Those who saw the fledgling Formula Renault races in 1989 would be forgiven for thinking that it was one championship too many, it was the final straw. Besides how could it muscle in and establish itself as a serious single-seater formula when we already had the long established Formula Ford championship as well as the bright and pushy GM Vauxhall Lotus series? Small grids, low key — almost no hope. . . . and yet in 1990, the races were oversubscribed, pre-qualifying was necessary and the championship became to be generally regarded as the best one around.
How did this come about and what did Radbourne Racing have to do with it? There is no doubt that one of the major obstacles that initially had to be overcome was the perception that Formula Renault was an insular French national championship, run by France for French drivers using French engines and French chassis. It was not really the most attractive way to go motor racing for anyone else; it was not viewed by even Renault as having any kind of an international future as it stood.
That, though, was to change with the ditching of the blown engine used up until the end of 1988 and replaced by the normally aspirated 130 bhp unit and the decision by Renault France to seek an end to the virtual chassis monopoly enjoyed by Martini. It was the subsequent involvement of Van Diemen, Reynard and Swift, encouraged by Renault to build prototype chassis, which really lit a match under the formula, for it began to be perceived less as a national French championship and more of an international one. And since the manufacturers were British, might there not be a place for it in Britain?
There was still a great deal of work to be done, though, and although Renault UK’s sport supremo Tim Jackson was responsible for encouraging it to come to Britain, he was powerless to give anything more than moral support as Renault UK at that stage were playing a waiting and seeing game.
It was at this stage that Lincoln Small, boss of Radbourne Racing and well known for his love of motor racing, and his able lieutenant John Millett bravely stepped forward. With the help and advice of Jackson, they set about to bring the formula to Britain under the auspices of Radbourne Racing. It was a huge operation for what was basically a Renault dealer and a very courageous one. They were fortunate, however, in not only enlisting Robert Fearnall’s involvement at Donington Park, but also by the fact that the BARC had just lost the Vauxhall Lotus Championship to the BRDC and were keen to replace it with another open-wheel championship. There was therefore a ready-made framework for the series, but few pundits really expected the series to live beyond its inaugural year in 1989.
“It was a hard struggle,” says Lincoln ruefully, “which taught us a few lessons on the way. The package we offered in 1989 as a club racing package irrespective of the composition of manufacturer/engine was a good one. We offered between £35,000 and £40,000 prize money, television coverage and several good meetings. It was therefore superior to most club championships. The only thing I think that stopped Formula Renault really getting off the ground in 1989 was the fact that to race you had to go and buy yourself a new car.” The fact that it was not announced until the Racing Car Show in January that year did not help either as many potential competitors had already committed themselves to other championships.
There was also the credibility factor. “If I had said two years ago that a Renault dealer, the BARC and Two Four Sports would offer you the best championship in this country, come along and join us, what would you have said?” asked John Milleft. “That you’re going to knock Formula Ford for six? Nobody believed it. That was the biggest problem we had to get over.”
“The funny thing was that although the motor racing fraternity didn’t really give us the credibility that Formula Renault deserved, the rival manufacturers did. Vauxhall and Ford really did look upon it with a great degree of seriousness, concerned that it would knock their formula.”
The difficulty with the formula is trying to see just where it stands in the pecking order of British motor racing. It has to compete with Formula First, the new Formula Vauxhall Junior, Formula Ford, Formula Forward and Formula Vauxhall Lotus.
Any driver seriously considering motor racing as a profession has to consider a number of factors, but a high priority has to be given to recognition. There is little point in winning an unknown championship, but neither Formula Renault nor Vauxhall Lotus can be said to be understated. Such are the publicity machines behind them that the front runners in either case will become known in the motor racing world and thus boost their career prospects.
While it tries to appear as a formula that successfully straddles the great divide between karting and British Formula 3000, and there are some who have come straight in from karting while 1990 Champion Thomas Erdos has been offered a drive in British Formula 3000, it truthfully vies with Formula Ford 1600 as a stepping stone. As the success of Formula Renault has grown, so it has knocked Formula Ford; while competitors were fighting for a grid position in Formula Renault last year, those of Formula Ford had became very sparse.
