Home Featured How a classic junior formula still has great relevance today

How a classic junior formula still has great relevance today

by Ida Wood

Photo: Jakob Ebrey Photography

There are many special things about Formula Ford, not least that it has existed as almost the same formula since 1967. There has been a few detours, namely the short-lived EcoBoost era which provides the platform for British Formula 4 today, but otherwise the machinery of the 20th century shares a strong resemblance to the cars that run today.

Historic FFord machinery actually often runs alongside modern day vehicles, most notably in the Walter Hayes Trophy.

FFord, in all its varieties, has seen some of the best drivers, and racing, in junior single-seaters, and this is why Mazda, and its Road to Indy programme, is so interested in it.

Last year a new rung was added to the MRTI, entitled the ?Shootout?, and offers a $200,000 scholarship for the USF2000 championship to a number of FF1600 and karting stars across the globe. There are 19 spots, with six being handed to the United Kingdom?s range of FF1600 championships and trophies, five for the USA, one each for Australia, New Zealand, and Central America, and then one for the Seletiva de Kart Petrobras karting event in Brazil, which replaces the MRTI Shootout Brazil that was held last year.

The two Team USA Scholarship drivers automatically receive spots, with the final two places delivered purely on reputation by Mazda Motorsports and the eKartingnews site.

This year?s Shootout is a considerably different event to the inaugural contest, stemming from the fact that the organisers, location and the cars have all been replaced.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

In 2016, Lucas Oil School of Racing provided Ray GR-RSC cars, which are Formula Ford cars in all but name, and the Shootout took place at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The two day event started with qualifying-style sessions for all the drivers, before six were selected to compete in the final. Qualifying set a staggered grid, with a 30 minute race deciding the victor.

The Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, run by former Formula 1 driver Bob Bondurant, is taking over the running of this year?s Shootout, with a fleet of first generation Formula Mazda cars, not to be confused with the Tatuus Pro Mazda chassis, being used. The event will take place at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, a 1.6 mile road course in Arizona.

The FMazda cars use a five speed H-pattern gearbox, much like today?s FF1600, and a 180bhp Mazda rotary engine. The steel space frame chassis is also close to those fielded in FF1600, although the technical freedom available in the category means the resemblance to the FMazda car can be limited.

The skills required are still the same though, and the presence of 12 FF1600 racers suggests that this is where Mazda thinks IndyCar?s future will come from.?

Don Hardman, legendary FF1600 engineer, manager of Walter Hayes Trophy-winning Don Hardman Automotive team, and former British Formula 3 driver, knows why.

Joey Foster leading the 2017 Formula Ford Festival

?With Formula Ford 1600, I think there?s two things. It teaches people about racing cars, and it teaches people about mechanical grip.

?You?re allowed [to change] the chassis, the suspension. There?s certain restrictions, like you have to use steel shock absorbers. But it basically teaches you to set a racing car up, without wings, which is the important thing.

?If you?ve got a winged car, you do all the initial setup, and then, because the wings don?t work unless you?re doing 70/80mph, the wings are doing nothing. So, I think it?s a great proving ground, and I also think it teaches drivers to drive properly.

?It?s like a pyramid. You put the foundations in, teaches them to drive a racing car, toe and heel properly, this sort of thing. And it teaches them car control.?

The pyramid simile makes sense for Mazda Motorsport?s marketing, although the winner of the Shootout goes into a far more streamlined ladder, which can take them from Northern Irish Formula Ford 1600 champion to an IndyCar seat in four years without having to spend a penny. No driver has achieved that just yet, although both Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham made it from the bottom rung of the ladder to drives in the Indianapolis 500 in five.

Oliver Askew won the inaugural Shootout, and followed that up with the USF2000 title this year. He will be one of the judges for this year’s Shootout, and will step up to Pro Mazda next year. He’s already one of the favourites to win the title, and is earmarked as being the first driver to complete the MRTI ladder in record time.

Askew leading the field at the 2016 Walter Hayes, Photo: Jakob Ebrey Photography

Askew?s first car racing experience came in Formula Masters China, but the majority of his learning was done in a Cliff Dempsey Racing Ray GR11 FF1600 car. He was one of the two Team USA Scholarship drivers last year, alongside 2017 US F4 champion Kyle Kirkwood, and as a result drove in the Formula Ford Festival and Walter Hayes Trophy in the UK.

