A Spectator's Guide to 1979 British Racing
During a winter when even Formula One sponsorship stopped being the right of every team one could be forgiven for thinking that 1979 might be a very tough season indeed for those racing primarily in Britain.
In fact the opening races of the British season proved that we are likely to see some of the most entertaining and financially well-supported motor racing seasons of all.
The Aurora model car racing people had come back for another season of Formula Libre with a glitter finish (a handy receptacle for those who cannot get a Formula One race/season). Marlboro had stepped in to take the place of John Player in backing internationals like the March F2 meeting at Silverstone as well as motorcycling's attractive Transatlantic series and the British GP. Vandervell were on hand to make what should prove a rewarding investment in the British F3 title hunt. Even sports-car racing was looking better with new marques set to challenge the Lola domination, and Chequered Flag stepping in to sponsor the third season of Sports 2000 Championship racing.
This was written after the first two weekends of the sport held in the spring sunshine of early March. I went to meetings at Silverstone (BRDC-organised) and Thruxton (BARC) and saw some first class racing, particularly on Silverstone's Club layout where all the events "on the card" provided racing that actually can only be described as thrilling, even if the driving was rougher than ever! No, it was not a saloon car meeting....
The talk was principally of skirts, silencers and new cars seen in public action for the first time. Reputations for the season could literally be made overnight by good performances now, before the opposition could catch their breath.
Skirts? The cynical amongst you will doubtless feel that the subject is always on the agenda in predominantly male company, but the topic was actually skirts for Formula Three cars. At first it was felt that there would be unholy and prolonged scrutineering sessions at Silverstone because the RAC had decided to enforce the obvious implication behind FISA international regulations, making the teams run with fixed side-pod skirting rather than the sliding type. The latter are much more effective and do not wear so quicky on the ground, so most teams were hoping that they would be permitted.
In the event good old British compromise prevailed and the RAC said everyone could run what they liked, so long as it was safe! Only the winner and fastest man in practice (Chico Serra) ran the full sliding skirts. Many did without completely and there are those who feel the whole thing is psychological.
Silencers were a topic of conversation because every club racing formula (all those outside F1, F2, F3 and Gp. 1/2 saloons) were meant to be wearing silencers for the new season. Again the RAC had decided that the regulations were not enforceable at present, their embarrassment compounded by the fact that their regulations governing the sport in Britain had not been printed.
The premier championship so far as the public are concerned, and MCD circuits, will be the 15-round Aurora AFX Formula One/Two championship which will be usually seen in Britain but which also has qualifying rounds in Belgium, France and Holland. Registered runners for the Aurora series seemed more promising than those offered in either Aurora or Formula 5000 in recent years. The first round had not been held when this was written (Zolder, Belgium) but there was a clear indication of the way the series would develop.
The line up for the Aurora series in March included Tyrrell 008s for Desire Wilson and American Gordon Smiley; Fittipaldi F5a for Guy Edwards and Bernard de Dryver; a Lotus 78 for Spaniard Emilio Villota; McLaren M26 (ex-Lunger) for Val Musseti the British-based film stuntman; a pair of Williams FW06s for Giacomo Agostini, the former World multiple Championship title holder, the second car to be possibly hired to Barry Sheene and the unique Derek Bennet-designed Chevron B41-DFV that looked likely to start the year in ex-Unipart F3 driver Tiff Needell's hands. This car is being offered to a number of young British hopefuls throughout the season. David Kennedy was expecting better F1 results from the Wolf than he enjoyed in Australia.
The machinery certainly holds promise, but one of the Formula One correspondents has expressed grave fears of the speeds which these cars will be reaching when fully equipped with side skirts. He feels that the machinery may not be as well maintained as it was and that the tracks are not geared to such exotic machinery in relatively inexperienced hands.
We shall see. The series is very useful in providing somewhere else for the F1 aspirant to gain experience and offers the public something special to watch, so this kind of racing is likely to have a better future than F5000 could hope for.
Formulae can comeback in Britain though. Back in 1979 after a couple of seasons' absence is F/Atlantic, the category that produced Gilles Villeneuve in Canada. It is a popular formula internationally - they have it in South Africa and New Zealand too - and the 1,600 c.c. BDA-engined cars from manufacturers like March, Chevron, and Ralt are fast.
