Last October, former IndyCar star Roberto Moreno reunited with his old team boss and mechanic to relive their 1980 Formula Ford Festival win with the same car model on the same track and in the same event
The Van Diemen RF80 launches out of its pitbox, inches away from Formula Scout’s camera lens, and the visor is pushed down on the iconic yellow-and-blue helmet of Roberto Moreno as he heads on track for the first session of pre-event testing in the wet at Brands Hatch. He’s back at the Formula Ford Festival, 41 years after winning the event as a 21-year-old.
Now, as Snetterton Speed Shop team boss Jonathan Lewis puts it: “He’s 61 and the car’s 41. Between them they’ll get there.”
After a morning of running on a wet track, with more rain forecast, there is lots of work going on with the car and Lewis shared Moreno’s feedback.
“He said the car’s awesome. Must be American for good. In the wet, with his narrow track and his big knobbly tyres [by having a Classic-era car], that will be more to his advantage I think.”
Lewis was right, and he was there when Moreno won the Festival in 1980 as a factory Van Diemen driver. Running the car was Micky Galter, and he’s returned too to be a mechanic on an RF80 again.
That was two-and-a-half months ago, and Moreno’s racing return ended up concluding in Saturday afternoon’s progression races as he failed to reach the semi-finals. It was quite the journey to get there though, and reminded him why FF1600 was once the de facto category to start single-seater careers in.
Our interview with Moreno at the Festival can be read below, or heard on our latest podcast episode which can be found right here or on Breaker, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Castbox, Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
“It took me a while,” Moreno said to Formula Scout after his first test sessions. “Everything needs to sink in, I came from an overnight flight from America, and never even had a shower, straight into the car. The pedals are too close, and each session we did something better. I started to improve myself, and they were very patient with me and we’re catching up.”
So how come Moreno, a veteran of 42 Formula 1 grands prix and 125 IndyCar races, ended up revisiting his racing roots?
“Jonathan mentioned that he bought a car like I drove before and if I wanted to drive the Walter Hayes. As it happens I had work that weekend in America as a coach, so I said ‘I can’t do that one but I can do something else if you want, another time’.
“And then I thought actually ‘what about the Festival?’. So I called him back, and I said ‘what about the Festival?’. ‘Oh okay, you can do the Festival’. And then we look at quarantine things. He said it wasn’t going to work because I’ve got to quarantine 10 days. So then I called Ron Maydon who runs Master Historic Racing, and he said ‘try this website’. It was a link to Motorsport UK to get an exemption. We applied, we got it, and here we are. And the opportunity to be again driving this car, at this circuit – I haven’t been driving much for a long time, I had some neck problems which I had to stop driving for a long time, and I’m just getting over those neck problems – it was a great opportunity to drive this car at Brands Hatch which is where I had my most success in FFord, and I knew Ralph Firman [Van Diemen founder] was going to be here with his wife, so the whole opportunity to be together, I couldn’t pass it on.”
Moreno’s FF1600 career in England started in 1979 aged 20, and some plucky performances convinced Firman to sign him as a factory driver for the next year when they contested the British and European championships as well as the Festival.
“I used to live there [at Van Diemen],” Moreno explains. “I worked as a van driver, that’s how I made money to survive in England. Because what happened was I came, Ralph signed me up, I showed up for the season and I said:
‘Ralph, I have just-‘
‘Where are you going to live, Roberto?’
‘Well I have one problem. I’ve got £10 in my pocket.’
‘How… well what do you want to do?’
‘I don’t know, but I don’t have any money to live.’
‘Can you drive a van?’
‘Okay, you’re going to be my van driver.’
Moreno would drive to suppliers collecting “extra parts, wishbones, chassis, I was the pick-up for all of those” and he rented near Snetterton – Van Diemen’s local track – to live. To eat he would often go to Ed’s Cafe by the nearby Breckland Lodge.
Ed Devlin’s cafe has been described as “infamous” by a few racing names who lived in that part of East Anglia in the 1980s, and was usually where the works Van Diemen drivers ate as in the local area there was little else to do. Another detail from Lewis, who became Van Diemen team boss in 1988, is “if you didn’t wash the dishes, you didn’t earn any money for food”.
Looking back to that time, quite literally thanks to a supply of photos, Moreno recalls how “we all raced hard, any of us could win a race here”. It was always “neck-to-neck” racing, and he shows one shot driving through Brands Hatch’s Druids corner one-handed in a pack battle.
Lewis remembers his friend Peter Argetsinger, an American racing in FF1600 who would later establish himself in sportscars, telling him during pre-event Festival testing in 1980 “we’re fucked” after recording Moreno’s laptimes on the pitwall.
Moreno broke the lap record en route to victory in his heat, went even faster as he took victory in his quarter-final, and was then up against fellow Van Diemen driver Tommy Byrne for victory in their semi-final and the final. Both times Moreno won against Byrne, “the only one I really respected”, and did so by 2.2s in the final. In third was Royale’s Rick Morris, still representing the manufacturer in FF1600 racing today, and fourth was Jonathan Palmer who now owns Brands Hatch.
His other Van Diemen team-mate Raul Boesel, a fellow Brazilian, was Moreno’s closest rival in British FFord that year as he won eight races, and he also took victories in the RAC and P&O Ferries series. He was pipped to the European crown by Sweden’s Bo Martinsson.
“I had to perform and win. That’s coming back to me, but it’s slower,” Moreno says of his 1980 success and 2021 return.
