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Formula Ford racer through London

  1. Waterboarding is outlawed under the Geneva Convention, but I have discovered a new, road-legal method of extracting information from captured double agents. Squashed in a pointy metal-edged bathtub in the half-crunch position, my pitiful stomach muscles are tensed to the point of collapse. My full body weight is pressed through one of my lower vertebrae, my knees jammed against a fire extinguisher. Jerking and bucking, the bathtub’s many metally edges jab my extremities as a relentless stream of gravelly water slaps across my face. Any second now, my flab-coated abs will give way, and my right foot will flop helplessly against the accelerator, and then I will die.

    I am piloting the world’s only road-legal Formula Ford race car across East London on its official pre-Nürburgring shakedown in a vicious rainstorm, and if a secret agent politely asked for my PIN code and bank details, I would squeal like a piggy right now.

    Words: Sam Philip
    Pics: Lee Brimble

    This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine

  2. Why such pain? Well, you know all those lightweights billed as ‘race cars for the road’: Ariel Atoms, KTM X-Bows, Caterhams, Radicals? While hardly comfortable for a cross-Europe commute, they are at least designed to be bearable for longer than, say, 10 minutes. The Formula Ford is not. This isn’t a race car for the road: this is a race car upgraded by precisely the minimum required to achieve road legality and absolutely no more. Horn, indicators, bumpers, delicate light pods, vicious sequential gearbox.

    No windscreen, no luggage compartment, no padding. Not even a seat. Before I strapped into the FF at Ford’s Dunton skunkworks in deepest Essex an hour or two back, it sported a comfy cushion to protect the driver’s ar*e from its harsh spaceframe tubing. But, as a tactful Ford engineer pointed out, this padding was designed around the slimline buttocks of slimline racing drivers and that, with it in place, the waist belts wouldn’t actually fit around my more capacious frame.

  3. So I’m perched on bare metal, wedged so low within this hateful, vicious machine that potholes, divots and speedbumps are rendered invisible, leaving me to clang through them without warning, absorbing the consequences through said single vertebra. All road markings have disappeared. Taxis and buses, presumably under the impression that cars measuring less than three foot in height can be classified as a speedbump in a court of law, swing merrily across me at every junction. I am drenched to the bone and shaking like a nervous spaniel.

    This wasn’t the plan. The plan was to shake down the FF before it headed off on its Nürburgring record attempt (of which more in a sec) with a quick jaunt to a nearby drive-through. Because, y’know, it’s a fast Ford, and the drive-through burger joint is the spiritual heartland of the fast Ford.

  4. Twenty minutes down the road, grab a quarter-pounder, make a couple of ‘light bite’ jokes. But I have the orientation skills of a forgetful jellyfish, and the FF has no satnav (or, indeed, an interior of any sort, save for a walkie-talkie gaffer-taped to one of the spaceframe tubes by my left arm, officially making this the most luxurious FF in existence. Titanium spec, if you will). So now I am lost, flailing haplessly through a corner of London populated by pound shops and non-ironic pie ‘n’ eel vendors, soon to be murdered by a bus.

    On these sodden streets, every twitch of the throttle kicks out the FF’s rear, torque overwhelming its cut-slick tyres. No surprise: this thing packs a tiny, vicious punch. While standard, track-spec Formula Ford racers use the Blue Oval’s version of the FIA’s 1.6-litre turbo ‘global engine’, making around 160bhp, this road-legal headcase is fitted with Ford’s 1.0-litre three-cylinder, the current World Engine of the Year and one we have very much admired in 123bhp form in the Focus for its smoothness and refinement, though not necessarily its searing pace.

  5. But this particular three-pot has been supplemented by the race car’s turbocharger, boosting power to a more-than-ample 210bhp. In a car weighing 515kg, that’s good for a 0-60mph time well under four seconds - much depending on tyres and tarmac conditions - and a top speed around 160mph. Not bad for a litre of displacement, eh?

    Problem is, I can’t use any of that potential at the moment - at least not in a forward direction - as I am trapped in 30mph, traffic-strewn East Laandan. An hour-and-a-half of clanging from one speed bump to another, U-turning down half-known streets, and I finally pop up somewhere more familiar. Unfortunately it’s nowhere near where I want to be, and pretty much the worst place in London to bring a car: Piccadilly Circus, the busiest fulcrum in the capital. But, hey, at least it’s stopped raining.

