Exactly a quarter of a century has passed since Mark Webber won the Formula Ford Festival. We look back at the Australian’s FF1600 career in an interview conducted with the Formula 1 grand prix winner in 2018
Mark Webber has an affinity to Formula Ford 1600. He may be better known for his Formula 1 and Le Mans exploits, but it was in FF1600 where he made his name known.
He still takes a interest in the category, as well as the world championships he used to compete in, but as a 45-year-old retired professional there’s not many places where he could have as much fun as sliding through Brooklands with 25-odd cars of similar control around him. But it was a very different grand prix track to Silverstone where he first met the type of car he would start his single-seater career in…
In 1993, 16-year-old Webber got his first taste of FF1600 in a trial day at Oran Park, a now closed circuit near Sydney which held the Australian Grand Prix in 1974 and ’77.
Webber was fastest that day by 1.6 seconds, and a few months later he was the proud owner of a Van Diemen previously driven by future V8 Supercars legend Craig Lowndes, two years Webber’s senior and the reigning national Formula Ford champion. Young and ambitious, Webber headed straight to the Australian national championship.
He finished 14th in the standings in 1994, with the title being won by Bathurst legend Steven Richards. It was a struggle for Webber, with only one podium over the eight round season, but the driving was something he was enjoying massively.
“‘[It was] brilliant, absolutely brilliant old-school racing. Very very little telemetry, so that was good for us,” he told Formula Scout.
“There was no simulators, you just go out and learn the track, learn what you’re good at, learn what you’re weak at very quickly.”
Webber was a true privateer at the time, with his three person set-up including driver, and knew that a single crash could end his year.
He had one such crash in the final round of the season, but worked flat out for several weeks to rebuild the car in time for the non-championship event in Adelaide supporting what would become an infamous F1 title decider between Damon Hill and Webber’s future rival Micharl Schumacher. Despite the repair job, Webber’s year didn’t exactly end in fine style.
For the main race on Sunday he qualified second, but a battery failure meant he wasn’t allowed to take his place on the grid and in a ‘move’ that was misjudged at best, Webber overtook everyone on the formation lap, and was disqualified as a result.
With a year under his belt, Webber was better placed to get some strong results in 1995, although finances came first.
Working as a driving instructor at Oran Park contributed a small amount, but a sponsor was required. Ann Neal, who Webber had met when he first entered Australian FFord and would later become his life partner, worked with him on proposals to potential sponsors.
The Antipodean branch of Yellow Pages replied, and Webber turned up to the first round of the 1995 season in a striking yellow brand-new Van Diemen RF95.
Fourth in the standings demonstrated that Webber wasn’t the complete package yet, with set-up issues and inconsistency hampering his season. But he was still on a learning process, and was by now winning races.
“It was a brilliant category,” Webber recalled.
“The cars were quick. The top speeds were quick because there was no aero on them so they were pretty slippery through the air. Big slipstreaming going on for qualifying, that was all incredible. They moved around a lot too, you’d drive the car really with quite a bit of attitude.
“The gearbox needed a lot of love. But they were great. Particularly in the wet, you had to be very careful with the gearbox and the engine and making sure that you didn’t lock the rears on braking. All those sort of things that we just got good at of course. Now you don’t have to worry about that.”
Webber was the fastest driver in Australia, but too many scraps and crashes meant he wasn’t legging it at the front. Being quick in his home country meant little though, as it was Europe, and specifically Britain, where all the best drivers raced.
And at the end of the year, Webber boarded his first flight to England. Destination: the FFord Festival at Brands Hatch.
Throwing the bone
Before the Festival began, Webber met Van Diemen founder Ralph Firman. From that meeting a test came about in one of Firman’s more powerful 1800cc Zetec cars.
So impressive was Webber, Firman invited him to drive for him at the Festival, and the Yellow Pages-liveried car made it all the way to the final, where Webber finished a remarkable third.
That result was enough to earn a factory Van Diemen drive for 1996, something which still pleases Webber to this day. He entered the British and European championships, as well as returning to the Festival.
