SA R FORMULA FORD FESTIVAL, BRANDS HATCH NOVEMBER 4, 1979 NAMED AFTER THE FAMOUS SHIP, THIS MARQUE SAILED SERENELY TO A HISTORIC WIN IN ITS CATEGORY’S MOST FAMOUS RACE. ADAM COOPER EXPLAINS WHY IT THEN SANK WITHOUT TRACE Ili he Formula Ford Festival’s list of winners includes several famous names: Derek Daly, Roberto Moreno, Johnny Herbert, Eddie Irvine, Mark Webber and Jenson Button. Most of its winners move on up and make rapid progress
through the ranks, and in its 30-year history, only one man has stayed around to win the event twice. What makes Donald MacLeod’s achievement all the more remarkable is that his second success came in a car of his own construction.
But despite beating Van Diemen, Royale, Crossle, Lola and all the other established names, Sark did not flourish after winning the Festival, and it soon disappeared from the domestic FF1600 scene. Truly a marque that tasted just 15 minutes of fame.
Yet the Sark story began in July 1974, when Fulham-based builder Gavin Hooper decided to build a car for the new FF2000 category, due to start the following year. Known as the Starfire, it was designed by one Patrick Head, the future Williams man having recently penned the Scott F2 contender. Hooper unveiled the attractive little machine at Speedshow ’75 at Olympia, and also announced bold plans to move up to Formula Three.
The project never really took off, however, and the following winter it was taken over by former Gp2 Mini racers and boyhood pals, Richard Piper and Chris Parsons. Since Piper’s workshop was based in Greenwich, they renamed it Sark, after the area’s most famous tourist attraction.
“It was an unfinished car, really,” says Parsons. “I don’t think it even complied with the current regulations! We made it into a car that was within the regs, and Patrick Head was very, very helpful and very supportive. Our main mechanic was Simon Hadfield, who was an absolute lunatic.”
Piper had some success with the CR01 during 1976, and several examples were sold to customers the following year: “Lorina Boughton drove one, and we sold one to Mike Smith, who had a lot of Ford backing. He broke his leg in it!”
Sark did not prove a successful commercial proposition, and in January 1978 the project was sold on to Donald MacLeod. The London-based Scot had won the second-ever FF Festival, in 1973, but had failed in his attempts to move up to F2, although he did briefly get as far as F3 and Atlantic. Unable to make progress as a driver, he decided to become a constructor. MacLeod knew about Sark as Parsons had tried to help him raise sponsorship.
“I tested the Sark at one stage in 1977,” he recalls, “and that eventually crystallised into us taking over the project My brother Harnish, who was a graduate engineer, took over the design side. We raced the car in FF2000 in the early part of 1978, and then we set about building an FF1600 car. The whole idea of the project was to convert one to the other, but it turned out the only things we used on the new car were the rear uprights. It was meant to be a short and easy route!”
Known as the Sark 1, the new car had a spectacular debut: “It was only by working night and day that we got it ready, and it ran for the first time on the Tuesday of Festival week in 1978, and it was immediately fast in the damp conditions.
“Its first race was the heat on Saturday, and I won that and the quarter-final. But it broke one of the engine mountings, so the gear linkage wasn’t working properly and that slowed us right down in the final. But we still finished fourth and, along with James Weaver, I did one of the first sub-50sec laps in that meeting. The car could have won had that engine mount not broken, and that winter we did win some races at Brands.”
On the strength of Don’s early showings, several customer cars were sold for 1979, but they didn’t live up to the works car’s initial promise.
“The basic design strategy was a narrow track, which was supposed to be quick in a straight line.
But it emerged that the car was not competitive on fast circuits. To cut a long story short, we decided to bring out a wide-track version of the car, Sark 2, and we did that for the 1979 Festival. Harnish had gone back to Scotland, and he was sending designs down to us. It was a familiar story: that car was only run for the first time the week of the Festival.”
Now 32, MacLeod was up against grids full of ambitious youngsters, including Moreno, Julian Bailey, David Sears, Didier Theys, Tommy Byrne and Thierry Tassin. He dominated his damp heat on Saturday, though, leaving Moreno behind. But in the wet quarter-final on Sunday morning, he was hampered by the engine cutting out and managed only fourth. He made amends in the semi, passing Terry Gray and Moreno to win easily. And that earned him pole for the final, alongside Rick Morris, the winner of the other semi. Gray, though, was on the outside of the front row, on the drier line, and got away in front
“I can remember Rick giving me a thump on the back wheel going into Clearways on the first lap, and that was the closest he got Fortunately, he did no damage.” And when Gray looked for a dry line, the Scot simply splashed through a river and disappeared into the distance.
“I pulled away with ease after that About halfway through the race, when I was coming round Druids, I could see the following pack coming into Paddock, that’s how far ahead I was. A joyous occasion. A lot of hard work had gone into it, and Ralph Firman [Van Diemen’s boss] was quite upset that I’d won. He said, ‘Why didn’t you leave it to the young lads?’ He meant his drivers!”
This victory, however did not lead to a surge in sales: “The win was in the wet, and so it wasn’t positive evidence that the car would be quick in the dry. Then we were immediately hit by a recession, and people just weren’t buying cars. It was a bad year or two for the motor-racing industry, and we suffered from it. We did the Festival again in 1980that was my last race and we decided that was it as there wasn’t the money around to produce a new car.”
The Sark project was sold on again, but the name soon faded away. “I was disappointed to give it up, but on the other hand it had been such a hard road that I was pleased to get it off my back. It took over my life. You don’t mind that if the outcome is successful; but if it’s not, you can’t have your life swallowed up by something which is going nowhere. But I wouldn’t have missed that win for anything.”II