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FEATURE: THE RIGHT FORMULA – FORMULA FORD

Formula Ford at Queensland Raceway - Photo: Rhys Vandersyde

Formula Ford at Queensland Raceway – Photo: Rhys Vandersyde

Since being dropped to ‘State’ level in 2015 Formula Ford has stepped up, with big grids, lower costs and great racing.

BY HEATH McALPINE

FORMULA FORD has a staple of the Touring Car Championship and Supercars support program for generations.

But two years ago the motorsport world was shocked when CAMS’s independent review dropped the category’s championship status, and sanctioned it as a state based class.

At the time, it looked like bad news for FF enthusiasts. Formula 4 is an obvious competitor and the support of CAMS – and its prime place as a Supercars support category – led some to predict the end of the FFords.

But the ensuing season has been big grids, close racing and more competitors taking an interest in the class than have been queuing up to race the newer F4s.

It was not all beer and skittles for the smaller cars, according to the Chairman of the Formula Ford Association, John van Leeuwen.

“We were very disappointed by the outcome because Formula Ford has been the develop category in this country for many, many years and it seems as much as they [CAMS] tried to get rid of us,” he said.

“We had a never say die attitude, if they won’t recognise us or if they won’t give us championship status. In a way that immediately saved us money.”

By dropping Formula Fords championship status, CAMS did a favour for the Formula Ford Association as it saved both competitors and the Association a fair portion of funds, which has now made it cheaper and more accessible to enter circuit racing through Formula Ford.

“To have a category management agreement for a championship cost us $25,000 a year and for that they provide some of the judicial process and so forth, but it’s still a massive cost,” van Leeuwen continued.

“Before we even started the season we had to find $25,000, so we used to have championship registration fees, so all our championship competitors paid $2,500 to register for the series and that was how we got the money back.

“Basically this was at a cost to the competitor. We saw this as an opportunity to get rid of some of these fees and that inherently bought the cost of the competition down and the smaller meetings cost less for our competitors.”

Formula Ford on the grid at the Shannon's Nationals at Sandown

Formula Ford on the grid at the Shannon’s Nationals at Sandown

The Formula Ford National Series initially started running with the Shannons Nationals and gradually the opportunity to run with on that bill was reduced significantly. This again proved beneficial to the Association because they then started to run at state meetings that now put them as the headline act and entries haven’t fluctuate.

“In the first year we ran three meetings on the Shannons bill, but again Shannons was a fairly steep cost and by the time we finished paying the series fee and the television fee, it ended up costing us $25,000,” van Leeuwen said.

“Going to the smaller meetings is generally cheaper and much more readily available; you’re not a second class citizen if you’re on the bill with the Supercars. If there is an incident or a delay in the program the first categories to get bumped are the supports.

“In some of the meetings we feature now, we’re actually more of a headline act, which is really good for the category. Okay, we miss some of the TV and that sort of stuff but I’m not sure from a development point of view I’m not sure if that’s really that important. TV’s nice to get sponsors on board, but it comes with a cost.”

One of the category’s leading squads is Sonic Motor Racing Services, led by Mick Ritter. Sonic has supported many of today’s stars in Supercars and overseas through, primarily, Formula Ford. Though there was some instability in the class back four years ago, Ritter has supported the class and is supportive of the way the Association has gone.

“The amount of reduction in cost that has happened in the last three years is one of the foremost reasons why it’s now going through a boom again,” explained Ritter. “Logistically what’s involved for people that compete at the sort of events we’re doing now, it’s much more achievable for people who aren’t doing it at a professional level, so perhaps drivers in their first year and small family teams that are doing it that way to learn and find their feet.

“It’s now much, much more achievable now to do then it has been for a long, long time and I think it is one of the reasons why the grid numbers are growing.”

A move to a Yokohama control tyre has also been of benefit to Formula Ford as has the ‘Road to Indy’ initiative which saw current Super2 Series driver Will Brown compete at Laguna Seca for a seat in USF2000.

“The ‘Road to Indy’ thing was a bit fortuitous, one of the guys that was on the committee [Luke Ellery] and had done the ‘Road to Indy’ thing,” van Leeuwin explained. Luke had some contacts and knew some people over there because he had been there done that and knew the people to talk to. The idea was floated around a couple of people in Victoria and maybe we could take advantage capitalising on this. We made some contact with them and they were glad to have us onboard and we said fantastic.”

“Anthony Martin did really well over there, and is doing really well over there. I think that in its self is a demonstration that people saying, ‘this Road to Indy program has some weight and there are opportunities over there that you may not even get even if you were in Europe.’ They’re really pleased to have us, they’re really pleased with the talent that we sent over there.

“Will Brown did very well over there, even though he had a bit of a stumble, but Will did very well and in the early running he was looking like he was really going to look the goods. We hope that we will have another starter for that and it is fortunate that it doesn’t cost the association a mountain of money, yeah it costs us money of course but that’s why we exist, we exist to try and give drivers those opportunities.”

Supercars stars Jamie Whincup and Will Davison got their start in Formula Ford

Supercars stars Jamie Whincup and Will Davison got their start in Formula Ford

For Ritter, Formula Ford is an important part of his business model as his team use it as a stepping-stone to other categories, such as Carrera Cup.

“For us, our team and our business is all about driver development, that’s wholly and solely what we’re about,” Ritter said. “We have a track record of doing a lot of that and grooming our drivers through GT3 Cup Challenge, Carrera Cup, in previous years Dunlop Series. For us, being able to bring drivers through our system has reaped a lot of benefits for both us and a lot of drivers. A few of our former drivers have gone on to have seriously successful careers, so that’s pretty satisfying.”

“This is from a development point of view, you need circuits like Phillip Island, you need Sandown, Sydney Motorsport Park, you need those iconic venues and probably to a lesser degree Queensland Raceway and Winton for people to be attracted to the series,” added van Leeuwen.

“If they were all held at second string circuits it doesn’t attract the interest because if people are wanting to develop drivers they want to know how they drive at places like Phillip Island and those circuits that you’re likely to finish up on if they make it to Supercars.”

Formula Ford will return to the Supercars support paddock at Winton with strong interest already being shown from teams and though the class was a surprising omission from the CAMS Superlicence points system, it hasn’t stopped young karters from using it as a pathway to bigger and better things. According to Ritter, Formula Ford is accessible as ever.

“Completely accessible,” enthused Ritter. “For me it’s pretty straightforward and very seamless, I don’t think we’ve seen as many karters or young drivers coming and testing cars or wanting to test and wanting to put their toe into the water for maybe six years.

“I would say Formula Ford is as accessible as it has ever been and one of the reasons for that, certainly at a national level is the style and type of event we’re competing at. It takes away a huge logistic element for a lot of people involved.”

Formula Ford will start the season this weekend at Sandown as part of the Victorian State Racing Series, which proved the formula is working. According to van Leeuwin, the support of teams like Sonic, Borland Race Developments and Synergy Motorsport has been integral to the strength that Formula Ford is seeing now with Ritter seeing a positive future for the class.
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily what happened is reflective of the CAMS decision, it was probably more about how things sat as a whole, but certainly in terms of what happened in the last two –three years, absolutely is positive. The costs are down, the numbers are up. I think it speaks for itself.”