Home Featured The driver who reached Formula Chrysler while being his own team boss

The driver who reached Formula Chrysler while being his own team boss

by Ida Wood

Photo: John Svensson

John Svensson is not only a rare modern example of a driver in single-seaters who is also a team boss, but he can also claim to be one of the very few drivers who raced in the short-lived Formula Chrysler Euroseries

It’s difficult to forge a career in single-seater racing as a driver, and it’s also very difficult to run a team. So to combine both is quite an endeavour. There is a long history of drivers running their own cars, as privateer entries, but there’s a distinction between that and actually creating a team to run other drivers in addition to themselves.

An example of the latter is John Svensson, whose imaginatively named outfit John’s Racing Team has been a regular sight in Formula Ford paddocks for three decades but was also at one point active far higher up the single-seater ladder as the Belgian’s career in the cockpit progressed.

But let’s rewind to the very start. Why did Svensson, who is now 49, quickly arrive in car racing in the mid-1990s as a team boss as well as a driver?

“Full history of the team? Well, when we came back from a long trip with my parents back in early ‘90s, I said to my dad I wanted to do karting,” Svensson explains to Formula Scout.

“And he said: ‘Yeah, you can. I will help you as much as I can, but you need to work.’ So I start karting for three years. And after that, we said ‘okay, karting is good, but we want to go up’. And in Belgium then we go to look to FFord, which was said to be the best way to do [the switch to cars].

“We went to a team, and we thought ‘okay, it’s good, but we will not learn as much as we can because [it will] just be look to the data and say ‘go and drive’. In Belgium that was the case [at the time], and we wanted to have a team who can teach me to drive and to progress and so on. So we bought an early 1994 Van Diemen RF90, a Kent-powered car, that we disassembled, with the gearbox broken, and we reassembled it. And then we kept going in karting.

“But middle of the season we had a problem in karting. So we said ‘okay, we stop karting and we’ll do the last race with the FFord’. The Ford, it’s [built], everything is good. I did two test days at Zolder beforehand. And we went to do the European race back in 1994 at Zolder. First qualifying I did the third fastest time, so we were completely surprised. Then second quali I did the pole in front of Nick Heidfeld. Then I won the race easily in front of Nick Heidfeld! We were really surprised. It was lap record and everything.

“So we said ‘okay, we may go to Zandvoort two weeks later to see exactly what we can do’. Because we know Zolder, maybe the [European field] don’t know Zolder. And at Zandvoort I finished second. At that time we had prize money, so with the prize money that I got I could do the FFord Festival. So again we said after the Festival, we’ll see [if FFord is the right route].

“I did my heat, and in my semi-final I started third. There was a crash in front of me and I crashed with them. That was my first race here in the UK and we were really impressive. Because we were quite quick. Then for 1995 we switched to the Zetec [engine]. And with the Swift and [start], and we did a good season in the Benelux, we came here for the Festival and so on. And then some other drivers said ‘aah, we want to come with you’. And I said ‘yeah, come!’. “

So a 20-year-old Svensson, after racing in the FFord Festival for the first time, was already attracting interest from others to run their cars. He soon went from privateer racer to a team boss with eyes beyond FFord.

“We did [FFord for several years], and then we start and we did the Formula Renault Eurocup from 1999 to 2003. But I did not have the money to progress, and maybe also the talent. Because you need to be quick. And that’s it. So I concentrated to do more the [team management] thing. I did a little bit of GT racing. But in Belgium with races I did also Formula Chrysler. I nearly won a race at the Nurburgring, then Ricardo van der Ende crashed into me.”

Despite the FChrysler Euroseries sitting above F3 on the single-seater ladder, using cars laden with aerodynamic parts, most fans will be unfamiliar with the spec series since it only ran for one brief season in 2001.