There was quite a lot of unnecessary washing of dirty linen between Brands Hatch and Donington over running F/Atlantic Championships again. That winter squabble did not lose Hitachi as sponsors of a national Championship though, so we shall look forward to seeing how these rapid machines are conducted in 1979.
The 20-race Vandervell Formula Three series kicked off at Silverstone with a 24-car entry composed of new faces trying to beat Brazil's Chico Serra in the Ron Dennis-run works March 793-Toyota. Serra had been one of the pacesetters in 1978, but fellow countryman Nelson Piquet stole all the glory and ended up the year as number two to Niki Lauda. Formula Three really works for the successful and well-financed driver....
The Formula Three grid at Silverstone held some surprises. Even though Serra held pole position on 55.03 sec. he was hotly pursued by no less than 11 others, the slowest in this select group recording 55.90 sec. with the others all squashed in between!
Since the works Marches held the first two positions in practice, 17-year-old Mike Thackwell being second fastest on 55.16 sec., we must pick them as the probable pacesetters of 1979. However the opposition is stiff and likely to learn very fast: Thackwell was in his first F3 race (though he had been practising assiduously in traditional March fashion) and so was Michael Roe on the outside of the front row (sorry about that). Roe is one of the squad of Irish FF1600 people who have invaded British racing in recent seasons with so much success and operates one of the very competitive Tony Southgate-designed Chevron B47-Toyotas.
The large figure of Derek McMahon - the figure behind Derek Daly's early career - is a welcome sight in Bolton for he is linked with a three-car equipe of new Chevron B47s for Bernard Devaney (another quick refugee from FF1600 and the Emerald Isle), Swede Stefan Johansson and Marlboro-sponsored Eddie Jordan. All save Jordan were competitive at Silverstone.
Variety certainly looks like being a feature of Formula Three this season too. Going well at Silverstone, Roberto Guerrero drove the interesting Argo JM3, but we still had to see South African Mike White in the new Delta F3 or the latest Ron Tauranac Ralt design which is said to be more dependent on ground effect principles than thw existing side-pod B47s and March 793s.
However, at Silverstone you did not have to have a brand new car to succeed, for John Bright continued his low-budget Formula Three motoring with a competitive practice time and a fine fourth overall in the 1977 March 773-Toyota. Since this machine was virtually destroyed toward the end of last season, and Bright still had not received his sponsorship money at the beginning of this year, I thought this an achievement worthy of mention.
What of the Unipart team we wrote of last year? They appeared with what amounted to the 1979 March chassis, but the cars were actually the older long-wheelbase design from last year with side pods carefully blended onto their usual smart patriotic paintwork.
Despite having two brand new Swindon Racing engines for new recruit Nigel Mansell and now team leader Brett Riley (Tiff Needell having courageously decided to forsake Unipart security for a chance at F1 motoring), the Unipart pits were not resounding to the sound of mirth. Silverstone's long Club straight saw the Toyotas delivering a hiding to the modified Dolomite Sprint unit.
Both drivers practised well and spectacularly, but in the race even the most determined warfare could produce no more than sixth for Riley and eleventh for Mansell. Back to the drawing board!
The racing was as spectacular as expected, but Serra soon overcame the swift starts of Thackwell and Roe to lead every lap, winning by less than a second from Roe and the Tim Schenken-run March 793 for Andrea di Cesaris. The last lap, last corner, saw Johansson's Chevron fully mounted by Trevor Templeton's Ralt but we were spared the old F3 habit of fisticuffs afterwards, though there was some earnest discussion!
It looks as though Formula Three will be well worth seeing this year. Based on limited early season experience I would expect Michael Roe to emerge as the star name from one of the most competitive British seasons in a long time.
Internationally speaking we ought to discuss Saloon cars next for we have races this year that cater for FR Group 2. This category promised a little more interest than last year's dreadful selection of aged BMW CSLs. The big Bavarian coupes - winners of every ETC title since 1974 - enter their final season this year with as good a chance as ever of winning again. However there are Luigi-run Chevrolet Monzas from Belgium to consider and a new two-car team of AMC Spirit V8s to be run from a base in Yorkshire. We see the cars twice in Britain, at Brands Hatch in April and Silverstone in September when the Tourist Trophy will cater for these cars.
