GRR

F5000 – The formula that nearly left F1 behind

13th February 2018
Simon Arron

“Today’s race marks the debut of 200mph Formula 5000, a racing category that promises to provide some of the most exciting, noisy and fastest track competition ever seen. The new formula is for single-seater racing cars powered by V8 engines producing up to 500bhp. They are more powerful than Grand Prix cars – and on some circuits are expected to be even quicker. The motoring press are unanimous in saying that F5000 is the most exciting new attraction on the circuits for many years.

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“Formula 1 leaves a bad gap in the racing scene because of the extreme expense and the infrequency with which it is possible to race the cars. F5000 looks as if it could fill the gap in a way that sports car racing and F2 have failed to do. It is likely to become the ‘big league’ of car racing with the supreme level of Grand Prix racing left on one side.”

Such was the breathless anticipation in the programme notes at Oulton Park on April 4 1969, ahead of the opening round of the Guards F5000 Championship – the first race meeting of its kind in Britain. The keen of eye might notice that Grand Prix racing has still to be ‘left on one side’ almost 50 years on, while F5000 flourished and fizzled, the last formal UK championship being organised in 1975. It did, however, leave an indelible impression on all who watched. Chances are that their ears ring still.

F5000 was a spin-off from America’s Formula A, which was already up and running (Lou Sell won the 1968 SCCA title in the USA, driving one of Dan Gurney’s Eagles run by Smothers Brothers Racing). Technically the two categories were identical: cars were more primitive and slightly heavier than their F1 cousins (660kg vs 500kg, minus fuel and driver) and were powered by production-based push-rod 5.0-litre V8s, although in 1969 the UK admitted lighter cars (430kg) with full racing engines up to 2.0 litres. The other difference? Four-wheel was banned in the States, but permitted in Britain (though the concept was not widely pursued).

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That first race was oversubscribed, with a full entry of 20 cars plus five reserves – a blend of purpose-built chassis from Lola, McLaren and Surtees, plus a number of repurposed F1 cars in the hands of privateers (and the four-wheel-drive Hepworth). In the end only 15 turned up, two failed to start, 12 seconds covered the top 10 cars on the grid and Peter Gethin (McLaren M10A) won comfortably from David Hobbs (Surtees TS5), with Keith Holland (Lola T142) four laps adrift in third. Mike Walker completed 21 of the 37 laps in his Lola… and is the same Mike Walker who competes in Formula Junior events to this day.

From this stuttering start it took a season or three for the category to find its feet in Britain, with a small group of ultra-committed racers at the front and a band of decreasingly competitive rivals in their slipstream. There might not always have been many of them, but the cars had a sense of purpose – and a soundtrack like nothing else. One on its own could be heard from the adjacent county, and quite possibly country: when a dozen or more swept by in close proximity during the opening laps, the trackside spectator banks quite literally shook. F1 cars might have been a little more sophisticated, but were no match in terms of sensory overload.

As F1 teams began to take less interest in the non-championship races that were once abundant on the British calendar, so F5000 drivers would be invited to make up the numbers – though their cars were invariably outclassed. The balance of power shifted briefly at Brands Hatch in March 1973, when a healthy F5000 field supplemented 16 F1 cars entered for the annual Race of Champions. Covering the event for Motor Sport, Andrew Marriott wrote: “The Formula 5000 entry was terrific – at last this class has suddenly found its feet in Britain. There were about 14 brand-new 5000s in the paddock and the remainder were nearly all reasonably competitive. Some new cars are destined for the USA, but more than enough will be remaining in Britain to make the category very exciting this year.”

Gethin qualified his works Chevron B24 eighth, ahead of many F1 cars, and in the race ran sixth on merit. With a few laps to go he looked set to finish third, courtesy of other drivers’ misfortunes, but then Mike Hailwood’s leading Surtees suffered suspension failure, handing the advantage to Denny Hulme’s McLaren… which slowed with clutch trouble on the final lap and allowed Gethin to sweep to an unexpected victory – the only time an F5000 car would beat F1 opposition in a top-level international race.

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This and 1974 were perhaps the finest seasons for UK F5000, in terms of strength in depth. Teddy Pilette and Bob Evans were champions in the British-based European series – and Pilette won it again in 1975, by which time entries had once more begun to dwindle. For 1976 the UK adopted Group 8 regulations, admitting F1 and F2 cars alongside the F5000 machinery in a successful attempt to bolster grids. F5000 cars were banned from what had been their own series beyond 1978, after which a domestic F1/F2 series thrived briefly before fading for good at the end of 1982. America rebranded F5000 in 1977, adding sports car bodywork to existing chassis and reintroducing the name Can-Am, while it continued in Australia until the early 1980s when it was replaced by the cheaper Formula Pacific (known as Atlantic in the northern hemisphere). There had also been short-lived national series in Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, Ken Smith taking the final Kiwi crown in 1976.

Although the category lasted rather less time than originally forecast, time’s passage has allowed it to acquire cult status and the cars have become a popular feature at historic events – notably in the Antipodes, where there is a healthy revival series. It says much for F5000’s enduring appeal that Ken Smith competes there still, at the age of 76.

Want to see these F5000 beasts in action? Tickets to the 76th Members' Meeting are on sale now!

Simon Arron is features editor of Motor Sport magazine

Photography: LAT

  • F5000

  • 76MM

  • 2018

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