The legendary Formula Ford engine that made Festival kings
It’s 50 years since the first Formula Ford Festival was held. Of all the Kent motors to have appeared at the event, one known as ‘Patch’ stands out for its success with four consecutive wins in the Brands Hatch jamboree between 1980 and 1983. Its first driver, Roberto Moreno, and engine builder Graham Fuller tell its remarkable story
Each year, the Formula Ford Festival writes itself onto calendars all over the world, reminding those whose careers owe much to their once youthful exploits of where it all began. Chatter in the paddock, then late into the night in the Kentagon, spawns excited debates as to the finest drivers, teams and cars, yet there is always one constant: the engine that was undoubtedly the greatest of all, ‘Patch’.
The twist to this story is that, even without Patch’s involvement, drivers would have still most likely fulfilled their destiny, and yet thanks to the determination of a young Brazilian called Roberto Moreno, and a dedicated team of former racers-turned-engine builders (David Minister and Graham Fuller), history was rightly written.
Long before Moreno arrived in England, Minister was building winning engines, drivers such as Richard Morgan and Geoff Lees enjoying success while sporting Minister’s badge. Then, in early 1979, inspired by Nelson Piquet, Moreno headed across the Atlantic to a meeting with Greg Siddle, Piquet’s former team manager.
Siddle helped Moreno buy a Royale, then sent him to Minister for an engine. They liked the fresh-faced youth who would offer to labour and clean parts in return for a few pounds off his bill, and who slept in his car and ate blackened bananas as he stretched his budget yet further. But it was his presence on the track that made others take notice.
“There were two races in 1979 that brought me to Ralph Firman’s [Van Diemen boss] attention,” Moreno recalls. “The first was at Mallory Park when I was fighting for the lead with Van Diemen’s Terry Gray. I came out of the hairpin, locked on his gearbox, then as I moved to pass, he blocked me, so I switched to the outside and overtook him off the racing line around Gerard’s.
“The second time was at Silverstone. It was a quiet weekend for racing and so all the top teams and drivers had entered. I’d made some modifications to my car because it was too high and heavy. Pat Symonds [the Royale’s designer] walked off in disgust when he saw what I’d done, but it paid off as I put it on pole, only to be protested.
Patch, the legendary Formula Ford engine
Photo by: Steve Hindle
“Then, after I won the race, the scrutineers took it away and inspected it. Of course, they found nothing wrong and that was when Ralph called me to say that he was the one who had made the protest, because he couldn’t believe that I’d beaten his guys fairly. There and then, he offered me a drive.
“I knew that Van Diemen would have the best car in 1980, but I also knew that I wouldn’t be speaking to Ralph if Minister hadn’t supported me, so I agreed, but only if Minister came with me. Ralph was against this. His preference was to use either an Auriga or a Scholar engine, but I insisted, and we did the deal.”
The relationship started well. Moreno won races, and orders for Van Diemen’s RF80 were in high demand. But, as the season progressed, his form declined, prompting Firman to suggest that either his driver or engine had lost their edge. The Brazilian resisted calls to switch to Scholar but, when results remained below expectations, the pressure became more intense.
"The fact that this damaged block had already experienced heat cycles made it easier for us to machine. So, we made a bladed tool to go on the mill and, ever so slowly, were able to perfectly align the main caps to the block" Graham Fuller
A back-to-back test with four Minister units was arranged; lap times from every session were within a tenth, which led Firman to voice his doubts ever louder. Moreno tried all the changes he could, but to no avail. Eventually he was forced to approach his boss and ask to try his team-mate’s car. Firman’s delight was shortlived.
“I told Ralph that, while I wanted to use Tommy Byrne’s car, it had to be with my spare engine,” remembers Moreno. “Ralph didn’t like this, but I told him that, if I still wasn’t any faster, I’d do whatever he wanted. We did the test, another back-to-back, and guess what? I went four tenths quicker using Tommy’s.
“Eventually, we found the problem. My mechanic had swapped my front bar for a chrome-plated one he’d seen in the factory, not realising that its material composition was different. But, meanwhile, all this had pushed Minister’s engine development and the next phone call I had from Graham was the one I’d been waiting for.”