Of more interest in Britain though is what is always coloquially referred to as Group 1½. There was an international TransEurope Trophy for such machines but this was not held in very high regard by the top British teams, for they tend to go for individual events on their own merit. Thus Stuart Graham will take his Capri to Germany three times this year with help from Faberge in that country. Gordon Spice will doubtless contest the Spa 24 hours where he scored such a magnificent victory last year with co-driver Peter Clark, and young Jeff Allam (now with a Ford contract, too) hopes to contest events in France and Belgium where this type of saloon car racing is popular. At least it was until the English came along with their rudely modified cars and started mopping up the locals!
In Britain Group 1½ applies to the Tricentrol-sponsored RAC title hunt, two TransEurope events that were to be hosted at Donington in April and the Silverstone TT meeting in September having been cancelled with the championship.
Prospects for this type of saloon car racing are a little flatter than in the past. Derek Ongaro seems to advise the RAC on regulations these days and a meeting that was meant to sort out regulations, perhaps giving the BMWs a better chance against the Capris and the Dolomites an opportunity to get back to their giant-killing acts, ended in complete chaos. Only the Ford squad were happy that the Capri could go on dominating races overall.
Thus Capri drivers and specifications will be much as before. The BMWs are unlikely to be seen - Tom Walkinshaw Racing preparing 323i models instead for the flamboyant County Championship. So for change we must look to the smaller class where the Broadspeed Dolomites disappear replaced by the Gerry Marshall Dolomites. "Mr. Vauxhall" will be driving one car with former Alfasud pilote and motoring journalist Rex Greenslade in the other. The change will mean that it is the first time for 20 years that the effervescent Broad has not been seen either at the wheel of, or preparing, one of his usually immaculate saloons. He covered everything from the Austin A105 to Minis, Anglias, Escorts, Capris and the ill-fated Jaguars, but now Ralph Broad will pursue car development with some turbocharged road car offerings to lighten any dull days.
Tom Walkinshaw should also cheer things up in this class by running a Mazda RX7 twin rotor sports car of 2.3-litres against the Dolomites and some Vauxhall Magnums which are serving out their last homologation year. The Mazda weighs under 1,000 kg. and should have some 290 b.h.p. from the Racing Services of Twickenham rotary. Walkinshaw says there is no conflict with his BMW activities as he is/has formed a separate company to develop and race the five-speed Mazda. This Japanese car could well mean the Dolomites give up their traditional domination of the class, for the RX7 also has a good aerodynamic drag factor - certainly rather better than that of an elderly four-door saloon!
Sorting out the merits of the formulae that provide the bread and butter fare of most meetings is best done in the order in which they come to mind, rather than any alleged importance for all are important for different reasons - though I still feel there are too many formulae and too many race meetings for them to attract good crowds!
I went to Silverstone prepared for an abysmal attendance and was in for a rude shock. It took three hours at least for the car parks and feeder roads to clear after the meeting, so people are prepared to watch good quality championship racing. My personal feeling is that Silverstone, Thruxton and Donington are in the business of providing race meetings for enthusiasts while Brands Hatch is predominantly interested in show business, though it is only fair to say that Brands Club circuit is still a personal favourite for spectating. The Brands GP layout could justifiably be called Britain's most challenging as Silverstone features that Woodcote chicane and Oulton Park has suffered by the deletion of the longer layout, now mainly used for motorcyclists (who also tackle Silverstone without the Woodcote chicane).
The national formulae
Without Formula Ford 1600, now entering its twelfth season, most UK meetings would run at a loss. We would also lose the finest breeding formula yet and some astonishingly safe racing despite the presence of 60 would-be World Champions at every meeting!
I saw a round of the 1979 Esso FF Championship at Silverstone that was simply breathtaking, five drivers racing for the last corner on the last lap. Significantly Jim Walsh out-thought the rest and won as this Northampton-domiciled Irishman has so many times in the past. I am told that he races for fun rather than the normal ambition of making a living that drivers often hold in this category.
