In an exclusive extract from his new book “The Legend of the Formula Ford Festival”, Ben Evans digs into the astonishing races and many controversies which surrounded the 1988 event, which was contested by the likes of Michael Schumacher, Mika Salo and Vincenzo Sospiri.
It is now set in motorsport folklore that 1988 is one of, if not, the best Festivals. Beyond doubt it was the most exciting and dramatic final since 1982, with quality racing, high drama and controversy all going hand in hand. The whole weekend had a rough and tumble feel to it, with multiple sizable accidents, many races punctuated by abandoned cars left on or immediately adjacent to the circuit, and a couple of highly fortunate near-misses. After a couple of close escapes circuit and event safety would be reviewed ahead of the following year.
The grandstands were absolutely packed for the weekend, this representing a high watermark for the event as a spectator draw, as the Festival reaped the benefits of being firmly as set as one of the highlights of the British motorsport calendar. The circuit had experienced a turbulent twenty months since John Foulston acquired the track, along with Snetterton and Oulton Park for £5.25m in May 1986 from Eagle Star Holdings (the latter having subsumed Grovewood Securities), offsetting concerns that the site may become a supermarket or housing. A side effect of the deal was that Brands Hatch ended up losing the British Grand Prix from 1986, Silverstone securing an exclusive five-year deal. This forced the track to focus on other events and non-motorsport ventures to retain a decent level of profitability.
A further shock came when Foulston was killed in late-September 1987 testing his McLaren Can-Am car at Silverstone. This once more caused behind the scenes disruption, with Foulston’s widow Mary inheriting the venue. For the remainder of the 1980’s John Webb still controlled the much of the strategic direction and day-to-day operation of the venue, although this would change going into the 1990s – the atmosphere and clubhouse feel evaporating.
A closely contested and well-supported British championship had gone to Derek Higgins, one of several winners propelled by the Van Diemen RF88. The Norfolk marque enjoyed another marquee year, claiming all but two rounds of the national series, leaving Richard Dean in the Swift and the Jose Cordova piloted Reynard to pick up the crumbs. Of the other Van Diemen front-runners both Vincenzo Sospiri and Pedro Chaves had been consistently at the front of the field, scoring several wins. The RF88 is the quintessential late-80s Formula Ford, a beautifully narrow and compact package, with sleek styling that made the car look as good as it was fast.
Alongside the UK championship regulars, Champion of Brands front runners such as Chris Hall and Andrew Guye-Johnson would be in the mix, as would those familiar to Irish series watchers – Jonathan McGall, Vivion Daly and Bernard Dolan most likely to be prominent. The foreign charge included the promising Germans Michael Schumacher and Michael Krumm, whilst Mexico’s Adrian Fernandez was back hoping for better luck and the same could be said for Finland’s Mika Salo.
With a larger entry than recent seasons, the heats wouldn’t be quite the perfunctory ‘stay out of trouble’ exercise of 1987.
McGall was the favourite for the first heat, and he duly converted pole position to victory. As often the case, those at the front chose to save their pyrotechnics for later in the weekend, but McGall was run close by Andy Charsley and Krumm. Of those expected to be in the mix, the most disappointed was double junior champion Kurt Luby who was classified seventh after acquiring a ten second penalty for a jump start.
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Perennial frontrunner Rick Morris once more showed off his wiles in the second heat, his Reynard constantly in all the right places to keep the similar car of Sweden’s Peter Aslund behind. Kelvin Burt finished an impressive third after a quiet but effective climb through the order. An impressive sixth went to Spain’s Jordi Gene who broke the lap record, climbing the order after starting with a ten second penalty due to an exhaust infringement in qualifying.
The 1988 Festival remains one of Morris’s favourites “The late 1980’s Reynard was a fabulous car, I did a lot of the testing on it. The main Reynard driver for the weekend was Jose Cordova but they needed someone to look after him which was me. Formula Ford was still all about the drivers, but the technology was more of a factor by now. The chassis dynamic changed quite dramatically in the late 1980’s into the early 1990’s. Everyone understood the suspension better which meant we could do more with ride height, which in turn changed the pitch and handling of the car. The ultimate example of this was the 1991 Van Diemen, Marc Goossens was able to drive it with such a stiff set-up.”
