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BRSCC's Media & Marketing Executive, Scott Woodwiss, provides his opinion on why Formula Ford is still required to be a key part of a professional driver's career - and what the dangers are of jumping straight into an aero-focused race car with zero experience. (All views are his own)
At its peak, the Formula Ford Festival drew in between 150 and 200 entries each year and attracted drivers from around the world. So much so that it gave the event international status in 1985. It was always seen as the pivotal step from karting before moving to Formula 3 and beyond, as drivers made the ultimate goal of Formula 1 their ambition.
Fast forward to 2015 and times have changed. While Formula Ford still exists, it’s now runs at club level and those who do make the leap from karts are now bewildered with a range of options to select from based on their needs and ambitions. No longer is the road to Formula 1 a clear one – provided you can make it that far. It’s always been the case the chosen few who do reach their end goal will have individually done so in their own way. These days, it’s very much the in thing to be part of a junior single seater series which features a car that’s as relatable to the machine Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button drive every other Sunday. But is it really necessary?
Much has been said in recent times regarding driving standards in the junior formulae and whether or not drivers as young as 15 years old should be allowed to race a single seater. While it may be true that gaining the experience as early as possible is beneficial, is there such a thing as too much, too soon?
When a young driver makes the step up after several years of karting under his belt, the only experience he or she has only had to deal with driving and setting up a machine based on mechanical grip. This is experience which is vital to carry forwards, but at the same time it’s worth developing this skill further in order to teach good habits in terms of driving and race craft. Just relying on grip provided by 4 tyres and the suspension system tied to it means that you’re less likely to take liberties by relying on aerodynamics when they’re aren’t any. You have to work more in order to make the car work for you – both physically and mentally. It works exactly the same when racing a car that has no aero – you have to look for the grip yourself rather than having it handed to you on a plate via a front and rear wing.
It used to be said that in Formula 3, you could tell who had progressed through from Formula Ford compared to those who hadn’t. However these days, that saying is sadly becoming less and less appreciated. With championships such as MSA Formula, Formula 4 and Formula Renault 2.0 in existence and FIA European F3 as an option for those who have the budget to make that leap, the focus nowadays sits firmly on providing a “mini F1 car” for those who have those ambitions.
In my personal view, this is something which I feel is contributing to the increasing number of incidents within these junior formulae within the last 12 months, with worrying levels of severity in some cases. This is what I’m unable to fathom – why would you give a driver as young as 15 all that power and, more crucially, all that aero when they have zero experience of such a thing? It’s just too much to take in at such a primitive stage of their career when they’re fresh out of the karting scene.
I know there will be some people who will throw the argument of “if you’re quick enough, you’re old enough”. To that I say yes, there are some exceptions to the rule on the rare occasion, particularly someone like Max Verstappen who recently turn 18 but has already wowed the F1 paddock for Toro Rosso with his abilities. Sometimes, a driver comes along that’s simply just that good and in that case, you just can’t argue with raw talent.
That doesn’t mean, however, that if it’s plausible for one to make it that quickly that it could be the same for everyone else. There just isn’t the guarantee and there never will be. But to bring it back on topic, Formula Ford needs an influential position on the motorsport career ladder once again – and there are some who share the same opinion.
Speaking to Downforce Radio at Brands Hatch recently, IndyCar legend Dario Franchitti talked about how the Scottish Formula Ford Series has now earned itself a tie up with the Mazda Road to Indy and how the involvement should help grids swell. “It’s a big deal for a little championship up in Scotland” said Franchitti. “You’ve got the guys who just go out to have fun and race their Formula Fords, but for those who want to make a career out of racing, it’s really put that onto the radar. It’s testament to Graham and Heather (Brunton)’s hard work, which all started last year at the Formula Ford Festival when Jeremy Shaw saw what a great job the guys had done”.
Ciaran Haggerty, a young Scottish driver fortunate enough to have earned Dario’s support within the last 18 months, personally believes that while it took him a while to build confidence in driving a “wings and slicks” single seater, he found a better start to his car racing career without the need for aero within Formula Ford. “You learn how to control a car using just mechanical grip”, said Haggerty. “You learn a lot about how to set the car up and also spend less money. It’s a less expensive learning year if you start right at the bottom, you can go to all of the tracks I’ve raced at this year and still gain knowledge in car control, how to deal with tyres losing grip etc. It’s something you can build on throughout your career.”
The fact is that in a single seater with aero, you’re required to push harder in order gain the most amount of downforce in order to go quicker. Surely this is a requirement which could breed complacency in drivers from an early age, as they feel they have to keep on finding their personal limit to determine what they’re able to get away with.
This potentially creates dangerous habits which, carried forwards into the higher formulas with more grip, more downforce and more power, can lead to higher risks of more severe accidents. The fact that one European F3 race at Monza was red flagged earlier this year unofficially due to poor driving standards speaks volumes in terms of inexperienced drivers experimenting with what they believe is acceptable driving. In an environment such as that, it’s nothing short of dangerous.
Budget wise, a typical contemporary Formula Ford chassis, with or without an engine, can be found for anything between £10,000 - £15,000 – and that’s before taking into account the entry fees for a championship like the Avon Tyres FF1600’s which, without wishing blow the club’s own trumpet too much, are very competitive. What’s also pleasantly surprising is that in some cases a slightly older chassis can be a race winner against younger machinery in the right hands.
Championships such as Formula 4 and even our own MSA Formula have their rightful place and provide fantastic racing for those involved and for those watching on the side-lines. However, racing these days is increasingly becoming more and more expensive and in these times, those who want to make it are searching for how to get the most amount of bang for their buck. Especially when driving standards are preached to high heaven, and what better way to start them off early with a car that gives a young driver a safe and stable proving ground to learn their craft.
Surely, with what’s available out there, Formula Ford needs the appreciation it deserves once again. British Formula 3 has already fallen by the wayside and was considered a mainstay of the career ladder. Formula Ford does not deserve the same fate and for now, it remains stable. That said, let’s make sure that it doesn’t end up potentially staring down the barrel of the same gun, right?
02 October 2015
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