Formula Renault slots somewhere between the Ford and Vauxhall championships. Like Ford, it is a multi-chassis formula but scores over Formula Ford by allowing slicks and wings. It is also a 12 round championship, half that of the major Formula Ford series, and thus easier on budgets.
When it conies to being compared with Vauxhall Lotus, the distinctions are greater, but the choice more difficult. Formula Renault has the advantage of being a multi-chassis formula, whereas there is no choice in the GM series, and there is the opportunity to blueprint the engine, but on the other hand, the French engines develop only 130 bhp against the 158 bhp of the sealed GM units and a Renault 25 road car gearbox is used, an aspect which has been criticised in some quarters.
“Formula Renault has probably done more for the British motor racing industry at club and national level than any formula since Formula Ford,” asserts Lincoln Small. “If Formula Renault had not come to England, I think you would have seen far fewer companies and teams involved in motor racing now because the engine builders such as Scholar and Minster would not have had a future. Their whole business was centred on rebuilding Formula Ford engines. Formula Ford would probably have died anyway because Vauxhall were intent on seizing the opportunity, to no advantage to the engine builders, and the chassis manufacturers would have been on a hiding to nothing as well because of the single chassis formula. Instead we have seen the re-emergence of companies in England like Swift, whilst other companies like Ray and Elden have been given a fresh lease of life.”
After the inaugural year’s very shaky start, the formula simply blossomed in 1990, the races being oversubscribed at every meeting. At first it was a problem, and there were a lot of disappointed people at the beginning, but once the organisers realised the extent of the problem, they began to address it and initiated a prequalifying system. With the exception of one meeting at Brands Hatch, the top half of two different practice sessions qualified for the championship race, for which points were at stake, while the remainder went into a race of their own.
With the emergence of Renault UK supporting the formula and organising the publicity, Radbourne’s role has not dramatically changed. Lincoln Small and John Millett have an involvement with the regulations which regulate the series, while they ad as the focal point for all things technical, whether it is passing information at the track or supplying parts to the teams. Why cannot Renault undertake that role you might wonder until you realise that Radbourne have the necessary flexibility to react to the needs of teams on virtually a 24 hour basis while they also stock every item on their premises at Wimbledon conceivably needed by a team running a Formula Renault car. It is a role they can justify having had the courage to bring the formula to Britain in the first place.
Formula Renault, while being a main plank in their programme, is not the only one. Above everything, Lincoln Small and John Millett are motor racing enthusiasts, indeed it was one of the reasons why they changed to being a Renault dealer.
Radbourne Racing was founded in September 1965. Situated in Isleworth, the company commenced life as the Abarth importers for Britain. The following year they took a Fiat dealership and moved from Isleworth to Holland Park where they had their first showroom and workshop to go with it. Further expansion continued, but it was the tie-up with Abarth which was proving the most exciting at the time, building 500s, 600s and 850s under licence to cirumvent the import duty and purchase tax of the time. They also built a series of Abarth coupes, Abarth-bodied cars, and other oddball vehicles such as a four-wheeled drive car powered by a Fiat 500cc engine. At the same time they were heavily involved in motor racing running a team of saloon cars in the British Saloon Car Championship and distributing Weber carburettors and supplying most of the Formula 3 and saloon car teams.
In 1971 the Abarth concession ceased after Fiat’s takeover leaving Radbourne to become Fiat dealers with the sporting connection rather being put into the shade, but that was rectified four years later with the 1300cc Fiat X1/9. At that time, Fiat had decided against importing the model into Britain, but Radbourne had few such qualms, converting them to right hand drive and boring many of them out to 1500cc and 1600cc. It was not long before thoughts turned to the race track again and in 1978 the STP Modified Sports Car Championship was enlivened by a young Steve Soper displaying his skills at the wheel of a race-prepared X1/9. The career of the young English driver was successfully boosted by his succession of lap records at every circuit raced on his way to cleaning up in the championship.