Higgins had the invidious honour of being the pre-event favourite, the Ulsterman keen to get the speculation over with and the racing underway. The works Mondiale of Dolan would be his main challenger in heat three. It was Dolan who made the better start, holding the lead until the third lap, when Higgins was able to get through. Once up-front Higgins was unable to make his escape, late traffic giving another opening to Dolan as they raced to the line. In a near replay of the 1986 final Higgins just held on by just six hundredths of a second – far too close for comfort for the favourite at this point of the weekend.
The works Swift of Richard Dean had pole position for heat four, but wheelspin on the line allowed Nick Hart to jump him into Paddock. A collision at Paddock between Bobby Verdon-Roe and Gavin Wills, who had shared the second row, gave the leaders a bit of space to sort themselves out. Dean claimed the advantage on lap two, with Hart chasing him all the way for the remaining laps, the pair joined by Alan Kelly and Andy Stapley – the quartet finishing in that order covered by just under one and a half seconds. Not progressing was the rapid Christophe Bouchut; demoted to the rear with a ten second penalty (more qualifying technical woes), he started with everyone else and ignored three black flags – earning him a one-way trip to the Clerk of the Course’s office and disqualification from the event.
Pedro Faria was on pole for the next ten lapper alongside the works Van Diemen of Nico Palhares. Of the pair it was Palhares from the outside of the front row who made the better start, chopping across Faria into Paddock. In what would prove to be the best race of the event so far, Palhares led all the way, heading an extremely tight five car pack. Jan Nilsson took second after an audacious move at Paddock where he jumped both Faria and Mark Bailey. Faria came out worst from the scrap, finishing fifth, with Bailey completing the podium.
Another tight train for the lead was the story of heat six with Chaves, Chris Creswell and Salo separated by four tenths after a frantic eight minutes of racing. As had been the case in earlier heats, once the initial leader – in this case Creswell – had been demoted early on, the order remained static if incredibly close.
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Neil Cunningham had pole for the penultimate heat ahead of Daly, Schumacher and Guye-Johnson, taking the early lead chased by Daly. First lap drama came at Graham Hill Bend as Schumacher and Guye-Johnson tangled, the Brands regular continuing, the German forced into retirement a wheel askew. With his mirrors suddenly emptied Daly took the opportunity to challenge Cunningham taking a decisive lead at Clearways on the second lap. Arguably with the faster car underneath him Cunningham couldn’t find a way back through, allowing Daly to take the honours, with third going to Minoru Tanaka.
The concluding heat once more brought the seeding system into question with Cordova and Sospiri sharing the front row. After an early three-car incident meant there were fewer cars than qualifying spots left in the race, Cordova and Sospiri disputed the lead more than may have been expected or needed. Cordova prevailed but not before Sospiri had taken his turn at the front, surprising Cordova at Paddock.
Many but not all of the likely contenders had safely made it through to Sunday – Bouchut and Schumacher would be two big losses, the Europeans having shown enough pace to have challenged the British regulars. The heats had also shown there was no clear favourite, the likes of Higgins and Chaves who had been tipped pre-event, had not emulated Irvine or Ratzenberger from the previous years by looking comfortable in their heats.
Given the closeness of the field and prospects of tight racing, it was a relief for participants and spectators alike when Sunday’s weather was sunny but cold. The first quarter-final, saw the top finishers from heats one and three combined – giving a front row Higgins and McGall. Fractionally creeping in anticipation of the lights, McGall took the lead from Higgins into Paddock, as the second Mondiale of Dolan slotted into third. Unfortunately for McGall his movement on the grid had been spotted by the officials, who duly awarded him a ten second penalty. In the excitement he didn’t notice the penalty board, but Higgins did, turning his attention to fending off Dolan.
Behind the leading group, the Sunday carnage got underway in earnest, the most spectacular incident involving Ellen Lohr; the German’s car launched some seven feet above the circuit after contact, before somehow landing on its wheels and retiring into the gravel. Luby was another to go no further as he crashed out whilst pushing too hard for a higher semi-final grid slot. McGall took the flag thinking he’d won, but once the penalty worked through he was classified in sixth, giving Higgins the win from Dolan and Charsley. McGall would be one to watch in his semi-final, albeit with plenty to do from the sixth row.
