One of the oldest categories at the New Zealand Festival of Motor Racing at Hampton
Downs from January 20-22 is also one of the most popular with almost 50 cars from around the world confirmed for the Formula Junior class.
Nigel Russell, one of the driving forces behind the Formula Junior category in New Zealand, will be piloting a Stanguellini around Hampton Downs, a well travelled car that was one of the last of the 100 or so Formula Junior cars built by the Stanguellini company in Modena, Italy, in the 1960s.
"By chance I found the car in Mexico," says Russell, "or part of the car at least. This guy had the chassis, the suspension and the Stanguellini castings and engine components but there were lots of pieces missing. Still I decided it was worth taking a punt on it so I bought it in 2005 and shipped it back to New Zealand. When I researched the history of the car I found out it was owned by the Rodriguez brothers, Pedro and Ricardo, who were Grand Prix drivers with Ferrari in the 1960s and 1970s."
"My car was one of five Stanguellini's that raced in Mexico. It was shipped from Italy to the US and then flown down to Mexico. Pedro Rodriguez finished 4th in the car in the Mexico City Race in 1961. After he died in 1971, the car was sold but by this time the car was in bits and pieces and the body became separated from the chassis."
Russell tracked down the original body and most of the other missing parts to Texas in 2013.
"I don't know why this guy in Texas bought half a car but he did. It's taken me ten years to rebuild it and I've restored it to its former glory and painted it in the Rodriguez colours of silver and blue. I didn't do the painting or the engine work but I've done most of the mechanical work. It's been a labour of love for the last ten years and the festival at Hampton Downs will be the first time I race it."
"I'm a bit apprehensive about whether everything will work and the car will get around the track. None of us have raced on the new circuit so we're looking forward to that. The new extension down the back should be great for the Formula Junior cars. It's quite tight but it should create a lot more passing opportunities so it should be a great leveller. Some of the guys in the faster cars won't be happy but I'm really looking forward to it."
The Formula Junior class was first introduced in 1958 but only lasted five seasons before it was superseded by Formula Two and Formula Three. Despite its short lifespan, Formula Junior left a lasting legacy. From 1961 to 1963 Formula Junior was the stepping stone to Formula 1 and one of the things that makes these cars so desirable today is that they not only look like Grand Prix cars, in some cases they're essentially the same car.
Originally conceived in Italy by Count Giovanni 'Johnny' Lurani, the first Junior cars were all front-engined and typically Fiat powered and included Stanguellinis, Taraschis, Volpinis and OSCAs. It didn't take long for the category to be adopted in the UK and one of the greatest success stories to come out of Formula Junior was Scottish driver, Jimmy Clark.
After making his Formula Junior debut in 1959 in a BMC powered Gemini Mk 2 - three of which will be at the NZFMR - Clark was signed by Team Lotus to lead their Junior team in 1960. He made his Grand Prix debut later that same year and over the next eight years, would win 25 Grand Prixs, two world championships, three Tasman Cups, the Indianapolis 500 and countless other races.
The other world champion to emerge from the category was our own Denny Hulme who raced Coopers in 1960 and 1961, and Brabhams in 1962 and 1963. Denny however wasn't the only Kiwi to race in the category. Hulme originally went to the UK in 1960 as the joint recipient of the 'Driver to Europe' scheme with Whangarei's George Lawton. Lawton showed great promise in both his Formula 2 and Formula Junior Coopers, but was sadly killed in Denmark in September 1960. Ross Greenville and Howden Ganley both appeared in Formula Junior, while the recently departed Chris Amon had but one outing in a Junior but by then he was already a Grand Prix driver.
Only two Formula Junior races were held in New Zealand in the 1960s but in the mid-1990s, Nigel Russell was one of a number of enthusiasts who helped revive the category.
"When we first started we were excited if we got five cars on the grid," says Russell. "Now we've got almost 50 cars on the grid for the festival. There are a number of reasons why it's so popular. Unlike some other more contemporary categories you can work on the car yourself. You don't need a mechanic and if you don't know what you're doing there's lots of camaraderie and there's always someone to help you out."
"They're small, light cars but they're incredibly quick and they're very nimble around corners. The top cars would reach 130 mph down the straight and there's lots of overtaking. A lot of people who see the Formula Junior category for the first time tell us 'this is what motor racing used to be like.' We've got about 35 cars in New Zealand and we've got maybe 15 drivers who turn up for events regularly."
The rest of the grid at the New Zealand Festival of Motor Racing is made up of cars and drivers from around the world who are competing in the Formula Junior Diamond Jubilee World Series. The NZFMR is the first of three points scoring rounds for the world series in New Zealand followed by races at Ruapuna (February 4-5) and Teretonga (February 18-19) with non-points scoring events at Taupo and The Levels.
"It's easy to race here in New Zealand and overseas drivers love coming here," says Russell. "Toll Logistics sponsors the series and they do a great job transporting the cars around the country so all the drivers have to do is turn up at the track and they're away racing."
Formula Junior is one of 12 categories at the New Zealand Festival of Motor Racing which celebrates the career of 75-year-old Kenny Smith, one of the legends of New Zealand motorsport.
Visit https://hamptondowns.com/ for tickets and more information.