All through this time, though, Lincoln and his partners, the Anstead brothers, kept themselves and their staff happy by importing a whole range of interesting cars which Fiat refused to consider, not wishing to commit themselves to ordering 300, the number Italy required to make right-hand drive versions in those pre-Type Approval days. Apart from the X1/9, there was the Dino Spider, the Dino Coupe, 124 Spider, 850 Spider, the 131 Abarth — all good and interesting cars.
“I had debate after debate with Fiat management on the basis that if you did it for England, surely you could sell them to Sweden, which was still driving on the left in those days, Australia and South Africa. Japan was not considered as in those days we didn’t even realise that they drove on the left. But they wouldn’t budge, so we did it ourselves!”
It was the turn of the decade, three years after the move to Wimbledon, that the turning point came. This was the time when the Fiat franchise really started to go downhill in England. Whereas in the Sixties it was the most accepted import marque of all, by 1980 it had died a death. “The franchise wasn’t performing, so we took the view that we could not survive on the Fiat products as they were then. All that they seemed to be able to sell in England were Unos and Pandas. They had divested all their sporting interests to Ferrari and Lancia and had nothing in their range at all of a sporting interest. It just seemed a little anachronistic to have Radbourne Racing selling bog-standard ordinary cars.” Enthusiasm for the product evaporated alongside which there were not any racing opportunities. Radbourne Racing was ripe for plucking.
“At the time Renault had a much more accepted franchise, but the biggest single factor with them was that the dealer had the opportunity of selling everything they produced with a diamond on it. The first thing we did to highlight our Renault dealership was to import the mid-engined Renault Turbo 2s which rekindled the same enthusiasm we had originally had with Fiat. Renault was also very involved with motor racing which mirrored our own philosophy.”
Apart from Radbourne’s involvement in Formula Renault, it is not surprising to find them in the thick of things in Renault’s one-make series, being founder members in 1986 with a two car team which later developed into a three car team. They also prepared and ran the Renault celebrity car in 1987 and 1988. Although they have never won the Drivers’ Championship, Dave Cox, who was with them from 1986 right through to 1989, was runner up twice, although they have won the Best Dealer/Team Award. That, however, is not the most important placard on Radbourne’s premises. Pride of place belongs to the unique placard presented by all the other teams at the end of 1989 honouring Radbourne for their spirit of comradeship, generosity and help, an award which has a special place in Lincoln’s heart.
1991 brings changes, though, for the year sees the demise of the popular Renault 5 GT Turbo replaced by the Clio 16V. Not only will Radbourne prepare their own cars, but they have also been awarded the contract to run the Renault celebrity Clio for this year as well.
As if all this was not enough, Lincoln Small is also an avid historic racing car fiend, owning many such examples and racing his own ’71 Formula Two Brabham BT35 in the HSCC Historic Racing Formula Championship for pre ’71 single-seaters while in his workshop is a 1968 F5000 Lola T142, the last of the spaceframe cars, complete with Traco Chevy engine and LG400 gearbox, the ex-Derek Bell Formula Two Brabham BT30, a beautiful 1.6S Alpine A110 and a couple of early 250 Ferraris. Most interesting of all, though, from Lincoln’s point of view, is the aluminium-bodied Radbourne Abarth which is undergoing restoration. This is just one of nine cars which Radbourne built themselves in the Sixties from a supply of 30 shells bought from Abarth. When the car came up at an auction last year, it was too good an opportunity to miss.
The bread-and-butter servicing of cars in their new purpose-built workshop a five minute drive away from HQ at the Broadway and the sales of Devil exhaust systems and Radbourne’s own uprated Renault 5 GT Turbo intercoolers all seems a little tame, but for all its high profile racing exploits, it is only this aspect of the business which allows them to go and play in the first place. WPK