3: Formula 3
“I’m over the hill—at 28” admitted John Fenning, one of Britain’s leading private-entrant Formula 3 drivers, when discussing his career. He was not talking about his driving ability or stamina, though, rather his worth as works team material. Single-seater racing is the ultimate when purists get talking and undoubtedly Formula 1 is the highest form of the sport so necessarily there are Formulae 2, 3 and now 4 to provide the right sort of experience at lower cost, to provide the driver with opportunities to show his talent, and of course entertain the public on the sort of budget that organisers are willing to gamble on.
It is established beyond dispute that racing saloon or GT cars does not provide the right background for single-seaters and there are few drivers with the versatility of Jim Clark or John Surtees who can excel in any type of competition car; neither Fangio nor Brabham liked “two-seater” racing, in common with most other grand prix drivers, or to put the matter another way, there are excellent saloon and GT drivers around who for one reason or another never took to single-seaters. It follows that the most ambitious young drivers rnust save, beg and borrow to seat themselves in a Formula 3 car in order to stand any chance of moving up the scale and turning professional.
How, then can a driver be over the hill at 28 ? The average age of Formula 3 drivers can be no more than 23-24 and they all sincerely hope that by the time they are much older the manager of a professional team will have signed them up—with no fees, but a share of the prize money—and set them on the road to stardom. This is the way Jackie Stewart arrived, and maybe Chris Irwin and Piers Courage, but many others will hover, wait and hope until the time comes to give up the good life and earn an honest living, looking after family commitments.
Most drivers are, if not wealthy, able to invest at least £3,000 capital in their racing (Fenning has just sold every racing possession for £4,016) and share a dread of fire which can wipe out every asset far more thoroughly than any accident. In most cages a local bank manager has a substantial interest in his client’s career, either on a direct loan or against a life insurance policy, and it is clear that with sufficient determination to get what he wants (the same determination that wins races), a young man can make a start even if it means giving up cigarettes, drink, girl-friends and any pretence of good living.
At today’s values, a year-old Formula 3 car can be built up for about £1,500; it won’t necessarily be competitive but it will make a start for at least one season and surprisingly enough it can be quite profitable if the driver picks his events carefully. Most drivers prefer to spend the summer season on the Continent for two reasons—starting and prize money is better. A third obvious reason for spending the summer abroad is the comradeship which represents a way of life, sleeping rough to save money, helping one another, lending and borrowing, living on wits, divorcing this type of racing from anything we see in Britain at weekends—there is no bumping, boring, or protesting for one thing.
This is the picture John Fenning gave us of his favourite sport. We talked to him as a considerably experienced driver who can compete with works teams on level terms—and sometimes drives works cars— pocketing a small profit generally, and though a young man he is about the only competitive driver today who started racing in the old Formula 3 500 cc. days.
A racing career started naturally for him. John’s father, Eric, took time off from his small garage business in Stockbridge, Hampshire, to be a successful competitor in his Erskine Staride-Norton, and was one of the British team at Nurburgring in 1956. John carried the plug spanner and his first trial was at the Thruxton airfield in 1958, when he spun off. His first competition was at the Brunton hill-climb when he beat father in the Formula 3 class (saying modestly that he was four or five stone lighter). The first race meeting, on Silverstone Club circuit, saw John spin off during the third lap and at the end of the year the car was sold in America for £250.
It was replaced by a Mark 9 Cooper-Norton, costing £400. Since the plugs habitually oiled up the engine was rebuilt and then John won a race at Silverstone, but outings were few and far between. At the Boxing Day meeting at Brands Hatch Eric and John saw the new Formula Junior cars in action for the first time; unable to decide what to buy, or where to find the money, they rebuilt the Cooper with a stressed skin hull and installed a Downton-tuned B.M.C. engine which cost £150. A Dauphine gearbox, big brakes and wheels were all introduced and the car, called the Venom, proved to be fast in a straight line but a pronounced over-steerer. The best result was a third place at Goodwood after ploughing the cornfield.
In September 1960 the Fennings bought a Lotus 18, then a highly competitive chassis, for £1,200 less engine, fitting a £200 B.M.C. unit themselves as the garage business deals with Longbridge products. Having purchased a V8 Pilot breakdown truck, father and son took the Lotus and the Venom to race meetings and John had first choice, preferring the Lotus for fast circuits and the Venom for its tight handling capabilities. The highlight of John’s year was not an outright win but fastest practice time in the second session before the Bank Holiday International meeting at Brands Hatch, earning words of praise front Peter ArundeII who was then ” king ” of the formula. John Hogan approached John on Ron Harris’ behalf and mentioned a drive the next year, 1962, and this came to be after a number of trial sessions.
