Time for Formula Libre?

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In the lean years following WWII ‘free formula racing’ helped to keep motor sport alive. The time is ripe for a renaissance…

Free formula racing – Formule Libre – used to play an important role not only in British-based club racing but also in the international race calendar. The notion of running pretty much “what you brung” was in effect a necessity during the austerity years of racing’s revival after World War II. The way the world economy is heading at the moment, Formule Libre’s day may well dawn again.

At club level, single-seaters happily rubbed wheels with specials and production sports cars, while a kind of halfway house category might simply combine single-seaters of all shapes and sizes, conceivably involving such rocket ships as the 4½-litre ‘ThinWall Special’ Ferrari or the 1½-litre supercharged BRM V16s with 2-litre Connaughts and Cooper-Bristols, ERAs, variably arthritic pre-war Maseratis plus 1000 or 1100cc air-cooled Cooper-Vincents and Cooper-JAPs.

When we ran an all-comers handicap to close the early Goodwood Revival Meetings, I recall the remarkable sight of a 500cc Formula 3 one-lunger being gobbled up along the Lavant Straight by Joaquin Folch in nothing less than Classic Team Lotus’s 49… Now that’s what you call Formule Libre. And, by the way, ‘Formule’ it is – spelled the French way, absolutely not ‘Formula’, whatever modern revisionists (and the unaware) might assume.

Among the more obscure of International Libre events which once studded the annual calendar was the Wakefield Trophy, run on a road circuit closed for race weekend around the Curragh military base – and wartime internment camp – in County Kildare, Eire. Racing had been launched there in 1947, using a 1.7-mile loop of service roads. By 1951 the first Wakefield Trophy race for Formule Libre cars was held there. It was won by Anthony Powys-Lybbe in his ex-Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Romeo Tipo B Monoposto, which beat Philip Fotheringham-Parker’s Maserati and Dudley Folland’s Ferrari 166! In 1950 Duncan Hamilton took the Trophy in his pre-war Maserati and in 1951 at the Curragh, the HWM team scored a 1-2-3 with Stirling Moss leading home big Duncan in works single-seaters and privateer Oscar Moore third in his ex-works ‘1½-seater’ version. The combined Wakefield and Frank O’Boyle Trophy races continued at the Curragh until 1954, winners including Ian Stewart, Powys-Lybbe (again) and finally Peter Whitehead in his sports-racing Cooper-Jaguar.

The Irish motor racing experience was always fun for visitors, not least the bars’ inventiveness in stretching local licensing laws to snapping point. But one visitor told me that the fun began at Liverpool’s Speke airport, boarding an Aer Lingus DC3 for Dublin. At that time there was quite a traffic in flying racing greyhounds to and fro between Eire and the English tracks. As passengers boarded the DC3 they were confronted by a wire-mesh crate strapped to the rear cabin bulkhead, and labelled ‘Box for Mad Pilot’.