British F1 at its peak: Kennedy & Keegan's '79 Aurora AFX Silverstone showdown

F1

The short-lived Aurora AFX British Formula 1 series saw grand prix machinery battling on national circuits. It reached its peak with the 1979 Silverstone title decider between David Kennedy and Rupert Keegan

David Kennedy and Rupert Keegan come together in the Silverstone Round of the 1979 British F1 Aurora AFX Championship

Silverstone shuffle was the championship-deciding moment

Picture it now: a Mercedes W10 gunning down the Brooklands straight at Thruxton, or Ferrari’s SF90 dicing with last year’s McLaren on the run up to Oulton Park’s Knickerbrook.

British F1 – or the Aurora AFX F1 Championship as it was officially titled – brought one- to two-year-old F1 machinery to UK circuits, with junior and privateer drivers at the wheel.

The idea might seem fanciful in the modern racing era, but in the late ‘70s race promoter John Webb made it a reality. “Quite insane” is how David Kennedy describes it now to Motor Sport. On this day 41 years ago, his title scrap with Rupert Keegan saw the series at its peak.

As the rain drizzled down at a miserable Silverstone, Kennedy nosed his Wolf WR6 up the inside of Keegan’s Arrows A1. A yellow flag appeared just after Bridge and Kennedy hesitated. Heading down into Woodcote, the pair touched, span off and Kennedy’s hopes of British Formula 1 title glory were instantly shattered…

‘This is going to look great – an Irishman killed in a potato field. They’ll get a good laugh out of that!’”

Kennedy, who was at the time Ireland’s great red-haired hope in motor racing, had been competitive in European F3 in ‘77 and ’78 and saw the Aurora as the next logical step on the way to F1 World Championship.

The Irishman recalls how the ground effect cars of the era transformed the driving approach at British circuits – with some harrowing results.

“You had ground effect cars running round Oulton Park – Jesus!” remembers Kennedy. “You were getting up to some speeds with absolutely no run-off area and consequently you could get hurt.”

“You could come through the Coram corner flat and then you got Russell flat too,” notes the Sligo native. “Subsequently you’d have a huge run up to Riches, the right hander after the pits.

“On one occasion in testing my front suspension collapsed at that corner. I missed the sleepers by no more than inches and went into the potato field, scooting along for what felt like an eternity. I had time to think ‘This is going to look great – an Irishman killed in a potato field. They’ll get a good laugh out of that!’

“I thought I was going to end up in London. I just can’t imagine if I’d hit the sleepers, it would have been David Purley x10.”

David Kennedy pictured in February 1979

Kennedy used British F1 as a stepping stone to F1

Gordon Harry Allingham/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Purley’s accident at Silverstone had seen him go through the highest measured g-force (179.8 g) ever survived by a human being – entertaining the idea of even bigger accidents was not for the faint hearted.

Kennedy put aside such worries to win the first two races of the 1979 Aurora season, in fact using the non-ground effect Wolf WR4, campaigned by Theodore Racing.

Having managed to outfox the ground-effect challengers at Zolder (one of the ‘International’ rounds) and Oulton Park, he started to struggle once the higher-speed circuits came into play.

Rupert Keegan had mounted a championship challenge with his on-rails Arrows A1, but Kennedy had hung on to the lead until he received his own ground effect challenger – the WR6 – at round 11.

By the time the series rolled into Silverstone for the season finale, Kennedy had an eight point advantage over Keegan. Even if the latter scored a point for pole, fastest lap and won the race, a 2nd would’ve been good enough for Kennedy to take the title.

Spaniard Emilio de Villota was in with a chance also, but ultimately it was Englishman vs Irishman.

“I went up to Rupert, gave him a knuckle-cruncher and said ‘may the best man win’. I wanted to psychologically stir him.”

They lined up on the front row of the grid in that order. Behind them was a mix of upcoming racers, including Tiff Needell, Geoff Lees and Gordon Smiley, as well as names that were already familiar: David Purley, Guy Edwards and Giacomo Agostini – yes, the Giacomo Agostini.

Starting second, Kennedy felt that his time had arrived at what was a highly anticipated race.

“It was live on BBC Grandstand with Simon Taylor doing the commentary – a big event,” says Kennedy.

“It was an important moment in a young man’s career. I had the car and the set-up to be able to nail it and to pressure him all the way. At that age, you’re the best and there’s no one else. I was probably overly confident to some degree, but I was ready to take the battle.”

Further to the championship leader’s advantage was his reputation as an intimidator. The Irishman’s car and helmet were painted all black to put his rivals on edge, in addition to the nickname of ‘Kamikaze Kennedy’.

From the archive

Whilst he feels the nickname is a little misguided, he admits he was looking to win the mental battle too. Kennedy had mined iron ore in Australia with his friend Derek Daly, in their efforts to raise money to buy their own Formula Ford cars. This formative experience shaped his approach to racing.

“I’ve often said you drive a car as you work – and I worked in the mines with a pick and shovel,” relates Kennedy. “Having been in that environment, there wasn’t anyone I was afraid of.

