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Formula Ford: 50 Years Strong

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50 years after its inception, Formula Ford remains popular with drivers and fans alike. Images courtesy Ford Motor Company.

There are plenty of racing anniversaries to celebrate this year, but perhaps the most ubiquitous open-wheel series in the world, Formula Ford, will mark 50 years since its inaugural event this coming July. Conceived in the Sixties as Formula 1’s popularity was booming and racers in the lower-level feeder series faced ever-increasing costs, Formula Ford combined the intimacy and immediacy of open-wheel racing with the controlled costs of a street-based engine program.

Formula Junior and Formula Three cars, with their 1.0- and 1.1-liter, high-strung race engines, provided a steppingstone to Formula 1 as well as a proper platform for training new drivers. The problem with those cars was their tendency to go through expensive race engines and race tires on a regular basis, just like a proper F1 car.

Formula Ford

Denny Hulme tests a Formula Ford at Silverstone in 1967.

Geoff Clarke ran a driver-training outfit known as the Motor Racing Stables, and the story has it that Clarke was sick and tired of spending big money replacing engines and tires keeping his racing school fleet in top shape. He modified a Lotus 31 F3 car by mounting a then-new Ford Cortina GT 1.5-liter engine in it. The car’s performance proved worthy of the F3 car and got Clarke to thinking. Having moved his operations to Brands Hatch in 1963, Clarke knew John Webb, Brands Hatch’s managing director, quite well. In late 1966, at a motor racing show, Clarke and Webb, along with Henry Taylor, from Ford, discussed Ford’s participation in the series. Ford liked what Clarke had come up with, and Webb was ready to put on a show at Brands Hatch.

The three parties had invented Formula Ford, with Ford providing their name and access to 1.6-liter versions of their Kent overhead-valve engine for a tiny fraction of what the typical F3 engine cost. Cars were steel tube frame with fiberglass bodies and had double-wishbone suspension, coil springs, and hydraulic shocks. To further keep costs down, slicks were excluded from the package. The Kent engines were good for right around 100 hp, giving the 500-kg package (with driver!) sprightly performance. And Ford, during the heyday of its “Total Performance” era, got plenty of great PR out of attaching its name to the formula.

Formula Ford

A Formula Ford race at Brands Hatch in 1969.

In the beginning, racers had only the modified Lotus 31 to choose from, but Lotus introduced the 51, a dedicated FF car soon after. Brands Hatch hosted the first official Formula Ford event on July 2, 1967. The 17-car grid was made up largely of Clarke’s students and those from the Jim Russell Racing Driver School. One of Clarke’s students, Ray Allen, can lay claim to be the first Formula Ford race winner.

The series took off and within a couple of years, at least a dozen chassis makers had entered the fray. Along with Lotus, the names included Dulon, Alexis, Ladybird, Ginetta, Merlyn, Crossle. By 1970, big-name chassis makers like Lola, March, and Mirage had joined the fray. Later, makers like Van Diemen, Swift, Hawke, Reynard, and others were regulars on the many national series that opened up. Most FF makers came from the United Kingdom, though some national series saw low-volume, locally produced cars in their fields, and Mygale, from France, has been a force since the late 1980s.

Formula Ford

Future seven-time F1 champion Michael Schumacher, in car 52, leads a Formula Ford race at Mainz-Finthen in 1988.

Low to the ground, with lightning-quick steering and the potential for speeds of 130 mph or more, Formula Fords offered up-and-coming drivers more than a taste of real racing. With no aerodynamic add-ons and engines essentially an equalizing factor, the series emphasized driver skill over outright power, though a well-organized team with good car setup could always set itself apart from the field.

Not just in the U.K, but all over the world, national Formula Ford series began sprouting up, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and across continental Europe. The number of racing stars that earned their stripes in Formula Ford reads like a who’s who of racing the past 50 years: Emerson Fittipaldi, Ayrton Senna, Jenson Button, Gilles Villeneuve, Johnny Herbert, Eddie Irvine, and plenty of IndyCar and Champ Car stars as well.

Initially, organizers attempted to cap the all-in cost of the racers £1,000, but that was dropped after a short period. Of course, over time, the cars evolved. As the suspension grew more sophisticated, so did the drivetrain, with Ford’s DOHC, 16-valve Zetec engine replacing the OHV Kent in the 1990s, and then the 16-valve Duratec supplanting the Zetec in 2006. In more recent years, the powerful 1.6-liter EcoBoost engine has held sway behind the driver.

Still, with Ford reintroducing Kent engine production a few years ago, the original FF1600 formula still accommodates racers in various series throughout the world. In some cases, there are multiple titles depending on the powerplant and sophistication or age of the chassis.

Formula Ford

Multi-series champion (and 2010 24 Hours of Le Mans winner) Timo Bernhard battles for the lead in a 1999 Formula Ford race on the Nürburgring.

In the late 1970s, Formula Ford 2000 emerged, with more powerful 2.0-liter engines and full aerodynamic packages, but that series never had quite the reach or appeal of the original 1600s. But Formula Ford also inspired single-make manufacturer-sponsored series such as Formula BMW and Formula Renault.

While the British Formula Ford Championship has recently been supplanted on the FIA ladder by Formula 4 (which uses the same Ford EcoBoost engines as the latest FF cars, but in cars with full aerodynamic packages), Formula Ford shows no signs of slowing down, as racing continues at the local and national level. The famed, season-ending British Formula Ford Festival, which usually fields large grids for the various FF classifications, for example, will continue at Brands Hatch this fall. Here in the U.S., the SCCA’s Formula F allows for both Ford Kent 1.6-liter engines and Honda 1.5-liter OHC engines (as found in the Honda Fit) to compete.

In both vintage and club racing, Formula Ford remains with a strong cadre of devotees who need to use their skill as drivers to tame their cars by mechanical force only, with no aerodynamics, ground effects or electronics to keep the rubber on the road.