The Constructors - 5 Formula Ford 1600 Engine Builders

The constructors ot Formula Ford 1600 engines are in a peculiar position. They are, if you like, an establishment, men who have been doing their job for years, who see young drivers come and use their engines, then see them go, to better things or into obscurity. FF1600 is a category into which every serious young driver feels he must go, but which he wants to be out of as quickly as he can.

FF1600 can now be a very expensive affair if it is done properly, a budget of £1,000 plus for a single race and a day's testing is commonplace. Since every pound spent at the junior level is a pound less to spend in, say, F3, FF1600 is an anxious period for a driver.

Sammy Nelson, a leading engine builder, told me, with a grin: "Thirty drivers start a race and only one wins. That leaves 29 looking for an excuse. The first thing to pick on is the engine, the last is the man in the cockpit."

Most engine builders have a sense of humour, it's essential, for drivers tend to be superstitious, even though most would deny it. "At one time," recalls Nelson, "we used to machine the outside of the inlet manifolds just to make them look good. Costs rose and we wanted to keep ours down so we stopped the cosmetic treatment. One of our 'new' engines won a race and up and down the pit lane people were throwing away the machined manifolds and fitting new, demon, unmachined ones!"

Engine builders at every level of the sport, F1 included, will tell you that they can supply a driver with two engines which are identical on the dynamometer in every characteristic, yet a driver will swear by one and say the other is no good at all. Once a driver has his "best" engine, it will remain so even after half a dozen rebuilds where the only two parts of the original which remain are the block and, more importantly, the "good" engine number.

The engine builder's art has long been regarded with awe, which is why some hacks have called them "tuning wizards" who 'breath" on engines. The truth is that the engine builders are engineers with logical minds, who need their sense of humour. What is particularly interesting about the world of FF1600 engine building is the narrowness of its confines. The rules are so tightly worded that there is little which can be done to radically improve performance short of blatant cheating. Builders have therefore to work extremely hard to gain even a fractional advantage, a whole horse-power unit is a quantum leap.

Though FF1600 was originally based around the 1,500 cc Cortina GT engine (the category was known simply as "Formula Ford" before the advent of FF2000 and Sports 2000) from the beginning of 1968. FF's first full season, the Ford "Kent" engine has been mandatory and Ford has guaranteed supply of this unit, regardless of its own production car plans, for as long as the category needs it. The formula is now popular in most major motor racing countries and Ford is active in promoting it in others. Finland and France took it last year and Portugal is next on the list. After the FF Race of (National) Champions which will be one of the supporting races at this year's British GP, the Ford-supplied Van Diemen-Scholar RF85 cars will be taken to Portugal to start the category there. British engine builders therefore enjoy a healthy export market though builders in other countries, notably Germany, are imposing an increasing threat.

There is very little which a builder is permitted to do to an engine. He may not change the standard camshaft, crankshaft, inlet manifold, valves, head gasket, con rods, pistons, clutch, flywheel, compression ratio or number of valve springs. Metal may be removed from the engine, within limits, but none may be added. Inlet and exhaust ports may be reshaped, within limits. Dry sump lubrication is allowed, exhaust systems are free and there are other detail regulations such as the prohibition of polishing the crankshaft while permitting it to he tuftrided. In other words, most of the areas in which a tuner would seek maximum performance are barred to the FF1600 builder and yet they are able to add around 20 bhp to the standard Kent output of 85 bhp and, over the past four or five years, maximum revs have increased from a typical 6,200 rpm to around 6,800 rpm, thus allowing drivers to fit shorter gears.

Since a customer can buy an engine from X and have it rebuilt by Y, who can quickly find out what X has been up to, secrets do not remain secret for long except if a builder is retaining a special works engine. In most builders' workshops there is a "scalpboard" on which the nameplate of the last builder of a particular engine is displayed.

Go to Minister and you will see Auriga nameplates, among others, on the scalpboard. Go a few miles up the road to Auriga and you will find Minister nameplates, among others, on the board. This constant interchange helps to police the formula, for "bent" engines do not remain undiscovered for long. Illegal engines actually exist far more in rumour than in fact. In preparing this article, I spoke to representatives of six firms (Minister, Auriga, Scholar, Neil Brown, Nelson and Aldon) and in over a decade they had discovered only three bent engines between them and none originated from any of the companies named.

The exceptions to the rule are when individuals prepare their own units and control them. So tightly are the regulations framed, however, that any sudden advantage is quickly' discerned by the opposition.