“I went up to Rupert before the start of the race, gave him a knuckle-cruncher and said ‘may the best man win’, glaring at him.

“They called me the ‘flame-haired Irish man’. I just wanted to psychologically stir him.”

It seemed to work, for as the flag fell, it was the Theodore driver who shot into the lead. Poleman Keegan was left to flounder in the spray on a wet day in Northamptonshire, falling behind Smiley in the Surtees TS20.

However, towards the end of the first lap Kennedy made a crucial decision to back off. Deploying an unconventional strategy, he says that he allowed Smiley and his title rival past.

“I was [racing] just on the edge and I didn’t need to,” Kennedy explains, “It’s like a cycle race, you pace yourself, you watch what the other guy’s doing in front. You’re seeing where he’s quick, you’re seeing where he’s slow. And you pick him off like that.

In one of the all-time great synchronised spins, both sailed towards the fencing in an apparently considered choreography

“I was comfortable with the car. And Smiley was particularly quick in the straight and I was actually hoping that he would tangle with Rupert. I was confident in that strategy.”

It had worked for the Irishman before” “I’d won British championship in Formula Ford following that same line, in a slipstream at Silverstone. I would just hang on to the last corner, to the last lap and slingshot past five or six times. I wasn’t panicked – I knew where I could get him.”

Now in third, Kennedy followed Smiley and Keegan for several laps until Keegan then got by Smiley at Woodcote. This hadn’t been part of the plan.

“I went by Gordon because he wasn’t putting Rupert under enough pressure,” Kennedy says, “I just wanted to keep on Rupert’s tail so he’d be looking in the mirror.

“If you make a move to overtake but don’t overtake them – that will freak anyone out. All they have to do is just make three or five yards mistake on the brake at that kind of speed. You’ve missed your apex, you’re out on the dirt, game over.”

Running dry tyres on a track populated by treacherous wet patches, both drivers were finding little bite on the bitumen.

“It was an interesting battle, certainly from my cockpit,” remembers Kennedy, “As you went through Woodcote and Copse on slicks, it was certainly an eye-opener! I think we had several ‘moments’.”

Things soon began to unravel hereafter. Villota, the bank manager-turned racing driver, spun off at the final chicane on lap 11, bringing out the yellow flag.

As Keegan and Kennedy raced towards the danger zone, the latter decided to take the initiative – at least at first.

“Coming through the complex at the back, he made a slight error and ran a little bit wide, so I had a good run at him,” says Kennedy.

From the archive

“[I then noticed] there was a yellow flag being waved on the right hand side of the course because Villota had gone off there.

“I had a chance and an instant choice to make – do I overtake and get disqualified? Or do I get out of it where I am? I thought the best is to pull back as quick as I can. I’m not going to get any favours from Rupert!

“I lifted back, and in doing so, Rupert turned in – what I thought was early – and we touched.”

Seemingly not realising how close Kennedy was, Keegan’s right-rear tagged the Irishman’s front left.

In one of the all-time great synchronised spins, both sailed towards the death-trap catch fencing in an apparently considered choreography.

The fortunate Keegan’s velocity was dissipated by the spinning into the curve of the corner and then through the space off-track created by Villota’s catch-fence-clearing Lotus 78. With a neat pirouette he was going again and back in the race.

Kennedy was not so lucky, going straight off through four layers of catch-fencing. With a terminally damaged car, his race – and championship chances – were snuffed out in an instant.

“I just thought ‘Jesus what, a fecking disaster!’ remembers Kennedy, “I had all my sponsors there from throughout the year. I’d been built up as the front-runner in the non-ground effect car.”

Keegan finished 2nd and duly took the title. Kennedy had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

“It did hurt at the time, it was a massive blow. I thought I’d blown my chances with the team (who were looking to return to the F1 World Championship).”

“It turned out that it didn’t because I then got the probably one of the few available F1 drives, not that it was anything credible!”

Rupert Keegan, Grand Prix Of Argentina

Keegan raced in British F1 between spells in the World Championship

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Enduring a famously unsuccessful half-season with Shadow, the team were eventually taken over by his mates at Theodore – so it wasn’t all bad.

Then seething at the perceived injustice, time has mellowed Kennedy’s view of the incident with Keegan.

“I felt I was badly done by. There was no question in my mind that he had moved in on me. In reflection, he probably had nowhere else to go. He wasn’t going to miss the chicane. He did have to turn in.

From the archive

“I suppose the mistake I made was even allowing him the opportunity to get close to me, but considering I had a points advantage, it just didn’t dawn on me that he would play it so close. (I thought) if he’s gonna run into me, nobody wins – except I would win!”

The relationship forged with Theodore in ‘79 and ‘80 eventually came to pay rich dividends, the man from Sligo going on to become their Managing Director. In partnership with Prema, they’ve become a powerhouse in junior single-seater categories.

Immediately post-F1, Kennedy carved out a successful sports car career which included class wins at Le Mans and development of the giant-killing Mazda 787B. With considerable achievements on and off the track then, what does he look upon as his greatest success?

“That my legs are still attached to my arse!”