“When I came here for the Festival before, we’d done two seasons, and we were sharp, we were really on top of everything, Micky had the best car ever, he was always very particular with everything in the car, and we were all top notch. Now, I’m rusty, it has been a while, I’m old, I’m 62, so I’m comparing with young kids out there, so it’s different. But once you drive, and you start feeling comfortable, you just want to do well, just as much as before.”
After 13 years out of single-seater racing, and in a car close to four decades older than some on the grid, Moreno’s FF1600 return officially began with 11th place in qualifying for heat two. He was 2.7s off pole, with only one other pre-1990 car ahead of him. It took “a little while to remember” how to drive a car sideways, but Galter nailed a set-up for the greasy track.
The heat itself ended prematurely for Moreno, and everyone else, as the race was red-flagged to retrieve his car from the gravel at the bottom of Paddock Hill Bend after Team Fox Racing’s Lewis Fox punted him out of 11th while driving the Van Diemen RF92 that Jan Magnussen won the 1992 edition of the Festival win. Fox was later disqualified.
“His nose got stuck in my car! That’s how deep he went. It was a big loud bang,” Moreno said of the contact. “His nose was [in] there. I took it with me.”
It cost Moreno a chance at an automatic semi-final spot, which goes to the top 12 in each heat, and he said there was “no problem” that he would have had the pace to do that. He did get a second chance in the progression races, but was to start the second of those from 20th on the grid.
“I had a great start, got right away to the front group, and then those two guys spun in the back straight,” Moreno said of rising eight spots on lap one before his charge was halted by having to avoid a spinning Adam Higgins at Graham Hill Bend.
“Had they [Higgins and Bob Hawkins] come this way earlier I could have gone in the middle. But as it happens he only came as I was coming. I was going to T-bone him, and then I avoided [by going off-track]. Today was about avoiding an accident.
“And then this other guy [John Whibourn], we were running 11th. He was really slow at [Surtees], but he was much faster out of Clearways with a new car. And then he would pass me on the straight. I’d come to the inside at Paddock, he pushes me to the grass!
“This car is in one piece today, I don’t know how.”
Moreno finished ninth, but “one of the best starts I’ve ever had in FFord” wasn’t enough for the semi-finals as he needed to finish in the top six. Fox, from 24th on the grid, managed to do just that. The race specifically for ‘Historic’ cars on Sunday didn’t go Moreno’s way either, as on a damp track he spun deep into the gravel at Paddock Hill on the opening lap.
It was still an enjoyable on-track experience all-in, and made particularly special by the old faces he got to meet over the weekend. And it reminded Moreno – whose protege Igor Fraga won the 2020 Toyota Racing Series title and as a driver coach last year was key to Kyffin Simpson’s improvements to become Formula Regional Americas champion – of the learning experience drivers get in the wingless FF1600 cars.
Simply put, Moreno thinks it’s “a mistake that has been made” with FF1600 and its international counterpart F1600 falling out of favour against Formula 4 and other winged categories as the first step on the single-seater ladder.
“People want to go to carbonfibre cars and they want to go with winged cars. They miss the learning of the mechanical grip. Like today I’ve done some mechanical grip on this car. And the kids that don’t do that, they never know what’s the difference between mechanical grip and aerodynamic grip.”
At this point Lewis, who after fronting Van Diemen made his own team Comtec to compete in winged series and claimed maybe the most surprising title in the history of secondary tier single-seaters in Formula Renault 3.5 in 2006, chips in:
“You know what I always say? You can’t go straight to university. You have to go to primary school. And because they took away primary school, kids aren’t as clever as they were,” he states. “I think it was a great primary school.
“We get them from karting. They win in that, they go into F3 and they win in that, and then the good ones go bang, bang, bang [to F1]. And the ones who weren’t as good would take a bit longer, but they all would filter their way up there, and because of what they learned there. And the reason that the kids love FF1600, is because this is a good time for them. It was a happy time, it was a young time, there was no bullshit teams and hundreds of people.”
Lewis’s reference to the small-scale operations of the FF1600 paddock may have been slightly premature now that several top teams are expanding into F4. But the avenue for young drivers to graduate from FF1600 into Palmer’s new GB4 series meets Moreno’s desire that drivers learn to slide a car and learn mechanical grip before combining it with aero grip, and so can therefore distinguish between the two when chasing set-up improvements.
Rake is talked about a lot in F1, and it’s “because that’s to fine-tune the aero, from the bottom of the car” says Moreno. “And what happens is as long as they have a good team with a good package, they’ll never know. The day they have an engineer who can’t put it all together, they can’t say anything to the engineer to direct them.
“If you learn from FF1600, it’s easier to learn, and you see where the mechanical grip comes from. You change things and you see it. And then you go to winged car, you can change the wing for the quick corners, and the mechanical for the slow corners. And they’re not doing that anymore. They’re just doing a package.”
In addition to springs and shock absorbers, rake is also a key set-up point in FF1600. But “it’s not to do with the aero” of the sleek machines. “It’s just to get the balance of the weight of the car. The rake is to do with moving the weight forward or back.”
Moreno also praises how racecraft can be developed in FF1600 thanks to how close the cars can get, continually, and with no risk of aerodynamic appendages flying off. Much like in karting with bumper penalties, race control can pick out broken nosecones on newer cars (which have small sidepods for engine cooling rather than the front scoop favoured prior to 1984) and that indicator of contact can earn penalties.
While Moreno might not be back for the next edition of the FFord Festival, a Team Brazil Scholarship programme could be in place to make sure the next young driver from his birth country can and he hopes to see far more drivers take on FF1600.
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