1976 National Single-Seater Prospects

An abundance of British single-seaters exists in Britain —but how many categories can prosper?

We may be in the depths of economic depression, but you have to dig well below the surface to discover any depression where British championship motor racing is concerned. A few months ago we discussed the prospects for saloon cars in Britain and Europe, but on this occasion we will try to restrict ourselves to the better known British single-seater championship prospects, with occasional comparative glances into the EEC.

From a driving viewpoint the job of most single-seaters is absolutely clear-cut; it is the racing car, the way to become the next Fittipaldi. For a British audience, watching one of the innumerable home-based Championship rounds, it must he harder to determine the worth of what they are seeing. Just as saloon car racing is complicated by the capacity or price classes, I think the average audience must be totally bathed by such worthy questions as, “what is FF2000?” Or the riddle, “when is a Vee not a Vee?” Answer, when it’s a Super Vee. I am sure many of those people must have finally asked themselves, “why should I care, I’ll go and watch football . . . at least I can understand what is happening!”

This type of Championship complexity is at its worst in British 1,600-c.c. Formula Ford. There are eight Championships listed in the BRSCC’s annual guide to motor sporting championships, including a series for novices, and two area series run by the BRSSC in the Northern and South Western Centres. This year a new RAC national FF title is on offer, covering six rounds and this should offer somebody the prestige of saying “I am the British Champion”. Unfortunately there will also be the victors of the Townsend Thoresen and DJM Records series, who will have battled mightily over a possible 20 rounds in each championship to claim their titles, plus the well-established Brush Fusegear series (13 qualifying rounds), the latter with all but two events at Silverstone.

Nevertheless in 1975 one young man proved that it was possible to find real prestige in FF by a unique feat. His name was Geoff Lees, he had two Royale machines at his disposal, and he won the three major championships outright. When you think of the effort needed to win just one title these days, Lee’s achievements can he fully appreciated. FF training for the World of GP glamour does not stop when the motor race ends, these days. Lee had to use a helicopter, and both cars, to appear at clashing Championship rounds, one at Thruxton, the other at Mallory Park, in order to secure all those titles. Good practice for the jet-set, though his current modest demeanour could require some attention before entering Formula One.

FF2000 was introduced last year, theoretically to cater for drivers who wanted to graduate from the 1600-c.c, division, where it is very competitive indeed from he moment you want a race entry, to the end of the event itself. The Allied Polymer Group stolidly backed these 2-litre, winged, machines with their s.o.h.c. Cortina engines, despite some small grids early in 1975. The numbers gradually picked up, the drivers often consisting of those who have been very successful in 1600 FF seasons gone by. Just such a man was the eventual Champion, Derek Lawrence, who used a Crossle chassis, proving once again the worth of this small Irish manufacturer.

Whereas a modern journalist cannot attend a British race meeting without the danger of tripping over the 1.6-litre FFs (though VSCC members succeed where we fail) the 2000 Category will be catered for with a solitary 20-round series this season, sponsored once again by APG.

Although the might of Volkswagen is well utilised in the support of Formula Vee and Super Vee, these two categories have an uphill battle for the right to he seen in Britain. Vee suffered badly from a lack of speed and the Heath Robinson appearance, propagated by the use of so many Beetle suspension parts in the early days, and never fully established itself. Nobody, aside from the competitors, seems to really want Vee racing in Britain, but there is a series planned for 1976, covering 12 qualifying events.

Super Vee is a totally different brew, and one which I personally find appealing as it includes the elements of trekking from Continental race-to-race, plus a chance of winning better money than can be found in most training formulae today. The cars are usually quicker than Formula Threes, have tuned engines that operate like a proper racing unit, and generally behave so well that closer racing is pretty well inevitable. The drawback in Britain is that the combined strength of organisers catering for the army of Ford-powered single-seaters (everything from FFs to Atlantics are powered by varying Ford four-cylinders) conspires to leave fewer potential customers, and possible race dates, than is the case overseas.

Super Vee is particularly strong in Brazil, America and Germany, but the success of the category is really drawn from the two prestigious European series, Volkswagen-werke’s Gold Cup and the Castrol GTX Cup. Both of these series offer excellent prize money, approximately £325 and nearly £500 apiece for a win when we went to press. In Britain the Formula Vee Association, based at Volkswagen house in Croydon, is ably represented by a small staff, which calls partly on the services of active Super Vee exponent John Morrison. John is best known for showing that a British driver, and car (a Sussex-manufactured Supernova, using engines built by Mac Daghorn in the same county) can be competitive in series dominated by Scandinavian and Continental teams. Morrison showed up well in the British series, when he was able to fit in the rounds last year, but the title was part of the Modus concern’s success story last year, former FF driver Mike Young piloting one of the Norfolk outfit’s machines to this title. In British terms, the next three formulae can all be routes to success for the drivers, but spectators and circuit support has been erratic over recent years, The good news is that Formula Three seems fully recovered from the dearth of British interest of several seasons back. Last year the F1 Association members saw a good PR opportunity to stress that they really were interested in the future of motor racing, and they stepped in with a prize fund to ensure better exposure of the junior formula in races to support their Grands Prix.

This stimulated some of the hopeful coming-men, who could see the chance of shining before the very men that could give them a top person’s cockpit. BP, who were very much involved with Tom Wheatcroft and Roger Williamson in their F3 days, enjoyed a hard-fought British Championship series last year, a fitting reward for BP’s consistent F3 support in recent years.

