A shift in emphasis has probably been the most notable aspect of this year’s national racing activities. Indeed, it is now tempting to inquire as to what our “national racing” activities actually are, for while the traditional corners of British motor racing have in the main continued to thrive, it has been the higher echelons of our home racing which have increasingly filled the very limited space beneath the public spotlight. While the competitive elements of the long-standing categories in British racing stand quite sturdily on their own two feet, the crowds at club meetings exhibit a less convincing display of strength, for, quite simply, we have a relatively new, exciting formula which is running away with the show: Aurora AFX British Formula One.
Although a national series, the MCD promoted Aurora F1 circus is very much an international affair, venturing to France, Holland and Belgium for three of its rounds (with a likelihood of even more European meetings next year), and it has been this successor to the ill-fated Group 8 and Formula 5000 categories which has stolen much of the British thunder. This year the racing has not only brought with it the associated glamour and noise linked to those magnetic words “Formula One”, but has also prompted genuinely interesting racing, with more familiar names in the cockpits as an added bonus. The fact that many of the more informed pundits within the sport now seriously view the British F1 series as a potential threat to the far more mature European Formula Two Championship speaks volumes for the immensely promising formula — and the race-going public, too, have appreciated its worth. With such a tasteful main course available on the (as ever somewhat pricey) British racing menu, it is only inevitable that some of the lesser courses have diminished in popularity with the well-fed customers. For the moment, at least, the more traditional, conservative dishes will fade into mundaneness in the shadow of the new, growing formula, although we cannot help suspecting that it may not be too long before our main national series is attracted increasingly onto foreign shores . . .
The Aurora/AFX British Formula One Championship
Appropriately enough the flourishing Aurora series retained its tense excitement to the bitter end, on a treacherously damp Silverstone Grand Prix circuit where the two leading protagonists, Southend’s Rupert Keegan and Dublin’s David Kennedy, touched wheels and pirouetted off the track in unison. Only Keegan was able to restart and reaching the chequered flag in second position gave him sufficient points to overhaul Kennedy’s long-standing championship lead. It was a brave comeback after a horrific high-speed head-on shunt at OuIton Park in mid-season. Indeed, the former Hesketh and Surtees World Championship performer always gave his best under difficult circumstances during the somewhat troubled season, which he joined with a Charles Clowes owned, BS Fabrications run Arrows A1 at the second round, OuIton Park’s Gold Cup meeting in April. Here, mechanical misfortunes confined him to the rear of the grid. but with just half the race run he had latched onto the tail of race leader Kennedy and an unbelievable overtaking manoeuvre, around the outside at the tricky Old Hall corner, took him into the lead. Alas, brake malfunction subsequently pitched the Arrows off the circuit, but the point had been made and despite a high rate of retirement Kennedy could never ignore the English threat again. With three wins from ten rounds and just three more races to run that threat had seemingly become an outside chance, but over these final rounds Keegan showed his true colours.
Although on the face of it David Kennedy’s over-ambitious bid for the lead of the Silverstone finale cost him the championship, ironically his failure to capture the crown can perhaps be traced back earlier in the season to calculating, points amassing tactics rather than a bid for glory at every race meeting. But Kennedy is a talented driver who kept the modern generation “wing car”-equipped campaigners at bay with the old Wolf WR4 for many months before jumping on the “ground effect” bandwagon with Wolf WR6. Kennedy first appeared in Aurora with Wolf WR3 at the final round of the ’78 series, which he won, and then took WR4 successfully to Australia for the winter season. The ’79 Aurora season opened with victory at Zolder in Belgium for the Theodore Racing-run former European F3 contestant, and he chalked up another two wins. two seconds, and one third, despite his inferior equipment. Yet with the faster WR6 a further three thirds were all he could manage, and the title slipped from his confident grasp.
Emilio de VilIota, the former Spanish bank manager who has staunchly supported MCD’s prestige championship for a number of years, rather lived in the shadow of Keegan and Kennedy, despite his F1 experience and first class equipment in the form of an ex-works Lotus 78 “wing car”. Villota can, perhaps, be considered a modern day descendant of the “gentleman driver”, racing F1 for fun rather than monetary reward and doing so well. Midway through the championship, four wins from five starts gave him the points lead, but he never looked ultimately the match of Keegan or WR6-mounted Kennedy. Nevertheless, a strong third place in the series rightly kept him head and shoulders ahead of the rest.
The rest included Londoner Guy Edwards and Belgian Bernard de Dryer in a pair of very competitive Fittipaldi F5A “wing cars” run by John MacDonald’s RAM Racing organisation and plugged into the Fittipaldi Automotive F1 development programme. However, a spate of transmission failures did nothing to enhance Edwards’ hopes and despite frequent qualifying successes he only took the chequered flag first on one occasion. For overall performance he was all but overshadowed by his young Continental team-mate, a refugee from European F2 who hired out his F2 car to wealthy joy-riders over the winter and in so doing raised the finance to go British F1. Undoubtedly he learned much, but his level of talent is hard to judge.
