The place to earn your wings
Our guide to the myriad single-seater series open to young drivers continues with a look at Formula Ford – breeding ground for F1 winners
By Ed Foster
Formula Ford is close to the roots of the tall, complex and expensive motor racing ‘Money Tree’. There have been highs and lows in the championship’s profile, but for 44 years it has remained one of the most beneficial places to start your single-seater career.
There are various national championships around the globe, from Belgium to Australia, but it is the British series that has been at the pinnacle since its inception in 1967.
The cars run Ford 1600cc Duratec engines and, as in Formula 3 and 1, the choice of chassis is free.
In search of a new, low-cost entry into single-seaters, Motor Racing Stables racing school MD Geoffrey Clarke met with Henry Taylor of Ford and John Webb of Motor Circuit Development at the 1966 Olympia Racing Car Show. Clarke was tired of his students blowing up expensive Formula 3 engines and wanted to find a cheaper alternative.
The following year the first fruits of that little discussion – the Formula Ford Championship – bloomed at Brands Hatch on July 2 (below). The premise was simple: keep costs to a minimum. This it did with standard Cortina wheels and tyres, and a Cortina 1600cc Kent engine and gearbox. By the end of the year 12 companies had made chassis for the series, and to this day, the chassis battle continues between small, specialised companies such as Mygale, Van Diemen and Ray.
The formula’s main regulations have remained largely unchanged, but an 1800cc Zetec engine was introduced to replace the ageing Kent unit in 1994. However, the bigger engine was heavier and dampened the lively handling of the cars, so in 2006 the current Ford 1600cc Duratec engine replaced it.
In order to keep in line with other entry-level championships slick tyres were introduced in 1993 and the restrictions on chassis costs have been lifted, which may go some way to explaining how a season of racing can cost £120,000.
Top drivers who have competed
There’s a long-running joke that it’s easier to name drivers who haven’t competed in Formula Ford. So to save space – and your time – we will merely list the current Formula 1 drivers who have progressed through the series:
Jenson Button British and European
Mark Webber British
Rubens Barrichello Brazilian
Adrian Sutil Swiss
Nick Heidfeld German
Michael Schumacher German & Euro
Narain Karthikeyan British
The pros and cons
Well-recognised championship that has helped many a driver in their quest to reach Formula 1.
Relatively inexpensive, depending on how much testing you want to do…
Plenty of scope to alter car set-up, and the championship is known to teach drivers this invaluable skill.
Not a one-make championship like many other single-seater series. There is freedom to choose the chassis design, engine builder and source of various other parts on the car.
There are good circuits on the calendar, and competing on F3 weekends means winning – or losing – in front of the right people.
No wings on the cars and therefore no downforce, which is what the rest of your career as a single-seater driver will be all about.
Drivers such as Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg have proved that you can skip Formula Ford on the journey to F1.
Formula Ford is so competitive that unnecessary racing accidents can, and do, happen.
Ones to watch
Malvern is the man to beat this year after finishing runner-up to Scott Pye in 2010. Only a lack of budget saw him stay in Formula Ford this season, so he has to win this year’s title. As we write he’s made a great start with seven wins from nine races as well as four pole positions and five fastest laps.
Along with Malvern and two others, Dutchman Slaghekke races for the dominant Jamun Racing team. The 18-year-old entered the championship in 2010 and is already a race winner and regular podium finisher.
This is the Aussie’s first year in the British championship after two seasons in the Australian version. In 2009 he finished seventh in that series and then went on to clinch the runner-up spot in 2010. He’s got the speed – as five pole positions from nine races show – but he’ll need something special to beat Malvern.
What’s the secret to winning?
James Mundy is managing director of Jamun Racing, which has won the Formula Ford title for the past six years.
He says: “With no wings and no downforce you’re looking for the right set-up and balance with the car. You need to get the best from the tyres – you only have one set for the weekend, for qualifying and the races. You need to make them last, and you see a big difference between drivers who are gentle on their tyres and those who aren’t come the finish.
“We have a mixture of new and second-year drivers this season, which helps in terms of experience, but we have a base car set-up that we arrive at most tracks with. It varies a bit from track to track, but is roughly the same.
“There’s a lot you can alter. The car is sensitive to ride height, the dampers are fully adjustable, you’ve got the anti-roll bars, different suspension geometry, roll centre heights, springs… You name it, you can do it. The only thing you can’t do is give it more wing!
“If a driver is good he can drive around an average set-up and the best drivers will still come out on top. Scott [Malvern] is a good example – we’ve got confidence in his driving ability, so we’re not worried about whether the set-up is perfect. It takes the pressure off, and it seems to work.”
If you’re a successful karter with several championship wins under your belt and you want to make the move into cars, your options are limited. Formula BMW, having nurtured the likes of Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg, was cancelled at the end of 2010. However, there is still the BMW-backed Talent Cup and the independently-run Formula BMW Pacific and European series.
Lewis Hamilton, among others, has made it to the top of the ‘Money Tree’ without the help of Formula Ford, progressing from karting straight to the slicks-and-wings Formula Renault 2.0 Championship. Others on the current F1 grid contested championships such as the now-defunct Formula Renault 1600 series (Jerome d’Ambrosio) and the also-extinct Formula Vauxhall Junior (Narain Karthikeyan).
Every lower-category championship has a lifespan, and many of those ended between 2000 and 2010. Was this due to economic factors, or were there just too many series with not enough well-backed racers? It’s a bit of both, but it is a testament to Formula Ford that it is still so popular today, 44 years after it began.