Senior Juniors

Formula Junior is in a renaissance as a historic category, 45 years after its heyday. But can Motor Sport do a 130mph lap average?
Words: Marcus Simmons. Photography: Andrew Ferraro/LAT

What is it about the human reaction to change? In the summer of 1958 the British motorsport press was scathing about Formula Junior, the category founded by the celebrated Count 'Johnny' Lurani and introduced in Italy that year. The feeling was that this 'Junior Formula' was all very well for the Italians, but that the cars were too slow and that they would never catch on elsewhere. You can understand that point of view, for 500cc Formula Three was still in full swing in the UK. Was Junior really needed on these shores?

It took another 18 months for that question to be answered in the affirmative: March 19 1960 was the date that Formula Junior really became established in the UK. The first big race of the season was at Goodwood and featured a thrilling battle between future World Champions Jim Clark and John Surtees, who was in his first ever car race. The Scot's Lotus defeated the Cooper of the ex-bike star, with Trevor Taylor, Arundell and Mike Spence — who would all become handy Formula One drivers — also in the top six. Surtees's fastest lap was nearly four seconds quicker than Stuart LewisEvans's F3 lap record, and Formula Junior was here to stay...

For four years anyway. But this was an era in which the whole motorsport landscape changed. In 1961 Fl switched to 1.5-litre engines, Formula Two was dropped and, in Europe anyway, Junior was now the only serious sub-F1 single-seater category. Hundreds of races were held, there was a multitude of constructors, and a fresh generation of driving and design talent was born. The revival of F3 in 1964 rendered Junior redundant in Europe, but the new F3 was, in effect, a continuation of the Junior philosophy.

So what happened to all the old cars? Some were modified; some were stashed away. In the UK, the club-level Monoposto series continued to provide a home to many of the cars, and the Monoposto Register began to run Formula Junior as a stand-alone historic category in 1975. That lasted until the early-90s, when Juniors were lumped in with early Formula Fords at Historic Sports Car Club meetings. In the mid-90s, racing historian Duncan Rabagliati's Formula Junior Historic Racing Association began organising the pan-European Lurani Trophy for the FIA. By 1996 the FJHRA had also re-established the UK series, and in '97 this gained full championship status. Races were run under the umbrella of the Aston Martin Owners' Club until the beginning of 2006, when the Millers Oils-backed championship moved in with its more logical bedfellow, the HSCC.

During the past decade Junior has enjoyed an explosion in interest. Rabagliati's register of cars actively racing in the UK and Europe contains more than 300 machines, with a further two dozen currently undergoing restoration. There are also cars active in North America, where Junior thrived in the early '60s.

And it was an American title-winning car I sampled first on a cold but bright day at Silverstone. This was the 1959 Elva 100, currently owned by Crispian Besley, that was driven to the 1960 SCCA crown by Charlie Kolb. I would then move onto Andrew Taylor's Britannia, designed and built in '60 by John Tojeiro and a good example of the early rear-engined machinery. Finally came a stint in the '63 Cooper T67 currently raced by Anthony Binnington — and in period taken to a startling 130mph lap (reckoned to be the fastest ever FJunior average speed) of Enna-Pergusa by the great Peter Revson.

Besley has owned his BMC-powered Elva since 1998. He is a prime example of a competitor who once raced seriously (in Formula Ford) but has chosen FJunior for his weekend kicks. Preparation has been entrusted to David Abbott. Based near Silverstone, he has turned out the Elva beautifully.

Unsurprisingly, the BMC four-banger sounds like a Mini as it's revved up, in contrast to the rasping Ford-powered machinery I will try later. This is my first time in a racing car anywhere near as old as this, and it's 11 years since my last taste of single-seater machinery... As it turns out, the Elva is the ideal car to ease me back into the swing of things. The Silverstone National circuit is a little slippery after overnight rain, but I'm instantly comfortable with the upright driving position. It only takes around a lap to get used to the fact that, in the Elva (a contraction of Elle Va; French for 'she goes'), the gearstick is slap-bang between my thighs. Which hand should I use? Pretty soon I settle on the right. In the conditions I'm having to be careful on the brakes into Becketts and the stadium complex, but other than that it's not too difficult to press on from the off.

Crispian, usually among the leading contenders in the front-engined class, tells me that he considers a 1min 15sec lap competitive on this circuit. As I return after a dozen or so laps, he tells me this is exactly what I've done. He then goes out and laps in 1min 13sec! Even so, the proof of the Elva's user-friendliness is evident. I raced small single-seaters regularly around 15 years ago and haven't done much since. But it goes to show that straight away you can have fun and lap respectably in a machine which, although pushing out slightly less than 100bhp, is fast enough to make you feel as though you're in a serious racing car.

The Britannia was a different — and quicker — proposition. By 1960 the engine of choice was the 1.1-litre version of the Ford 105E unit, supplying just over 100bhp. Taylor and father-in-law Peter Green have a background in pre-war MGs, but bought the Britannia in early 2001. Only five of these cars were produced by Tojeiro and the history of each is murky. But, swapping notes with another Britannia owner in the UK, Taylor and Green modified the front end to correct period spec. The other owner, in turn, modified his rear end to mirror the car of Taylor and Green.

Taylor usually does around six or seven races per season, on a shoestring budget: "Our running costs for 2005 were fuel and a bit of oil, and the entry fees." Green rebuilt the engine in '04, and Taylor claims that the only modification since then has been to try a new set of front springs.

The Britannia has considerably more oomph than the Elva. Although Taylor is the same height as me (6ft 3in), for some reason I can't get enough elbow room to pull back into second gear. I settle on sticking to third and fourth in the Volkswagen-derived 'box, which means there is a slight hesitation exiting Becketts and Luffield before the revs reach 5500rpm and the engine comes on cam. Good fun though, and amazing progress from the Elva.

But not as mind-boggling as the jump to Binnington's Cooper. A former semi-works MGB racer of the late '60s, Anthony still races a B, but added the Cooper to his stable in mid-2003. Unusually, the T67 has a six-speed Citroën-based 'box mated to a Ford 109E engine, rebuilt by Denis Welch: it's probably good for around 115bhp.

It takes some time to get to grips with the fact that there are six gears in this car, with not a lot of space between each in the 'box. Exiting Becketts and Luffield in second, it's a very quick series of shifts through to third, fourth and fifth. Binnington asks me to stick to 8000rpm, so I need to hold the throttle at this point on the run to Copse and the stadium, but there is clearly more to go in fifth: in fact, Anthony says he only uses sixth at Thruxton.

I get a few laps in before returning to the pits. Like me Anthony is a slim man, an ideal shape for the svelte Cooper, but he doesn't have my height, and by this stage my clutch foot is overcome with cramp. If it was my car I'd be able to adjust the seating and pedal positions to make sure I really fitted the car properly before driving it fast, but it just can't be done today. Still, I can carry reasonable speed into the complex and find that the initial oversteer is easily catchable.

What would I race given the chance? I would certainly be comfortable with the Elva, and further down the line I'd love to have a go with the Cooper. But whatever class I was in I know it would be more enormous fun. And that's one thing about Formula Junior that isn't about to change.