James Beckett is known for being prolific in bringing new Formula Ford categories to the calendar. And if one is to be blunt, as Matt Beer was in Motorsport News, they have “sometimes felt like answers to questions no one was asking”.
Yet this emphatically does not apply to Beckett’s latest offering, Heritage Formula Ford introduced this year with MSVR. It’s for pre-1993 Kent-engined racers and in more than one sense it plugged a conspicuous gap in the market.
These are cars from what plenty consider Formula Ford’s golden age. And they were too young for Classic or Historic FF1600; likely outclassed in modern championships.
“It’s something that I’d toyed with doing for a couple of years or so and it just seemed the right time to do it,” Beckett says. “You’ve got the National championship which is all about modern cars and Heritage Formula Ford was just giving those cars that aren’t competitive in some other series the chance to run at the front, their traditional period-style Formula Ford cars. I just enabled people to come together.”
First Beckett added a toe-in-the-water class to his Walter Hayes Trophy event last year. No fewer than 28 cars turned up. With Beckett duly emboldened, Heritage FF1600 became a reality this year with an inaugural five-round series.
An impressive 24 cars showed for the opening round at Donington. The number roughly held up at 22 for Silverstone’s round two, though there then was a decline. Just 10 were at the August Snetterton round – often a tough time and place for numbers – before a mini-upturn with 12 at the season-closing single-header at Brands Hatch.
“I didn’t have any expectation to be honest,” Beckett insists about grids. “Donington Park that started really well, I was thrilled with that, and again Silverstone was good, Oulton Park wasn’t bad, Snetterton was not disappointing but expected. I disagree with people who think it’s a long way to go but I think it’s a fantastic track; it’s spiritually great for Formula Ford.”
Beckett notes also that there was a wider age range among the cars entered than the initial concept suggested.
“I didn’t have any preconceived plans or thoughts of who it would attract,” he continues. “It brought a wide selection of cars, from cars that were post ‘90s, so that golden era of Kent era cars, which is really in a way what the series is aimed at. But then it gained traction with some pre-‘90 cars.
“Overall the spread of cars was very pleasing.
“The very first race was won by Mike Gardner in a Crossle so that’s a Classic era car, so it did take the whole spectrum.”
But Gardner’s win was an exception. Much of the season was dominated by Ollie White. White is a driver of pedigree, with in addition to Champion of Brands success and wins at Bathurst on his CV was in the thick of the overall victory fight at this year’s Festival. In his RF89 – another pre-’90 car – entered by Brian Soule’s outfit White won five of the seven Heritage races he competed in and comfortably. It likely would have been six without a misfire in the Donington curtain-raiser wherein Gardner took the honours in his Crossle 30/32F.
“I did Bathurst earlier in the year and I joined up with Brian Soule and Souley Motorsport back then and I got on really well with them,” White says. “And then Brian had a car available at Donington so at the last minute I decided to do that and I really enjoyed the meeting and it just gradually went from there.
“It’s really good because there so many of those cars out there and it gives them a home. And there’s lots of drivers that want to do it.”
White added that he prefers his Heritage car over more modern machinery to drive too.
“There’s a really friendly crowd and you can keep the cost down,” White adds. “This year we did the whole year on older tyres with no testing, so helps keep the cost down and keeps the enjoyment up.”
Underlining White’s advantage, having sorted the Donington misfire he won the second race there from the back; indeed had made his way to the front within four laps. And in Silverstone’s second race White deliberately started from the rear to create more of a challenge. He led by lap six of 15.
Beckett doesn’t feel this domination has been a drawback – quite the contrary. “Ollie’s on-track success has been good for the series,” he insists. “It’s brought awareness to Heritage Formula Ford. Ollie White in whatever Formula Ford he drives is going to be quick, because he is one of the top Formula Ford 1600 drivers currently in circulation. And it’s given a really sharp top end.”
