From Formula Vee to Formula First……and beyond

Yes, I know, to a lot of Talk Motorsport readers karts are probably still ‘pissy wee toys’ which are ‘great for kids learning the ropes but not much else.’ Yet my first fledgling laps in a full-size Formula Vee (First) single seater (i.e. a ‘proper racing car)  at the old Taupo club circuit actually cast the karting I had done and Kiwi Kart Uno I had just sold in what I can only describe now as a very flattering light.

After a sighting lap and – I think – 5 or 6 more to get the feel of both the car and the track, I pitted and waited for the guy who was going to run me in the car in the upcoming season, Dom Kalasih, to work his way along the crowded pit lane to discuss – and hopefully sort out any issues I might have.

“So, what do you think?” Dom asked, when he arrived a couple of minutes later, expecting – I’m sure – the sort of short, single-word answer (you know the type, ‘stunning/fantastic/lost for words etc etc) he usually received after a newbie’s first heady laps.

Not me though. Having spent the past three year’s playing the roles of driver, crew chief, engineer and mechanic when I was racing karts, I had learned all about the difference set-up made. And – silly me – I figured that it would be the same in the Formula Vee class.

So, out came my personal stream of consciousness list of ‘what the car was doing and where, and what I thought Dom needed to do to fine-tune the set-up’ to my liking.

Despite only doing those first five or six laps of the 1.6km track the list was long and I could see Dom struggling either to hear me (with my voice muffled by the full-face helmet and the general mayhem of a track test) or to come up with a suitable response.

“For a start’ I said,” I’m struggling to keep the thing in as straight line, so we need to check the steering box for free play.”

“Also, we need to do something about the handling, because right now it’s got wicked push going into the turns but snaps into oversteer the minute I get back on the gas.”

Despite getting out of karts just as data acquisition systems and multi-adjustable (toe, camber & castor up front and large diameter axles/long & short stub axles at the rear) chassis packages and laser alignment systems were becoming the norm, I was well versed in finding my own personal ‘sweet spot’ between fun-robbing understeer and fun but lap time-dulling oversteer.

At its simplest this balance was achieved by moving your kart’s hubs and bolt-on rims in or out on the axle, narrowing (for more grip) or widening (for less) the track at the rear.

Should you need to you could also move the seat (forward for more front end bite, back for more grip at the rear, and even up for a higher CoG and better ‘jacking effect’ in the rain) and/or add or remove the number of seats stays to either gain (more) or lose (less) grip.

Ross MacKay, Delia MacKay and Dom Kalasih with the Formula Vee
Ross MacKay, Delia MacKay and Dom Kalasih with the Formula Vee – 1995/96

But again, this is supposed to be about Formula Firsts not karts. I only raise the issue because I honestly thought that I would be spending as much time setting ‘my’ car up as I did my kart.

So you can imagine my surprise when, after my ‘comprehensive verbal de-brief’ Dom knitted his brow as if trying to work out the best way to break the bad news then simply said…’on no, we don’t change things with these cars, we just drive them…”

Which, as it turned out, I did and – bar the odd frustration – ended up learning a lot, about life as much as racing as it turned out, despite spending most of my year mired at the back of the 16-to-20 car field.

Sure they might look a little odd and sound like a bunch of 10-year-old boys making fart noises, but when you have a full-field with two or three battle-packs going at it hammer-and-tongs it matters little how fast one of these simple, effective Type 1 horizontally-opposed 1200cc Volkswagen engine single-seaters can go – because it will feel plenty fast if it is you in one of the cars, and there are three or four buzzing along in front, beside and behind you doing the same or very similar lap times.

One of my most enduring (not to mention endearing) memories of my season contesting the NZ Formula Vee championship, in fact, came at Pukekohe and taught me all I would ever need to know about drafting.

Because of an issue with my car’s soft rev limiter (which was kicking in half way down the back straight because it hadn’t been re-set after the car had been used at a learner’s day at Taupo) I had qualified way back and spent much of the first race bombing around by myself.

Sometime around three-quarters’ race distance, however, I quickly started closing in on a loose gaggle of four cars, all running at the same basic pace but slowing each other down because no one was prepared to take a deep breath and put a passing move on the other.

With nothing to lose and at least one place to gain, I – of course – had absolutely no compunction (on putting on a pass) though my initial plan after watching all four dive across to protect the pole (inside) line at the hairpin for the next two laps was simply to whistle down the outside and try a sort of ‘wall of death’ catapult run around the outside.

Before I got the chance to do that though the four spread out after cresting the hill and heading back down the start/finish line pretty much side by side.

For a nano-second this pissed me off until, vortex-like I felt my car being  sucked forward by the strongest aerodynamic drag I have ever experienced, providing me with a dilemma or opportunity; either to brake and tuck in behind the last car as it zeroed back onto the pole line, or to majestically sweep around the outside and wait and see what might happen once the vortex spat me out the other side.

Later, in my racing career I decided (and don’t scoff here, I’m quite serious) that there is, a greater power at work in our lives. I did so, not through seeing an image of the Virgin Mary in a waterfall on the road between Te Kuiti and Taumarunui, or the witness of a particularly compelling fellow driver or fan, rather the number of times God/The Universe/Whoever/Whatever presented me with fantastic opportunities like this one at the Pukekohe Sweeper.

