It’s common knowledge that Ayrton Senna, Damon Hill and Jenson Button all won titles in motorsport’s premier class. But what you might not know is that all their careers started in the same series - Formula Ford. Developed in the late 1960s, Formula Ford provided an affordable entry point for young drivers looking to enter the world of competitive motorsport. With no wings, spec-engines and manual gearboxes, these simple race cars forced drivers to hone their race craft; only the best rose to the top.
Over the years, Formula Ford - like every other form of motorsport - has been forced to evolve with the times. Flappy paddle gearboxes, slick tyres and huge wings are now standard fare, and as a result, a season in the ‘British’ championship will set you back north of £150,000 - £300,000 if you want to be competitive. Thankfully, dedicated domestic championships like the BRSCC’s National series still run the traditional naturally-aspirated 1600cc Kent-engined race cars with their road-biased tyres and distinct lack of aero. Grids are huge, the depth of ability is vast - with drivers ranging from beginners to seasoned Le Mans racers - and the championship is aligned with the brilliant ‘Mazda Road to Indy Shootout’ scheme. So when it came to deciding which championship I should start my racing career in, the choice was obvious.
I raced in the BRSCC series for two seasons (2011 and 2012) with championship-winning team Medina Sport. The racing was fierce, the tracks were demanding and I had my fair share of ‘incidents’ during my first season; a huge roll-over at Anglesey effectively wrote-off my Van Diemen RF92. But everything came together in 2012 and I managed to win the Northern Class A Championship, the Championship of Oulton Park, and I even made it to the final of the prestigious Walter Hayes Trophy; a race with a worldwide entry of over 120 drivers. It was a good year.
During my time in the BRSCC championship, multiple racing drivers, including Nurburgring production car lap record holder, Michael Vergers (my team-mate at the Walter Hayes), told me to enjoy my time in the stripped back Formula Fords (FF1600s). He said that the Kent-engined cars provided the ‘purist’ driving experience in all of motor-racing. But always one to focus on the ‘next thing’, I quickly moved up to British Formula Ford in 2013, joining the slicks and wings brigade. With a 220bhp, 1.6-litre turbocharged Ecoboost motor, the new FF200 was incredibly fast, but it never gave me the same feedback as my old Van Diemen LA10.
In fact, I’ve never found the same driving connection provided by those original FF1600s; a thought that came to me after driving the supposedly ‘communicative’ MX-5s on the recent generations shoot. So with the voice of Vergers ringing in my ears, I contacted my old race team to see if I could attend one of its pre-season test days - I had to experience one of these raw race cars one last time. John Loebell, the team’s owner, quickly replied to my email offering me a test day at Oulton Park. And in a weird turn of fate, the team even had my original racing car ready to go.
As I pulled into Oulton Park a week later, I knew I was in for a special day. The Cheshire-based venue was the first track I ever raced at, it was the first track that I won at and it was the first track to give me a respected championship title. So when I walked into the pit garage I felt right at home. But there was still something very odd about seeing my Van Diemen LA10 sitting there resplendent in its 2012 championship-winning livery. John told me the back story: supposedly the car had been sold in 2012 and was sent overseas, where it sat stagnant for four whole years. So when John spotted it for sale, he felt it had to come back to the team - a decision I’m glad he made!
As I slipped inside the car before the first session I thought that it would be like putting on an old pair of slippers; not so. I was quickly reminded of how cramped the cockpit is. Your shoulders get pinched by the seat, your legs are forced up against the chassis and the side visibility is extremely restricted. Even the driving position - reclined on your back with your legs up in front - is fairly intimidating. But that all changes as soon as you head out on track.
As I was called to the grid for the 9am practice session, I was still going through the process of reacquainting myself with the car. As a result, my plan was to take the first laps steady and then build up to speed, but that quickly went out the window when I spotted my old teammate David McArthur in the distance. Keen to follow him I pushed on from the first lap, and the car responded beautifully. We had opted to run on a ‘safe’ set-up, and this, coupled with the LA10’s stunning balance allowed me to push hard from the off. And unlike modern day race cars, the road-biased Avon tyres are designed to heat up very quickly, allowing me to set quick times in the first few laps. After the first session we were only a couple of seconds off the pace using old tyres and a tired engine; a real testament to the car and the team.
As the day went on, my confidence improved and the lap-times dropped. Oulton Park is one of the few circuits in the UK where there’s limited run-off, so a quick lap time is all about being clean and tidy. Bouncing off the kerbs will end up unsettling the car, and if you’re unlucky enough, it might even put you into the wall. Thankfully I avoided any ‘moments’ and quickly began harassing the front runners.
For the final session, we stiffened the rear anti-roll bar and softened the front-end, to get better turn-in and mid-corner balance. The idea of turning up to just have a drive around had been completely forgotten about. I went out to mix it up with the top guys and we were right on the pace. The car felt perfect on the limit, four-wheel drifting through the corners. And with the pedals perfectly positioned for left-foot braking and heel and toe downshifts, the whole experience of driving quickly was an absolute pleasure.
After circulating with championship front-runner Tom McArthur for a couple of laps it was good to see that Medina was back in the mix. We secured P2 in the last session ahead of the American scholarship winners. But that’s not what made the day special. Ultimately, there’s nothing like driving a well-sorted track car on the limit. A place where the only limit is how hard you’re willing to push.
After four years out the cockpit, I think I’ve caught the racing bug once again. Perhaps CT is interesting in forming a racing team…Alex?