion. He regrouped, attacked, and his dive at Paddock forced Ayari into the barriers and Smith out of the race with damage. Now Horion stepped forward to threaten Watt, but ran wide with a last-lap move at Paddock and dropped behind Kane. He tried to fight back at Clearways, only for contact to drop him to fifth. That promoted Vosse to third, while Ayari’s team-mate Patrice Gay moved up to fourth after a charge from 20th on the grid, legacy of a quadruple puncture in qualifying.

The crash-plagued Kent Festival was won by the 1992 Swift of Gavin Wills. The Devonian Castle Combe legend was third in the last of four wet heats, defeated by Nicky Hart and Irish junior champion Damien Faulkner. He was then classified fifth in a red-flagged semi-final, and this was a massive reprieve: Wills had just been eliminated in a pile-up at Druids when a heavy shunt at Paddock resulted in a stoppage, and was reinstated on countback.

Irish Cliff Dempsey Racing pair Faulkner and Mark O’Connor won the two semis, but O’Connor spun early on in the final and Faulkner was passed by Adrian Cottrell. Wills rose to second, then got ahead of Cottrell for the lead. Champion of Brands Mark Marchant, charging in his Jamun from 12th on the grid after a misfire ruined his heat, then homed in on Cottrell, tried his luck in a dramatic bid for second, and the two collided, causing a red flag. Wills led throughout the restart to defeat Alistair Weston and Dane Jan Neumann.

Foundation Racing had taken over the Vector chassis designed by Dutch aerodynamics boffin Wiet Huidekoper, and its exciting Danish talent Jason Watt had won the British title

The 1995 event was full of drama, won by works Van Diemen pilot Kevin McGarrity. The Northern Irishman had been beaten to the British crown by factory Swift ace Bas Leinders, and now was his chance to avenge that. But a faulty airflow meter meant his engine refused to run cleanly in qualifying, and he lined up third for his semi-final, with Leinders fourth. While Kristian Kolby sprinted to victory in his Olympic Motorsport Vector, McGarrity was suffering now from a blocked exhaust robbing him of power, but did a terrific job of fending off warring Swift team-mates Leinders and Miku Santavirta for second.

Another Olympic Vector, in the hands of Giorgio Vinella, crossed the line first at the end of the second semi, but this race had been twice red-flagged. French champion Patrice Gay kept close enough to the Italian to take aggregate victory in his Mygale.

With poleman Kolby wheelspinning furiously, Gay launched into the lead of the final. He was well in front on the third lap when he turned into Surtees and, blinded by the sun, hit dust dragged onto the circuit by a spinner on the previous lap. The unfortunate Gay crashed out. McGarrity was still down in fourth, but moved up to third when Kolby’s car jumped out of gear, passed Leinders for second, and then got ahead of Vinella to lead. As Vinella faded, Leinders and Santavirta got past to challenge McGarrity, only for the Swift pair to tangle heavily and eliminate each other from the race. Vinella was therefore promoted to second, while Mario Haberfeld (Manor Motorsport Van Diemen) grabbed the final podium position from Australian newcomer Mark Webber at the finish line.

1995 Festival winner Kevin McGarrity in his Van Diemen.

1995 Festival winner Kevin McGarrity in his Van Diemen.

Photo by: Sutton Images

The Apollo Motorsport Swift team of 1992 Festival heat winner Ken Bowes dominated the FF1600 division, with European Kent champion Topi Serjala taking the honours. Serjala took a couple of laps to work his way past fellow Finn Risto Virtanen’s Andy Welch Racing Swift in his heat, then defeated the Jamun of Mark Marchant – back in action for the first time since the 1994 Festival – in his semi. The other semi was won by Fredrik Sorlie, and the Norwegian chased Apollo team-mate Serjala home in the final, with karting star Virtanen third on his second race weekend in cars. The third Apollo Swift of Mikko Lempinen crashed out with Marchant as they battled for fourth.