However, the best placed Briton was FF graduate Stephen South, driving one of Bert Ray’s Clapham-built Rays to tenth overall in the series. Amongst the invaders, Gunnar Nilsson earned the biggest amount of publicity, and the BP title, with one of two works Marches employed in the series. The Swede seems certain to follow in Ronnie Petersen’s March wheel-tracks all the way to F1 this season, but there were plenty of other cars and drivers that proved competitive. Nilsson made some errors under pressure to make the casual onlooker wonder if his reputation wasn’t overblown by his excellent contacts within the enthusiast press!

Writing in January it was difficult to see who would be the stars of this year’s F3 (which enters its third 2-litre season in 1976), but the probable competitors include two good chances for improved British results. The first name is that of 20-year-old Rupert Keegan, son of the British Air Ferries thief, Mike, who now owns the Hawke Racing Car concern in Hertfordshire. Keegan can be an appropriate airborne-accident but in the last F3 event of 1975 he astounded everyone by leading Nilsson convincingly on the wet track, only to be robbed of a win by a puncture. A much longer shot, but only because he will need a great deal of money in order to make the transition from FF to F3, is Geoff Lees. Otherwise the pundits expect the glory to go to drivers such as the Perkins brothers from Australia, who did so much to establish the reputation of Ron Tauranac’s infant Ralt racing car concern in last season’s F3, Larry P. winning the European Championship. Other fancied front runners are Alex Ribero—if he fails to follow the March ladder to higher fortune after his controversial 1975 season alongside Nilsson—and the Belgian Patrick Neve, who did so much for Ray Jessop and his new Safir company in 1975.

The remaining two formulae that stand uneasily between club and international racing seem to have a less assured future than F3. First we have 1,600-c.c. Formula Atlantic, using Ford-Cosworth engines of the kind formerly used in the Escort RS1600, but tuned to allow over 200 b.h.p. Atlantic’s fortunes are now in the hands of Formula Atlantic Promotions Ltd., three London-based enthusiasts and their friendly bank, who are to back a 12 race series for these cars with additional sponsorship that, as with many other facets of this ambitious project, were under discussion in January. Amongst the ideas that this formula (dubbed Indy-lantic by its backers) will promote will be four-cars-at-a-time practice timed runs, following a half-hour of untimed practice, and payment of drivers as a percentage of the spectators attracted at the meeting. This latter point has its pitfalls as the circus seem to be visiting some of the more remote motor racing outposts in their travels, including a Scottish week that includes Ingliston and Knockhill, plus a visit to Croft over a Bank Holiday. From September 26th to October 3rd Indy-lantic will be in residence for the week at Brands Hatch, presumably pushing their cause with every promotional aid they can afford.

Publicity will be the key to the success or failure of this competitor-inspired boost to a formula that had an uncertain future. Such cars are the basis of the new South African Championship and well established in Canada and the USA, whence the original twin-cam-based Formula B inspiration arose a few seasons back. There are no star drivers involved as yet, though celebrities of a different, foorballing kind may well be involved during the season, so it will be up to the media like Capital Radio (who are involved with a three-car team within the formula) to make instant stars of those involved. It is nice to see enthusiasts practicably trying to ensure the future of their formula, but are American-style practice and publicity advisable for what is a stepping-stone formula, at best? You expect the full treatment for the Indianapolis 500, but for Oulton Park in October?

Finally MCD and ShellSport have conspired to produce a successor to F5000, which ended last year with Teddy Pilette taking the title in a VDS Lola. The new category is open to all single-seaters up to 5-litres, and this means F2 and full-blown Fl machines pitched in against the Chevrolet V8 and Ford V6 engined cars that contested the F5000 series in 1975. The same rules also apply to a smaller number of club events.

In January we could find nothing to contradict the opinion that this would be a series for the previous 5000 Formula’s back markers, probably to be annihilated by anyone half-conscious in a DFV-engined, ex-GP car.

One feature of British racing at present is the adoption of pre-determined tyres for use in each category. The idea is that the manufacturer, either Dunlop or Goodyear in practice, comes up with recommended dry slicks, intermediates and wets (in some cases just one tyre for all conditions, like Escort Mexico. and FF 1600s). The covers are stamped with the formula to which they are applicable, and competitors cannot use anything else. The RAC have just decided on a Goodyear monopoly for F3, but for the other single-seater formulae Dunlop hold the two FF categories and Goodyear the rest, which includes the Indylantic and cars contesting MCD’s ShelISport series.

Indylantic prize money will depend entirely on spectator and competitor attendance, but a 30-car field racing in front of a 5,000 crowd would see the finalists rewarded with £202.50, and there will be 10% skimmed-off for further reward at the end of the season. In F3 BP are putting up £200 to the winner of most rounds, but £360 is on offer for one televised victor at Thruxton, and the fund is more than doubled for the British GP meeting. In the ShelISport series there are two prize fund scales, six of the fourteen scheduled events offering £2,000 to winners, and the remainder paying £1,250 for a victory.

Sounds like a profitable business to be in? Remember how much racing cars cost these days. For example an F3 -Ralt, complete bar the engine, is listed at £5,300 and the Atlantic version is £950 more. A suitable car for the 5-litre series would be a secondhand F1 (£4-£10,000 for a rolling chassis, with new Cosworth V8s at £8,000 plus). Then there is the cost of getting to meetings (transporter/tow car/trailer), entries, mechanics, and so on.

There will be little to envy those daring young men in their single-seater machines, on the financial side, until the number of formulae is reduced, the rewards increased, or they venture abroad. No wonder they ask for so much money in F1. Most of them are still repaying the debts incurred on the way up !—J.W.