First Past the Post



Crunch! Déja vu. A track test of a Formula First wouldn’t be complete without a good hard shunt to write about. Still I’m getting ahead of myself. . . .

Brands Hatch promote two one make single-seater formulae to provide a ladder for aspiring drivers. I was fortunate to have the opportunity of trying both on the Brands Hatch Indy circuit.

Formula First was created to satisfy the need for a professional mainstream below the now prohibitively expensive Ford 1600 category and as a concept it has definitely been a success. While a Formula First is not an attractive car, it is in fact quite ugly, its combination of low power and low technology allow the novice to concentrate on the essentials, driving technique and race craft. The purposeful cockpit has the barest of essentials but includes a rev counter, water temperature and oil light.

Brands Hatch provided a brand new car for the test, a chassis which was subsequently to join the fleet of school machines. As I strapped in, memories of my Formula First racing in 1988 came flooding back to me. Right, engine warm, select first, wait a minute, where is first? Formula First is unusual in that the gear shift is located on the left hand side of the cockpit. Also unique is the gearbox which is equipped with synchromesh. “Heel and toe” downshifts are not essential, but obviously preferable for ultimate control.

Powering out of the pit lane I joined the track — for the first time in 1990. It felt terrific to be back, cutting and thrusting amongst the usual heavy Brands traffic. A gaggle of Junior Formula Fordsters slip by, I try to keep a low profile. The First feels remarkably good, quite stable, responsive, and most of all — fun! My car is equipped with a Stack tacho, I change up at about 6200 rpm, the point at which the motor tends to run out of steam. Once the tyres are warm I start to relax and get into the swing. Paddock Bend is taken in fourth gear with a firm dab on the brakes, it is good to hustle the car in with a flick of the Momo steering wheel. Power can be applied hard after turn in, the car drifts in a most pleasing manner from the apex to the exit, left hand wheels just rubbing the kerb. Druid requires hard braking and a shift to third steering the car on the throttle. This well behaved car then scuttles down the hill towards Graham Hill Bend which is taken flat, fourth is selected on the exit. The motor is revving away hard as I approach the Kidney. When I raced the car in the 1988 Winter Series I remember this testing section as flat in fourth — just! Today I dab the brakes gently and then once again, flat. Brushing the kerbs lightly, I then line the car up and brake quite late at Clearways. Third is engaged and the First is turned into the corner. Bringing the power back in creates a little wheel spin as the car crests the Clearways bump and then using all the road on the exit. The pit straight follows, in fourth, hugging the pit wall until almost the starting lights before swinging left and up the hill to line up for Paddock bend. Very satisfying. Formula First is an excellent Formula for beginners, possibly unrivalled in driving experience per pound spent.

Drawbacks? Just look at it! A Formula First is not the most graceful of creatures, neither in looks nor manoeuvrability. Agile it isn’t, but I think early reports of the vehicle’s instability were somewhat exaggerated. I enjoyed the car in 1988 when I finished fifth in the Top Gear Winter Series, and I enjoyed it again in 1990. Even the racing is very good these days, it is a firm favourite with the crowds! What of the shunt? In typical Brands Hatch style I was turning into Paddock when a locked up Swift FF1600 crewed by Lyndon Barrett T-boned me! Now that’s nostalgia!

Formula Forward is altogether more grown up. My thanks to Sean Hollamby who brought his immaculate high-tech Sakura car for me to sample.

Regular racegoers may wonder why I couldn’t just write about my own experiences of the Formula gained in the 1989 BBC Grandstand Series? As I suspected it would, Sean’s car (ex Thomas Erdos) felt very different from my own P.E.S. chassis, tauter, straighter and certainly more powerful. P.E.S. did a sterling job on a very limited budget but were unable to make sense of what was initially, literally a box of bits!

The cockpit of Sean’s car was also standard, except for the fitment of a brake balance control, an invaluable piece of equipment for setting up. Mark Mobely, Sean’s engineer, warmed the car up for me. Mark, son of High-tech Motorsport boss Nick Mobely, has a bright future ahead of him for Sean’s car was extremely well prepared.

After five metres of the pit lane I knew what a good Formula Forward engine should feel like. It was impressive. Forward sports a 145 brake injected 2-litre engine. Fitted with the latest cams (a revision of the early specification) the motor revved hard to 6800 and delivered a good crisp punch. A very heavy flywheel tends to ‘bog’ the engine in the lower mid range, but once spinning it is deceptively quick. I was not keen on the Uniroyal slick tyres although they do have a good wear rate which helps keep costs down.

The handling was pretty good and much more stable than what I had previously driven. Sean’s car was particularly good under braking and inspired confidence. High-tech were running different springs to those I had used, the front in particular much stiffer. This made for a progressive understeer, which, with throttle, could be balanced into a smooth, fast and natural drift. Paddock Bend was fourth gear (top), the top of the corner being the only place the car feels heavy and the “tall” engine rrianifests itself. Power could be brought in hard from the apex, although the engine was not pulling ideal revs at the bottom of the hill.

Druids needed second gear and considerable throttle finesse to make a quick exit, it being easy to run out of road if full power was applied too early. Graham Hill Bend was taken in third, requiring all of the track on the exit. On Sean’s advice I held third all the way to the Kidney, the engine just hitting the limiter before the point of turn. Kidney I am sure could have been flat, but in the interest of diplomacy I thought a quick dab was in order. Clearways Corner favoured second gear, keeping the wheel spin to a minimum was the secret here. Unlike the car I drove last year, Sean’s car needed third gear halfway across the track as it was hard up against the limiter! I was surprised to learn that the High-tech car was on the same ratio, a marked difference in gearchange points. I never used third until the exit kerbing. The run up to Paddock was naturally done in fourth, the car feeling quite rapid in a straight line.

On what was considered a slow day I was effortlessly down in the 48 second bracket, Sean’s car inspiring confidence throughout.

In conclusion then, two control formulae which have something to offer — good value for money especially when compared to similar classes. Forward in particular has suffered with the current strength of Vauxhall-Lotus and Formula Renault and what it desperately needs is promotion.

My thanks to Sean Hollamby, Brands Hatch and Formula First for the experience. Oh and also to Lyndon Barratt for the added realism. SD