Mark Webber’s Festival taster in 1995 was the prelude to a full season in Britain with the works Van Diemen team for 1996. Team-mate Kristian Kolby defeated him to the title, but it was all to play for at the end-of-season Brands classic. Sure enough, it was a third of the Norfolk squad’s cars, driven by Vitor Meira, that proved invincible in qualifying for the first semi-final, but a poor start for the Brazilian allowed Kolby into the lead. Then rain started falling, the Dane spun, and Meira was back in front. Kolby fought back from sixth to challenge Robert Lechner for second on the final lap, but went off again and dropped back to sixth, with Lechner second and Darren Malkin third.

Jacky van der Ende went into the lead of the second semi in his Haywood Racing Mygale, before Webber passed him on lap two. The Australian went on to win, with Tommy Field starring to take third in his year-old Lanan Racing Van Diemen.

Again van der Ende led in the final, but Webber sailed around his outside at Paddock on the fourth lap, and was never headed thereafter. Field also got past the Dutchman and challenged Webber briefly, but began to fade as the track dried and took an excellent second. A red flag due to a shunt on Brabham Straight meant a restart and an aggregate result. Michael Vergers, returning to FFord in an Andy Welch Racing Van Diemen, had started from the back of the grid for his semi with a 10-second penalty due to a ride-height infringement in qualifying, but completed a sensational drive to take second on the road at the restart, although Field got the verdict on aggregate. Meanwhile, Kolby crashed into the spun Mygale of French champion David Terrien, Meira spun off at Paddock, so it was Robert Lechner who placed fourth.

Mark Marchant finally tasted glory in the Kent Festival with his Jamun. He won his heat, then kept Castle Combe champion Kevin Mills’s Swift at bay in his semi-final. The other semi was won by the Swift of Simon Hill, despite a cracked distributor cap costing him power and causing a race-long defence. The team went to change it for the final, only to accidentally put the cracked cap back on again… Once again, it was a Marchant masterclass as he kept Mills behind, with Irish talent Jeff Wright (Vector) closing on both, and Hill slipping to sixth.

The Festival title was gone for 1997. Ford pumped support into an event renamed the World Finals, with Jackie Stewart on hand to award test drives with his F1 and F3 teams, plus a £20,000 cheque to the winner. It deservedly went to Jacky van der Ende, who had transferred to the Van Diemen team for the season and had already won the British title.

From left to right: Dan Wheldon, Sir Jackie Stewart holding the FF World Cup, 1997 winner Jacky van der Ende, and Richard Tarling pose on Stewart's SF01 F1 car

From left to right: Dan Wheldon, Sir Jackie Stewart holding the FF World Cup, 1997 winner Jacky van der Ende, and Richard Tarling pose on Stewart's SF01 F1 car

Photo by: LAT

The format was tweaked too. The top seeds progressed directly to three heats, with everyone else taking part in two ‘pre-qualifier’ races each. The Kent Festival, meanwhile, was dropped. On a track still damp from morning dew, van der Ende led the first heat all the way, with Robert Lechner second and Rodrigo Sperafico third, the Brazilian having won his two pre-qualifiers. American Paul Edwards also won two preliminary races, and he continued his momentum to put his Swift on pole for heat two. Sperafico’s twin brother Ricardo nudged Edwards wide early in this one to take the lead, before losing the advantage to Dan Wheldon. Sperafico now attacked Wheldon, but more contact dropped him to sixth at the flag. Richard Tarling’s Haywood Racing Mygale headed Vitor Meira and French champion Matthew Davies in the final heat, and took pole for the final.

Van der Ende started the final from third, but passed Wheldon for second on lap two at Paddock, and then got ahead of Tarling at the same place three tours later. Van der Ende led Tarling to the finish, but it was all action behind. A clash between Davies and Edwards promoted Wheldon back up to third, and Davies’s bid to recover the place ended with his Graff Racing Van Diemen and Wheldon’s Andy Welch Racing version flying into the gravel at Paddock. That elevated the fight between Edwards and Lechner, but they collided at Clearways on the final lap, and a disbelieving Ricardo Sperafico completed the podium from 17th on the grid, ahead of van der Ende’s brother Ricardo.

The Festival title was back for 1998, and for the first time in Zetec history there would be four heats, before two semis and the final. The icing on the cake was a sensational battle for victory between three drivers who would go on to become megastars on separate continents in the 21st century: future Formula 1 world champion Jenson Button; two-time Indy 500-winner-to-be Dan Wheldon; and double Australian V8 Supercars title winner Marcos Ambrose.

