One of the biggest names in Formula Ford history made his return at the Walter Hayes Trophy. He did so in an understated fashion, despite fielding possibly the most outlandish livery on the grid.
Jonathan Lewis was the manager of the factory Van Diemen team for many years and ran some of the best drivers ever to have raced in FF1600. After several decades in motorsport he made the decision to step back entirely. Recently he’s returned to competition, but in Minis, so why did he choose to enter the WHT, in a car from 1981 no less?
“I’m asking myself that question.
“It’s the bruises, eh. Because Formula Ford’s the purest racing ever, and when I started as a young 17-year-old racing Mini Se7ens, I was very lucky that most of our races supported the big Formula Ford races.
“I remember getting out of my car and running to watch Trevor van Rooyen and Chico Serra, and I was lucky enough to see the Senna years and Enrique Mansilla and [Alfonso] Toledano. I always wanted an ‘81 car, but I could never afford it. I carried on racing Minis, and ended up being very lucky that later in life I was quite successful running teams; my own, and other people’s teams.
“Ralph [Firman] rang me once when I was on holiday in New Zealand and asked me to run the works team. I asked why, and he said ‘just come and run it’. So I turned up at Van Diemen at the end of 1988. I knew Ralph very well, and those were the happiest years of my life. Running the best drivers in the world for the best manufacturer, and Ralph and I have been firm friends ever since, and [his wife] Angela. They’ve all been fantastic to me and my family. Because of them I now live in Norfolk, and I’ve always had this passion for Formula Ford.
“With Ralph restoring Ayrton Senna’s RF81, I kept going around and watching him doing little bits and looking at it, thinking: I still love that [RF]81. There’s something about it. And I thought I just want one, so I found one.
“They’re quite hard to find in good condition because most of them were converted to URS 2.0-litre (FF2000) cars, because they were the perfect donor car for that. The one I found was immaculate, and I’ve done quite a bit of work to it and made it look as it looks now.”
The 37-year-old car not only looked as good as new at Silverstone, but also had a modern livery, carrying a sponsor that has previously adorned Sauber F1 cars, Petter Solberg’s World Rally team and Lewis’s own power boats.
“I’ve been sponsored by Ari [Koivula, owner of Mad-Croc energy drinks] and Mad-Croc for many years. I had Red Devil, which is another one of his brands, a rival to Red Bull, and I had that in the World Series [with Comtec]. Then Ari sponsored me and my boats. He’s a friend more than a sponsor.
“He sponsored my daughter Morgan this year in the Mini Challenge S class, with a Mad-Croc Cherry drink [livery] on her car.”
Progress on the RF81 hit an unlikely early stumbling block.
“I looked at this Van Diemen I’d bought, and the best way to describe it is it’s bathroom suite blue. What a bloody awful colour! But then I saw it had elements of Gulf Blue in it.
“I wasn’t going to paint it, not this quickly for the Walter Hayes, so I got some orange vinyl and put it on it, and I thought: actually, why not? I’ll rip-off the Gulf logo a bit. Ari makes Mad-Croc Orange flavour, I’ve got cans of that, so I sent that to my sticker man and he drew it up and the logo is Mad-Croc Orange.
“I was going to change it, but the more I look at it the more I think I really like it. It’s so different and stands out, and I’d rather spend the money on the engine, than on the bodywork. There’s nothing wrong with the bodywork. I was very lucky with it when I was building it that Derek Wild, who used to be the man at Van Diemen from the very beginning – he was Jim Clark’s mechanic – but we were with Ralph from the beginning, had an original nose badge. The only one he had left. He sent it to me so I’ve stuck that on my car. The actual nose badge is probably more valuable than the car.”
Lewis’s was the only ‘historic’ car in his qualifying session, but was less than four seconds off the pace of poleman Josh Smith, the 2018 FFord Festival winner who was driving a 2013 Van Diemen. Considering the combined age of the car and driver, it was an impressive result. Lewis failed to start the heat itself, but finished fifth in the Carl Hamer Trophy, for cars made between 1967 and ‘81. He got properly stuck in during that race, dicing with Steve Deeks until his rival’s Van Diemen RF80 failed him.
“Even though it hurts like hell and I’m crap at driving it, it’s still giving me a lot of pleasure. It’s something – I’m 37 years too late, but, you know, I’ve driven it and I’m looking forward to racing it now and again next year.”
Not only that, but with Team Dolan having helped run Lewis’s car at the WHT, he may be repaying the favour by helping the team in the National paddock in 2019.