Motorsport News and Autosport spent last week celebrating Formula Ford’s glorious past. We acknowledged the fact that it was pretty strong in the present too. But my dominant feeling coming away from a weekend covering the BRSCC championships at Donington Park was how strong its future is.
I knew the Mazda Road to Indy shootout prize had raised National FF1600’s profile. I knew the switch to a three-race-per-meeting format had been popular. But the 36-car entry, the number of professional teams, the sheer depth of competition and the fact the average age of the competitors has come down so much that 32-year-old Formula BMW race-winner Josh Fisher seems like a (still super-quick) veteran… this didn’t feel like a club racing paddock, this felt like a very healthy but particularly open and approachable junior single-seater paddock.
The FF1600 scene can be a fractious one, mainly because those involved care about the category a lot and can disagree over what’s best for it. But this now feels like a paddock with momentum, where everyone’s pulling in the same direction. It’s an exciting place to be.
Thanks to coordinator Ian Smith and FFord Focus Group chairman Ian Wolfenden’s work in the last year, teams and drivers feel like they’re being listened to and that change can happen.
A calendar combining the UK’s premier tracks with FF1600’s regional strongholds and the race format and class revamps are evidence of that, as was the united front over the troublesome use of Code 60 periods at Donington.
Potential problems, such as the decline in regional grids as the National series surges, keeping a place for the clubmen as professionalism and budgets increase or getting the under-represented early-90s cars out, can be raised in a positive, open-minded manner. It’s even possible for people to moot the eventual use of Duratec engines without fear of flagellation.
The partially-reversed grid for race three might once have been vehemently resisted – now there’s a feeling that, while FF1600 may not really need such tricks, it’s worth it to make the racing even more open.
A huge reason why FF1600 has survived this long is the ‘ground up’ nature of the scene, its hardcore of FFord ‘lifers’ who’ll keep racing, keep running cars, keep organising events regardless of whether the category’s considered fashionable or not. That club is adding new members. Yes, there are ‘career’ drivers in National FF1600 with an eye on the Road to Indy prize and a big future. Yet there are plenty of young drivers there for whom an invitation to Laguna Seca in December would be a lovely bonus, but who are there primarily because they just want to race in a highly-competitive environment for a not-ludicrous budget.
It’s not cheap-cheap, top teams are understood to be charging in the region of £50,000 for a season and would like that figure to rise for 2018 so the professionalism can ramp up a few more notches, but there are privateers with race-winning pace spending under £25,000 on their seasons. Compared to a Formula 4 or even top-line karting budget, FF1600 is relatively affordable.
Its well-established culture of multiple series and entry fluidity means there’s something for all budgets – racing every single weekend or just a few times a year in a regional series, using a brand new car or a beautiful RF90, with a big team or with a trailer, and every option in between. There are definitely quick people in that paddock who wouldn’t be racing in 2017 at all without FF1600.
And everyone is looking forward. Midfield drivers want to be back in 2018 to edge closer to the front, teams are reporting worldwide interest, engine and chassis builders are busy, organisers and focus group members are considering the next (careful) tweaks to keep momentum building (split grids with the Pro class focused on modern cars and a separate Clubmans race for 90s chassis and earlier is a popular suggestion).
Even though his drivers aren’t at the front yet, long-time team boss Kevin Mills says being in the National series in 2017 is the most he’s enjoyed running his squad in years. He’s not alone. The BRSCC FF1600 paddock is full of people having the time of their motorsport lives. There can’t be many other UK single-seater series that feel like that. FFord’s 51st season is going to be a golden one.