New retrospective

We take to the track at Donington Park to examine two fresh HSCC initiatives

On the surface at least, Formula Ford and the Historic Sports Car Club (HSCC) may seem strange bedfellows. Think of Formula Ford and the images that come to mind are those of gridfuls of desperate would-be world champions, four abreast into corners and plenty of incident, certainly a far cry from the somewhat more genteel scene of hobby racers out enjoying their historic machinery. But Formula Ford has been going now for 25 years, and while there have long been championships for older FF1600 cars with the aim of keeping costs within reach of the amateur club racer, the time has now come for some of the machinery to be recognised as historic in its own right. Hence the HSCC’s new-for-’92 Pre-’71 Formula Ford series.

In 1968 21 year-old Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi created something of a sensation in British Formula Ford in his Jim Russell-entered Merlyn MkII , before graduating quickly to F3. He was in a works F1 Lotus within 18 months, won his first Grand Prix just a couple of months after that. It was quite the most stunning rise to racing stardom and undoubtedly helped seal Formula Ford’s perception among young drivers as the training ground for F1 aspirants.

Fittipaldi’s Merlyn, incidentally, went on to become perhaps the most famous FF1600 of all. After Emerson’s success with it, Colin Vandervell took over the helm in ’69 and ’70, winning British and European titles, ‘Magic Merlyn’ then going on to give Jody Scheckter his first taste of success outside his homeland.

The Magic Merlyn may not be around today, but we did get to try an example of the MkIIA at Donington, that belonging to Mark Hadfield. This car was brought over from Sweden last year, having spent most of its life there after being sold to ‘Smokey’ Asberg, racing entrepreneur and founder of the Anderstorp Raceway, in late 1968. According to Mark’s brother – restoration specialists and fellow HSCC racer Simon Hadfield – the Merlyn’s chassis and body are original, though much-repaired. Its Chris Steele engine – Steele’s one of the more popular Formula Ford engine preparation concerns of the time, along with Lucas, Holbay and Hart – is also believed to be original, though obviously many times rebuilt, and it retains the period carburettor and front-mounted oil pump.

The Merlyn is from the days when Formula Fords and F3s were pretty much indistinguishable visually and, often as not were the same chassis with just an engine change and bigger wheels. It’s a great boat of a thing visually, classic ’60s toothpaste-tube single seater in appearance with acres of spare room inside the spaceframe cockpit. Once installed, you notice the big bus-like steering wheel which gives masses of feedback once out on the circuit. It’s easy to see why the model was so conspicuously successful; it instils virtually instant confidence. In comparison to a modern generation single-seater its responses are saloon-like; you can feel the roll of body on suspension, there is none of the numbness at sub-racing speeds which you’d associate with cars of less than two seats. It never feels like an alien environment. Turn the big wheel round Redgate and it will drift slowly, gently. Go in a bit too late, or too early, it doesn’t matter so much, just make approximately the right throttle and steering movements and it sorts you out. As you sit there watching the big narrow wheels moving on their suspension and wonder how anyone could fail to get quite close to the car’s limit if they wanted to.

All of which contrasts quite sharply with the other FF1600 tried, Simon Hadfield’s Lotus 61. As the ’60s merged with the ’70s, classic rounded lines were out, groovy wedges in, the 61’s bodywork quite the most extreme form of the new-found fashion. You can almost picture the team-manager’s flairs and shoulder length hair. (Now there’s an idea. Perhaps the HSCC could introduce period dress in the Pre-’71 pit lane.) Actually, underneath, the mechanicals are quite prosaic but the ride is anything but drama-free. The cockpit feels more modern in that it’s smaller but that cockpit wedge necessitates the mirrors being mounted on stalks, way down, which bolt into the chassis. You look into them and try not to be too daunted by the fact that you’re having to look above and below the driveshafts to see if anything’s behind you (and just to add to the fun there are a couple of F3000 cars lapping). When I wasn’t circulating the track slowly, watching for blue flags, I was being unnerved by the car’s spooky handling if you tried taking Craner Curve flat. It would turn in just fine, start giving the messages that a car does when it’s happily settled into a corner, then . . . woah! the rear would sort of sit on its springs and roll into a big uncomfortable oversteer. “Yes,” confirmed Hadfield, “we think what’s happening is that the front bodywork is actually generating downforce, but the back’s not.” Needless to say, I vacated the premises rather quickly.

But there is evidently a knack to driving them quickly, as Hadfield himself has demonstrated, as did the car’s original owner in 1969, former F1 and F5000 racer Ian Ashley. The car was run originally for Ashley by Mike Spence Racing with a BRM-prepared engine, though after unspecified problems this was later traded for a Holbay unit. After that the poor car had a rather chequered history and Hadfield rescued it from Italy where it was running in Formula Libre with a Fiat twin-cam engine and Ferrari-lookalike bodywork. The car now looks fabulous in its original spec with bright yellow bodywork.

The HSCC has reported that it has had several enquiries about the new series from those who raced such cars in their heyday. There must be many period cars sitting in lock-ups around the country and the club hopes it might draw some of these out of retirement. The series is strictly amateur in spirit, even to the point of insisting that a driver must enter the car himself. Professional teams with rent-a-drivers will not be tolerated, although this might be relaxed if it is able to pull in the odd guest star from the period. Hadfield would dearly love to re-unite Ashley with his Lotus, for instance. Others still on the scene from that period of Formula Ford? Emerson Fittipaldi, Tony Trimmer, Bob Evans, Andy Rouse, Tom Walkinshaw . . .

Concurrent with the HSCC’s own initiative of the historic Formula Fords, the club has also agreed to represent Guy Munday’s QED Seven Club Challenge for pre-’73 Lotus 6s and 7s.

This will be a series of six races three of which have now been held rather than a championship, with a four-tier class structure comprising: D – for BMC A-series-engined cars of 948-1100 cc, Ford 105E 1200s and 109E 1340s. C – BMC A-series 1101-1300, Ford 116E and 120E 1560 cc as well as the Coventry Climax 1300. B – Ford 1600 crossflows up to 1630 cc with one carburettor and BMC A-series 1301-1400 cc. A – Ford 1600 crossflow up to 1630 cc with twin carburettors and the Lotus Twin-Cam to 1600 cc.

Caterham Cars manufacturer of the modern-day Seven has agreed to give discount on parts for championship runners and Munday is hoping that the combination of modest cost, the super-enjoyable cars two of which we were allowed to try and friendly clubbie atmosphere will be a big hit.

Those interested in participating in either of these attractive new series should contact Steve Lydon at the HSCC (0249 7581751) or, for the Sevens, Guy Manday on 0483 60951.