‘He’ or ‘she’ doesn’t make the choice for you – that’s your job. Theirs, apparently, is to simply put that opportunity under your nose, then watch with interest, to see whether you grasp it with both hands and make a meal of it…or take the safe option and stay mired in mid-field….of the race and/or your life!

I can still see young Nick Luxford’s helmeted head turn what looked like 90 degrees to the left to see with his own eyes who had entered the turn in 18th place and was about to leave it in 13th….as long, of course, as he gave me the racing room I needed to complete the most amazing of aero-assisted moves and whistle into the left/right Castrol complex of corners like an absolute Boss!

He did (give me the room I needed) and I’d like to think that we both learned a lesson (mine being about risk and reward, his that there was more to any track than the pole line) that day.

Ross MacKay with his Formula Vee in the pits at Taupo
Ross MacKay with his Formula Vee in the pits at Taupo – 1995/96

So, the class is a great place to learn about ‘the draft.’  It was then and I imagine still is today, a class where you can literally get away with a ‘zero balance’ tyre budget.

Because they run a standard treaded road tyre one set lasted me a whole season, saving mightily on karts (where at the top level you need to buy at least two sets to run at each big meeting or series’ round), car classes which run DOT-spec semi-slicks, and – of course – drifting!!

You can get your tyres skimmed to lessen the effect of ‘tread walk’ but as I found out one streaming wet day at Manfeild taking what you are given and making do can work in your favour.

I – of course – had qualified poorly, and though my complaints about the engine feeling flat and anaemic were confirmed later when pics of my car showed the foam bung used to fill the airbox opening when the cars were not in use had been left in, there was little satisfaction in knowing that I could actually notice a difference.

Understandably, the car felt a lot snappier on race morning (when I made it my business to remove the airbox bung myself before I climbed into the car) though what use that would be in the first race was a bit of a moot point when it started to bucket down.

As it turned out though I couldn’t believe how early everyone else around me was braking and generally pussy-footed around on the streaming wet and incredibly slippery track surface and found it ridiculously easy to make it from P14 (I think) to my best finish of the season, a swashbuckling P4.

At the end of the season I had little to show for my efforts, but I blame myself, not the class or category for that.

Done right it can be a perfect place for callow youth or bucket lister to get their racing fix, as several other former karters from my ‘Mt Wellie’ went on to prove.

That said, as in any racing class ‘done right’ means devoting yourself and every resource at your disposal to the task of winning.

Dom might well have got away with ‘not changing anything’ back in the late 80s and early 90s and to be fair, when you could build a car in your carport at home out of a rusty old ’59-’66 Beetle using the front beam, drum brakes and widened original steel wheels he was probably right.

Though because I had built a Cal-Look Beetle out of a slim-bumper ’71 import before the racing bug bit I was well aware of the value of constantly checking and adjusting valve clearances to keep your engine running sweetly, as I also was of the (highly illegal) electronic ignition units most of the serious guys were running inside their standard-looking brown ceramic distributor caps…

Arguably the biggest driver of improvement in the category has been a result of the restless innovation by the likes of Craig Greenwood and Selby Allison.

It was Greenwood who designed and had (locally) made the signature Challenge fibreglass body which did so much to update the category in the eyes of fans and prospective drivers.

Allison, meanwhile, was largely responsible for successfully agitating for a move (still voluntary I believe) from drum to disc brakes and from steel and (just as heavy) old cast aluminium disc wheels to lighter, quicker accelerating and to turn, aftermarket alloy wheels.

If I sound like a fan, I am. In fact, the only thing that I think lets the category down these days is that bar a promo trip I helped put together the season I ran in it, Formula Vee/First has remained a resolutely North Island-only affair.

Why? I have no idea. It seems a shame too, for steely-eyed youngster and hardened category veteran alike, that they are not given the opportunity to pit themselves against classic Kiwi corners like Pot Hole and the sweeper at Mike Pero Motorsport Park in Christchurch, McKissock and Castrol Curves at Timaru International Raceway and – of course Castrol and The Loop at Teretonga. Let alone the new-to-everyone challenge of a round at Highlands.

Though then again, that could well be one of those opportunities God/The Universe etc has placed in front of me.

Who, for instance, is up for an all-new event, one which you could cycle from the North to the South Island and from circuit to circuit every alternate year?

I’m thinking of a mix of retro and modern classes with a working title of ‘The (sponsor’s name) Ken Smith Celebration of Single Seaters,’ and I can see it in my mind’s eye….headlined by the SAS Autoparts MSC NZ F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series, with support from Formula Pacifics, contemporary and Historic Formula Fords, Formula First/Vees and Formula Juniors.

In short, it would be a beautiful thing. You never know, we might even be able to convince the odd former category champion to climb back in behind the wheel of their original car.

Which makes me wonder, what ever happened to the Wright Vee which kicked this whole train of thought off. If we could find it, we could invite Scott Dixon down to do a few laps…….

See also

 – (Formula) First amongst equals

 – The single seater path to glory

 – Look back in history Sunday: van Gisbergen in Formula First (2008)

Ross MacKay

Ross MacKay is an award-winning journalist, author and publicist with first-hand experience of motorsport from a lifetime competing on two and four wheels. He currently combines a day job editing NZ4WD magazine with contract media work, weekend Mountain Bike missions and towing his 1989 Nissan Skyline drifter to grassroots meetings around the North Island.

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