Formula Ford festival – In the first of a new series, David Malsher recalls how local knowledge (plus a talented driver) secured the only major win for a small racing-car manufacturer
There are perfonnances which transcend their class standard and enter general motorsport folklore Jochen Rindt’s F2 drive at Crystal Palace in 1964, Mario Andretti thrashing of the NASCAR regulars at Daytona three years later, and J J Lehto’s sensational performance at Le Mans seven years ago. Alongside these should be put Johnny Herbert’s stellar performance at the 1985 Formula Ford Festival.
No doubt about it, his victory was unexpected. You could argue that, having taken win, pole and fastest lap at the Brands EFDA FF1600 event in July, the combination of hitherto unfancied Quest and abundantly talented Herbert were capable of doing do the job. But in that event, Johnny had made his break while others squabbled over second. And anyway, this was the Festival, the blue riband event in the Formula Ford calendar, where the stakes were at their highest. It was win or bust.
By mid-morning on Friday, the end of qualifying for Heat One, all looked comprehensively bust.
“It was damp,” Herbert recalls. “I can remember going into Paddock on my first full lap and looking up at Druids ahead. As I was doing this, the car just swapped ends and I went into the catch-fencing. There wasn’t too much damage, because I was only going slowly.”
Mike Thompson, the founder of Quest in 1980, remembers: “He had damaged two corners, but it wasn’t that big a deal. We plugged new wishbones on it and off he went again. Those Formula Ford chassis weren’t like F3s, where you have to replace everything to within one millimeter. Even if the chassis was a bit twisted, as long as you balanced the corner weights, and the toe-in was right, you could make it handle.”
The big problem was that Herbert hadn’t completed a lap and was, as yet, ineligible to start. The answer was to complete the requisite three laps in die qualifying session for the Pre-74 Formula Ford race. Johnny would go to the ball, after all. But he would have to start his heat at the back. And with a 10sec penalty.
“You always think there’s a chance, but no-one had ever won it from the back before,” Thompson says. “And in that year’s class it was going to be bloody tough; there were some very quick drivers.”
On the other hand, if anyone knew how to set up a car for Brands’ Indy circuit, it was Thompson: “I knew it incredibly well because I had raced there forever, and we were based there, so it was the place where we tested most of the time.” This paid off for Herbert. Big time.
“The engine I had for the Festival was very strong, for one thing. But also, in testing the week before, we had changed the damper settings just a couple of clicks and it made a hell of a difference exiting Druids. We gained about half a second a lap.”
This enabled him to scythe through the field to finish sixth in the Heat, and though this still left him only in the middle of row five for the quarter-final, his dander was up.
By the end of the first lap of his quarter, the Quest was in a remarkable sixth place. He dispatched Colin Stancombe and Andrew King over the next six laps and, with a clear track ahead, revealed his potential with a new lap record of 48.82sec.
It wasn’t all right foot. There was wisdom, too. When Allan Seedhouse proved reluctant to relinquish third, Herbert decided to take it easy: “I could have got past, but it wasn’t worth it for one place; I was looking for the end-of-day result.” Staying out of trouble at the start of the semi-final was a must, therefore, and he had a grandstand seat for the clash between Bertrand Gachot and Paulo Carcasci. With them out of the way, Johnny was once more able to display maturity and precision while finishing second to Jonathan Bancroft.
“We had set the car up for two overtaking areas,” explains Thompson. “I had designed the Quest with no anti-roll bars, which meant the springing was very light, and Johnny could really lean on the car through Clearways. He was good at overtaking people into that corner, and the car itself was very quick coming out, giving him enough speed to overtake into Paddock. And that’s what he kept doing.”
Lining up third on the grid, on the front row alongside Damon Hill (winner of the other semi) and Bancroft, Herbert was confident: “I didn’t want pole anyway, because you’re down in the dip there. Position three is much better because it is much flatter. So if you get a good start, nine times out of 10 you get into the first corner first.”
He did. And eked out a lead over Bancroft, while Hill and Mark Blundell squabbled over third.
“I never thought Johnny was the most aggressive of drivers,” admits Thompson, “so my only worry was that he would leave the door open somewhere. But after about half-distance, he looked so solid that, barring falling off, I was confident he would do it.”
Herbert concurs: “Bancroft was never close enough for me to need to close the door. I had a bit in reserve. Once I hit the front, it was all about being persistent and consistent. Don’t stick in a couple of ultra-quick laps and then relax. That’s the way to lose time or, even worse, go off.”
Herbert won by a carefully nurtured half-second: “To achieve this after our difficulties in qualifying was very special because it had never been done before, though, unfortunately, it has been done a couple of times since.”
The enormity of the achievement was a little lost on his team boss, however: “I thought then, as I think now, that the championship was bigger than a mini-championship held over a few days. But there was another element that made the day significant. Peter Collins [of Benetton] was there, and that race brought Johnny to his attention.”
Herbert and Quest endured an unsuccessful FF2000 campaign the following year, and thereafter went their separate ways. Johnny, of course, suffered an even more significant day at Brands, in 1988. By which time Quest had been folded. Thompson’s main interest had always been the designing of the cars; he had willingly left the rurming the team to others. It was a decision he was to regret.
But thanks to a perfectly set-up car, an imperfect set of circumstances, and a set of perfectly-judged drives, the name Quest will never be forgotten by British racing fans.