FORMULA VEE HITS THE 50 MARK
LANDMARK FOR SINGLE-SEATER SERIES
It seems 1967 was a good year if you wanted to start a single-seater series in the UK. Chances are, you will have heard that 2017 marks the 50th birthday of Formula Ford. But that legendary category is not alone in celebrating its golden anniversary this year. Formula Vee also turns 50 this season and is still going strong.
It has stayed exceptionally close to its roots too. The original concept of marrying a relatively simple single-seater chassis with components from a Volkswagen Beetle has stood the test of time, despite very nearly disappearing in the late 1970s when still in its early years ( see sidebar).
Last year the 750 Motor Club-run category averaged 27 cars per meeting. Not bad for any series, let alone one that rarely hits the headlines – certainly not for controversial rule changes at least. But, just why does it continue to prove popular?
“I think probably first and foremost – it’s much like Formula Ford 1600 – it’s low cost,” says the club’s competition manager Giles Groombridge. “As single-seater racing has evolved cars have moved on from tubular chassis, there’s more aerodynamics, slick tyres and the costs of owning and running those cars have increased exponentially. The production-based mechanical parts maintains its affordability.
“Secondly, the rule stability. There haven’t been any sort of seismic changes to the regulations so cars made 10 or 15 years ago are still quite competitive. Those two things are key.
“The racing is also extremely close and that keeps people in it. The relative simplicity of the cars and lack of aerodynamics creates very good, close, exciting racing. Anyone who has tried to watch an F3 race tends to see the processional nature of racing with high-downforce cars. Then you watch a Formula Vee or Formula Ford race and it’s completely different.”
One driver who knows all about that is Paul Smith. The four-time Vee champion (winning the title in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016) originally made his debut in the category way back in 1997. He has competed in it on and off ever since and agrees that value for money is part of the attraction.
“It is something normal people can have an opportunity to go and do the racing,” he says. “Our first car we bought was £3500/4000 and we were able to race in the top 10 with that. It’s a good opportunity for really close racing. One year there were 10 drivers that could win races and fight for the championship and the races are won by less than a second. Pound for pound it’s very competitive and relatively cheap compared to most motorsports.
“There’s always racing throughout the field and there’s a lot of different abilities on the grid so you will always be racing someone. There are driver awards for things like most overtakes and driver of the day so there’s good incentives to keep on coming back to go racing. I’ve had some absolutely amazing races, even last year.
“We won all the rounds bar one and that makes it sound like we walked away with it, but they were always super close. I won the last race by one hundredth of a second – we had to look at a photograph – and then there was just a tenth between us and third place so it was literally a dead heat. I had some really hard races and that makes it great.”
Smith is in one of the distinct groups of Vee racers that have competed in the series for many years – although for 2017 he will move on to the RGB Championship (“I will be sad to leave but I can’t be doing it for the rest of my life!” he says). But at the other end of the spectrum are the drivers who use Formula Vee as a stepping stone out of karts as an affordable way to make the transition to car racing.
The most notable driver to have done this in recent years is British Touring Car Championship racewinner Ash Sutton. The new Subaru recruit graduated from karting into Formula Vee for the 2010 season and was immediately one of the contenders.
“It was the ideal class to learn the tracks that I would be racing in the TOCA categories at a low cost so it was a good stepping stone into car racing,” he recalls. “It keeps you under the radar and prepares you for where you want to go – so when I made the jump into Formula Ford I didn’t spend the year learning. It’s a good way of doing it.
“Everyone was welcoming and it is a bit more like gentleman racing and a bit more laid back. Everyone was nice and friendly, so you could have a BBQ at night but at the same time you still had the boys who wanted to win races and championships, like Martin Farmer. The racing was very good and very competitive, as it was open-wheel you interlock wheels a bit but the slipstream keeps the racing close. I can remember at Snetterton we were four-wide on the back straight – you can’t do that in many series! “It was a year to remember and was the best way to come into car racing. It’s ideal because there is no pressure and you can just crack on and learn at your own rate. I finished fourth but we were leading the championship until I had an engine failure at Cadwell Park, which was a double-header and that cost us a chance at the title. We were looking strong and it was a real shame as I could’ve won a championship every year [ he’d won scholarship class in Fford, Renault UK Clio Cup title and Jack Sears Trophy in BTCC].”
Sutton is not alone in taking that slightly unconventional route, Mike Epps – his JST rival last year – also competed in Formula Vee. While last season teenager Harry Webb was among the youngsters taking part, ahead of a potential switch to British F4 this term.
Not only is it some of the drivers that have long associations with Formula Vee, some of the carmakers do too. Smith’s titles were all secured at the wheel of an AHS Dominator, which alongside the GAC has been the class of the field for many years.
GAC co-founder Alan Woodward agrees that value for money is a key ingredient in the category’s continued popularity.
“A few years ago the Vee Centre worked out how much it costs for fuel, towing car fuel, overnight staying, tyres, an engine rebuild and entry fees and it worked out at about £7000,” he says. “That is cheap. Lots of the parts are available at cheap prices because it’s a Beetle – the suspension is taken from a Beetle and you put on your shock absorbers. And they don’t mess with the rules – that keeps the price where it is.”
He adds that the people also make it a good series to be involved with. “If you need a clutch you can go round the paddock and someone will find you one,” Woodward says. “Even those competing against each other at the front will lend a part so they can get out and so they can beat them!”
Now under new ownership, outfits like GAC continue to support the series, and with Woodward currently working on seven engine rebuilds, the demand continues to be there.
“Considering it nearly disappeared at the end of the ’70s it’s outstanding that it has lasted for 50 years and gets stronger,” says Groombridge. “We’ve seen so many single-seater concepts come and go and fail and disappear, which just goes to show that the concept was so right that it would stand the test of time.”
And there’s no sign of that changing at aany ppoint soon.
Vee regularly attracts big grids
taking the title four times Paul Smith’s AHS has been the class of the field in recent seasons,