Motorsport

Buying into the dream

Historic Formula One cars are coming out of retirement and getting back on the grid. Simon de Burton meets two revved-up owner-drivers.

September 20 2011
Simon de Burton

I have never excelled at long division, but with the world population currently estimated at 6.9bn and just 27 drivers taking part in this year’s Formula One World Championship, it is fair to say that the percentage of people who will ever get the chance to race a contemporary F1 car is not far off being infinitesimal. This, after all, is a sport reserved for the almost supernaturally talented few – the rest of us must content ourselves with being bystanders whose only hope is to live out our dreams on the slot car track.

But while modern Formula One remains a decidedly closed shop, racing historic F1 cars is something that is open to anyone who can afford it and who is sufficiently fit, brave and competent to control what will still be a blindingly fast machine – and its popularity is growing.

It was during the immediate postwar years that the specifications for Formula One were drawn up, with the intention of creating a competition at the pinnacle of motor racing in which all teams would abide by the same rules of construction.

The first driver’s World Championship was staged at Silverstone in 1950 and won by Giuseppe Farina in an Alfa Romeo – although the decade was famously dominated by Argentina’s Juan Manuel Fangio, who notched up a remarkable five championship victories between 1951 and 1957, a record not broken until 2003 when Michael Schumacher won for a sixth time with Ferrari.

As the rules changed and evolved through the 1960s and 1970s, engine capacity limits rose and fell again and drivers such as Mike Hawthorn, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart and James Hunt became the heroes of the day. By the 1980s, spectators were being thrilled by the almost uncontrollable ferocity of the turbocharged cars (some of which produced more than 1,000hp) and star drivers such as Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Niki Lauda. By the 1990s, turbo cars had been banned and the drivers to watch were people such as Nigel Mansell, Mika Häkkinen and, of course, Schumacher.

Anyone reading that potted history of F1 who is beyond the age of 30 will probably have been taken back to their youth, when they might have marvelled at any of the above competitors and distinctive cars such as the black-and-gold John Player Special Lotuses or Hunt’s Marlboro-liveried McLaren dicing for victory.

It was memories of those halcyon days that inspired Ron Maydon, MD of a chain of golf centres, to go out and buy himself a Formula One car in 2001. He now owns a relatively esoteric Amon from 1974 and a more readily recognisable Cooper from 1968.

But merely owning them was not enough; Maydon wanted to compete in them, too, so in 2004 he established the Masters Historic Racing series for historic Formula One cars, which drew an impressive grid of 34 privately owned machines to its Silverstone Classic meeting in July. What, I ask him, is the attraction of piloting one of these highly strung, difficult-to-control open-wheelers around a racetrack at the age of 60?

“Like so many people of my era, I always watched drivers such as Jim Clark and Graham Hill and retained very fond memories of them and the cars they drove,” explains Maydon. “I then realised that many of these cars were still around, looking as beautiful as they ever did – and suddenly the dreams that I and so many others had as youngsters of being able to race them seemed completely achievable.

“The period I am interested in is the 1960s and early 1970s, and that’s why I bought the Cooper; but younger guys had heroes such as Senna and Mansell so they might buy the types of cars driven by them.

“One of the interesting things about historic Formula One cars is that around 80 per cent were powered by the Ford Cosworth 3-litre DFV engine, which is still readily available today. That means that you can own a rare car but it is easy to obtain the parts and find the people with the skills to keep it running.”

The Masters series takes in tracks all around Europe, including Brands Hatch, the Nürburgring Grand Prix circuit, Spa Francorchamps and Barcelona – and the speed, noise, atmosphere and competition is every bit as exciting as you would expect of a Formula One race, despite the fact that the cars date from 1966 to 1985.

In order to take part, drivers must hold an International Historic or International “C” licence from the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile), which requires passing a medical and notching up six national and two international races under the scrutiny of official observers appointed to determine a driver’s proficiency.

According to Maydon, the market for this period of historic F1 machines peaked around four years ago, with sums of up to £750,000 being paid for cars with notable racing provenance, but prices have now levelled out.

“A budget of £175,000 to £250,000 will secure an interesting car – they are not cheap to run, but I think they make a good investment. They are relatively rare, yet they can be driven hard and raced properly because, in most cases, they can be repaired and kept running.”

One of the most appealing historic F1 cars to appear on the market of late was the Hesketh that took Britain’s favourite playboy driver, the late James Hunt, to his first Grand Prix race victory. Hesketh Racing was founded in 1972 by Lord Alexander Hesketh to contest the Formula Three championship; later, they progressed into Formula Two.

But the team’s almost laughable lack of success (and Hunt’s predilection for writing off cars) prompted His Lordship to announce that the difference in cost compared with F1 was so minimal that he “might as well lose in Formula One as Two”.

Based at Easton Neston Hall, Hesketh’s Northamptonshire estate near Silverstone circuit, Hunt and the Hesketh team quickly established a reputation for arriving at races in either outlandishly luxurious cars or, even more extravagantly, by helicopter – and always with an impressive stock of champagne to tide them through race weekend, regardless of what the outcome might be.

The aristocratic bon viveur was probably as surprised as anyone when Hunt achieved the team’s one and only win in chassis 308/2 at the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix in Zandvoort, Holland.

