THE YOUTH OF TODAY

Shooting a gift horse in the mouth

Hakkinen, Coulthard, Michael Schumacher, Barrichello, Frentzen, Irvine, Herbert, Button, Wurz, Heidfeld, Diniz, Salo, Gene, Villeneuve... a fair slice of Formula 1 talent in that little lot I think you'll agree - and all with one thing in common. While we're at it, let's add Gilles Villeneuve, Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna to this colourful collective of racers (and I use the term advisedly). You see they all learnt a fair proportion of their art in simple, skinny-wheeled single seaters powered by the Blue Oval.

Since 1967 Formula Ford has been the standard syllabus for learning how to be a very quick racing driver, but with Jenson Button storming Formula 1 barely a full year after his graduation, the class of 2000 has gripped the F1 fraternity like the Backstreet Boys walking in to a convent school. Hardened hacks who previously ignored anything further than six feet beyond the Williams motorhome are now discussing teenage hotshoes as though their entire careers had been spent at club races on a soggy Bank Holiday weekend. Team managers are following the results from many of the 20-plus national championships around the world like the most eagle-eyed opportunists on Wall Street. It's Beatlemania, and how is Ford responding? It's trying to kill the formula off of course.

This madness falls under the auspices of Ford Racing, quite probably the most inept institution in the history of the sport. Lest we forget, after 174 wins and 13 championship titles in Formula 1, Ford Racing invested squillions into Jackie Stewart's long-dreamed-of team. It then built an engine that turned itself inside out before spending several more squillions buying back from Stewart what it had already paid for. Finally Detroit ordered its new acquisition be painted green and called Jaguar and Ford Racing simply handed its investment over lock, stock and several smoking Cosworths - the single most important manufacturer involvement in F1 died without even a whimper.

From the end of this year, in the world beyond the USA, Ford Racing will only go rallying. Confused? Ford is, because unlike its epochal Escort RS of yore it's impossible to buy a Focus WRC for the road. The nearest link from the Special Stage to the dealership was the Ford Racing Puma, a car designed so authentically to re-create the experience of rallying that it needed a team of mechanics to make it go anywhere.

The anomaly in this sorry tale is Formula Ford or, to give it its full name these days, Formula Ford Zetec. This is the only credible proving ground not only for drivers but teams, mechanics, designers, managers, officials, PRs and journalists, throughout an empire that Queen Victoria would have given her eye teeth. This is because Ford Racing has ignored it. Until now.

Ford Racing cares not a jot for Formula Ford - nor the large and passionate cottage industry that maintains it. Despite this setback however Formula Ford has thrived; there are almost a dozen chassis manufacturers and engine preparation firms supplying anything up to two dozen professional teams in each of near 30 domestic championships boasting an average field of 25 cars. Add that little lot up, then add all the race officials, circuit staff, caterers and hospitality services.

Neither does Ford acknowledge the benefits to itself. For instance many of its national sales companies simply can't afford to buy TV footage hospitalty packages at world championship events. Instead they base media, PR and marketing programmes around a cut-price alternative of great racing from local drivers powered by an engine found in the majority of cars they sell. Meanwhile in affluent Germany, the Holy Grail of motor markets, F1 begins and ends with Michael Schumacher and it finds rallying rather silly - but the entry for its national Formula Ford championship numbers 42 and Ford Germany lavishes its little ones with support and promotion.

Throw in Grand Prix supports in Australia and Canada, a Formula Ford Eurocup visiting such fine circuits as Spa, Monza and Zandvoort (at least until the cash ran out), and garnish with the Formula Ford Festival where the top 100 or so drivers from around the world take each other on at Brands Hatch every October. Now you can see why such a vibrant scene is not in keeping with the bean counters and yes men in Detroit, Cologne and Essex. They don't understand it. They would rather spend millions on duff performance models, a fan club nobody wants to join and an expensive minority sport than spend a single dollar on Formula Ford. Except, that is, to extinguish it.

Oh dear, I seem to be ranting again. Then again, not half so much as the 10,000 or so people worldwide for whom Formula Ford provides their daily bread and butter. Never mind, when I get back from Monza this will be a sunny column full of the delights of the most charismatic Grand Prix of them all.

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