  6. I inch past taxis and buses under luminous banners, trying to look anonymous and failing spectacularly. “Does it have cruise control?” asks one wag. “Where’s the switch for the wipers?” chimes in another. Hilarious. A group of Spanish tourists beseech me to rev it, and look disappointed when a gruff turbo fart emerges from its exhausts rather than a mighty V8 howl.

    At least I don’t get stopped by the police. I can only guess the spectacle is so ridiculous that passing rozzers assume no one would be daft enough to break the law that flagrantly. This may be a good strategy for life: planning to do something that looks a bit dubious? Make it look really dubious. Less suspicious that way. Escaping a throng of cameraphoning Chinese, away from Piccadilly.

  7. Midnight closes, and the traffic is thinning now. I aim the FF’s pointy nose east and find, for the first time, a piece of empty, dry dual carriageway. Bang down a couple of gears through the sequential ‘box, revs blipping obediently. Hard on the accelerator, and the FF simply explodes up the road. My helmet clatters back against the headrest, and a mad cackling scream emerges from somewhere deep in my head.

    Fast? Fast doesn’t even begin to cover it. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a 210bhp turbocharged detonation within a half-tonne of spindly car produces quite a reaction. But the FF’s massless relocation is almost subatomic, a warp-speed proton in the Large Hadron Collider. And, though the Spaniards may have been disappointed, the FF does make quite a noise, at least from the driver’s seat.

  8. Directly behind my ears lurks a whacking intake that sucks in air for the Ford’s turbo and churns out an insane symphony of snorting, whistling, air-bashing tunes. Imagine the bark of a walrus with a heavy cold piped through a Hendrix fuzz pedal, and you’re getting close.

    A pair of golden arches loom ahead (other burger joints are available, etc.). I am hungry and cold and require something hot and greasy to reduce my projected lifespan by at least 60 years. Gingerly over the sleeping policemen, up to the intercom to order. The intercom is mounted at least three feet above my head, rendering communication near-impossible. With a combination of muffled shouting and strategic use of the horn, I place an order. I have no idea what for. Pull forward to pay. The cashier doesn’t bat an eyelid at the strange spectacle. “Four twenny, mate,” he nods.

  9. Problem. My cash is in the back pocket of my jeans, on the other side of my bottom which is on the other side of a six-point race harness pulled so tight that my testicles have been relocated some way north of my stomach. I try to fold my left hand behind my back to extract the fiver, but this only results in my arm becoming irretrievably trapped behind my ribcage. The van behind me honks as I flail at the harness buckle with a half-frozen right hand.

    Twenty seconds of midriff poking and the buckle releases with a clack, sending me springing up out of the cockpit and my genitals thumping into the base of the steering wheel. I squeal and sheepishly proffer up the crumpled fiver to the cashier, who has watched this scene unfolding impassively. He blinks slowly. “Ketchup?”

  10. Refuelled (me, not the car: later, we calculate it returned over 50mpg on its London jaunt) and back towards Essex on empty, dry roads. The FF is alive now. It may be a mobile torture chamber in the rain, but this is a magnificent little machine. Every ounce of force on the tyres, every shift in surface is piped on broadband into my cortex, its pure, unfettered, insanely heavy steering a reminder of just how lifeless modern electric set-ups are.

    And, by race-car standards, the FF is actually pretty benign: its clutch just about usable even in traffic, its brakes light and easy. Provided you can actually see the potholes and bumps, there’s a surprising amount of compliance to the FF’s ride, another happy function of its feathersome kerbweight. Of course, an everyday-usable road car - even the most hardcore road car - couldn’t possibly achieve the FF’s startling lightness. Real cars require seating for more than one (hell, even one seat would be a start), windscreens, airbags and turning circle narrower than a quarter of a mile.

  11. But it’s a fine reminder of all the benefits that come from mercilessly reducing weight, and also proof that there is a replacement for displacement. Dinky engines aren’t for grannies and learner drivers. We’ve embraced tiny, tech-heavy mobiles and computers. Why not engines?

    A flash of headlights. I back off the throttle, and a Jaguar XKR-S hauls level with the FF. Its driver - Bluetooth earpiece, pristine shirt - leans out of the window, ogling our odd race car. Window down, cameraphone out. Click, thumbs up. Job done, he floors the Jag, attempting to treat me to a face full of exhaust. I boot the throttle in the tiny Ford and enjoy the bemused expression on his face as this miniscule missile leaves his supercharged V8 for dead; 999 cubic centilitres vanquish five thousand. Three cylinders? You’d never know.

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