This, combined with the fact that it was the most famous and widely campaigned Hesketh car, with 23 Grand Prix starts to its credit, prompted Nick Whale, managing director of Silverstone Auctions, to estimate its value at more than £400,000 prior to the firm’s July auction. (In the event, it changed hands in a private treaty deal before the sale for an undisclosed sum in line with the estimate.)

“As historic Formula One cars go, the Hesketh made a very appealing buy,” explains Whale. “The value of these cars relates directly to them being eligible to take part in the various events that are now organised for them, and to the success they had in period.

“The Hesketh was not only a Grand Prix winner, but it was raced on no fewer than 17 occasions by James Hunt, one of the most well-known and best-loved of all British F1 drivers. In addition, it was also the last privately entered car to win a Grand Prix without commercial sponsorship, and was being raced successfully by the vendor right up until he consigned it for sale.”

The new owner intends to continue to further the racing provenance of the car, which is powered by a 485hp Ford Cosworth DFV engine mated to a Hewland gearbox – a classic, reliable set-up but, compared to modern Formula One cars, decidedly antiquated in terms of brakes, suspension and handling.

However, according to Geneva-based classic car authority Simon Kidston, the old-fashioned, no-frills nature of historic F1 cars only adds to their attraction. “The historic cars from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s might be getting long in the tooth, but they are still extremely fast and can be very difficult to drive,” he says.

“They have manual gearboxes, brutal power delivery and few of the driver aids that came in with later cars, such as modern downforce packages, anti-lock braking or traction control. You need to be a very competitive and very competent sort of person to drive one quickly.

“Ironically, the typical buyer is often someone who lives rather too good a lifestyle and can’t actually fit themselves into the cockpit. The F1 cars of the 1950s are perhaps a little more user-friendly and more romantic – but the further down the road of romance you go, the higher the prices tend to become,” Kidston points out.

He cites the example of the legendary Mercedes-Benz W196s, campaigned by the factory during the 1954 and 1955 Formula One seasons, as the ultimate F1 collector’s prize. Versions of the car took the chequered flag no fewer than nine times out of 12 races driven by Fangio and Moss, obliterating the competition thanks to their advanced engineering, said to be influenced by the design of the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter plane.

One particular W196 driven by Fangio was retained by the factory before being loaned to the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, Hampshire. The museum was allegedly given permission to sell the car in order to finance a new wing, and it changed hands in 1987 for around £1.5m. It was subsequently resold for a record $23m and now resides in a private collection in the Middle East.

“The success of the car, its iconic status and its connection with Fangio, who some regard as the greatest driver of all time, give the car the ultimate in cachet. Similarly, the 1957 Maserati 250F in which Fangio won the 1957 German Grand Prix recently changed hands for in excess of €3m,” adds Kidston.

At the opposite end of the mechanical spectrum to the 1950s cars are the modern machines from the 1990s and early 2000s. These can be raced in events such as the Boss GP series (designed for modern F1 and F3 cars built up to 2004), but the logistics of maintaining them are far more complex than with the older, entirely mechanical cars.

By the 1990s, hugely sophisticated electronic management systems were being introduced and, while a pit crew who can work with spanners remains essential, the amateur historic F1 racer will also need to factor in a highly trained computer boffin to be on hand to input the crucial data required for the car’s set-up.

It is by pandering to the needs of such owners that Ferrari’s F1 Clienti programme has achieved remarkable success. Created in 2003, the dedicated department organises non-competitive events for more than 200 owners who have bought “retired” Ferrari F1 cars – all they need to do is turn up at the race track.

All car maintenance, transport and even the race suits are provided by F1 Clienti – which also restores and stores the machines in perfect conditions. This is done with the backing of an automated archive containing drawings of every component of every car.

The only thing that money won’t buy you from F1 Clienti is a car less than two years out of retirement, to prevent still-valid technical features from being made public. Other than that, owners can get behind the wheel of a car that will comfortably hit 200mph down Monza’s main straight – and F1 Clienti will even modify the cockpit to suit drivers who are, shall we say, not quite as fit and lithe as Schumacher was in his glory years.

It was that other Italian marque, Lamborghini, that drew shipping tycoon and designer of the Icon Sheene motorcycle Andrew “Moz” Morris into the world of historic Formula One ownership. Around 18 months ago, he struck a deal with Clive Chapman, son of Lotus founder Colin Chapman, to buy the only fully operational, V12 Lamborghini-engined Formula One car in the world, the Lotus 102 built for the 1990 F1 season.

“The car had been kept in storage at the factory for all those years and Classic Team Lotus was looking for someone able to buy it and drive it properly, partly as a show car to demonstrate the Lotus history in Formula One,” says Morris, who ran the car “up the hill” four times during this summer’s Goodwood Festival of Speed.

“As part of the deal, Classic Team Lotus agreed to supply a pit crew to attend events, and some of the original mechanics who worked on the cars being raced by drivers such as Mansell, Senna and Derek Warwick back in the day now look after my 102.

“I bought it having had virtually no experience of driving a single-seat racing car and my first, tentative run in it was absolutely terrifying. Essentially, I’m just an ordinary man on the street – the fact that I can now get behind the wheel of the type of Formula One racing cars that I loved to watch as a youngster is simply mind-blowing.”