Another switch from F2, albeit midway through the season, was wealthy Argentinian Ricardo Zunino. The quiet-spoken refugee from the works March camp aimed to show that he had the talent to match a vast bag of gold and took himself from the rear of the grid in Europe to the front of the grid in Britain, overnight. One impressive win and three promising second places plus a vast amount of money tipped the scales in his favour when Bernie Ecclestone found Niki Lauda’s seat vacant.
But if Aurora is to properly groom Grand Prix stars of the future, then the overall level of competitiveness must be improved. Brave American driver Gordon Smiley showed increasing speed culminating in victory at Silverstone with the new Surtees “wing car”, and David Purley made a surprisingly strong steel nerved comeback with first a Lec, later a Shadow DN9 “wing car”, but by and large the other hopes quickly faded. Desire Wilson found nothing but trouble with a Melchester Racing run Tyrrell 008 and was thoroughly disillusioned by the time that young West Countryman Neil Bettridge joined her in the camp, to show surprising competence for his limited experience. Giacomo Agostini, never looked a serious threat in a David Price run Williams FW06, and the idea of putting a number of British club racing hopefuls in the unique Chevron F1 car, run by Graham Eden, only served to underline the shame that Tiff Needell didn’t have the car throughout the series to develop and race seriously, He, alas, like the early Surtees team driver Phillip Bullman, was forced to spend the majority of the season on the sidelines instead of mixing it with Keegan and Kennedy — where they surely would have been had Britain given them the sort at backing that France gives to her rising stars.
While the Aurora series has fostered some exciting, highly competitive racing, the standards of driving have to be viewed in perspective. While failed Grand Prix drivers are making most of the running, it cannot be regarded as the perfect spawning ground for future Grand Prix stars. But the potential is there.
The Vandervell British Formula Three Championship
The most closely fought, widely respected melting-pot of talent on the national scene, the British Formula Three Championship, again featured a two-horse dash for the prestigious laurels.
To the benefit of spectators and competitors alike, there was only one championship on which the rising stars could concentrate their attentions this year, a twenty round arrangement backed solely by Vandervell Products. Last season it was a Brazilian and a Briton at loggerheads, Nelson Piquet and Derek Warwick. This time the foreign visitors had the pace-setting wrapped-up even more convincingly: 1979 was the year of Brazilian Francisco “Chico” Serra and Italian Andrea de Cesaris.
Serra retained backing from the Sadia food concern, who have been his life-line since his 1977 Formula Ford days, to make an excellent start to the year in his Project Four run March 793 Toyota. However, after scoring three victories in the first five rounds for the highly professional, Ron Dennis run entourage, the rugged Brazilian then went through a very lean patch of sufficient length to prompt murmurings that, with such an affluent, professional team behind him, his glaring mediocrity could well be ruining his prospective career. Ultimately, though, Serra found his way back into the points as much on the weaknesses of other as his own strength, to claim the championship with five wins, and respectable breathing space in the points table. It was cold, devoted consistency (unlike the “gutsy” approach he adopted last year) which reaped Serra reward, and although his exhibitions of outright speed and winning have been conspicuously limited, it seems that this steady points-netting has been equally valuable in convincing the Grand Prix set of his worth.
During the mid-season spell when the eventual champion was enduring his “drought”, it was eighteen-year-old Andrea de Cesaris who took over the limelight. The young ex-karter entered the year with only one season’s experience in cars behind him, and while immediately impressing as a driver of great potential, this inexperience frequently showed through. Running beneath the professional Tim Schenken and Howden Ganley organised Team Tiga banner, de Cesaris scored more outright wins than anyone else in the series, with six to his credit (plus a win on the road at Silverstone which he later lost as a result of skittering down the chicane escape road in the wet). However, when he wasn’t charging to the chequered flag, he had an unenviable propensity to do likewise into the undergrowth, with little in the way of discretion as to whom he took with him. Having hospitalised Nigel Mansell in his impatience to get by at Oulton Park in September, and then prompting Swede Stefan Johansson’s excursion at Thruxton in a similarly abrupt manner soon afterwards, the Roman’s Marlboro liveried March 793 Toyota rapidly marked itself as a car worth tackling with caution.
But it was also a winner, and if experience brings less in the way of controversial dramas for de Cesaris, he will be a man to no doubt eventually make his mark in the coveted Grand Prix arena.