2001 Formula Chrysler Euroseries
Race Circuit Winner Pole Fastest lap
1 A1-Ring Charles Hall Sven Heidfeld Ricardo Gonzalez
2 A1-Ring Roberto Gonzalez Ricardo Gonzalez Ricardo van der Ende
3 Nurburgring R van der Ende S Heidfeld John Svensson
4 Jarama Roberto Gonzalez Roberto Gonzalez S Heidfeld
5 Jarama R van der Ende R van der Ende R van der Ende
6 Estoril R van der Ende R van der Ende R van der Ende
7 Estoril R van der Ende R van der Ende R van der Ende

Reynard designed the chassis and American manufacturer Chrysler supplied the engines, and drivers like Svensson were attracted by the series’ claim that it had a price of “around two-thirds of a front-running F3 budget”. Each driver was restricted to three sets of tyre per weekend, pre-empting the kinds of limitations Formula 2 and the FIA F3 Championship use today, and each team had to “nominate a home circuit, otherwise they may not test at tracks hosting rounds in-season”.

There were a few attempts at races with the cars before the season actually began at the A1-Ring (now known as the Red Bull Ring) in late August. Six drivers started the series’ inaugural race and future Atlantics racer Charles Hall took victory.

The next day nine drivers made the start of race two, and Roberto Gonzalez – best known for winning the World Endurance Championship’s LMP2 title in 2022 and racing in Champ Car in 2004 – beat his younger brother Ricardo to victory.

Svensson joined the field for round two at the Nurburgring two weeks later to form a 10-car grid, and he set the fastest lap before being knocked out of the race. Van der Ende went on to win by two seconds over Aldo Piedade Jr, with Roberto Gonzalez a further 10s behind.

Three weeks after that was another two-race round at Jarama, and Svensson suffered a further two retirements. Roberto Gonzalez took pole for race one and converted it into victory with ease, while his brother spun and van der Ende got into another clash. This time it was with Piedade, who had to retire. Despite severely damaging his front wing, van der Ende raced on and he hunted down then passed Marko Stipp to finish second. In race two he then dominated.

Estoril hosted the season finale a further three weeks later, and Svensson was absent. Van der Ende took pole for both races and a strong start in race one meant he built a two-second lead on the opening lap. Julien Vidot was supposed to start alongside him on the front row, but he stalled on the formation lap so was sent to the back but was still up to fourth before lap two. He passed Roberto Gonzalez into turn one on lap three, and was past Pieadade into second just four corners later.

2001 Formula Chrysler Euroseries standings
Pos Name Team Points
1 Ricardo van der Ende Vortex Motorsport 121
2 Roberto Gonzalez Alpie Motorsport 106
3 Sven Heidfeld Target Racing 65
4 Ricardo Gonzalez Alpie Motorsport 55
5 Aldo Piedade Jr DJS Motorsport 42
6 Mark Owens Paul Owens Racing 38
7 Francisco Acebras DJS Motorsport 36
8 Charles Hall Vortex Motorsport 20
9 Marko Stipp Bohm Motorsport & Target Racing 20
10 Julien Vidot DJS Motorsport 15
11 Ron van Toren Vortex Motorsport 14
12 Robert van den Berg Vortex Motorsport 4
13 Michael Nagler Nagler Racing 3
14 John Svensson John’s Racing Team 2

Vidot set the fastest lap in clear air, but van der Ende responded by taking it back and ended up with a winning margin of 12.229 seconds as Vidot went off at the very last corner of the race and Gonzalez therefore finished second after he had passed Piedade on lap five of 12.

There was an even bigger gap between the top two in race two, as van der Ende wrapped up the title – three days short of the two-year anniversary of his FFord Festival win – with victory by 13.036s over Piedade, who spent a lot of time fighting Vidot.

That would end up being the series’ last ever race, although once the cars were sold on there was an attempt to use them for Formula Benelux Racing League in 2008. There were two demonstration races at Assen, one in the dry and one in the wet, but the global financial crisis scuppered plans to give the cars their own series. There was another revival effort in 2020.

Despite his lack of results in FChrysler, Svensson has good memories of the car and its big power output.

It was quite an easy car to drive. The basics of the car was really good. It was designed to be [used in] Indy Lights, but then the deal with Indy Lights, because at that time Indy Lights was [spec] chassis and [spec] engine, collapsed. So they bring the car back to Europe, and say: ‘Okay, what can we do with this? Try to do a series’. And that was it. It was a really great car. I had a lot of fun. But after one season the championship collapsed and that was a pity.

