A taste of Formula Talbot

As a preview to the new Formula Talbot, mentioned in last December's issue, MCD invited Motor Sport to Brands Hatch to try the prototype of these methanol-fuelled, Talbot Sunbeam Ti-engined, single-seaters, for which the BRSCC has promoted a 12-race series in 1980. Thus it was that I found myself adopting the guise of Mark Thatcher in his Royale for some extremely enjoyable laps of the Club circuit, under the gaze of the Prime Minister's son and husband. 

Thatcher's prototype Auriga-engined Royale RP28M actually belongs to Jackie Epstein, co-architect of the Formula with John Webb and Talbot, but Thatcher is doing much of the development and will drive it in as many of the Championship rounds as he is able. To recap on the Formula, the cars are Formula Ford 1600 or 2000 chassis fitted with 150 b.h.p., methanol concerned, 1,600 c.c. Sunbeam Ti engines, blueprinted and fitted with two twin-choke Weber carburetters. M and H Racemaster racing tyres — slicks or wets — are compulsory, these and the extra power ensuring that this is a much faster formula than FF1600, but the cars are not allowed the aerodynamic aids of FF 2000. 

As it happens, this Royale RP28M is a totally new car based on the RP26FF 1600 and RP27 FF 2000 cars, but the hoped for ideal of the Formula is that competitors will convert existing Formula Ford cars, both to keep costs down and to ease the pressure on Formula Ford grids. Epstein estimates that a brand-new Formula Talbot would cost about £6,400 complete, but a second-hand Formula Ford 1600 rolling chassis could be picked up for about £2,000 and converted to Formula Talbot specification for a similar sum. The Ti engine has much the same external dirnensions as the Ford, so chassis modifications are kept to a minimum. Engine mountings have to be changed as have the adaptor plate and first motion shaft on the four-speed Hewland gearbox. The Royale had also required slightly higher rate rear springs than FF specification to handle the extra weight of the Talbot engine. Epstein anticipates that in time most FF 1600 racing car manufacturers will offer Formula Talbot versions. 

Supplies of methanol will be guaranteed at the circuits for Championship rounds, probably at about £1.46 per gallon, though cheaper sources of recycled methanol are being investigated. Consumption will be about one-third heavier than for a similar engine on petrol, but the vegetable-based methanol, the second largest quantity liquid chemical produced in the UK (petrol is the largest) does not depend on that rapidly emptying reservoir beneath our feet. There's nothing new about racing cars or motorcycles running on methanol of course; its choice for Formula Talbot seems to be a political gesture as much as anything. 

The prototype Royale had undergone only limited testing prior to my drive, so there were warnings that it wasn't really set up to perfection. As somebody unused to single-seaters, I didn't expect to be able to tell the difference . . . Epstein's mechanics shifted the seat to its furthest forward position so that I could reach the pedals, Thatcher being somewhat taller, and as a result we had to dispense with the crutch-straps. The thick steering wheel rim obscured most of the tachometer, so Epstein concerned himself that I could see the important bit, between 4,000 r.p.m. and six and a bit and made sure I knew where the Hewland's gear positions were on the little right-hand lever. A touch on the button and the Talbot engine fired up as easily as any road car. 

I had forgotten just how splendid a sensation a modern open-wheel single-seater gives, the close confinement as one lies in the very bowels of the narrow chassis, shoulders locked in place, the bared front tyres darting hither and thither in direct response to the tiny steering wheel, the sheer alertness and sensitivity of the chassis and the magnetically powerful brakes. It all felt very foreign for a couple of laps, with an initial tendency to be too abrupt on the steering, too heavy on the brakes too early and a very awkward gearchange. The actual gearchange mechanism wasn't a problem, nor the collusion with the Hewland's non-synchromesh innards; the Royale's roll-bar bracing strut simply got in the way of the lever. I confess to having left the tell-tale on the Smith's chronometric tachometer at 7,000 r.p.m. when I missed top for that very reason out of Clearways (or whatever it's called now) within Epstein's earshot. Six-thousand r.p.m. is the nominal limit, but on the gearing fitted it was better to let it run to 6,300 r.p.m. in third up the hill into Druids and along the bottom straight rather than snatch top. That veteran Formula Ford driver and Motor Racing Stables instructor Sid Fox, who was also testing the Royale, believed that these would become top gear situations once the handling had been sorted to allow the swooping Paddock, presently a third-gear corner, to be taken in top, and Bottom Bend exit and Kidney entrance speeds raised to allow a snatched top on the bottom straight. 

The best thing about this new Formula is that it marries "racing rubber" with conventional, non-downthrust, bodywork, to slot between the road-tyred FF 1600s and racing-tyred, aerodynamically aided FF2000 cars. So this is a real drivers' formula, with slip angles counting for more than downforces, yet at high speeds thanks to a reasonable power to weight ratio and racing tyres. Even in unsorted form, with brake balance and handling not quite right, the Royale felt progressive and easy enough to master at speeds around FF 1600 lap times (50-51 sec. for Sid, 52-53 for me, well into the 80 m.p.h. lap bracket). This should come down to about the 48 sec. mark, close to FF2000 times, with "sorting" (which apparently happened later in the day), so racing should be good if the grids can be encouraged. 

Formula Talbot may be yet another formula, but at least it makes a change from Ford domination and the characteristic back-firing as waste methanol burns off will guarantee a distinctiveness. — C.R.