New zeal for big-bangers

Formula 5000 is hugely popular once again in New Zealand, but as the annual Tasman Cup Revival proves its appeal stretches around the world
By Marcus Pye

Contrary to popular belief, New Zealand no longer has the highest ratio of sheep to people of any territory on the planet, but it does boast more Formula 5000 cars per capita than any other country. Over 30 at the last count, against a population of 4.27 million – with more arriving by the year.

The 5-litre stock-block racing category – which brought Formula 1 speeds to the masses for a fraction of the running costs of the 3-litre Cosworth DFV engine – kicked off in the USA’s Formula A in 1968, having injected some meaning into its previous rag, tag and bobtail mix of smaller-bore single-seaters.

As F5000 (a title later adopted in the States), with its predominantly American V8 powerplants, it crossed the Atlantic and rampaged into South Africa, then Europe from 1969, Australia from 1970 and New Zealand from ’71. The slugging 500bhp engines may have been unreliable until cast-iron cylinder heads were replaced by aluminium ones, but the thunderous class had presence.

Wherever it went, it pitched some of the world’s finest drivers in professionally-run machinery against capable enthusiasts and some ill-prepared rank amateurs. McLaren M10-mounted Peter Gethin was the early star in Britain, and subsequent battles between Australian Frank Gardner and Brian Redman sustained its following.

That F5000 publicly embarrassed F1, through Gethin’s Chevron B24 victory when the sides met in the 1973 Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, may have been counter-productive. That unique success against the odds may now be viewed as a coup, but it did not go down terribly well at the time. By the end of ’75, F5000 had run its course there, in South Africa and in the Australasian Tasman Series.

Within a year it was all over in the USA too – reduced to club racing with the SCCA, its initial proponent – three seasons of domination by brilliant Briton Redman in Lola T330/332 series chassis having demoralised all-comers. New Zealand dropped the baton at the close of the 1976 season (in favour of 1600cc Formula Pacific), but F5000 remained alive in Australia, under various labels, into ’82.

Perhaps it was New Zealand’s premature bow-out of F5000, a sense of unfinished business, or spectacle that could never be replaced, which triggered the current fanaticism for the 180mph leviathans? Or maybe it was the Kiwis’ fascination with all things mechanical, imbued with the DNA of cars from Bruce McLaren, triple Tasman Cup champion Graham McRae and George Begg’s stables? Whatever the answer, retro mania has become an obsession in the Southern Hemisphere.

Key to this is the galvanising hand of the New Zealand Formula 5000 Association, a competitor-run organisation which focuses every activity to further the cause. From brokering quality events, developing long-term relationships with series sponsors, masterminding the logistics of transporting cars between circuits spread across two islands (and on to Australia) and historical matters, it strives to keep members happy and grids high.

Founded in 2002 – and driven forward by John Mann, who promptly sold his car – the NZF5000A concentrated on domestic meetings initially, but hit the world stage when it brought nine drivers and their cars to swell the HSCC’s Derek Bell Trophy ranks at Brands Hatch (Superprix) and Silverstone (Classic) in the summer of ’05. Among the competitors then was David Abbott, the soft-spoken Cathay Pacific airline captain who has become the organisation’s spokesman.

“Tony Roberts and Chris Watson at the Historic Racing Club had always left the door open for F5000s [to race here] through their Formule Libre class. Once a few of us got excited and bought cars in Australia it began to gather momentum and the time was right to start formalising things. Our biggest step forward was going to the UK, but once our friends up there started to reciprocate [joining others from Australia and the USA] it spread like wildfire.

“We have got a handle on the regulations now – a few cars had strayed away from where they should be – and the product is improving by the year, with an ever greater fan following. Now that [Roberts and Watson’s] Hampton Downs circuit is open, and we have other good tracks at Taupo and [on the south island] Ruapuna, we need to be marketing it to commercial sponsors and TV stations.”

That Aucklander Ken Smith – who raced a Lola T332 in period and has rejoined the fray – is the senior statesman on track is an inestimable bonus for fellow racers, as well as a yardstick by which to measure their performance. Now aged 68 and reigning MSC F5000 Tasman Cup Revival champion, Smith adores the V8 power-sledges above all others he has raced over 51 years.

“They are very special. In 1976 I was the first resident New Zealander to win our Grand Prix [in a T332]. That was the best win of my life. The driving style was so different. Success in today’s cars is 20 per cent driver and 80 per cent set-up. It was the opposite in F5000, where if the set-up wasn’t right you sorted it with the throttle and steering. I’m not one for technology, but I had fantastic Chaparral engines, limited the revs and used the same one for eight races in eight weekends. [Those involved in] F5000 then can be proud of what’s happening today. I am.”

Following a clean sweep of the eight races at Hampton Downs and Pukekohe in January in Abbott’s second Lola T430, Smith is favourite to retain his crown when the series climaxes at Phillip Island and Melbourne in March.

The NZF5000A prides itself in maintaining close links with all class veterans. Graeme Lawrence, the 1969 Tasman Cup champ in an ex-works F2 Ferrari, also excelled in big Lolas and – having survived a horrendous shunt at Pukekohe in 1972, when his cartwheeling T300 hit a train parked on an embankment adjacent to the back straight – came back to win races in the Marlboro/Singapore Airlines-backed T332.

He demonstrated the car, now owned by Russell Greer, during the recent Festival of NZ Motor Racing, and was blown away by both the experience and the memories: “I hadn’t driven the Lola since 1976 or ’77, and thought I might be fazed by the horsepower. But after a few laps it all came back like it was three or four weeks ago. It’s still a magnificent car, and I can’t wait to have another shot. When Russell and his wife said it would always be my car, that they were just proud custodians, I was quite emotional.”

Also on track during the international events were Jim Murdoch, reunited with the splendid Begg 018 that he raced in 1974, and David Oxton, who raced an earlier Begg FM5 in Europe in period. When its sister car became unavailable, PR man Abbott put him out in his Lola T430 instead. The smiles afterwards said everything. But racing in New Zealand was always like that, sporting and sociable – away from the deadly serious stuff!

Today’s young bucks, like Mitch Evans and Earl Bamber, compete against overseas drivers from as far afield as Brazil and Estonia in the Toyota Racing Series, driving identical state-of-the-art carbon-fibre cars similar to Formula Renaults in Europe. They lap Hampton Downs a few tenths quicker than the best F5000s, but with none of the drama of the fabulous heavyweights of yore. Ask the spectators. Or Ken Smith, who competes in it too, taking on lads a quarter of his age. His heart will forever belong to the big-bangers.