As the decade that brought us James Bond and The Beatles moved swiftly away from the bleak austerity of post-war Britain, so a generation of mainly wealthy young men, eager to carve their mark on the ‘Swinging Sixties’, sought adventure and glamour in the hedonistic world of motor racing.
Fast, demanding and dangerous, the pace shown on track was matched only in the paddock as circuits and constructors vied to offer training to raw recruits, seeking to hone the skills needed to propel them forward with a career fuelled by benzene and Bollinger.
Whilst there was no shortage of redundant Formula 3 and Formula Junior-type chassis for the race schools to use, they soon found themselves facing mounting bills with the all-too frequent need to replace blown-engines; an inevitable consequence of the combined effects of in-built fragility and heavy-footedness by novice students. What they needed was a light, almost indestructible power-train together with everyday, more durable wheels and tyres.
And so, Formula Ford was born..
One of the most prolific racing schools was at Brands Hatch. Located just an hour’s drive along the A20 from central London, the Kent circuit offered every challenge required to turn talent into gold. It also housed some of the finest workshops in the country and here, using Ford’s 1500cc pushrod engine from the hugely popular Cortina GT, they found a way to build reliable and cost-effective school cars that not only looked and felt the part, but most importantly kept them out on track and earning their keep.
So successful was the Brands Hatch fleet that by the end of 1966, discussions took place, suggesting the creation of an entry-level series using the now proven formula of Ford power, radial tyres, road wheels and a Junior-style chassis.
Ford loved it, and very soon Formula Ford was born. The first race at Brands Hatch was on 2nd July 1967. By the end of the year, races were being held in Belgium, and two years later they were hosted across North America. Formula Ford was an instant success. It created a raw, cost-effective entry into single-seater racing, and drivers, teams and fans couldn’t get enough of it.
Formula Ford Festival
Just five years after its launch, such was its draw, an annual festival of racing was organised. Initially held at Snetterton, entries gathered from around the world, eager to claim the right of recognition and the accolades of success. Four years later, it moved to Brands Hatch; the place of its birth, and the place where the tight, undulating circuit required the best to be even better.
At its debut in Kent, a young Derek Daly travelled across the water from Ireland and delivered a drive that would see him launched into Formula 3. Soon afterwards, he was scoring his first Formula 1 points. Formula Ford was no longer simply a way to the top, now it was route one!
Since those early days, there have been 45 Formula Ford Festivals, launching the careers of those whose names are now inextricably tied to greatness. In 1985, Damon Hill finished 3rd to Johnny Herbert. Mark Webber won in 1996, as did Jenson Button (from Dan Wheldon) two years later, with Anthony Davidson two years after him. And then more recently, Le Mans-winner Nick Tandy joined the roll of honour in 2007.
READ MORE: A full list of winners can be found on this PDF.
In more recent years, a reordering in the structure of international motor racing saw a gradual decline in starting numbers for Ford’s national championships, culminating in the UK series being halted at the end of the 2014 season.
The legacy lives on
But decades of success, together with unrivalled reliability have led to an abundance of still race-worthy cars. And today, across this country and Europe, the Americas, and beyond, Formula Fords classed by age and engine-type, have fast become the mainstay of club racers everywhere. Moreover, they still provide a platform for young racers who might be stretched for budget but are fuelled by talent.
Today, the Formula Ford Festival is a unique celebration of the greatness of these magnificent machines. Entries still come from far and wide, many of the drivers returning to the scene of once epic battles.
This coming weekend, former Festival champions Scott Malvern (2011) and Joey Foster (2003) will line-up against Matt Cowley, the newly crowned champion of US F1600, and Darren Burke, a race winner in categories ranging from LMP3 to historics. And then there’s Rick Morris, driving the Pat Symonds-designed Royale RP26. Morris is a veteran in the truest sense of the word. Back in 1976, when the Festival made its Brands Hatch debut, he was on its podium. In fact, in a career that saw him outpace and outshine a young Ayrton Senna, he podiumed a record 5 times here.
On the global stage, Ford is still supplying engines to the stars of the future. The FIA’s Formula 4 series of championships uses Ford’s 1600cc EcoBoost engine to take the best karting talent into cars and then on towards their dreams. But for now, the Formula Ford Festival is all about the past. Dozens of open-wheeled, wingless cars, surging as one into Paddock Hill bend, thrilling the crowds and writing new chapters to an already outstanding legacy.
The 46th Formula Ford Festival is at Brands Hatch this Saturday and Sunday (21st & 22nd October) celebrating the 50th anniversary of Formula Ford. Advanced booking has now closed, but you can still buy tickets on the gate. Full details can be found on the Brands Hatch website.