Perhaps the man to reveal the greatest promise in the way of sheer natural talent in F3, though, was Australian-born New Zealander Mike Thackwell. Fresh out of the hectic world of Formula Ford 1600, Thackwell piloted the works example of the only really competitive car/2-litre engine combination of 1979 — the Bicester built March 793 with Toyota Novamotor power. After making a poor start to the season, attributable to surprisingly poor preparation from a works team, and Thackwell’s own inexperience, the eighteen-year-old increasingly marked himself as someone of extraordinary talents, and a win in front of the People That Matter at the Silverstone Grand Prix support race brought much needed financial assistance, not to mention resultant publicity, from Williams team leader Alan Jones. From here on, Mike didn’t look back, and a late change to the effect of five wins was more than enough to justify promotion to the Bicester marque’s works Formula Two cockpit next year. Of all the promising names to appear on the British circuits this year, Mike Thackwell is probably the one worth watching most closely.
Another man on his way up is Swede Stefan Johansson, an extrovert behind the wheel who, fourth in the series under Derek McMahon’s auspices, could move up to F2 with Team Tiga next year. It is difficult to say whether his brave exuberance will prove to be his strength, or his ultimate downfall; whatever, he has again shown himself to be a Racing Driver in the true sense.
The works March’s win at the Grand Prix meeting also had the effect of reiterating a now indisputable fact of which we can be proud — the British F3 series, despite its lack of the international, cosmopolitan image, is a sounder, more fearsome proving ground than that which roams Europe in the wake of the awed Alain Prost/Martini/Renault combination. The relative mediocrity of the Europeans visiting British rounds, especially at the GP meeting, and Thackwell’s superb victory when he ventured abroad to the world of complicated tyre options and costly travel, to the Monza Lotteria, bear witness to this.
But although we may pat ourselves on the back for the British Championship, less inspiring have been the British drivers. It was largely left to a host of Irishmen to prove that talent is still alive and kicking in this part of the world, with Kenny Acheson mustering the most promising showings in his RMC-backed March. Although he failed to win any of the Vandervell rounds, three non-championship wins went the way of the Dubliner, including an excellent performance in front of the BBC cameras at Thruxton, and three successive pole positions at the end of the season confirmed that the 1980 Championship may well become his. Of the other Britons, talented Nigel Mansell put up with the disappointing inconsistency of his Triumph Dolomite-powered Unipart-backed March; Bernard Devaney masked his talents with a costly faithfulness to the uncompetitive Chevron B47; and Michael Roe disappointed with an unsettled, unsuccessful season niggled by car and driver unreliability.
RAC Tricentrol Saloon Car Championship
Of less obvious success, although still a popular favourite with spectators, was the RAC Tricentrol British Saloon Car Championship. While the racing was typically close and entertaining, also often present were the sort of technical wranglings and discontented mutterings that the category has sadly made its hallmark. Cause of much of the concern this year was the raucous rotary Mazda RX-7 of Tom Walkinshaw. This cheeky 2.3-litre machine ruffled the 3-litre Ford Capri Establishment’s feathers on more than one occasion, and as the season wore on there broke out various disputes concerning a multitude of technical points, particularly the varying acceptability of the use of strip welding and bulkhead and transmission tunnel reinforcements, and other points too tedious to repeat. In the end, it was the usual gaggle of Capris which kept their noses ahead, with Gordon Spice showing professionally from team-mate Chris Craft, Vince Woodman, the spectacular Jeff Allam, and Stuart Graham.
While Walkinshaw was the runaway success in the 1,600 to 2,300 c.c. class, journalist Rex Greenslade put up the strongest chase in his neatly piloted Triumph Dolomite Sprint, with Barry “Whizzo” Williams also going well, and typically dramatically, in his Vauxhall Magnum, while that old favourite, Gerry Marshall happily recovered to return to his wheel-lifting, kerb-hopping “Dolly” following a simply enormous series of rolls at the Silverstone GP meeting. Predictably, Richard Lloyd sealed success in the 1,300 to 1,600 c.c. category in his smart VW Golf GTi, in which motorcyclist Barry Sheene also acquitted himself well during a one-off spree at the Tourist Trophy. The amazing Richard Longman, the man who “died” twice following a road accident in 1975, stormed to the under 1,300 c.c. laurels, and the overall title (another cause of discontent amongst the “big ‘uns”) in his Mini 1275 GT. With the prospect of BL fielding a couple of 3.5 Rovers in the championship in 1980, a refreshing breath of fresh air may blow through the series, which, although it has been a marked improvement on the bickerings of 1977, still falls conspicuously short of total harmony.
