Interview -- Bryan Herta

Breaking the Mould

No foreign-based driver has ever won the Formula Ford Festival, though a couple of Europeans have come close. Now the Americans fancy their chances in one of motor racing’s toughest events.

Why, after a championship-winning season in their homeland, should anybody want to step down 110 bhp to risk their reputation in a lottery such as the Duckhams Formula Ford Festival?

Good question. Prior to entering the Brands Hatch cauldron at the end of October, 21 year-old Californian Bryan Herta’s career had maintained a sharply ascendant course. If he flopped at Brands, it might do his career irreparable harm. Team managers take notice of Festival performances, and Herta had half an eye on a British F3 campaign for 1992 . . .

He started racing cars at the age of 18, after a six-year spell in karts. The latter netted six regional championships, which isn’t as Mickey Mouse as its sounds. California, lest we forget, isn’t much smaller than Britain. He had one stab at the national karting title, finishing second.

His introduction to cars came via Skip Barber’s racing school. Completing a season of races in the institution’s well-used fleet of Mondiale chassis, he won no fewer than 14 of the 18 events.

The next step was the national Barber Saab series, for monotype single-seaters with slicks, wings and around 220 bhp from Saab’s turbocharged 2.3 four-cylinder. Consistent top five placings, one pole position and three fastest laps marked him as a man to watch in his debut season. This year, after finishing 21st in the opening race at West Palm Beach, he was a model of consistency, taking four wins, three second places, three thirds and a fourth. It was enough to give him the championship by just three points, from Briton Johnny Robinson, and with it he collected a $100,000 career advancement purse. Therein lies something of an irony. Robinson, who won seven Barber Saab events this year, was a successful Formula Ford racer who quit British motorsport after failing to secure sufficient funds to race sensibly in F3…

So after such a successful season, why did Bryan take the decision to contest the toughest assignment of all in a formula with which he was unfamiliar?

“I really fancied the challenge. I read the British motor sporting press regularly, and I’d heard all about the Festival. I knew it would be difficult, but I wanted to measure myself against some of the best young Europeans.

“The whole approach to racing over here is so different, so much more intense. With all the testing, I reckon you cover two or three times the number of miles per season that we do in the States.”

His Festival opportunity was financed by several modest donations from some of America’s most prominent motor racing figures: Carl Haas, Tony Dowe (of Tom Walkinshaw Racing’s American division), Steve Horne (of Truesports) and Bobby Rahal all dipped into their pockets, topping up the budget from Valvoline and Ford SVO.

His passage was assisted by magazine publisher Paul Pfanner and expatriate English journalist Jeremy Shaw, who inexplicably decided several years ago that covering Indycar races from a base on the West Coast was preferable to reporting on Formula Three at Thruxton. Shaw competed at the Festival himself a decade ago, driving a works Lanan chassis built up by racer-turned-engineer John Bright. Last year, he re-established contact with Bright to set up a deal to run another American hotshoe, Jimmy Vasser, in the Festival.

After posting promising testing times with the Lanan chassis, Vasser was an early casualty, crashing on the first lap of his heat.

The deal had been put together in a rush, but it was a start. This time around, everything was better prepared, and Lanan agreed to run a proven, mass-production chassis, selecting a Reynard for the purpose.

In the week prior to the Festival, Brands Hatch is awash with Formula Ford cars.

Even testing has a frenetic atmosphere; on one day, there were no fewer than 37 red flag incidents . . .

Herta didn’t waste time working out what modern Formula Ford was about. “My experience with the school Mondiales didn’t count for much. They were training cars, pure and simple, set up really soft and with hack engines. The Reynard is something quite different.” On Wednesday, he lapped in a respectable 48.5s, which gave reasonable cause for optimism. And then, during official qualifying on Friday, a misfire set in.

John Bright knows all about chassis. For the last two years he has looked after Damon Hill in the European Formula 3000 Championship. But he is not, by his own admission, an engine man. And the team didn’t have a spare unit. Tuner Jay Ivey couldn’t make the trip, and a Transatlantic telephone call was unable to throw much light on the problem. “I spoke to Jay and he asked ‘Is it cold?’,” grinned Bright. “I replied ‘Of course it’s cold. We’re at Brands Hatch and it’s late October.’ It wasn’t the best way to get to the root of the problem.” John tried altering the jets, but no matter what he touched the unit continued to splutter erratically. Despite that, Herta lined up seventh for his heat, aided in part by the damp conditions. “I think that had to be the most satisfying aspect of the whole weekend, because the car was far from right when we did that.”

For the race, a solution was at hand. Fellow American Bobby Carville had a spare, Ted Wenz-prepared engine which he duly loaned. There were plenty of offers from British tuners, but it was important to the team to keep as many US ingredients as possible in place.

In his heat, Bryan picked his way through to third place, just nicking the place in a frantic, three-way sprint for the line. “After that, we just picked up places here and there at each stage. I think we maintained a reasonable progression throughout the weekend.” As competition became stiffer by the round, he finished fourth in the quarter final, eighth in the semi and, eventually, 11th in the final itself. “The target originally was to make the final and finish it,” he beamed afterwards. “If we were in the top half of the stack, so much the better. Basically we achieved our objective, and hopefully this will encourage more Americans to come over here in future. I think we showed that we can be competitive.”

All in all, the venture was rated a success. But what of the future? Herta does not plan to tackle the Festival again. “I don’t think it would benefit my career, though I’ve really enjoyed it. The standard of driving is really high, and these guys are seriously competitive. Now I want to move up from Barber Saab, so I’m going to spend 10 days talking to F3 teams in the UK. The problem is always going to be money though. The recession has hit the States the same way as it’s hit you guys over here.

“Although the Barber Saab cars have more power than F3, I think it would be rash to try and jump straight into F3000. A couple of years in F3 would get me used to the European way of doing things, and allow me to settle in. At my age, there’s no need to rush.”

If he can’t find the funds to switch to Europe, the most likely step is a season in the Indy Lights (né ARS) series, America’s own equivalent of Formula 3000.

Ever since its inception in 1986, ARS has struggled to establish real credibility, particularly in ever-cynical Europe. Herta feels its future is bright, however.

“The good thing for me is that it follows Barber Saab principles, with fixed specification chassis and engines. That’s what I’m used to, and I like that type of racing because it really puts the emphasis on driver ability. I know it’s had a couple of bad seasons, but interest is growing for 1992. In the past, the tyre regulations have changed at the end of almost every season, but now that situation is looking more stable. I know Formula Atlantic has been stronger in numbers this year, but it’s proved to be costlier than Indy Lights, and there may be a few defectors.

“It could do with testing restrictions and a ban on spare cars to limit costs, like they’ve just done with F3000 in Europe, but it offers reasonable value and it’ll be easier for me to raise an Indy Lights budget than it will to persuade someone to sponsor me in F3.”

By the time you read this, Herta may have tried an F3 car for the first time. He is desperately keen to make his mark in Europe, but his outlook is sensible. If no deal is forthcoming, he’s quite happy to ply his trade at home. Besides, if the likes of Haas and Rahal are happy to help him at this stage of his career, his efforts can’t have gone unnoticed.

He’s gaining in experience all the time, and the success of his Festival campaign offered further confirmation of his potential. “Plus I got to stay in a real English bed and breakfast. That was great…” — SA