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, and as a 41-year-old retired Australian, 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.
ff1600website chatted to Webber about his experience of FF1600 in the 1990s, and the possibility of a return…
In 1993, 16-year-old Webber got his first taste of Formula Ford 1600 machinery in a trial day at Oran Park, a now closed circuit near Sydney.
Webber was fastest 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, with only one podium over the eight round season, but driving was something Webber was enjoying massively.
“‘[It was] brilliant, absolutely brilliant old school racing. Very very little telemetry, so that was good for us.
“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 at Adelaide, although his year didn’t exactly end in fine style.
Webber qualified second for the grand prix-supporting main race, but a battery failure meant he wasn’t allowed to take that place on the grid and in a ‘move’ that was misjudged at best, Webber overtook everybody on the formation lap, and was disqualified as a result.
But 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 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.
“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.
At the end of the year, Webber boarded his first flight to England. Destination: the Formula Ford Festival.
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.
The Festival 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 a return to the Festival.
“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. He was racing for the factory Mygale team.”
Third and second in the European and British standings respectively were less than the title he desired, but he made up for it with an assertive Festival victory.
Losing its flavour
Formula Ford doesn’t send drivers to F1 anymore, bar last season’s surprise call-up of Brendon Hartley at Toro Rosso. But schemes like Shaw’s Team USA and Mazda’s Road to Indy Shootout are ensuring there is path for FF1600 drivers to become professionals, and Red Bull signed teenager Neil Verhagen to their Junior Team last year after winning the F1600 Championship Series, America’s FF1600 championship.
These are outliers though, and since the FIA’s resetting of the super licence system and the introduction of its own Formula 4 championships, FF1600 has scarce been mentioned in serious tones.
The aura of importance that Formula Ford had is something Webber wishes would return.
“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 Formula Ford 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 driver 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.”
Drivers need more than just talent, as Webber well knows, with money being the deciding factor in the progression of most careers. One of FF1600’s most appealing aspects is that it offers a cheaper way into single-seaters than the likes of F4.
The cheapest drives in British F4 are more than twice the price of a top FF1600 seat, and the $200,000 Shootout prize that Mazda offers dwarfs the £30,000 in prize money Ford hands out in F4.
“Even back then, it was obviously [money-driven]. There’s always been money around. But now, the budgets keep going up, and teams justifying their offline budgets as well. So Monday to Friday’s simulator work and all that. We didn’t have any of that. We [just] did a bit of testing.
“[It was] cheaper, yeah. A full budget for [a season] was 95 grand I think, for the Formula Fords back then.”
Thoughts of a return
Webber looks back on his time in Formula Ford fondly, and he has competed in almost all the major Formula Ford races and events.
Castle Combe now has its Carnival, F1600 races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and many young drivers now enter FF1600 in the hope they’ll win one of MRTI’s Shootout tickets. But there is one event every FF1600 driver wants to win: the Walter Hayes Trophy.
“I raced a Formula Ford at Bathurst and on the full circuit at Spa. They were the big [standout memories], and the Festival, which was testing all week and 95 cars for a 24 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.”
Pressed for a reason why not, Webber fails to give an answer, leaving the door open for speculation, and hope, that the Australian may make his WHT debut at some point in the future.
“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.”