There are six national FF1600 championships, the Esso, Townsend Thoresen and British national title forming the three that many aim for - both Kenny Acheson (now in F3, another Irish refugee!) and Geoff Lees having won all three in one year. The Dunlop Star of Tomorrow FF1600 Championship speaks for itself while the BARC and Kent Messenger titles are also there to be fought for. Incidentally that brilliant rally film director Barry Hinchliffe has made a film for Esso called "The Young Tigers" about their 1978 championship and it portrays Formula Ford today perfectly, reminding one that so many talented youngsters never get the chance to go any further.
Formula Ford is also a good breeding ground for designers. I had a look around the Silverstone Paddock with one of Motoring News' ace reporters and was very impressed by the current Royale RP26 with its single fabricated top link front suspension, neat bodywork and fared-in roll-over hoop. It was nice to see a new name had emerged as worth buying in the PRS while other competitive chassis included those of Van Diemen, Crossle and Hawke. Tim Schenken's Tiga concern had some representation and there was even an old Lotus 61 and the Merlyn name to remind me of club racing seasons past.
Drivers in FF to watch out for, I was advised, included Tom Wood who was involved in that desperate last lap scrabble at Woodcote but was eliminated - interlocked with another top tip, Terry Gray. Another MN nominee, Ian Shaw from Derby, came in second and others mentioned like Martin Boyle and Colin Lees (both Irish) also showed well.
Ford engines, this time modified from the 2-litre Cortina rather than the 1600 crossflow that will continue to be produced for FF and the Federal Fiesta 1600/Escort derivatives, are the base of two thriving formulae. FF2000 we have talked about at some length lately when writing about Adrian Reynard, and his current design for the category started the year off well with what is expected to be a train of victories for the talented David Leslie. Opposition to the 25-year-old Cumbrian will come from 1978 Esso FF Champion Peter Morgan (Lola) and the Delta concern (who won one 2000 title last year) who are running American John Herne.
There are two FF2000 Championships, one with excellent backing from Shell and Martini and the other run by the BARC. Sports 2000 uses the same engine but the cars have monocoque chassis and compete for the single title we mentioned earlier. From what we saw at Silverstone the Sports 2000s are in for an even better year with Tiga driver Ian Taylor set to uphold male pride against the extremely rapid Desiré Wilson in one of many Lolas. There are a lot more Tigas about this year, Maclean Hunter Publishing alone running three such cars - though unfortunately two of these immaculate machines retired in the opening lap at Silverstone! Promising names in the category include Jeremy Rossiter and Richard Morgan, while Chris Alford drove the technically interesting Robinson RS1 (a small front-radiator design) to a creditable eighth overall.
Related by a number of drivers who make the step from one to the other are Sports 2000 (the recipient) and Clubmans (the donor). On Motor Sport we have always had a soft spot for these front-engined cars - mainly Mallocks but I did see a beautifully finished Phantom that did reasonably well in the B-category. Tricentrol sponsor one championship for these cars and the BARC the other, the cars continuing to have either fully modified 1700 engines of some 160 b.h.p. plus (A) or FF1600 units (B) which are naturally a little more popular choice for drivers largely paying their own way. MCD run their own series for 1700s only.
Another category we have given a lot of coverage to in the past are those promoted by the 750 MC for 750s - which look a lot like scaled-down Clubmans cars - and 1300s which contain some beautiful sports racers. Even though they are built on a budget the cars often superbly finished and imaginative as Keith Messer's latest creation shows, I understand. That club also promotes races for the Formula Four machines that sometimes use the old 1-litre F3 units and are often linked with the Varley Batteries Monoposto Championship, another category we have featured at length in Motor Sport.
Those who want to race sports cars made by the recognised road car manufacturers are very well catered for in Britain, but I must say that the round of the DB Motors/Cars and Car Conversions series I saw was not inspirational. The proceedings were dominated by a pair of TVRs, one the interesting convertible of Colin Blower, which won after rival John Kent spun at Woodcote. Variety is good though with a Morgan +8 finishing second, a Lotus Europa third, and a Jaguar E-type fourth. Fifth was Alison Davies in her very well driven Ginetta G15, an easy class winner for someone who knows these Imp-rear-engined machines thoroughly.