The Venom, which had cost a total of £1,000, was sold for £500 less engine and gearbox at the end of 1961, marking Eric’s retirement from racing. The Lotus was also sold at a substantial loss, since the chassis alone realised only £400, and the racing season had finished with a fair loss after prize money and bonuses had been counted.
Equipped with a Lotus 20 and powered by the fastest Cosworth 1100 engine on the track that year, Fenning drove in 29 races in 1962 and had 11 wins, four seconds and a pair of thirds. Two breakdowns, two spin-offs (one involving the chicane at Goodwood) more or less completed the year which also included a lap record at Albi and the outright record—for a few weeks—at Brands Hatch. With a time of 55 sec. round the short circuit John was the first to lap the Kent circuit in a race at 80 m.p.h.
Late in 1962 Ron Harris sold the Lotuses and ran Lolas, with Lola exponent John Hine joining the team, but their first Continental outing together at Albi was a disaster as Hine crashed and Fenning lost his clutch. During the winter the Ron Harris team switched back to Lotus and for 1963 the team consisted of Arundell, Spence and Fenning in the new 27s but it was a poor year as the glass-fibre-hulled car handled badly, Fenning’s best result being second to Frank Gardner at Zandvoort. As in 1962 a small profit was shown on the year, but far less than one would expect for a contracted works driver.
Towards the end of 1963 John had an extremely bad road accident in his Mini and was in hospital for nine weeks. By the time he made his 1963 debut at the Racing Car Show on sticks it was plain that no-one wanted him as a driver. Undaunted, he set about building his own car from scratch, calling on the help of friends and acquired a bent Lotus 20 chassis which cost £6 10s to straighten. It was a good one, too. Including the cost of engine and gearbox the entire car cost £580, and despite the fact that this was built to the new and cheaper Formula 3 specification, it is doubtful if a cheaper competitive car has been raced in the professional sphere.
A close schoolfriend, Mike “Herbie” Herbertson, and John put £300 each into the venture, so there was enough money left to spend £20 on a trailer. ” Herbie ” did the club meetings and John the trade-supported events to such good effect that he finished third in the national Express & Star Formula Three championship, close behind Charles Crichton-Stewart and Warwick Banks in works Coopers. Like Coopers, John was still faithful to B.M.C. engines, having the first of the new “S” short-stroke units giving 80 b.h.p. coupled to a Dauphine box. Far from being “written-off,” John says he came back more determined than ever and enjoyed the season better than any other to date, preferring to be responsible to himself rather than a sponsor-cum-team-manager. He finished most races second or third, and though there weren’t any outright wins he showed a profit of £50 on the year, the first profit made in his own car. The car, incidentally, was used by “Herbie” during 1965 and then sold for £600 to show a useful return after two seasons.
For 1965, Merlyn offered Fenning a car at an attractive price, equipped with the first down-draft Holbay engine, but the power unit was having teething troubles and after four races it was returned and John built his own “bitza” Cosworth MAE short-stroke engine which helped him to win at Montlhéry and collect £75 prize money. At Monza in May he slid off three times and then ran a big-end, and when he got hack to England the Merlyn was sold at a loss of £100. Fenning and Rodney Banting went to Coopers together to order a pair of the new 76 chassis which they got for £1,300 apiece; since Cosworth engines were hard to get at £625 John built a pair of “bitza” MAE units for £500 each (in time they failed with broken cranks).
John’s car carne through late in June and before the paint was dry he had chalked up fifth place in the Monza Lotteria, collecting £57 start money and £110 prize money. At Reims the next weekend he finished third, collecting £58 prize money, then to Rouen where he got a fourth place and £51 prize money. In Portugal he was fastest in both practice sessions and came second in the race after being black-flagged for an alleged overtaking infringement. Adding up £120 start money and £180 prize money showed a useful profit for the weekend, and a week later at Karlskoga he collected £150 start money (third fastest practice time) but the transistor box broke on the first lap of the race. At Roskilde he finished tenth on bald tyres, still collecting £50 start money, but at Brands Hatch later he got £10 start money for third fastest practice time and retired with ignition failure when second.
