Formula 5000 returns in a retailored jacket. The name is ‘Formula Thunder 5000’ and it will indeed be loud. Very loud.
In the 1970s when Formula 1 seasons were shorter and less restrictive, drivers had the opportunity to try themselves in other racing series as well - and they often did. One of the go-to open-wheeler category to try at the time was Formula 5000. F5000 was meant to be a lower-cost, simple alternative to F1 where engineering inferiority was compensated by old-fashioned displacement, creating a muscle/stock car feel for the twisty-turny single-seater scene.
The concept turned out to be so popular that players such as McLaren, Lotus, Lola, Eagle, March, etc. all wanted in, drawing all the star drivers of Indy-type of racing and the World Champions of Formula 1 at the time. National and international series popped up as mushrooms after a rainy day. Among many others, it gave birth to the Long Beach Grand Prix, but F5000 was nowhere near as popular than in Australia and New-Zealand.
To this day, there is a strong F5000 historic scene down under, which now will be taken to the next step. A reimagination of the former ‘bad boy’ racing series is also in the cards. ‘Formula Thunder Sports’ - as it is called - has already presented a prototype of a modern rendition of an F5000 car, based on a Formula Nippon chassis.
Publisher-turned vintage F5000 racer and managing director of Formula Thunder Sports, Chris Lambden gives an insight to the project in the making.
After selling my publishing business a few years ago, top of my ‘Bucket List’ was to drive a Formula 5000 car. I did, and in fact, owned and raced one for a couple of years. Craziest, but best thing I ever did. That’s probably what started it. Formula 5000 is very strong in this part of the world, especially New Zealand, which led the way some 15 years ago in restoring and racing the cars from the 1970s. It is still very strong, with the cars appearing at several events each year – some purely historic races, others mixed, where F5000 is a ‘guest’ category. There is nothing more spectacular than a field of F5000 cars at full speed. It’s brilliant.
People here travel big distances to see them running at the big meetings. You can see the cars that were actually raced by Graham McRae, Teddy Pillette, Mario Andretti and so on on show, and actually racing. It’s brilliant, and it hooked me in.
Everywhere we went while I had a F5000 car, the sentiment was “this was the best thing ever – what a shame there’s nothing like it now!” Eventually, I started to take it seriously, and started looking at whether [revisiting the concept] might be possible.
We looked everywhere for a chassis that had recently ceased production and that might suit our needs. While a handful of second-hand cars would be a start, we also needed to be able to provide additional (new) cars if things progressed well. Ultimately, we were able to come to an arrangement with Swift Engineering in California to acquire the design, moulds, tooling etc for the 2009-13 Formula Nippon chassis. Swift hasn’t built a race car since – they are fully an aeronautical and aerospace company now – but with a number of the engineers still there who were part of this car back then, they were quite pleased that it could be ‘reborn’ in a new guise. So ultimately, there’s no limit to the number of cars we could supply if asked. The car is thus not a Swift – we took on their design – but rather an evolution of the Swift FN design, to suit our needs.
[The original ‘Formula Nippon’ chassis; Super Formula - as it is now called - switched to turbocharged engines and a Dallara chassis since; image source - Wikipedia]
[Marrying the chassis and the new engine] has turned out to be remarkably straightforward, as the original Nippon car ran a 3.5 litre V8, and our ‘stock-block’ 5-litre Ford Coyote-based option lines up with the original tub engine mount points, although we’ve also needed to use some supplementary mounts. We asked our engine expert (Roger Higgins, InnoV8), to look around at all the possible V8 engine options, and he concluded that this was by far the best option, in providing the sort of power and durability we were looking for at the best price. He adds his own full-race fuel-injection system, a dry sump, the engine mounts, and a few other key things to the base engine, and it’s ready to go. It’ll be ‘sealed’ so that everyone will have the same power (570hp) at their disposal, and it’ll be almost bulletproof. As will the (all-Australian) Holinger six-speed sequential gearbox.
Australia really only has ‘pathway’ open wheeler categories at present – Formula Ford, Formula 4, etc. – so we set out to create a modern full-on ‘destination’ car for a serious open-wheeler category, that we could perhaps run across a Summer season here (Australia’s main motorsport season spans winter – uniquely). Our criteria were cost, spectacle, limited downforce/big tyres i.e. ‘mechanical grip’ and thus better racing. As it turned out, most of the logical answers came from that F5000 era – the engine, the tyres, the reduced aero… so we thought it’d be fun to ‘acknowledge’ the era by adopting a distinctive-styled air box.
We’re attempting to create a modern, safe car that uses the best philosophies from an era that people agree was perhaps ‘the golden era.’ What we’re doing will, ultimately, be about the drivers – young, and not so young, talented drivers going head-to-head in a modern, safe, but spectacular car that will be a challenge to drive.
Since we went public with our project, there has been a great response locally, mainly social media. I think it probably strikes a chord with Australian motorsport fans, who’ve been brought up on V8s, and for whom Formula 5000 was probably the last really good domestic open wheeler category in this part of the world. Motorsport is getting expensive in many areas too, so perhaps our concept (complete ready-to-go cars will cost around AUS$240,000+tax, that’s about US$185,000) will strike a chord. Certainly, if it takes off here, we’ll be open to ‘exporting’ it elsewhere.
Our prototype should run in [early June, 2016] or so. The whole thing is very much a ‘project’ at this stage, with ‘chickens and eggs’ going in all directions. For example, we haven’t asked our local ASN (CAMS) for either a formal category name or championship at this stage – we will run the cars under a generic ‘Formula Libre’ category as a means of proving their worth. If it does, well, then we’ll talk again. We do plan to try and run a series of events in this part of the world across our Summer, December to February, when the northern hemisphere is off-season, hopefully attracting people from up there to come and compete – from Scandinavia, perhaps? Whether we can achieve that in time for this coming year’s end will depend upon how soon we can attract a minimum number of interested parties to commit to a car, which we will have to build/supply. I guess the reaction to date, inside a week, has been pretty positive – we’ll see.
Our plan was to create something that was exciting, loud, fast, and that requires more driver input – which meant moderate aero, and big tyres. The images we released have a set of F5000 rears on simply for the photoshoot – the proper tyres, when they arrive, will be another couple of inches wider still. That’s what we think the motor racing punter wants.