In both events, his third and fourth in car racing, he convincingly got to the final, and could’ve tasted victory in both. He was running fourth in the Festival final, and looking racy, but an overambitious use of the Druid kerbs at Brands Hatch led to a puncture and put him five laps down. He learnt from his errors, and finished a stunning second in the WHT final at a sodden Silverstone.

Askew has one regret from his time in the category.

?I wish I had spent more time in that car before moving on to faster cars, because I felt that the experience was invaluable, and it taught me the fundamentals of open wheel competition and car setup.

?[Had I not had those fundamentals] I would have still been competitive in USF2000, but maybe not as successful.?

During his short stint in FF1600, Askew raced against drivers from a wide spectrum of experience, and the ones at the sharp end, bar himself, were mostly veterans.

His opposition were not making the costly errors that rookies in entry level categories like USF2000 or British F4 make, nor were they learning racecraft, and this set a high standard for Askew to work against.

Team USA Scholarship winner Aaron Jeansonne colliding with a rival during the 2017 Walter Hayes Trophy

?Coming from many years of kart racing, I found that the racecraft in single-seaters can be very different from the race craft or style of racing in karting,? said Askew.

?Racing against drivers like Niall Murray and Joey Foster, to name a few, definitely forced me to up my game, and to learn quickly. I am a student of the sport, I am always studying the most successful drivers to see if I can pick up on anything.?

Hardman also cites the experienced drivers as one of the selling points of FF1600.

?You look around here, there?s Murray, Foster, people like that. Joey was a career driver until he broke his back, and Niall is on his way as a career driver. There?s loads of them around. And it?s good, you can see where you stand in the pecking order.

?So you know how good you?re getting. then maybe you get to a certain stage, when you?re winning them, and you think ?OK, it?s time to move on??.

Drivers who have moved on have raced in F1, IndyCar and at Le Mans, and many have returned to FF1600 later in their careers.

Askew?s USF2000 success means he?ll be busy racing in Pro Mazda in 2018, with an announcement of who he will drive for set to come shortly after the new year. This means a return to FF1600 is unlikely anytime soon. The interest is still there though, and a second attempt at the two biggest events in FF1600 will come ?in the future, without a doubt?.

Another driver who has been an advocate and alumni of FF1600, and the Mazda Road to Indy, is Josef Newgarden. The 2017 IndyCar champion was a Team USA Scholarship winner in 2008, alongside Conor Daly, and won the FFord Festival on his first attempt.

He remained in Britain for 2009, finishing second in the British Formula Ford championship to James Cole, and entered the Festival and the WHT once again. He stepped up to GP3 in 2010, a huge leap by any standard, and was 18th in its first ever season.

His results weren’t enough to keep him in Europe, and he moved back to America, winning the 2011 Indy Lights championship, and joining IndyCar backmarkers Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.

The team merged with Ed Carpenter Racing in 2015, and Newgarden won his first two races. He won one more race in 2016, finishing fourth in the championship in the process, and was signed by American single-seaters powerhouse Team Penske, where he became the first MRTI graduate to become IndyCar champion.

Famous FF1600 drivers of the past?

Ayrton Senna – 1988, ’90 and ’91 F1 world champion, 1983 British F3 champion – 1981 British FFord champion
Eddie Irvine – 2nd in 1991 F1, 4th in 1998 F1 – 1984 Irish FF1600 champion, 1987 British FFord & Essso FF1600 champion
Geoff Lees – 1983 Super Formula champion, 1981 European F2 champion, 1979 & ’80 Macau GP winner – 1975 BRDC & BRSCC FFord champion & FFord Festival winner
Derek Daly – 11th in 1980 F1, 3rd in 1978 & ’79 European F2, 1977 BRDC British F3 champion – 1976 FFord Festival winner
Roberto Moreno – 3rd in 2000 CART, 1988 Int. F3000 champion, 2nd in 1984 European F2, 1982 Macau GP winner – 2nd in 1980 FF1600 Euroseries, 1980 Townsend Thoresen British FFord champion & FFord Festival winner
Johnny Herbert – 4th in 1995 F1, 1987 British F3 champion – 1985 FFord Festival winner
Josef Newgarden – 2017 Indycar champion, 2011 Indy Lights champion – 2008 FFord Festival Kent winner, 2nd in 2009 British FFord
J.J. Lehto – 12th in 1991 F1, 1988 British F3 champion – 4th in 1985 Finnish FFord, 1986 Finnish & Eurocup FFord champion
Larry Perkins – 1972 Australian F2 champion, 1975 European F3 champion, 1979 Rothmans International champion – 5th in 1970 Australian FFord, 1971 FFord Driver to Europe champion,? 3rd in 1972 FFord Festival
David Coulthard – 2nd in 2001 F1, 3rd in 1995, ’97, ’98 & ’00 F1, 1991 F3 Masters & Macau GP winner – 1989 P&O Ferries FF1600 Junior champion, 1989 Dunlop/Autosport FF1600 champion, 3rd in 1989 FFord Festival

The Festival and WHT are both highly prestigious, and bring in a far larger audience than would be expected for what are essentially club racing events.