Formula Ford 1600
In Formula Ford 1600, 1979 was a year in which those talents from the Emerald Isle previously in the formula moved on to greater things, paving the way to a promising assortment of South Americans and, happily, Englishmen. (not to mention the many Mad Dogs!). In what was as ever the closest, most entertaining category in single-seater racing, the man of greatest note has been Kent-based Terry Gray. Formerly a member of the British Kart Team, Gray moved up to FF1600 last year with support from Sisley Karting.
This season saw him in the works Van Diemen seat, with a Swanley built Auriga engine, and his claim to the prestigious Townsend Thoresen Championship, as well as finishing runner-up in the P&O Normandy Ferries series, has been a well-negotiated stepping-stone on the way up to F3. David Sears, son of Jack, has been the other notable winner on home soil, collecting the RAC and P&O Championship honours in his Rushen Green Racing run Royale RP26.
Veteran of the category, Jim Walsh, made the Esso series his, while Scot Don MacLeod also put the experienced cat amongst the youthful pigeons by waltzing to an unapproachable victory in the wet FF Festival at Brands Hatch in his new Sark — he last won the Festival in 1973! The European Championship fell to John Village; a greater indication of the international series’ relative weakness rather than John’s sudden burst to brilliance; and of those affluent South Americans, Carlos Abdala showed glimmers of promise in his Van Diemen, although he was overshadowed by the brilliant Roberto Moreno, a Brazilian karting champion who will only surprise people if he does not follow in the footsteps of Emerson Fittipaldi and Nelson Piquet!
Formula Ford 2000
Formula Ford 2000, meanwhile, again proved to be a rather docile “grown-up” relation to its 1,600 c.c. counterpart, the slick and wing shod category bringing Carlisle’s David Leslie to the forefront in his Dukes Pallets Reynard.
Sadly, it seemed to be very much a case of the determined Leslie beating no-one other than works Lola driver Peter Morgan to the winner’s rostrum for much of the year; a niggling suspicion confirmed when South African Mike White arrived on the British scene late in the day in his works Delta, and proved well capable of matching Leslie’s early stranglehold on the tepid formula.
More happily, Sports 2000 continued to boom rather than merely stagnate, with the previous Lola monopoly broken into by a new challenger from Tiga. Ian Taylor proved nigh unbeatable in his example of Schenken and Ganley’s SC79 model, taking a string of wins to beat the similar mount of Richard Morgan, and the Lola T492 of South African lady Desire Wilson. One factor perhaps to the formula’s detriment, however, was that the race distances tended to be rather lengthy, so leaving the “racing” too often to degenerate into a procession of very neatly driven cars. If this aspect can be bettered, 1980 should prove to be an excellent year for the attractive sports cars.
Hitachi Formula Atlantic
A disappointment was undoubtedly the Hitachi Formula Atlantic Championship. The enthusiastic Ray Mallock found little trouble in wrapping-up a series largely consisting of second rate machinery, driving, and racing, from failed Grand Prix driver Jim Crawford, who, in his Chevron B45, was the only person ever remotely to threaten Mallock in the points table. With the new March 80A already announced, and the prospect of the attractive Ralt RT4 appearing in Mallock’s hands, prospects for next year look much better, but to be honest it would be difficult for them to look anything else.
On the saloon front, the production variety again brought the crowds fine value for money with their consistent grass-cutting, tyre-squealing, wheel-lifting antics, with the familiar names of Tony Lanfranchi (Opel Commodore), Andy Rouse (Opel) and Gerry Marshall (Dolomite) heading the results, although David Taylor interloped amongst the established “names” in his 3.0 BMW, and Nicholas Baughn’s claim to overall victory in his 1.3 Alfasud underlined a need for the priorities of the overall points system to be revised!
Of the mighty Special Saloons, Walter Robertson’s DFV-powered VW all but defied belief, Tony Dickinson and Sugden shone in their loud-voiced, 2-litre Skodas, while Rob Mason’s nifty Sunbeam Stiletto often enlivened the proceedings. Main class leaders were Peter Baldwin’s 1.3 Mini, Bill McGovern’s 1.0 Chrysler Imp, and Roger Gill’s 850 c.c. Imp. The racing could have been closer here, but fortunately the cars were often quite fascinating in themselves, without having to rely on the excitement of combat.
Modsports and prodsports provided typically varied line-ups of machinery, from Porsche Carreras and Lotus Elans to Morgans, TVRs, and the usual gaggle of Midgets; and the lesser formulae continued to thrive on the proverbial shoestring, orientated very much around the enthusiastic competitor rather than “showmanship”.
While there may be a dearth of British talent in the all-important, higher echelons of the sport, it is at least gratifying to see that one of the strongest club racing scenes in the world is thriving right on our doorsteps. The unfortunate thing is that the spectators are noticeable by their absence, a situation causing considerable concern to circuit owners. — P.R.B./I.M.B.