Once an ambitious car constructor assisted the performance of his products with nitrous-oxide injection. He no longer makes racing cars.

Some marginal engines have come in from abroad, they are no longer marginal. Bent engines have been used by a race hire operator in a small way of business who cheerfully admits the fact. His rationale is that his customers are all no-hopers anyway and nobody will complain if a driver who might have finished 22nd with a legal engine finishes 18th with untoward assistance. Nobody protests 18th place.

Some time ago, one driver, X, was convinced that everybody who was beating him was using bent engines so after one race he protested everybody who finished ahead of him, seven or eight drivers. Not to be outdone, someone in turn protested X. When the results of the RAC Inspections were announced, everybody was clean save one. You've guessed it, it was X himself. I know of one other driver who was a front runner in a championship but kept being beaten by a particular pair of drivers who seemed indecently quick down the straights. Convinced that they were cheating, he decided to play at their own game and so built what he describes as "the bent engine of all time, you name it, we had it, the lightened flywheel, steel crankshaft, high-lift camshaft, oversize valves, double valve springs, everything. The only trouble was it was two seconds a lap slower than our standard Auriga engine. I was being beaten down the straights because of the rotten aerodynamics of my car." The story serves to highlight the skills of the professional builders who achieve their results by painstaking attention to detail and making everything they do work in harmony.

Because FF1600 is an insecure place for a driver to be, rumours and superstition abound. Consider "Patch", one of Minister's works engines which is loaned to selected drivers each year. The mere fact it has a name and not just a number tells you something of the regard in which it is held. The fact that four successive Formula Ford Festivals (1980-83) have been won by drivers using it has added to its reputation as well. It is called "Patch" because it has a hole in the block caused by an errant conrod and the hole has been covered by a neat metal patch. I asked a number of people professionally involved in FF1600 why the engine was so apparently good and received the following answers.

"Trevor van Rooyan built it. It took months. You could build a replica but it would cost the earth." Trevor Van Rooyan did build a special engine, it blew apart in 1978.

"The patch covers the engine number. There has been a whole series of engines called 'Patch'."

"It's a one in a million chance. The block is perfect."

"Nobody knows, least of all Minister. If they did, they'd build more like it." Minister has actually built more like it, including "Son of Patch". That name alone is worth a few tenths.

"Van Rooyan did something special to the block."

"It's psychological. A driver with 'Patch' believes he can't lose and the opposition are out-psyched."

"It's nothing to do with the engine. At the 1983 Festival, they pre-heated Gilbert-Scott's tyres."

"The patch is deliberate, they drilled a hole and covered it. It's a stress plate which relieves the block and keeps it true."

Before revealing, for the first time in print, the truth about "Patch", I'd just like to emphasis again that all the above theories came from serious people and to give some idea just how the old "black magic" permeates the category and, indeed, the sport at every level. Last year someone saw "Patch" in the workshops of Madgwick Motorsport, who had been loaned it, and offered nearly three times the £1,800 which an ordinary engine costs.

The secret of "Patch" is as follows. One of Minister's customers threw a rod and the engine was returned for a rebuild. The company felt that it could not give the customer a patched engine and so provided a new block. "Patch's" block was left to mature in the open, something which used to be standard practice with all cast iron blocks until casting techniques became more sophisticated. This simple, though time consuming, process has the effect of relieving the block. Any cast iron block would benefit from the process but clearly a builder cannot invest in two year's production in advance to allow it to happen and so cusomer engines are as supplied by Ford. I did hear, however, of a builder in Brazil who apparently runs his engines without water until they seize, and then hones them, in an attempt to achieve the same effect in a much shorter time. This practice brought pained looks from the British builders I spoke to.

A relieved block is liable to maintain its integrity better and, remember, we are talking about advantages in FF1600 in terms of fractions, not in terms of throwing on sticky rubber and turning up the turbo boost. The next point is that, since "Patch" is under the control of the builder, its rebuilds can be carefully monitored and this point is important.

The secret of "Patch" is a relieved block and careful, regular maintenance. John Pratt, who used it last year confirms that it felt no different to other works Minister engines he used. The explanation will convince few in FF1600 because it lacks the essential element of mystery.