The Festival title was gone for 1997. Ford pumped support into an event renamed the World Finals, with Jackie Stewart on hand to award test drives with his F1 and F3 teams, plus a £20,000 cheque to the winner. It deservedly went to Jacky van der Ende

The heats were wet, and Button’s Haywood Racing Mygale beat the works Van Diemen of Ambrose – whose father Ross had founded Van Diemen with Ralph Firman in 1973 – in the third of them. Wheldon won the second, while the others also went to Haywood Mygale and works Van Diemen drivers: Derek Hayes and Rob Collard respectively.

In the first semi-final, Ambrose made short work of Button and Hayes to take the lead. Button was shaping up to pass Hayes for second when the Northern Irishman’s suspension collapsed on the approach to Paddock and he crashed heavily. Button continued to finish second. Wheldon passed Collard on the third lap of the second semi and was never headed.

While Collard dropped further places, a battle for second exploded on the last lap when Barry Horne, Anthony Gheza and Timo Bernhard all got together at Druids, allowing Horne to finish second from Collard.

1998 Formula Ford Festival winner Jenson Button, Haywood Racing.

1998 Formula Ford Festival winner Jenson Button, Haywood Racing.

Photo by: Bryn Lennon

Ambrose led Wheldon and Button from the start of the final, before Button moved up to second on lap three. Soon he and Ambrose were trading the lead, passing and repassing. This continued up to Clearways on the penultimate lap, when Button made his move, Ambrose turned in, and the Tasmanian was pitched out of the race. Wheldon then moved in to attack, but Button narrowly clinched honours to add the Festival crown to his British title in his rookie season of car racing. Nicolas Kiesa rose from ninth on the grid to take third in his ADR Motorsport Van Diemen, while Horne pipped Walter Lechner Jr to fourth.

The 1999 Festival could have gone any one of several ways, but in the end there was a familiar result: a win for one of the van der Ende family in a works Van Diemen, and heartbreak for team-mate Marcos Ambrose. This time it was Ricardo van der Ende emulating his brother Jacky’s success of 1997, but, mindful of his shunt out of the heats in 1998, the Dutchman knew that surviving the early phases – which took place in the wet – was the name of the game.

There was a scare in his heat, which was the fourth and final one. Van der Ende led most of the way, before a mistake allowed Craig Murray’s Haywood Racing Mygale through. Van der Ende fought back, and his move shoved Murray wide through the gravel at Paddock, the Scot slipping to an eventual fourth. FFord newcomer Kimi Raikkonen had won the opening heat in a Continental Racing Van Diemen, before Ambrose scored in the second, and British champion Nicolas Kiesa’s Haywood Mygale fended off James Courtney’s works Van Diemen in the third.

Kiesa didn’t take long to pass poleman Raikkonen in the first semi-final. As the Dane sprinted to victory, Finnish youngster Raikkonen finally lost out to Courtney thanks to a breathtaking move for second at Paddock on the last lap. Ambrose was never troubled in the other semi as he headed van der Ende, who came under attack late on from Murray, charging from eighth on the grid. Murray spun at Druids on the final lap, but retained third.

Conditions dried for the final, and Ambrose was in a class of his own, instantly extending a lead over Kiesa. Then, on the fourth lap, the Aussie’s gear linkage broke and he was out. Now Kiesa was in front, but he was missing third gear and, when the Dane got a wheel on the kerb exiting Graham Hill Bend, van der Ende dived into the lead at Surtees. Courtney, who had survived early contact that sent Raikkonen out of the race, made his way past Kiesa for second, and Murray followed him through. The Australian went on to complete a Van Diemen 1-2, a left-rear puncture forcing Murray to settle for third, while Kiesa pipped compatriot Jesper Carlsen’s Vector to fourth.

1999 Festival winner Ricardo van der Ende, Duckhams Racing, Van Diemen RF99, waving at James Courtney

1999 Festival winner Ricardo van der Ende, Duckhams Racing, Van Diemen RF99, waving at James Courtney

Photo by: Matt Jennings

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