1996 FFord Festival Final aggregate results (18 laps)
|1||Mark Webber||Van Diemen||Van Diemen RF96||17m41.50s|
|2||Tommy Field||Lanan Racing||Van Diemen RF95||+5.63s|
|3||Michael Vergers||Andy Welch Racing||Van Diemen RF96||+10.52s|
|4||Robert Lechner||Lechner Racing||Van Diemen RF96||+11.41s|
|5||Michael Schroeter||Team FormulaSport||Van Diemen RF95||+15.11s|
|6||Darren Malkin||Andy Welch Racing||Van Diemen RF96||+15.40s|
|7||Giorgio Vinella||Graff Racing||Mygale SJ95||+16.14s|
|8||Jacky van der Ende||Haywood Racing||Mygale SJ96||+16.67s|
|9||Richard Tarling||LaneSport||Swift SC95Z||+24.74s|
|10||Raphael del Sarte||Van Diemen RF96||+26.76s|
|11||Damien Faulkner||Van Diemen RF96||+28.00s|
|12||Paul Edwards||Swift||Swift SC96Z||+30.64s|
|13||Tomas Enge||Eiffeland Racing||Van Diemen RF96||+31.46s|
|14||David Bresnard||Manor||Van Diemen RF96||+37.87s|
|15||William Langhorne||Lanan Racing||Van Diemen RF96||+39.29s|
|Ret||Kristian Kolby||Van Diemen||Van Diemen RF96|
|Ret||Vitor Meira||Van Diemen||Van Diemen RF96|
|Ret||David Terrien||Graff Racing||Mygale SJ96|
|Ret||Sebastian Bleekemolen||GEVA Racing|
|Ret||Matthew Davies||Haywood Racing||Mygale SJ96|
|Ret||Iradj Alexander||Jenzer Motorsport||Swift SC96Z|
|Ret||Sebastian Dumez||Mygale SJ96|
|Ret||Aluizio Coelho||Andy Welch Racing||Van Diemen RF96|
|Ret||Dugal McDougall||Haywood Racing||Mygale SJ96|
|Fastest lap: Malkin & Besnard, 56.89s|
“I was a Van Diemen factory driver, with Ralph Firman, which was just great. Ralph threw me a bone back in ‘96 and I won the Festival for him that year.
“[I was up against] Vitor Meira, who did a little bit of IndyCar, Kristian Kolby [both Van Diemen team-mates], Tomas Enge. A lot of them [only raced in Europe]; David Terrien, who was world go-kart champion at the time [in the secondary 100c class]. He was racing for the factory Mygale team.”
Third and second in the European and British standings respectively were less than the title Webber desired, but he made up for it with an assertive Festival victory.
His team-mate Meira was the driver to beat in the timed sessions, and took pole for the first semi-final. He made a slow start and dropped behind Kristian Kolby, his other team-mate, and Haywood Racing’s Matthew Davies.
They ran in that order until the rain arrived during the 15-lap tace, and Koly span out of the lead. Davies was thinking of passing him before that but had to check up on the brakes, which allowed Meira back into the lead.
By the time the rain ended there was a comfortable gap between Meira and the chasing pack, and it was Robert Lechner – driving for his father Walter’s Lechner Racing team which he now runs in International GT Open and several other sportscar series – who came through to finish second ahead of Darren Malkin who would later drive in the film Rush and the London 2012 Olympics closing ceremony.
Haywood’s Jacky van der Ende took pole for semi-final two, the one Webber was in, and despite a strong launch off the grid it wasn’t long before he lost the lead to Webber who passed two cars on the opening lap and then got by van der Ende at Druids a lap later.
Semi-final results (15 laps each)
|Race 1 (top 10)||Race 2 (top 10)|
|2||Lechner||+3.64s||2||van der Ende||+2.41s|
|Pole: Meira, 46.752s FL: Kolby & Vergers, 48.45s||P: van der Ende, 46.62s FL: Webber, 46.65s|
There was 2.41s between Webber and van der Ende by the chequered flag, but just 0.57s covering van der Ende, Lanan Racing’s Tommy Field and Graff Racing’s David Terrien in second to fourth.