That was production sports car racing of course. There is another series sponsored by CAV, but I think I prefer the sound and speed found in modified sports car racing, two series sponsored by STP and the BARC respectively. The cars can be a little tired. One of the most successful is an Elan owned and superbly driven by John Fletcher that I strongly suspect is eligible for historic events!
I am loath to comment on historic vehicle racing as we have more than enough experts in this field, but there is a growing interest with Championships like the Lloyds & Scottish Historic Car; AMOC Thoroughbred Sports Car; Esso Historic Single-Seater; Grand Prix Models Classic Sports Car and even the Wild Rose Caravan Park Historic Special GT Championship. I think we have more than enough comment and coverage of such activities to refrain from adding anything except that I do object to some of the converted cars that are just as much cheats as anything found in the saloon car world, and that could be dangerous because they are so much faster than originally envisaged.
It is a very long time indeed since I saw a Formula Vee or Super Vee race and I am always slightly surprised to find the categories surviving in the land of Formula Ford. Super Vees now have water-cooled engines from the FWD VW range and are very comparable to F3s in lap times, but I still think the attraction with Super Vee must be to go abroad at a reasonable cost and possibly make a name for oneself; I cannot really see the British series doing much for spectators, but I am sure those involved feel strongly that I am totally wrong.
Next to Formula Ford saloon car racing is the mainstay of British national class racing. There are twelve championships outside the RAC title hunt I mentioned earlier and I can only mention the enormous range rather than individual sponsors, who are obvious in one-marque races anyway!
First those one-marque series. This basic idea has always been popular in Britain, but it is not a sure-fire recipe as the abandonment of the VW Golf series for ladies proved prior to the start of this season. Instead, those who like to watch women racing will be able to look either to Sports 2000 (there's Janet Finch, formerly Brise, as well as Desiré Wilson) or the Ford Fiestas that are also part of a rallying championship this season.
The Escorts continue into their last season with familiar names up front, but their celebrity cousins have been replaced by very fleet Chrysler Sunbeam Ti models which were proving two seconds faster a lap than the Fords in initial shakedown trials. Hardly a surprise since they have double Weber carburetter engines!
Renault 5s carry on as usual too, but new for this year is BMW's County Championship for 170 b.h.p. 323i cars. This series will receive separate coverage for we attended the predictably vulgar launch party at Brands Hatch - an occasion redeemed by the personalities on hand and the debut laps of the sparkling Group 5 BMW M1 from March Engines.
Minis could be said to have started the one-make thing, and there are the three Leyland-backed categories (850, 1,000 and 1,275 GT) to watch, plus the pleasure hundreds of club racers still get from these cheap but effective Issigonis boxes in mixed saloon cars races too. Such races divide into two types: modified or special saloons and production saloons.
The first-named have four titles to chase and the latter two. Modified saloons have become ever more specialised, the front runners now less spetacular than those of a few seasons back, but the Skoda has gained a lot of ground for its rear engine layout allows the adoption of a good Cosworth engine and Hewland transaxle. Thus, also, the popularity of the Imp - in fact there's even Alan Humberstone's ground effect modified Stiletto to watch this year, complete with side pods and skirts!
Produduction saloon car racing has earned a name for rough tactics and rough cars in the past, but 1978 double champion Gerry Marshall always turns out in an absolutely pristine Dolomite Sprint. If the Marshall name is familiar so are those of his opponents, Tony Lanfranchi running a smart Opel Commodore in his 22nd season of racing! Production saloons are probably the best value for the average spectator on their road tyres, but some of the drivers do find the category a bit limited compared to the race-tyred cars in the RAC series.
As you can see British racing still pulls them in on the sponsorship side, and long may that continue. Having just attended the final of the Lancia Show Jumping series, in which the sponsor gets guaranteed TV coverage and a fair amount of national reportage for £50,000, I do wonder if motor racing is giving equal value to its backers? Coverage tends to be sparse and some of the meetings crowded onto the calendar have little to offer the public.
It is still a great sport, but there is never room for complacency. - J. W.