The story of how Patch came to be has been woven into myth. Some say that it was buried in frozen ground, others that it was left outside and exposed to the elements.
“All engines need to be operated within parameters – if you miss a gear, say go into second when you’re looking for fourth, you’re going to seriously over-rev it and cause a massive problem; this is what happened to the block that became ‘Patch’,” is Fuller’s version of events.
Ayrton Senna enjoyed phenomenal success with Patch, but skipped the 1981 Festival
Photo by: Motorsport Images
“There was a significant over-rev and it not only broke a cam follower but fired it through an oil gallery then straight through the side. However, when we took it apart, other than the hole, the rest of the architecture was good, so we kept it.
“It was a customer engine and, while we knew we could repair it, returning it to its owner with a metal plate covering a hole simply wasn’t acceptable. That sort of repair hadn’t been done before [professionally] and neither the customer nor we would have been happy with anything other than a new unit, which is what he got.”
For a while, the redundant block remained under the bench, occasionally being dragged out to act as a seat at lunchtime but, with Moreno desperate for a solution to his loss of pace, Minister decided to try something new.
“It was a relatively new block,” continues Fuller. “The bore sizes weren’t worn, and we felt that if someone needed an emergency repair, we might be able to use it. At this time, we were in a phase of continuous development. What we were buying from Ford were standard units; it was down to us to make them competitive.
“We were looking at measurably fine details, anything that could deliver an extra half horsepower. The fact that this damaged block had already experienced heat cycles made it easier for us to machine. So, we made a bladed tool to go on the mill and, ever so slowly, were able to perfectly align the main caps to the block. This in turn made a perfect fit for the bearings, hence when the crankshaft was introduced, it was free to work to the top of the range.
“Roberto pushed us hard. We knew we were going in the right direction, so suggested that he let us transfer the internals from his spare engine into this project. All that was left was for David to screw a metal plate over the hole and that was it. The results from the dyno confirmed our thoughts, so the next step was to test it on track.”
The test took place at Snetterton. It was a cold autumn day, Moreno went out, put heat into his tyres and immediately went faster than he had gone before. Firman left with a smile, knowing that his driver now had the equipment to match his ability.
Julian Bailey was Patch's third race-winning driver at the Festival in 1982
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Free from distraction, Moreno was back to his best. At the Festival he took pole, then won every race he was in, setting a series of new lap records, and overcoming the challenge of Byrne (that year’s champion) in both the semi-final and final to win comfortably. And so the legend of Patch began.
The following year, another young Brazilian arrived in Norfolk. Ayrton Senna da Silva had been recommended to Firman by Chico Serra, himself a previous star of Formula Ford. Senna was a natural, sometimes brash but undeniably brilliant. The RF81 suited him well and, with Patch to power him, he won his third ever car race at Brands Hatch, and from there went on to double championship glory.
When Senna returned abruptly to Brazil, choosing to miss the Festival, it was Byrne who immediately approached Fuller and asked if he could use the engine instead of his own. Byrne was another who proved unbeatable with the right equipment.
It was never the case that it enjoyed significantly more horsepower, nor did it surge with an excess of torque. It was simply a very well-built and maintained engine
So too was Julian Bailey and, when he asked Minister to equip his Lola for a full campaign in 1982, Fuller agreed. Bailey won the Townsend Thoresen championship and Festival that year, and probably would have won the RAC championship too had a bitter on-track rivalry with Mauricio Gugelmin not resulted in him eliminated from the lead at Snetterton.
For 1983, Patch was again in top form, this time with Andrew Gilbert-Scott, who surpassed Bailey by winning two championships and the Festival. Even more remarkable was that he took the championship titles with Lola and then switched to a Reynard for the Festival.
But any hopes of five Festival victories in a row were dashed in 1984 when John Pratt spun out of contention in his semi-final. Nevertheless, though engine advancements were being made, Patch had one more important campaign under its belt, taking Mark Blundell to the Esso championship title in 1985.
It’s little wonder that the block that was once a stool powered its way into history, yet it was never the case that it enjoyed significantly more horsepower, nor did it surge with an excess of torque. It was simply a very well-built and maintained engine that inspired those with the ability to use it correctly to harness its might and win.
Patch, the legendary Formula Ford engine
Photo by: Steve Hindle
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