“It was really fun to drive because it had no traction control, no ABS, nothing to help. The engine was quite powerful, we had 520bhp I think, and it was really, really nice to drive. We were already on 16 or 17-inch rims, that was really [ahead of its time and] another thing that came now [in junior single-seaters]. It was a really good car to drive, really fun.

“With Sven, Roberto Gonzalez, Ricardo van der Ende also, it was good competition and it was a really good championship. But unfortunately it stopped.

Driver-team bosses
Driver Team Series Years Wins (podiums)
Jack Brabham Brabham F1 1962-’70 7 (21)
Dan Gurney All American Racers F1 1966-’68 1 (2)
Bruce McLaren McLaren F1 1966-’70 1 (7)
John Surtees Surtees F1 1970-’72 2x 5th
Graham Hill Embassy Hill F1 1973-’75 1x 6th
Wilson Fittipaldi Fittipaldi F1 1975 1x 1-th
Arturo Merzario Merzario F1 + European F2 1977-’81 1x 14th + 1x 9th
Hector Rebaque Rebaque F1 1978-’79 1x 6th
Sarah Fisher Sarah Fisher Racing IndyCar 2008-’10 1x 12th
Ed Carpenter Ed Carpenter Racing IndyCar 2012- 2 (6)
Hywel Lloyd CF Racing F3 Cup 2012-’19 6 (7)
Giuseppe Cipriani Ibiza Racing Team + Il Barone Rampante Auto GP + FV8 3.5 2013-’15 + ’17 1x 3rd + 1x 6th
Jarno Trulli Trulli GP FE 2014-15 1x 4th
Keith Donegan Race Performance Motorsport FREC 2022 1x 16th

“We had leasing with the car, so they came to us and said we can lease a car, so that was a really good deal. They made a lot of effort into that championship to bring people in.”

Despite his time in that series ending almost as quickly as it had begun, Svensson still ploughed on with his single-seater career in FR2.0 and has been busy running his team every year since.

“Mainly in FFord and FRenault. The team came also to GT3, but GT3 is so expensive that we had to stop that. And we did not want also to be a big team, because we’ve always tried to teach our drivers how to drive, and not to be too expensive. We like to help motorsport and the basic of motorsports. That’s the mindset of the team. So that’s our goal.

“And now, I’m still driving and just enjoying now. I’m nearly 50, so I might stop racing soon and just enjoy maybe one or two races per season.”

Formula Scout usually spots Svensson in the paddock for the FFord Festival and Walter Hayes Trophy (he has finished in the top 10 in both events), with team-mates as old as he is but also as young as 16 who are making their very first steps in car racing. He purchased a 2017-spec Ray several years ago and the COVID-19 pandemic restricted how much racing he could do in England for a while, so he was very glad once he was able to do more overseas racing again in BRSCC National FF1600 and the end-of-year classics.

However the bigger challenge has been Brexit, which has added complexity to moving cars in and out of the European Union.

“That’s really, really – it’s not difficult, but it gives you a lot of stress. You need to have the ATA Carnet, then you never know. We’re [a race team], we have so many things into the truck that we could not list everything on the carnet. And if you have a custom person coming into the truck and saying ‘ah, i want to see’ or ‘i want to check’. Oh! You can have a disaster. And that makes a lot of stress, for me. I don’t know for the other teams, but for me it makes it a lot stressful. And it makes everything a little bit more difficult.”

The 16y/o Gilles Cloet driving for JRT at the 2022 FFord Festival

While that makes testing in mainland Europe more convenient, and Svensson’s team also competes in FFord series over there, it’s easier to attract young drivers to FF1600 in the UK.

“Not many drivers anymore are interested in Belgium or in Europe to FFord, because they just want slicks-and-wings and sequential gearboxes and paddle shift gearbox. It’s now in Europe the way that they want to go, it’s not a good way, it’s not a proper racing. And it costs a fortune now to go to Formula 4 or something like that. It’s stupid,” says Svensson.

JRT is based in Verviers, which means the workshop is 31 kilometres from Spa-Francorchamps, “about 15 minutes” by car.

“So that’s a good place. And we do quite a lot of track days with Porsches, BMW for customers [at Spa].”