This means there is increased pressure on the drivers, engineers and teams, with this year?s explosive Walter Hayes final showcasing how emotionally invested many of the drivers are.

The experience gained from these knock-out events means drivers will understand how to cope with pressure as they get further up the single-seater ladder, and should prepare the nine confirmed drivers who raced at the Walter Hayes this year excellently for the MRTI Shootout.

Hardman and Askew?s statements are echoed by 2017 Team USA Scholarship winner Jonathan Kotyk, who will be competing in this weekend?s Shootout.

Kotyk spent this season, his first in car racing, in the F1600 Championship series. US F1600 in all but name, the category came to international attention at the beginning of this year when 2016 champion Neil Verhagen became a member of the Red Bull Junior Team and headed to the Formula Renault Eurocup – where he looks a title favourite for 2018.

Englishman Matthew Cowley beat Kotyk to this year?s title, and both raced in the FFord Festival and the WHT.

?This platform gives you a really good opportunity to learn mechanical grip of the car, so you really get the feel of how to drive it with your feet. So you have to use your brake pedal,? said Kotyk.

Kotyk celebrating victory in one of F1600’s races at IMS

?Heel, toe, just things like that. Really to get the car into the corner. You can definitely really throw it in there, unlike a winged car, where if you get the car sideways, the car won?t function as well because you need the aero grip.

?This is a really good training ground, especially learning the H-pattern and things like that too. Say if you go to race Senna?s vintage F1 car, you don?t want to go through a gearbox, or something like that, because you?ve only driven paddle shift. Everyone thought I should maybe move up into a winged formula [from karting], but this is definitely where everyone should start.?

Kotyk?s Team USA stablemate Aaron Jeansonne is in a similar mindset, and is heavily considering a season in BRSCC FF1600 in 2018 if he does not win the Shootout.

The cost-effectiveness of racing in FF1600 means that championships like British F4, pitched at drivers coming out of karting, are at least twice the price of a drive with a top British FF1600 team such as Don Hardman Automotive or B-M Racing. A top F4 seat would be at least three times that price, and the ?30,000 in prize money that can be won across the season looks very small in comparison to the $200,000 Shootout prize that Mazda offer.

Spare parts are also significantly cheaper than in F4, and the camaraderie of the FF1600 paddock means emergency repairs will often be completed thanks to the assistance of rivals. These emergency repairs are going to be more frequent when you?re working with drivers at the beginning of their car racing career, as Hardman explains:

?You can learn all the circuits, the parts aren?t as expensive if you crash the car, which you?re going to crash. Beginners crash cars.?

There is one last aspect of FF1600 that makes it such an attractive option for drivers, and fans: the racing.

As Formula 1 has shown this year, applying additional downforce to cars makes running in the wake of another far more difficult. FF1600 has no such problem, and most races include a lead change on every other lap.

In this year?s Festival, Don Hardman Automotive driver Joey Foster pulled off a remarkable around-the-outside move on the kerbs at Paddock Hill Bend to take the lead in the final, and then hold on for the win by 0.107 seconds after a late ignition problem.

“There?s certain FF1600 drivers I wouldn?t have dreamt of doing that [Foster’s Festival winning] trick on,” explains Hardman.

“But Joey tied up that. They both gave each other room, there was no contact. And it?s great, great driving. That was probably one of the best Festival races that I?ve seen for a long time. I couldn?t stand still. I was wandering up and down. I didn?t know where to put my head.”

The Walter Hayes Trophy was just as dramatic, with long-time leader Oliver White being punted out, leading to a showdown between Castle Combe FF1600 rivals Michael Moyers and Josh Fisher. Moyers was triumphant, to Fisher’s anger, and the mood immediately after the race was toxic.

Irishman Kevin O?Hara finished that race in fourth, having started all the way down in 18th.