Beckett also believes it’s not all about front-runners. “I’ve always said in any Formula Ford event I run you want the best you can at the front, but it’s not about everybody winning. Yes you want a good race winner, but it’s all about who’s in the middle and who’s at the back, so you’ve got to have everybody and you’ve got to cater for everybody because there’s no point just having two at the front and nobody else. That’s something I’ve worked very hard on and will continue to work hard on.”
White sat out round four at Snetterton, but that one had its own star quality as Formula 1 commentator, and Formula First champion, Ben Edwards took a double win driving his own Van Diemen RF92. The first was by under a second from a strong challenge by Chris Hodgen’s RF89; the second was dominant. Edwards also took part in Donington’s opening round and took a second place there too.
“It’s been lovely actually,” Edwards said after his double victory.
“Club racing and Formula 1 are the same sport but different, and actually I find it incredibly relaxing to come to an event like this even to get away from the hectic nature of Formula 1 and it’s been a great weekend.
“The car was good, got my head down well and enjoyed it. I think it’s a great championship in terms of the age of cars, it’s lovely.
“I always look around to see what races I can do, and then James came up with this Heritage class, which is perfect for me because I’ve got a 1992 Van Diemen so it fits in at the top end.
“It was one of the great periods,” Edwards adds of Heritage’s era. “Certainly my period, because I got involved as a mechanic on a Formula Ford in ’82, so it’s like the beginning of this group. It means a lot to me that particular time.
“It’s great to see quite a few late ‘80s, early ‘90s cars coming out because it’s hard for them now to find a competitive environment.”
And at the season’s last White met his match. In the final race, at Brands Hatch, Historic champion Richard Tarling pipped White in treacherous conditions. And he did so in an evocative newly-completed 1992-designed Jamun M92, prepared this year with Jamun founder Tony Mundy.
“I was really pleased!,” Beckett exclaimed. “I have to be impartial because I organise races but I I’ve watched Jamuns at Brands Hatch for years and I was a big big fan of Chris Hall back in the day and Jamuns winning at Brands Hatch or getting up in the mix when Chris dominated the Champion of Brands, or back in the glory days of the Festival when Chris Hall could mix it with the very best.
“I think it was absolutely fitting that a Jamun should round out the season with victory at Brands Hatch. If it had been painted in different colours it could have been Chris Hall doing it all over again!
“So for me and for the series, it was a fitting way to finish the year and actually I thought it was good for the series to show that there is competitive pre-‘93 cars out there and hopefully that will further develop next year.
“Moving forward to 2019 we can expect to see more late era [cars], but also a good section of earlier cars because it does give the opportunity for people to race golden era Formula Fords.”
White relished the belated challenge from Tarling at Brands too. “It was really close between us. We spent the whole race nose-to-tail which was really enjoyable and hopefully next year we can have some more of that.
“A few guys like Richard Tarling, hopefully they can give me a run for my money and I look forward to that.”
On that subject, next year the calendar expands slightly to six rounds – Beckett is wary of over-stretching – while more significantly Heritage moves to being a points-paying championship.
“I am really pleased about it; a championship you are driving it along because if you want to win you’ve got to do it,” Beckett adds. “The hope is that the competitors come and participate and compete in as many rounds as possible, it’s good for the competitors to fight for the chance to win some awards. It just gives you a different level.
“It [championship status] was wanted from within and we’re happy to provide that.”
And Beckett concludes the first campaign was a success. “I was really pleased; it ticked all the right boxes,” he says. “I just enabled people to come together, it delivered a good first season.
“It was very much designed to be a straightforward series for Formula Fords with no complexities. It was just offered up as an opportunity for people to enjoy good quality Formula Ford racing in a good atmosphere with like-minded enthusiasts and Formula Ford is in my mind very much an enthusiasts’ category.
“That’s where the future of Formula Ford is and Heritage certainly does that and with that in mind the way we’re looking at doing 2019 it’s all about competitor enjoyment and just trying to stabilise.”