The best engine builders proceed as follows. A complete engine is bought from Ford and is stripped. Everything is carefully balanced, conrods will be balanced not only so their overall weights are identical but also that the small ends match as to the big eods. The top of the block is skimmed so that the minimum combustion chamber volume of 41 cc is achieved, then we start to go into the areas about which nobody will speak, cam timing, fuel mixture, porting and so on. Each builder has his own particular ways. Minister, for example, pays a premium so that it does not receive any linered engines for the firm believes that under some circumstances, the liner may twist. Other builders maintain that this does not happen and, indeed, the liners tend to be made of better quality metal than the block.

What all builders have in common is the ability to take 10 Kent engines and produce 10 racing versions which will give power figures within one per cent of each other. And builders will also say that they operate on the principle that "Harry's money is as good as Joe's" and they do not discriminate between customers. They are clearly more high-minded than I would be in the same circumstances. Were I a builder, I would make sure that a marginally superior engine went to the driver who could do me the most good while the least good engine (we're talking of fractions, not bad engines) went to a back-marker who would not anyway know a good engine if he fell over it. Since all the builders tell me they don't do that, I feel suitably abashed.

An FF1600 engine will run satisfactorily for around eight hours, or 800 miles, and then it starts to lose a little power. Worse, at that point the cast iron crankshaft becomes suspect and is liable to break between the No 4 big end journal and the No 5 main bearing journal, where all the power from the engine is transmitted. The Ford Kent engine was not designed for sustained racing speeds in the first place and was certainly not designed to drive directly to the rear wheels. As fitted into an FF1600 car, the ring gear is exposed and is liable to receive a tremendous shock when the car is driven over kerbs or if it bottoms. A guard around It is likely to implode and cause more damage and aluminium rubbing strips under the car only partially solve the problem. This is why the same engine fitted into a Clubman's car will have an active racing life of around four times as long. A typical rebuild at eight hours costs £500.

Everybody knows that FF1600 engines are "blue printed' ie built to the standards laid down in the manufacturer's specification from which most engines deviate slightly due to wear on the machine tools producing the components,. Blue Printing does not, by itself, produce a significant power increase, but it does allow the engine to run more smoothly and so exploit the areas where the power increase is really achieved, detail work such as attention to cam timing and fuel adjustment.

Builders are allowed to subtract, but not add, metal to the engines and all components must be as supplied by Ford.

It is apparently common in Brazil for builders to queue outside the local Ford Plant in the early morning so as to obtain some of the first camshafts etc which arrive off the lines in the morning. The rationale for this is that, overnight, the machine tools have been reset and therefore the first off the line, actually numbers 4-7 for preference will be the best.

It was suggested to me that unmachined Ford components have been obtained by the unscrupulous who have then cunningly ground them to produce, for example, high lift cams which most tests would fail to detect. In my view this is nonsensical for it would require the cooperation of a Ford employee and all such are incorruptible. The standard Kent engine gives 85 bhp and builders were, to a man, cagey about the power they obtain from a tuned engine but around 105 bhp seems a reasonable guess. Privately most will admit there is little to pick and choose between the engines of all the leading builders and all are anyway resigned to being "flavour of the month". Halfway through 1983, Auriga was suddenly the "hot" builder. Two drivers had switched to Auriga engines and were suddenly winning. One team manager decided to protest the engines but, as he explained later, he felt Auriga had "found something" but before he committed himself to a switch he had to assure himself that the engines were legal. The engines were legal and the manager became a customer, switching at some expense from another maker.

Martin Spence of Auriga explains: "We hadn't found anything special. both drivers were using our standard engines. What happened was the drivers were new to the formula and were finding their way in the early races. About the same time that they bought Auriga engines they found their feet and started to win. It was nothing to do with us, they would have won anyway, but we certainly did not complain about the extra business."

As research for this article continued, it became more and more apparent that psychology plays a larger part in FF1600 engine building than in any other branch of motor racing I've encountered and, believe me, that is saying a lot. It is not confined to drivers, one builder pointed out a small external modification he does to his engines: "It does nothing at all, it's there to baffle to opposition."

Madgwick Motorsport's boss, Robert Synge, says, "I've found the way to obtain the 200 bhp Ford engine! In 1963, we ran a perfectly good motor from X. For various reasons, we switched to Y and took X's engine to him to be rebuilt. Y said that X's engine was terrible, he'd found another 5 bhp. Later in the same season we took the engine to Z, who said that Y's work was awful and that he'd found another 2 bhp. Now if you went around to everyone, with them all finding more power, you'd end up with a 200 bhp engine!"

When I told X, Y and Z the story, naming names, they all found it hugely funny, but then engine builders are like that, they've all got a sense of humour — and they need it. — M.L.