When Ayrton Senna beat Alain Prost to the 1988 Formula 1 world championship title, it was just seven years after the Brazilian had emerged on the car racing scene in British Formula Ford.
Senna had considered racing in FF1600 the year before, when Tommy Byrne won the title, but held back a year and joined the Van Diemen factory team. Although he spent most of that year in a RF81 chassis, of the type that is still driven in the likes of the Walter Hayes Trophy today, he had to start the season in an older car as the newer model was not ready.
His first race took place at Brands Hatch, where he finished fifth. His learning curve was quick, as was the brand new RF81, and Senna won on his return to the circuit a fortnight later. This was the start of a remarkable run in the Townsend-Thoresen branded British championship, with further wins coming at Mallory Park, Snetterton, Oulton Park twice, Brands Hatch again, Donington Park and Thruxton.
Senna was on the podium in every race, and championship runner-up Rick Morris was a massive 54 points behind. Morris has remained in FFord ever since, posing a threat at the front in Classic FFord last year and finishing 24th in the WHT.
Back in the 1980s there were two ‘national’ championships, and Senna also swept to victory in the second of these, often meaning he could be at circuits for four weekend in a row, or even have to drive from one circuit to the other overnight if they were taking place on the same weekends.
The car Senna raced in survived that gruelling 20-round season, and was restored by Van Diemen founder Ralph Firman in his workshop last year before being shown at the Race Retro show this January. According to rival Morris, it also spent many, many hours putting in laps at the local Snetterton circuit after hours during the ‘81 title attack.
Wrapping up the ‘81 title early meant Senna could return to Brazil to spend more time with his family, but a personal problem meant he almost stayed there rather than continue his racing career in Britain. An inviting offer in FF1600’s big brother FF2000 ensured Senna made his return, and meant motorsport history continued its course.
The class of the 1981 field
Ayrton Senna –1988, ’90 & ’91 F1 champion, ’83 Macau GP winner, ’83 British F3 champion, ’82 European & British FF2000 champion – ’81 British FFord champion, ’81 RAC FF1600 champion
Rick Morris – 2nd in 2011 FFord Festival Zetec – 1982 Esso FF1600 champion, 2nd in ’81 British FFord, 2nd in ’81 & ’82 FFord Festival, 3rd in ’80 RAC FF1600, 3rd in ’76, ’79 & ’80 FFord Festival
Alfonso Toledano – 12th in 1990 Interserie Div. 2, 12th in ’82 British F3, 13th in ’85 German F3, 2nd in ’84 German FF2000 – 3rd in 1981 British FFord, 9th in ’80 FFord Festival
Fernando Macedo – 11th in 1991 SudAm F3 – 4th in 1981 British FFord
Steve Lincoln – 1980 Castle Combe FF1600 champion, 5th in ’81 British FFord, 7th in ’80 British FFord