The factory Van Diemens weren’t the quickest off the line again in the final, with Meira and Webber being jumped by van der Ende. It took until lap three of the scheduled 20 for Webber to get into the lead, but van der Ende then came back at him. Webber let him by, then came back at him once he found the grippier parts of the track again as the rain eased.
Field passed van der Ende for second and had a stab at Webber on lap six, and even more drivers got involved at the front as van der Ende literally slid down the order. His decline was halted by a red flag as Andy Booth and Jenzer Motorsport’s collided on the pit straight.
The final was restarted for 10 laps and with 18 cars lined up, and the winner would be decided on aggregate from the two races. Webber started on pole, but Meira shot past at the start and was leading the way until he went off at Paddock Hill Bend and ended his race. Staying out front after that was enough to guarantee Webber victory, having been the lead driver of the first part of the final, but the battle far behind him was far more dramatic.
Andy Welch Racing’s Michael Vergers, who had started semi-final one from the back row of the grid due to a rideheight infringement and also had to serve a 10s penalty but still qualified for the final in ninth, had come from 18th on the grid to be second on track behind Webber but knew it would be a tough ask to finish there as he was eighth before the red flag.
He ended up being classified third, with the driver who finished in that position – Field – coming second on aggregate.
Losing its flavour
FFord doesn’t often send drivers on to F1 anymore, although Brendon Hartley landed at Toro Rosso in 2017.
But schemes like Jeremy Shaw’s Team USA and its Brazilian, Canadian and New Zealand counterparts are ensuring there is a path for FF1600 drivers to become professionals, and the Red Bull Junior Team has looked to the category in recent years.
Since the FIA’s overhaul of the superlicence system and the introduction of its own single-seater series, FF1600 has scarce been mentioned in serious tones outside of the latest batch of IndyCar stars who have fond memories of being USA scholars.
The aura of importance that FFord had was something Webber wishes would return when he spoke to Formula Scout.
“Absolutely. Absolutely. I was disappointed when it sort of lost its flavour. And there’s so many other categories now which are sort of across [FF1600]. I’d love it much more simpler through the junior categories, but it’s just not like that.
“You can say FFord is, you can say Formula 4 is [the way to F1], I think that there are some great categories now. There is still some sensational great young [driver] categories to weed out who’s got the muscle and not, and also for the teams. Mechanics: a great exposure for them, to sort of have a good staircase of talent for them [too].”
Jaguar Formula E star Mitch Evans, a protege of Webber’s, started his career in New Zealand’s FF1600 championships, the same place Hartley did.
“Mitch did it, yeah. I’d absolutely [recommend young drivers to do FF1600]. I think, to be honest, any introduction to a car at that point, you’re going to get a pretty good snapshot if the guy’s got talent or not.”
Formula 2 points leader Oscar Piastri, Webber’s latest management client, hasn’t been as convinced by FF1600.
“I’ve watched a bit of FFord racing, and the racing’s awesome and it looks like a fun car to drive, it looks tough, but I just don’t know how relevant it is to sort of European single seater racing anymore,” he said in an interview with Speedcafe.
Australian FFord lost national championship status a few years ago, but the demise of the country’s F4 series led to FFord growing in strength again – with some regional series taking precedence stronger during the recent lockdown period as there are restrictions on inter-state travel. When Webber raced at home in ’94, “a full budget for [a season] was 95 grand”.
Webber looks back on his time in FFord fondly, and he competed in almost all of the major races and events.
F1600 races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Knockhill’s David Leslie Trophy had a history-making victor in 2020, and Mount Panorama even hosts international races.
“I raced a FFord at Bathurst and on the full circuit at Spa,” Webber remembered. “They were the big [standout memories], and the Festival, which was testing all week and 95 cars for a 24-car grid final I think.
“It was great memories, great days. I would love to [return]. I mean, yeah, I’ve thought about doing the Walter Hayes, but I don’t know if it’s going to happen.”
At the time of the interview, that last answer provoked a lot of excitement, but it’s a non-goer as Webber has not renewed his racing license since retirement and instead concentrates now on media duties and supporting Piastri’s F1 ambitions.
“Look, it’s a brilliant, brilliant type of racing, and you know, I enjoy it. I’d get my arse kicked, but I’d have a good time.”