Following Hunt's footsteps in a classic Formula Ford | Top Gear
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Following Hunt's footsteps in a classic Formula Ford

We turn back time and spend a day at racing school, Sixties-style

  • Oh God, I’m stuck. I wonder if Emerson Fittipaldi or James Hunt got their shins wedged solidly beneath the dashboards of their Formula Fords some 50 years ago? I rather suspect not. But before the engine has even turned over in this Crosslé 90F, I’ve made a complete tit of myself by proving unable to get in the thing.

    The 90F is only a lightly modernised take on a car that sat on the Formula Ford grid back in 1969, a grid that Fittipaldi and Hunt used as their stepping stone to F1 fame. Effortlessly cool men who I’m sure never wobbled perilously over their racing cars, fighting the temptation to grab the fragile aero screen, and resorting to painfully scraping their lower legs into place. To the dismay of everyone around them.

    Images: Benjamin Fournier

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  • I’m at Classic Racing School at the Circuit de Charade – slap-bang in the middle of France – and I feel like my report card’s off to a poor start.

    This is a 2017-vintage Crosslé, too; built to almost the same spec as its 1969 equivalent, the 16F, but with a torquier, more reliable engine (and one that falls under modern, PC-gone-mad track-day noise limits), stronger suspension and more interior room to better accommodate gentleman racer bodies. I’ve no excuse, really.

  • Morgan Pezzo is my patient tutor for the day. He founded Classic Racing School with his business partner Julien Chaffard, who he met at engineering school in Lyon.

    “We took a flight to Belfast with our student money to meet Crosslé to discuss making these new cars,” Pezzo says. “To prove to them we were serious, we used our student loan to buy an original 16F from 1969.” More productive than spending it on Jägerbombs, of that I’m certain.

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  • A pair of twentysomethings enthused enough about historic racing to spend vital drinking money on it may seem odd, but their insatiable keenness bleeds through every element that student loan helped finance, not least the period outfits worn by drivers and mechanics alike and the nerdy detailing of the racing lounge which you can relax in between sessions.

    With me snugly tucked into the car – perhaps forever – Pezzo slots the steering wheel into place and asks me if I can reach the pedals OK. I can, but Lord knows which ones I’m actually pressing. The Crosslé’s bum-on-tarmac, legs-outstretched driving position is a lot less intimidating than I’d feared, but I can see diddlysquat below that low-hanging dashboard, so I just have faith my feet are resting on the correct controls.

  • “Don’t try to heel and toe,” he says, easing my concerns, “because the car doesn’t need it and there’s less chance of locking the rear wheels by leaving the throttle alone when you brake.” Nor do I have to double declutch like racers gone by, my only instruction regarding the four-speed dog ring gearbox being to slam home the changes as hard as I dare. An instruction to unite ham-fisted idiots everywhere.

    The school offers everything from corporate team-building outings to individual training weekends, so those new to circuits can enjoy an office day out that’s several rungs above go-karting in a shed, or the keen enthusiast can properly hone their skills ahead of jumping into a period single-seater for historic racing proper. Something that several of their customers do. In the ’69 Crosslé that Pezzo and Chaffard bought with that loan…

  • I’m staggered by how quickly I want to follow in their footsteps. Charade is not a forgiving circuit, its minimal run-off representing a very classic approach to ‘safety’ that gives it plentiful credibility as the school’s base.

    Pezzo sets off at pace nonetheless, but with a friendly tread pattern on the 90F’s tyres and a relatively modest 110bhp, 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine sending power to them, it takes a mere couple of corners to build my speed up accordingly. Either Crosslé’s modern take on the Formula Ford is a flattering device, one welcoming of all manner of talent levels, or I’m some kind of modern-day Hunt. Circumstantial evidence suggests it’s not the latter.

  • That old cliché about thinking a car through the bends has never felt more apt. The 90F is so lithe and nimble; if you wish to just grip and go, this is a supremely talkative and tactile car. So much so that – against expectation – I’m quickly ignoring previous instructions to not overlap steering and braking, willingly doing so in order to get the back axle moving and to tuck the hyperactive front end even more keenly into corners.

    Prudent power and tame tyres mean it’s not sliding maniacally around; instead, it’s up on its toes and moving through corners in one fluid motion. It’s reminiscent of lower-powered Caterhams or – more pertinently, given Pezzo’s just bought one – a basic 118bhp S1 Elise. The Crosslé exhibits the same beautiful balance, only with 300kg shaved out of it, its kerbweight a scarcely there 420kg.

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  • As a car in which to learn Charade and not have your stomach churned by the gradient changes, it’s flipping perfect. I’ve never got in a car and extended it as far as I dare quite so quickly, nor have I felt my confidence rise quite so tangibly.

    Pezzo informs me of the top speed – a princely 124mph – and where to achieve it, and with the help of his slipstream we hit it within startlingly few laps. It does all feel like a historic racing cheat code, with plentiful torque from a paltry 1,500rpm, cosseting grip and zero fear of the thing burning me to a crisp or removing my legs if I get anything wrong.

  • Even with Charade’s walls looming there’s little peril here, but you’d need a stern heart to argue that’s a bad thing. Sure, a fire-breathing supercar or a modern racecar would be a quicker, more thrilling thing to climb into here, but would I uncover even half of its talents within a few laps like I have today?

    Would I heck. This is the kind of school you’d never want to bunk off from. It took all the effort I could muster to squeeze myself in here. If I’m unable to get back out, it’s really not the worst thing in the world.

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  • Now go and do it

    Flights
    Circuit de Charade is close to Clermont-Ferrand (direct Ryanair flights from Stansted start at £30 return). But your options open up much more – including the other London airports – if you fly into Lyon, two hours’ drive from Charade.

    Transport
    You’ll need to hire a car from the airport, and you’ll need to hire a cheap one if it’s not to outgun your Crosslé track toy in the power stakes. As for the day itself, individual tuition starts at €990 for half a day, €1,790 for a full day, with full details at www.classicracinggroup.com
     
    Accommodation
    Hotels in both Clermont-Ferrand and Lyon are plentiful and affordable. Fancy immersing yourself in the glamorous world of historic motorsport? €500 a night châteaux (and Michelin-starred restaurants) are 15 minutes from the circuit.

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