The cream of heats two and four set the grid for the second quarter-final, the experienced Morris starting from pole, alongside Dean. Unlikely so many others Morris made the best of the inside starting position, although Dean stayed with him on the outside track all the way through Paddock. Trying to force the issue at Druids, Dean locked his brakes, slide wide and reclaimed his place in the train down in 11th. Hart was initially in second, before another bold move from Aslund into Paddock elevated the Swede. Meanwhile Dean had a premature end to his weekend, tangling with Derek M Daly (a fixture competitor at the Festival) at Druids, a move born of frustration as he struggled to make progress.
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Most eyes were fixed to the front, where it was another excellent race, Morris digging into his wells of experience to keep Aslund behind. Joining the leaders were Hart, Gene and Burt, the quintet covered by just over a second. Gene was the big mover, snatching third from Hart late on, whilst posting another fastest lap. Meanwhile Morris and Aslund’s 1-2 signalled that in the face of Van Diemen dominance, Reynard was a force to reckon with.
Given the damage to cars and scenery it was some time before the third quarter-final got underway, once more with a Reynard to the fore – this time Daly’s, with Palhares alongside. It was the Brazilian who got the better start to sneak into the lead at Paddock, with Cunningham slotting into third. Initially getting a jump on the pack, the ferocity of the leading pair’s fight allowed the others to close up, resulting in a six-car chain at the front.
By this point the circuit was somewhat hazard strewn. In the pre-safety car days crashed vehicles remained where they’d been abandoned – even if, as in the case of Hall’s Jamun, this was adjacent to the racing line at Paddock. This meant almost the entire circuit was covered by yellow flags, preventing overtaking and obliging the drivers to slow (with varying degrees of compliance). This kept the order more or less static until the final lap, when Palhares (in Daly’s version of events ‘he just seemed to go in real slow’) was clipped by Daly at Clearways, spinning in a cloud of tyre smoke. Daly duly took the win, with Cunningham and Tanaka rounding out the top three. Palhares recovered to finish tenth, but his hopes of Festival victory were effectively over.
The closing quarter-final promised to be the best of all, with Chaves, Cordova and Sospiri, all solid favourites taking the top three spots on the grid. Despite not getting the best of starts, aggressive manoeuvring into Paddock kept the Portuguese clear of Cordova with Sospiri slotting in to third.
The talking point of the race came on the third lap, when pulling out of the tow on the Brabham Straight, Cordova tagged Chaves’s gearbox, pitching the Van Diemen into a sizable accident. Uninjured a furious Chaves stalked down the pit-lane to await Cordova’s return to the post-race parc-ferme, where he grabbing Cordova by the helmet to make his point. For now Cordova’s focus was on keeping Sospiri at bay, which he managed to do – just, as Sospiri tried every which way to get through. The consolation for the Italian was second and a new lap record, as Creswell took third despite an exhaust oil leak for much of the race.
The first semi-final, was felt to be the weaker, although with a Higgins/Daly front row, Dolan, Cunningham and McGall scattered through the field there was plenty of strength in depth. Another controversial clash for the lead was the race’s main talking point. Having taken the lead Higgins didn’t have the edge on pace over Daly, particularly at the key passing point (along the Brabham Straight and into Paddock).
It was a matter of time before Daly would attempt to move to the front. After some parrying the battle came to a head at the start of lap three, when Higgins squeezed Daly to the outside, leaving no leeway. The ensuing contact saw Daly pitched into the barriers and retirement, an unnecessary incident, coming so early in the race. The press consensus was that Higgins had been overaggressive in defence and not allowed Daly enough space.
For all the trackside hand-wringing, the incident meant Higgins had a reasonably comfortable run to the flag, with his chaser Dolan around 1.5s adrift. The main entertainment came behind, as McGall’s impressive drive briefly saw him climb as high as third before a wayward moment, relegated him back to eighth. Keeping a level head was Cunningham whose consistency was rewarded by third and a podium challenging grid position for the final.