The moral seems to be that big meetings in Britain are not profitable. Only a fortnight later at Knutsdorp, Sweden, Fenning collected £140 for an outright win, but only £40 at Oulton Park for a second place. The Ingliston circuit in Scotland showed an improvement with £50 paid out for a second place, and the season ended there. After deducting travelling expenses and repairs, and selling the car for £200 less than he paid for it. John ended 1965 with a net profit of £200 and had recorded two outright wins, a couple of lap-records, and a lot of places.
To stay at the top a driver cannot afford to hold on to outdated machinery. John usually reckons on changing his car every year so the £200 net profit is neither here nor there when it comes to a replacement; whatever happens a great deal of capital has to be invested in competitive cars. At first it seemed that 1966 would be another sociable year with Coopers but the latest car was not blessed with the best of handling so John opted out of a Works-supported drive and approached Ron Tauranac, the Brabham designer, for quick delivery on a 1966 Formula 3 car, and this was available soon when £2,275 changed hands— this included the latest Cosworth engine, and the car was set up by Jack Brabham during a test session at Goodwood. The first meeting was at Outton Park and although the meeting was snowed off the drivers were grateful to receive starting money based on practice times.
Contracts with BP, Dunlop and Champion all help to show a profit on meetings in the form of bonus money. Finishing second at Good wood netted £125 practically all profit, but Fenning broke even at Barcelona after bending the car in the final race. Repairs set him back in parts, but the loss was compounded by a row with the organisers over starting money at Monza, so John returned to England without a race. Third place at Silverstone and a lap record, earned him £120, then a trip to Sweden earned £125 start money against £110 expenses. From pole position at Brands Hatch (dubious timing, maybe) he spoilt the start with a dragging clutch, and clambered back to fifth place, earning him £30, and then made £40 clear profit at Djursland (Denmark) en route to Kimola where an outright victory earned a profit of £253. Down to Italy for a race at Caserta, where John hit some loose straw and lost coolant, finishing sixth with a dry engine; even so, the trip showed a profit of £178. The engine was dud for the next outing at Monza (23rd fastest in practice) but changing the unit for the race earned fifth place in a dramatic finish where all the cars crossed the line in a bunch. A profit of £165 was showed on the trip.
Back at Crystal Palace, second gear broke but sixth place was managed, earning £23 profit, and John’s next race was at Reims in Ken Tyrrell’s Matra. “This was the biggest thrill of the season, as I won by a fraction,” he recalled. Big money was beckoning at Vila Real, where on race day the temperature was 100° F. in the shade. Side panels were removed to keep the drivers cool, and it was a good trip for Fenning who was fastest in the practice sessions and won the race to collect £400 and a £200 trophy. At Cascais second place earned £436 and another win at Oporto earned £417, although expenses accounted for nearly half these sums. More races in the Brabham followed at Karlskoga (£37 profit), in Finland (£40 profit), at Knutsdorp (£65 profit) and at Skarpnack (£35 profit) before two more races for Tyrrell in the Matra—seventh and sixth places at the Le Mans Bugatti circuit and the Albi course—showed a £7 profit after air fares had been paid. The season ended with five outright wins and ten places and a reasonable financial breakdown. The Brabham was sold for £1,800 and, with retirement in mind, John realised a total of £4,016 including spare engines, gearboxes, transporter and equipment.
Prize money, bonuses and perks added up to £2,009 on the credit side, while the debit side added up to £5,243. This included purchase of car and spares, repairs, tyres, air fares and travelling, phone calls, hotel bills and all sundry expenses, so the overall profit was £782.
It must be realised that to show any profit the owner-driver must also be his own mechanic, and quite a good one to get this type of result sheet at the end of the season, or else have a friend prepared to work for living expenses. At the other end of the scale, Herbertson showed the same sort of profit by keeping his year-old Cooper on the Continent throughout the summer, collecting start money and driving steadily to finish. Living the life of a beatnik with a purpose, ” Herbie ” scraped up a reasonable Cooper 76 for £1,500 including engine and VW transporter and earned enough to keep a single man together in body and soul.
John Fenning talks of retirement, but he does not convince anyone that he means it. Showing a profit is not enough for a man with a wife and child when he has got a family business to help in, and tying up so much capital is strictly a short-term “investment.” But he has enjoyed the good life, seen all his opportunities and taken them. There is no bitterness that no-one offered him a more lucrative drive and no doubt that he went through the right training ground to show his ability.—M. L. C.