FF1600 stars of the future

Neil Verhagen, USA -??11th in 2017 FR2.0 Eurocup, 2016 F1600 Championship champion
Matt Round-Garrido, England -?3rd in 2017 BRSCC Northern FF1600 Post89, 8th in 2017 WHT, 9th in 2017 FFord Festival
Oliver Askew, USA?– 2017 USF2000 champion, 2016 MRTI Shootout winner, 2nd in 2016 WHT
Liam Lawson, New Zealand2017 NZ FFord champion, 2nd in 2017 Australian F4, 2nd in 2015 FFirst Manfield Winter series
Kyle Kirkwood, USA – 2017 US F4 champion, 3rd in 2016 US F4, 4th in 2016 WHT, 7th in 2016 FFord Festival
Matthew Cowley, England2017 F1600 Championship champion, 2015 BRSCC National Pre90 champion
Jonathan Kotyk, USA2nd in 2017 F1600 Championship, 6th in 2017 WHT, 11th in FFord Festival
Ross Martin, Scotland 2017 Scottish FFord champion, 7th in 2017 BRSCC National FF11600, 15th in 2016 British F4
Aaron Jeansonne, USA13th in 2017 FFord Festival
Niall Murray, Ireland?-?2013 (Kent) & ’16 FFord Festival winner, 2014 & ’17 Northern Irish FF1600 champion, 2016 WHT winner, 2016 BRSCC Northern Post89 champion,?3rd in 2013 Irish FF1600, 34th in 2017 USF2000
Joshua Smith, England2017 BRSCC Northern Post89 & Oulton champion, 4th in 2017 FFord Festival, 13th in 2015 MSA Formula

Hardman’s pre-race prediction of?there being “any one of 15 that could win, if the luck goes their way” proved to be the case, and there were drivers in the bottom half of the 36 car field ruing on missing out on victory.

“If you look at the racing, anybody could win,” says Kotyk.

“In the last laps of a race, especially with the tow at Silverstone, it?s three-four wide at the end.”

Max Verstappen-esque moves are common in FF1600, and when the weather becomes unforgiving, even the Historic cars can come into play.

This is because, as one journalist said after test driving a car: “it’s analogue – nothing to help you but your talent.”

Drivers cannot depend on data or driver aids, just the feeling through their feet and their bum as to what the car and the track surface are telling them.

“It is the best motor racing you will see, it?s pure motor racing,” confirms Hardman.

“It?s a good starting place for engineers and kids to learn about racing cars. How to put wishbones on, how to set cambers, casters, tracks, toes. All the bits and pieces you get on a racing car. It?s a great proving ground for kids when you?re driving. And it still is, because there?s nothing else.

“There?s a huge opportunity in this current, or there was, to do like a Radical [a sportscar manufacturer aimed at making a ladder from entry-level to professional], but in single-seaters. Just do what Ford did, in 1968, you know, again. But no one will do it.

“That?s just my opinion, but I?m a bit of an old nut.”

Jamie Chadwick: from F3 to FF1600

Jamie Chadwick made her debut in single-seaters this season in BRDC British Formula 3, and arguably made her second debut during the Walter Hayes Trophy in November.

The 19-year-old finished ninth in the British F3 standings with Double R Racing, and finished on the podium at Rockingham.

After completing her season of racing, Chadwick had nothing to do, until friend and Aston Martin World Endurance Championship driver Jonny Adam directed her towards the WHT.

A late deal was signed with Graham Brunton Racing, and Chadwick made the step down from the aero heavy F3 car to the wingless FF1600 car just 24 hours before event testing began.

Chadwick made it to the final, but a misfiring engine meant she finished in 25th and last, 44 seconds off the winner.

?Formula Ford racing is so much different to what I?m used to in F3. I?m used to a lot of aero and downforce, whereas here it?s the complete opposite,” explained Chadwick.

?Even in eight laps in my heat, there was more racing than I?ve had all year!?It?s not got the big wings and slicks that mean you can?t closely race. It?s got a sequential gearbox, so you learn how to properly go down a gearbox.

“You learn a lot of car control with it not being on slicks too. It?s wicked.

“I?ll probably get slapped for saying this, but the prizes in this is much better than what I?m doing in F3 at the moment, and the opportunity?s much greater for a young driver.”

GBR boss Graham Bunton spoke to FF1600website.co.uk about how impressed he was with Chadwick’s cameo: ?I think it takes a certain amount of guts for someone like that, who?s in F3, to take the step down to FF1600.

?But she?s proven that she can be competitive straight out of the box, and I hope that encourages more drivers to do the same in the future.?

For more coverage of FF1600 in the UK, visit FF1600website.co.uk
2017 Formula Ford Festival final report
2017 Walter Hayes Trophy final report