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Before the start of the second semi-final there was drama, where a bizarre paddock incident befell Morris. Driving through to the assembly area for the race, his nosecone was clipped by a passing motorbike. This necessitated a last-minute change of the damaged bodywork before he could take his position on the outside of the front row alongside Cordova. They would be chased by a strong second row of Sospiri and Aslund. Morris recalls ‘I just pulled out of the awning and a kid came past and ripped the nose off. Fortunately it wasn’t too bad, we fitted a new one and I went out and broke the lap record.’
Cordova led away from Morris and Sospiri – the trio immediately showing their speed and building a gap on the rest of the pack. For Cordova the first part of the race was relatively straightforward as Morris again went into defensive mode from Sospiri. For several laps it looked as if there would be no way through for the Italian, until he successfully executed a brave move at Paddock. Morris immediately fought back, but after weathering the initial storm, Sospiri was able to gradually ease towards Cordova but could never quite engage him in battle. The pace of the race was sensational, Morris setting the fastest lap of the weekend, and Cordova being rewarded with pole for the final. Gene took fourth after once more showing stunning form, and raising the question of how his weekend would have unfolded but for a few millimetres of misalignment in qualifying.
This set the scene for what promised to be a thrilling final. Unlike Irvine the previous year there was no obvious favourite. Cordova hadn’t been bettered but he’d been run extremely close on every outing. Higgins also had won all his races, but had never looked truly convincing. The likes McGall and Gene had arguably shown superior pace in penalty blighted weekends, and the faithful were wondering if this could be Morris’s year, and Sospiri clearly couldn’t be discounted.
As the cars rolled onto the grid at 15:25 for the twenty-lap final (about sixteen and half minutes of racing), no-one could have predicted the ninety minutes of drama that would unfold. It had been a beautiful late-autumn day, but now the sun was beginning to dip, giving those at the front of the grid some difficulty when looking at the lights.
As the red lights came on, Cordova, confused by the solar reflections on the gantry, thought the lights had turned green and departed for Paddock with Higgins setting off alongside him. Sospiri crept a tiny bit before thinking better of it. Soon realising their mistake Cordova and Higgins completed the lap at low speed before weaving back to their grid positions.
On their return it all kicked off. After hearing the drivers’ explanation, Clerk of the Course John Nicol, announced the race would start afresh with no penalties. Unsurprisingly this decision did not go down well with the other drivers – all of whom were hardly disappointed at the prospect of the front row being sent to the back of the field.
Setting aside the usual gamesmanship, many had seen their weekends ruined by what appeared to be far smaller infringements (in Gene’s case his exhaust being 4mm out of position in qualifying, to no performance benefit). There and then, with Sospiri’s team manager John Village the instigator, £200 was stumped up in order to convene an immediate stewards enquiry. As Brian Jones attempted to keep the crowd entertained, and the drivers waiting on the grid, the matter was debated for some forty minutes. Eventually the decision came down, that Nicol’s original ruling would stand, the reasoning being that as the race had never actually started, the drivers hadn’t jumped the start. A harassed Nicol conveyed the news to an ad-hoc drivers meeting on the grid, with BBC cameras recording the moment for posterity. To avoid a repeat performance, it was also decided that the race would be started a wave of the Union flag.
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The race finally got underway at 4:07, and would prove to be one of the greatest Festival finals, if not one of finest ever Formula Ford races. Many of those at the front decided to err on the side of caution when anticipating the flag, Sospiri being the tardiest, accidentally leaving his car in neutral, and dropping down to eighth. Cordova led away with Higgins into second ahead of Dolan and Morris.
The form of the weekend suggested Cordova would be near impossible to shift, but having saved a fresh set of tyres for the final, the Brazilian found his Reynard to be out of balance. It would take him a few laps of anti-roll bar adjustments (achieved by twisting a lever in the cockpit) before he got the handling closer to how he wanted it.
This served to keep the field tightly bunched, everyone simultaneously attacking and defending. This uneasy status-quo held until the fifth lap, when the order started to shuffle – Dolan passing Morris, before a lap later Sospiri also found a way past Rick. Then a pivotal moment – Higgins’ pressure paid off, forcing Cordova to leave a gap into Clearways. Higgins was through, and with his momentum sapped Cordova was soon demoted to fifth as Dolan, Sospiri and Morris all shot past.
