Formula Ford is the most successful feeder formula in the history of motorsport, it has launched the careers of top pilots from Senna, to Coulthard, to Webber and given joy to millions. Older Formula Fords have brought motorsport within reach of hundreds, perhaps thousands of privateers and club racers. Discover some of the history here. To get an insider account discover the book “Of land, sea and sky”.
Formula Ford is a single seat racing car formula that started in 1967 using a sixteen hundred cc Cortina engine in the rear of a space frame, open wheel chassis with a fiberglass body. The first Formula Ford car ever was based on a Lotus Formula Junior. At this time, the more sophisticated formulas with alloy monocoques were expensive, fragile in the event of an accident and often unrepairable at least financially.
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The steel space frame of a Formula Ford was still light, but very strong, relatively inexpensive to manufacture and it could be cut, welded, even straightened in the event of a “shunt”. The heyday of Formula Ford was actually a fairly long period, mainly all of the nineteen seventies and eighties, although it remained very healthy in the nineties and continues today. There were spin offs, many of them, too many really that diluted Formula Ford for a while, Formula Ford 2000, Sport 2000, Formula First and Formula Forward, but no one enjoyed the success, or attracted as much affection from race visitors and drivers as the original Formula Ford sixteen hundred formula.
Thousands of drivers around the world cut their racing teeth in Formula Ford during the decades mentioned, when the engine in use was the Ford Kent engine, not as easy to get hold of now, but as common as muck then. Early Formula Fords generally had front-mounted radiators and outboard suspension, but due to the popularity of the formula and the relative simplicity of construction, the number of racing car designers ballooned. Joining Lotus were Merlyn, Royale, Van Diemen, Reynard, Swift, Elden, Hawke, Lola, Ray, Titan, Tiga and more. Some just did Formula Ford, while others like Lola were involved in many formulas right up to the World Cup Sportscars, Indy cars, Formula 5000 and Formula 1.
As an illustration look at Formula 1 cars of ninety eighty three, such as the John Player Special Lotus where the driver seems to be well ahead in the car and then look at the Van Diemen RF84. All Van Diemen’s model numbers reflected the year of the particular model.
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Soon there were side-mounted radiators, inboard suspension, body that evened out the airflow around the engine and gearbox, but some things remained the same. Everyone competed with the Kent engine in those decades and although the Zetec engine and later Duratec have taken over the formula is a shadow of its former self. It was so successful in the seventies and eighties for a number of reasons, firstly it was affordable, secondly it was exciting, this was due to narrow control tires and lack of aerodynamic devices, the cars could and did go close to each other, slipstream and slide. The diversity of manufacturers added to the interest of spectators and you could really see new stars in the making.
In 1972 the inaugural, end of season Formula Ford Festival was held at Snetterton in Norfolk, it would move to Brands Hatch from 1975 and it developed into a World Cup event for Formula Ford drivers around the world. It still goes on today and even in the nineties nineties attracted hundreds of entries from around the world, with supporting races for other Ford formulas and historic Formula Fords.
Winners of the festival include Johnny Herbert, Eddie Irvine and more recently Mark Webber, although some fourteen winners have gone on to reach Formula 1 and many who were close to winning the festival like David Coulthard went on to the top of the sport. It is possible that Ford Motor Company took their position as number one in grassroots motorsport for granted, or perhaps they thought their position inviolable, but other companies wanted to take action, prompting Formula Renault, Formula Vauxhall Lotus (Opel in other markets), Formula Palmer Audi and others.