Dolan now had his sights set on Higgins, whilst also needing to fend off Sospiri. Weaving along the Brabham Straight was effective for the latter, much to the Italian’s frustration. It got worse for Sospiri as Morris pounced, darting into third. At Clearways for the thirteenth time, Morris saw daylight to Dolan’s inside and went for the move, but the gap closed and the pair collided, spinning into the gravel.
Sospiri was now released to challenge Higgins, with Cordova in third, the trio having six laps to play with. The next pair of McGall and Gene were there too – realistically any one of the quintet could prevail. McGall was the first to gain ground, passing Cordova, as Sospiri got ever closer to Higgins. Sospiri pulled the pin into Clearways for the penultimate time, launching to the inside, banging wheels but making his way through.
Ordinarily this would have had the crowd out of their seats, but instead attention was drawn to Paddock where Palhares, following contact between Aslund and Salo, had been launched into a series of somersaults. It was a monumental accident, with photographs capturing an inverted Palhares some six feet in the air. Palhares was initially slumped in the cockpit prompting marshals and medics to sprint to the scene to assist the Brazilian.
As efforts were underway to aid Palhares (his car still half on the circuit), the field piled into Paddock for the final time. The leaders scrabbled through safely, but further back Colin Lees and Jan Nilsson tangled, the latter’s car spinning into the Palhares accident scene, striking several rescuers. Dr Mark Downes was the worst affected sustaining serious facial injuries, whilst several marshals were treated for cuts, bruises and shock. It could have been so much worse, little more than good fortune preventing a tragic end to the weekend.
The debate would continue as to whether the race should have been stopped. However, the observer post request for a stoppage (which according to protocol at the time was the means to instigate a red flag) only came mid-way through the final lap, so events ran through to the chequered flag. The incident capped a weekend where driver and official safety had frequently been called into question. With almost every race featuring wrecked cars marooned on the circuit, it was good fortune that only the Palhares incident resulted in serious injury.
Sospiri took the flag fractions of a second clear of Cordova, Jose having a fantastic final lap ousting McGall before a good run through Clearways allowed him to out-drag Higgins to finish runner up by four hundredths of a second. A euphoric Sospiri took the honours following a superb weekend of racing, that is still regarded as one of the Festival’s watershed moments.
“It was a brilliant race” remembers Morris. “The team found this set of tyres that they thought were the ones for Cordova so put them aside for the final. Then they didn’t work and we all queued up behind him. Once someone was through (past Cordova) I had to go for it as well. That was one that got away, Sospiri was behind me and Dolan, and then came through to win. Higgins struggled with bent valves in the last few laps, had we not collided I may well have won that one.”
Despite Festival glory, it took until 1997 for Sospiri to have his shot at Formula 1. Unfortunately for the Italian it was as part of the Mastercard Lola team who entered just one grand prix in Australia. The car was hopelessly off the pace and failed to qualify, the team the withdrawing altogether before the Brazilian Grand Prix. Sospiri showed his agility by then heading to the USA and qualifying on the front row for the 1997 Indianapolis 500. A true talent who never got a proper Formula 1 or IndyCar opportunity, Sospiri now runs a highly successful team, who most recently won the 2021 International GT Open championship. Even so Sospiri’s Formula 1 dreams went further than either Higgins or Cordova who never quite reached the top of single seaters. Higgins enjoyed success in both the USA and Mexico, whilst Cordova continues to race successfully in Brazil.
Of all the talent at the 1988 Festival it was the driver who only made it through two corners of their heat who had the greatest career of all. Michael Schumacher was already pegged as an emerging talent at the time of the Festival, and within three years of his Brands Hatch disappointment was established as Formula 1’s newest star. By the time of his retirement in 2012, Schumacher had won seven world titles, and ninety-one Grand Prix, firmly established as one of the sport’s all-time greats. The driver with whom he tangled, Andrew Guye-Johnson, runs a garage in Kent – such are the sliding doors moments of the sport.
The Legend of the Formula Ford Festival
“The Legend of the Formula Ford Festival”, by RaceFans contributor Ben Evans, is on sale now. Order your copy from Pitch Publishing: